(Ayebia Clarke, 2010); pbk. £9.99
A Fine Madness is a collection of prose-poetry portraying the experiences and political awakenings of a soldier during the 1998 Congo war. The collection is based on the author’s own writings, composed during his time as a combatant. Mashingaidze Gomo joined the Airforce of Zimbabwe in 1984, beginning a twenty-three year military career as an Alouette III helicopter technician and gunner, which saw him serve in both in the Mozambiquan civil war and the Congo war. Gomo has described his writing as a way of averting madness in the face of the pressures of war and military service; growing up during the Zimbabwean struggle for independence was a major influence. A Fine Madness can be read as an exorcism of the writer’s thoughts and frustrations about life, conflict and Africa. That rite is personal and, perhaps more importantly, political.
The opening poem, “Tinyarei”, is a declaration to the poet’s lover, African women by extension, and the continent herself. Gomo embarks on a voyage through a soldier’s fevered brain; through mundane, everyday experiences, he arrives at a truth about Africa, her history, future, hopes and even possible demise. The narrative follows the soldier’s stream of consciousness during an unspecified period of time. Ordinary events, like meeting a girl (“Human Contact”) or watching a wasp devouring a caterpillar (“The Wasp is Corrupt”) spark impassioned political discourse. Through metaphor and remembrance, Gomo makes a case for African sovereignty and true independence, thus allowing the land to find her own way to prosperity and development. Each poem begins with a moment or event, providing the scenery and inspiration for political musing. Mbira, ancient African music, and in particular the song “Kufa kwangu”(translated as “My death”), provides the soundtrack to Gomo’s warzone.
Gomo explores notions of the self and other through the pairings of African and Colonial, and Zimbabwean and Congolese (“Impeccable English and French”). Evocative descriptions of landscape and nature contrast with images of war technology, creating a turbulent, disjointed backdrop. Under the flow of his political discourse, there are glimpses of the realities of war as it affects non-combatants, and especially for women. Love is juxtaposed with violence and weaponry. The issue of land rights and land politics is a particularly Zimbabwean concern, and provides a key to understanding the politics in many of the poems (especially the group of five poems, beginning “The piety of men“ and ending with “Unempowered choice is not freedom”). Gomo does not provide a history of Zimbabwean post-independence politics, but he does give provocative justifications for the unforgiving treatment of those whose ancestors have dispossessed African peoples.
This forceful collection provides an effective vehicle for Gomo’s thoughts on Africa and its problems. It gives voice to silenced participants in African warfare and an insight into the real mindset behind the popular Western media images of the armed African man. A Fine Madness cannot fail to stir strong feelings, whether or not the reader agrees with the politics expressed here. Any reader would be well advised to learn something of the historical context of these poems, in order to understand fully some of Gomo’s allusions. As is written in the publisher’s preface “The reader will not find this narrative neutral … It is a weapon of war and no weapon of war in the hands of a combatant is neutral.” This collection is an emotional expression of defiance in the face of a history of oppression. It makes that stand, too, against the current climate of international interference and criticism of African politics. It is told, as Gomo insists is necessary, by the man on the ground; the one who was there.