The Sunday News
STEPHEN Chifunyise, the lion of Gutu also known to most of us as Uncle Steve, was one of the most unassuming men I ever met. He was too simple and easy going to be real. Sometimes we forgot how old he was and just called him Steve, only to be reminded by his smile that he was not our age and not even in our class, then, rather a bit guilty, we added uncle before his first name.
I once travelled with him and Dylan Thomas Max to Malawi for an international writing workshop. We met at the airport in Harare long before it was renamed Robert Mugabe International Airport. I remember him looking at the satchel in my hands as I walked to him and Dylan Thomas Max.
“Raisedon, where is the rest of your luggage?” he asked, looking a bit worried. I remember Dylan Thomas Max laughing as I told the old man the satchel was all I was taking to Malawi and that there was no “rest of my luggage.” The satchel was all. Uncle Steve had two bags and in one of them were his favourite local snacks and Mazoe Orange Crush.
“I never travel outside the country without Mazoe. You will never find anything like it anywhere,” he told us as the plane took off and set for Blantyre and then Lilongwe.
Uncle Steve was right about Mazoe. (I later found out he was right about many things he told me.) In Malawi I remember struggling to find any drink I enjoyed. Travelling around I have never found anything that tastes like Mazoe. The old wise man gave me my first lesson in travelling — take a few things that remind you of home and you will never feel lost. Now whenever I travel I have a few things tucked away in my bags to remind me of home.
The next solid memory I have of him was when we spent a month together in Masvingo at the Great Zimbabwe Hotel. Another international writing workshop where he was facilitating. The workshop was organised by Southern Africa Theatre Initiative (Sati). Two things I remember vividly about that month. First, I remember him leading the group of international writers into a small village in Masvingo and teaching us how to blend with the ordinary villagers. It was quite an experience.
Secondly, I remember the stories he told. He was naturally a storyteller. He told me about his time in Zambia, about his work with the University of Zambia and his love for traditional dance. He told me about his work in this country, his time as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture. He told me a lot about Oliver Mtukudzi — the man and his music.
Chifunyise was the first man to explain to me the meanings of Tuku’s songs. He made me realise Tuku’s songs were mostly gospel, albeit not your usual gospel music. He made me listen to Tuku with new ears, always looking for the deeper meaning. I remember coming back from Masvingo and looking for old Tuku albums just to appreciate him more.
One time in Harare we sat at the National Art Gallery café while he told me of his frustrations about being a board member of a certain international festival and why he continued being part of the board. “Things are never easy, never as rosy as they seem. But the bigger picture is beautiful. The arts must win at the end.”
Years later we were to collaborate on two plays commissioned by Daves Guzha for Theatre in the Park. One of the plays was called Ten Years from Now. This was a futuristic play in which we both tried to imagine Zimbabwe ten years from the time of writing. It was one of the projects I really tried to be positive about Zimbabwe.
We imagined it becoming the bread basket of Africa again. Zimbabwe becoming an industrial boom — all things working and everyone happy and proud. Your Wakanda type of a country. More than 10 years have gone by since the script but nothing like we imagined has happened. In fact, the opposite has happened. Writing with the old man was a privilege. He had the words, always knew what to say. He had a wealth of ideas but never tried to impose anything on me. We worked well together.
One of his disappointments as a Zimbabwean writer was the lack of respect and recognition for local playwrights. He always gave the example of going to a local school and asking them to name playwrights and to his disappointment the list he got had no local playwrights.
“Our children are not reading our works. They don’t know about us. They think Shakespeare is the only playwright that lived.” To change that I remember that he was going around some schools reading his plays.
Uncle Steve did a lot. For us. For the sector. He was never celebrated and he never complained.
Go well hero of time.
Roar no more Lion of Gutu.