L. S. Mensah was born and raised in Accra, and been living in the UK for the past four years or so. Recently her work has appeared in the annual Barnet Poetry Anthology.
Five Questions with L. S. Mensah:
1. What inspired you to write about Zimbabwe? Was the writing of your poem a response to our submission call, or was the poem already written?
I started this in response to the submission call, though it took me time to find the hook. Since Great Zimbabwe itself has always found expression in much Zimbabwean writing, I thought I'll explore it too.
2. Growing up, what was your image of Zimbabwe? Has that changed?
My image of Zimbabwe was tied to Bob Marley's "Survival," which had songs like 'So Much Trouble in the World' 'Africa Unite', and of course 'Zimbabwe.' Even if one did not understand the songs, that iconic cover, with the red, yellow, green and black of the flags of all these African countries, conveyed the idea of a people with a common destiny. Maybe that is still true.
In Zimbabwe, the change started almost immediately after Independence. It was barely noticed outside of the country itself when Mugabe turned his wrath on Joshua Nkomo's base in Matabeleland, thus effectively playing tribal politics. The Revolution is truly devouring its own.
3. How do you think we, as outsiders, can help with the current political struggles in Zimbabwe? Should we be involved?
I don't think one's origins matter when speaking out against oppressive regimes. Just keeping the plight of ordinary Zimbabweans in the public eye is a good place to start. Somehow African governments are more careful about their reputation abroad since that's where the Aid money comes from (though not in Mugabe's case). He is doing very well impoverishing his own people while setting himself up as a victim of the West.
4. What impact do you think our writing about Zimbabwe can have on the current's current political/economic state, if any?
Wilfred Owen had this to say: All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
But even Owen's assertion is only the beginning, for what kind of truth do we even begin to tell? Who decides what is truth and what isn't? Our various subjectivities will find their way into whatever it is we have to say. Still, if that generates debate, then that's good.
At the very least our writing can help keep the issue alive in the public sphere.
5. What lessons can Zimbabwe learn from Ghana's history? What lessons can Ghana learn from Zimbabwe?
I prefer to take the long view: Africa has always had its tyrants - right from the Pharoahs. What that says about our prospects for getting rid of the modern ones, I can't say. However, it is also important to note that they are slowly, but very slowly, beginning to disappear.
Like Zimbabweans, Ghanaians have their monuments too. Still it is not enough just to mull over our sometimes rich black past. Look again at those monuments, and you begin to see the seeds of our difficult present. The reason our monuments have fallen silent is not because we fail to explore them in our writing, but that when we do, we often prefer to stick with the glory bit.
I think the problem all over Africa, we tend to see our leaders, not as people we put in power, and therefore accountable to us, but as fathers of the nation. This gets worse when those leaders have come through the Independence Movement. They start to believe that their sacrifices gives them the right to rule forever.
Mugabe is the classic post independence leader, and as things have become worse, he in turn, has become more brutal, just to stay in power. We know, at least in Ghana, that playing one group against another never helps anyone. There are real grievances but his scorched earth policy is not the way to go. Kristina Rungano, a Zimbabwean poet, offers these lines in her 'After the Rain':
Tomorrow the tree 'd looked a day more ancient
Yet it would still be
The same familiar beautiful Zimbabwe.
(The Heinemann Book of African Women's Poetry)
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