One of eight children, Mungoshi was born in a village in Manyene Tribal Trust Land in what was then Rhodesia on 2 December 1947. His parents, Tongayi Davidson and Phoebe Masoka Mungoshi, were farmers. As a child he listened to tales told by his grandmother, a gifted storyteller, who appears as Mandisa in his novel Waiting for the Rain (1975). He attended St. Augustine's Mission School in Penhalonga and completed his O level at the University of Cambridge in 1966. He was a research assistant with the Rhodesian Forestry Commission at the Forest Research Station in Penhalonga from 1967 to 1969. While working as a junior invoicing clerk for the bookstore Textbook Sales in Harare from 1969 to 1974 he published the Shona-language novel Makunun'unu maodzamwoyo (1970, Heartbreak) and the short-story collection Coming of the Dry Season (1972). The latter work was banned in Rhodesia from 1974 to 1978.
The ten stories in Coming of the Dry Season examine the traumas of young people growing up into a brutal adult world. The first five stories are set in rural Zimbabwe or in schools; the final five are set in cities or townships. In "Shadows on the Wall" the unnamed narrator endures abuse and neglect. His father requires him to be independent and masculine:
Mother was still with us then, and father carried me because she had asked him to. I had a sore foot and couldn't walk and mother couldn't carry me because she was carrying a basket of mealies for our supper on her head and pieces of firewood in her arms. At first father grumbled. He didn't like to carry me and he didn't like receiving orders from mother: she was there to listen to him always, he said. He carried me all the same although he didn't like to, and worse, I didn't like him to carry me.
In "The Accident" a white driver strikes and kills a black man in a black neighborhood. The story begins: "A man carrying a packet of tomatoes was knocked down by a car as he was crossing Cripps Road. He traveled in the air for twenty feet before he dropped to the side of the road. No one actually saw him hit." The narrator's description of the event is an objective report; blame is not assigned to the black man or the European driver. Mungoshi's interest is not in interpreting the behavior of his characters but in allowing events to unfold as they would in reality. In "The Crow" the young narrator and his friend, Chiko, hunt a crow together: "We were both afraid but it was a code between us not to show each other that we were afraid." In "Some Kind Of Wounds" Kute brings a woman home and has sex with her. After he dismisses her, he learns that his sensitive and bookish friend Gatsi, who is living with him, would have liked to have her. Kute responds, "Gutless Gatsi! Why didn't you tell me you wanted her? I could have left her all to yourself and gone and found me another tail." The two men continue to argue until Gatsi moves out.
In 1975 Mungoshi published the Shona novel Ndiko kupindana kwamazuva (How Time Passes) and the short-story collection Waiting for the Rain; both books won International PEN Awards. The stories in Waiting for the Rain examine controversial issues such as racial prejudice and mixed marriages that plague Zimbabwe. In "The Empty House" the painter Gwizo Maneto's bohemian lifestyle disappoints his father until Gwizo's American wife, Agatha, promotes his work internationally. In "Slave Trade," a story that reveals Mungoshi's knack for satire, the self-professed liberal Marara gulps glass after glass of scotch while failing to read the mood of his wife and his hosts at a dinner party.
Between 1975 and 1981 Mungoshi was an editor at the Literature Bureau of Zimbabwe. He married Jesesi Jaboon, a dress designer, on 12 June 1976; they have four sons: Farai, Graham, Nyasha, and Charles. His novel Some Kinds of Wounds (1980) depicts the period leading up to Zimbabwe's independence. He was literary editor at the Zimbabwe Publishing House in Harare from 1982 to 1985. After serving as writer-in-residence at the University of Zimbabwe from 1985 to 1987, he returned to the Zimbabwe Publishing House as director and creative-writing editor. Mungoshi has also acted in several films and videos.
Mungoshi won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region) for his collection of short stories The Setting Sun and the Rolling World (1987). In the title story Old Musoni demands that his son not forget their family and the land to which they are linked. Robert E. McDowell wrote in his review of the collection in World Literature Today (Summer 1990) that "Mungoshi is particularly good at examining the impossibility of people remaining detached from or untainted by other lives. . . . [He] discloses his compassionate view of terribly trapped people. Because of his absolute sureness with language, one never gets the sense that any character or comment or act in his stories is contrived." Reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review (24 September 1989), Samuel G. Freedman noted that
Modern African literature knows no grander theme than the collection of traditional culture and the colonial world. In the hands of such prominent writers as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, the subject has generally been treated with large helpings of political outrage and tribal ritual. The achievement of Charles Mungoshi in "The Setting Sun and the Rolling World," a collection of 17 stories written by the Zimbabwean author over 20 years, is to evoke the confusion and sorrow of a continent wrenched in two directions with a deceptively minimalistic voice. The reason I say "deceptively" is that unlike so many American practitioners of minimalism, Mr. Mungoshi proves that spare prose need not equal small ideas. The transitional moments he freezes in these stories--leaving for the city, hearing of a mother's death, being discharged from school--form a complete and disturbing picture of dislocation. This volume offers ample evidence of why Mr. Mungoshi has won two International PEN Awards, and equal cause to wonder why it took so long for his work to be published in the United States.
In 1989 Mungoshi published Stories from a Shona Childhood, which has been judged one of the one hundred best African books of the twentieth century. He was writer-in-residence at the University of Florida in 1990. He won a Noma Award for African Publishing for One Day Long Ago: More Stories from a Shona Childhood (1991).
In his collection Walking Still (1997) Mungoshi examines the strategies women use to survive and function in a patriarchal society dominated by traditional beliefs. "Sacrifice" depicts the Shona practice of handing over a virgin to atone for the murder of an innocent victim. Admirable female characters are portrayed in "Of Lovers and Wives," "The Little Wooden Hut in the Forest," and "The Singer at the Wedding." In her review of Walking Still for World Literature Today (Spring 1998) Nadezda Obradovic asserted that "Mungoshi, one of Zimbabwe's finest writers, is at his best here." The collection won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Africa Region).
Mungoshi has also been recognized for his penetrating poetry that deals with politics, economics, and culture in modern-day Zimbabwe. His verse is not dependent on the rhetoric associated with black protest poetry; instead, it is keenly poignant. Mungoshi's poetry illustrates his indebtedness to the African oral tradition and his strong commitment to the role of women in society. In the poem "A Letter to a Son" in his collection The Milkman Doesn't Only Deliver Milk (1998) a mother tries to play on her oldest son's feelings of guilt to persuade him to come home to help support the family financially. The poem opens:
Now the pumpkin is ripe:
We are only a few days from
the year's first mealie cob.
The cows are giving us lots of milk.
Taken in the round it isn't a bad year at all--
if it weren't for your father.
Your father's back is back again
and all the work has fallen on my shoulders.
Because of the father's bad back, the family has not been able to raise the money to send their daughter Rindai to secondary school, and now "She spends most of the time / crying by the well." Adopting a passive-aggressive attitude, the mother tells her son:
Now, Tambu, don't think I am asking for money--
although we had to borrow a little from
those who have it to get your father to hospital
and you know how he hates having to borrow!
The mother alludes several times to the son's neglect of his family:
You will remember / we wrote you--did you get our letter?--
you didn't answer; I had thought you would be with us last Christmas
then I thought maybe you were too busy
and you would make it at Easter
it was then your father nearly left us, son; It's so long ago since we last heard from you--
I hope this letter finds you still at the old address.
It is the only address we know.
In "Important Matters" workers suffer under a boss who abuses his authority. They sit "watching the empty throne / waiting for the chairman who was already hours late / to come and open the meeting" at which "matters of life and death" are on the agenda. The chairman was apparently the one who defined the issues as being of such gravity, because the workers "secretly felt and wished / he would come in and just say: / Call it a day, boys!" Instead,
Hours later a messenger came in to say
the chairman had taken his girl
for a boat ride on Lake McIlwaine.
We sat hunched round the empty chair--
the day suddenly pulled from right under us.
The workers take some psychological satisfaction in planning "an airtight plot / that would without fail bring about the downfall / of the chairman"; but in the end all they can do is step "out into the evening world / clutching our bags with faces that said: / It's been a trying day." Like the majority of Mungoshi's poems, this one uses sarcasm to make its point. The chairman is not a king, but Mungoshi refers to his chair as a "throne" to show his power over his workers. Also, the chairman's decision to take his girlfriend on a boat ride instead of honoring his meeting with his workers suggests the kind of corruption that is associated with a postcolonial society. Tanure Ojaide, reviewing The Milkman Doesn't Only Deliver Milk for World Literature Today (Summer 1999), wrote: "Mungoshi weaves portraits of characters and scenes which become memorable from the combination of the poet's strong descriptive power and simple use of language . . . [but] beneath the veneer of simple narration and descriptions of people, scenes, and experiences, there is a subtext of deep meaning."
Charles Mungoshi's achievements are monumental. His prose and poetry leave a lasting impression on readers within and outside the continent. He has received recognition and critical acclaim as a teller of finely crafted stories and a creator of poems that penetrate the mind and spirit of postcolonial Zimbabwe and Africa.
From: Okoro, Dike. "Charles Mungoshi." Contemporary African Writers, edited by Tanure Ojaide, Gale, 2011.