Stan Mudenge: Profile of a historian

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ZIMBABWEAN history is poorer today with the loss of Dr Stanislaus Isaak Gorerazvo Mudenge. Indeed, the country’s guild of historians (and archaeologists) has been robbed of a pioneer who blazed the trail of what could really be termed the academic history of Zimbabwe.

Report by Gerald Mazarire

His passing on takes with it the wealth of experience and knowledge that made him a fount of critical themes and subjects in Zimbabwean history.

I have known Mudenge mostly through his academic work and had very little contact with him except on a couple of occasions when we met. Each time he left a lasting impression. My first meeting with him was a huge surprise.

He knocked at my door in the History Department of the University of Zimbabwe and told me he was completing a book project on the vaRozvi and had been told that I had copies of the works by Harald von Sicard and NJ van Warmelo, two colonial ethnographers who had written extensively on the pre-colonial people of southern Zimbabwe and northern South Africa, that he wanted to borrow.

This led to a passionate exchange that lasted for almost four hours. Each time he stood, paced up and down the office, gazing for moments on end into the horizon through the first floor window as he went through my humble personal library.

I took volumes of notes as he directed me to one source or another and referred me to this or that historian. I had never encountered this much history of the vaRozvi coming from anyone other than a written source. I knew Mudenge’s classic thesis on the Rozvi Empire and the Feira of Zumbo which he had defended way back in 1972, and it was evident the man had not stopped researching, he had done even more!

“This time I have prepared you a bomb young man … zvenyu zvekutamba zviya (not your games),” he threatened. His well-known The Political History of Munhumutapa, a legend by my standards and a favourite with my students for its clarity of argument and resourcefulness based on a wide range of sources, was perched somewhere on my desk, clear evidence of its centrality in my teaching. I thought for a moment this would flatter him but he was dismissive.

“That book was a pure accident”, he said to my amusement. “After I did my thesis, I realised I had gathered so much data on the Mutapa State from the Portuguese sources I used than on the Rozvi on whom they had comparatively little to say; that is how I then decided to write on the Mutapa and I was surprised by the book’s impact … I still owe this country a history of the Rozvi and I am almost finished.”

We struck a note. I was in the process of writing my doctoral thesis and pursuing some Karanga families in southern Zimbabwe and I had occasion to show off some preliminary findings to Mudenge, some of them Rozvi off-shoots breaking apart and forming ruling lineages and these intricate details tickled his fancy. And so the sparring started as we shared sources, argued and laughed; but he took me through the paces like a coach, Rozvi archaeology, its weaknesses, Rozvi historiography, the problems and his new discoveries including references of files in different archives whose access numbers he knew from the top of his head. I said to myself, goodness me this man is just a genius! He took possession of a draft of the thesis in its raw state and the meeting ended on this happy note.

I talked to Mudenge as if we were buddies who had known each other for years, but more importantly, I was humbled that he treated me as a fellow historian and midway through the conversation he had elevated me to a counterpart in a different academic epoch and our verbal scuffles turned to generational matters affecting our fraternity as Zimbabwe’s younger crop of historians.

What was our methodology, impact and legacy? He emerged triumphant of course when he proudly stated that his generation had not only broken new ground in the use of different sources such as oral traditions and contemporary literary accounts to produce a new kind of history for Zimbabwe that became directly relevant at that critical stage in the local struggle for self-determination, but that as a generation they pioneered the publication of this high quality research in various journals and textbooks.

Their work confronted and even defeated the racial censorship of the Rhodesian Front and became the foundation of new curriculum in schools in an independent Zimbabwe. With this challenge he bade farewell and I walked him out to the car park.

I reflected on this encounter with Mudenge on my own. It was a huge revelation. It is true he belonged to a group of Zimbabwe’s first professional historians who defended their PhDs on various subjects of Zimbabwean history between 1971 and 1972. The most successful was the group from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. These included Mudenge himself, Professor Ngwabi Bhebe and Hoyini Bhila.

To this group one could add David Beach who was British but moved to Rhodesia in the 1960s. This trio was a unique combination that had trained under Professor Richard Gray and invariably worked on pre-colonial topics related in one way or another to their places of origin in Zimbabwe.

Mudenge worked on the Rozvi because, as he proudly stated, he was a mukwasha waMambo, the descendant of Zimuto Govere, the Rozvi mambo Tohwechipi’s son-in-law; Bhebe on the role of religion in western Zimbabwe and Ndebele-Shona relations in the buffer zone of Mberengwa, his homeland, and Bhila working on the Manyika in eastern Zimbabwe where he hailed from.

The result was cutting-edge research which went on to set the standards of Zimbabwean history in the areas that they worked.

Prior to their coming, much of the research on the history of local people had been done by anthropologists based at the Rhodes Livingstone Institute in Zambia or by colonial officials in Rhodesia. Although a History department had been established at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (UCRN) when it opened in 1957 the first lecturers in the department were mostly European expatriates encountering African history for the first time and were actually experimenting with new research topics in Zimbabwe’s history coming up with their first collection of preliminary findings in 1966; a book titled A Zambesian Past.

Mudenge, who became a history student in this department at this time, was to be caught up in the increasingly volatile politics of anti-UDI demonstrations against Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front regime and was detained in 1966.

After this, whatever could have emerged of historical research at the University of Rhodesia was severely compromised by this highly racialised atmosphere. How could research on African history thrive at a university under a racist regime?

While this question haunted many, pockets of black Zimbabwean historians were qualifying with doctorates around the world, especially in the United States and other parts of  Britain, and this slowly grew into a sizeable crowd in the 1970s to include such people as Mutero Chirenje, David Chanaiwa and Elleck Mashingaidze, among others. None of them were able to come back to work at the local university where they would be humiliated under existing laws to work as Teaching Assistants under white lecturers with lesser qualifications.

This is why, for instance, both Mudenge and Bhebe ended up in Sierra Leone at the then prestigious Fourah Bay College, before trekking down to work in Southern Africa at the campuses of the now disbanded former High Commission territories’ university, the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Most of their research found expression in the very successful journal Rhodesian History in which Mudenge published his seminal article An Identification of the Rozvi in 1974. This journal bore the critical mass of research done by what had become a self-motivated multi-racial community of historians directly engaging each other’s work although they could not gather under one roof in Salisbury.

Younger scholars like Julian Cobbing, Ian Phimister, Barry Kosmin, Iden Wetherell, Richard Mtetwa, Chengetai Zvobgo and Misheck Sibanda had joined the fray turning the whole decade of the 1970s into the golden age of Zimbabwean historical research.

While the aforementioned contradictions persisted, the department started to train its own crop of doctoral students.

Amid these challenges, Mudenge was one of the few Zimbabwean historians who raised  the bar of research by exploding several myths of Zimbabwe’s past, taking no prisoners in the process. For this reason, his work has stood the test of time.

Stretching the length and the bar of research by exploding several myths of Zimbabwe’s past, taking no prisoners in the process. For this reason, his work has stood the test of time, stretching the length and breadth of the historical spectrum; he challenged established dating systems used by archaeologists to determine the age of important sites such as Khami. He debunked the “trade stimulus” hypothesis popularised by fellow historian David Chanaiwa which attributed the rise of local states to the role of foreign trade and Mudenge’s innovation totally overhauled existing knowledge of the Mutapa economy, religion and politics from the popular versions championed by earlier writers like Donald Abraham and WG Randles. All this work he showcased in such high quality journals as the Journal of African History and the International Journal of African Historical Studies. Mudenge was however not content with being on the receiving end of African scholarship either. He believed scholarly research on Africa by Africans should not be controlled by academic cartels out there; it should be brought home to Africa.

In pursuit of this dream he not only established the Institute of African Studies at Roma University in Lesotho but began publishing an equally successful journal called Mohlomi. While in Lesotho too, Mudenge ran a successful fundraising campaign for the Zanla war effort raising thousands of dollars. By 1980 Mudenge had a formidable academic profile and held an important position in the executive of the Pan-African Association of African Scholars having been part of the contributors to the massive Unesco project on the eight volume General History of Africa in 1979.

So for me, Mudenge’s profile as a historian was exemplary. He had proven beyond doubt and despite all the odds what a Zimbabwean historian could do in the colonial period. In fact his profile makes him a professor of history by any international rating, a title he got in Lesotho but one he has never liked to use.
In politics again, it looked like Mudenge had lived yet another illustrious life, permanent secretary, United Nations permanent representative, Foreign Affairs minister and Minister of Higher Education.

What baffled me was his continued commitment to active historical research despite his new non-academic commitments. It has always been an unwritten law that the mark of a true academic is the ability to complete and publish a single-authored book that is not a revised thesis.

Mudenge completed two book projects while he was a full-time diplomat: the aforementioned Political History of Munhumutapa and Christian Education at the Mutapa Court. In the latter he was able to trace the sons of Munhumatapa that were sent to Goa for higher education, one of them becoming the first ever Zimbabwean to earn a doctorate way back in the 17th century. Mudenge characteristically organised a diplomatic visit to the station they were trained at and their burial sites in Goa in the company of President Robert Mugabe.

With his passing on, the challenge is how to complete the projects that he had started, chief among them to get the Rozvi book published for it was already completed. His family would be pleased to know that he remains the undisputed authority on that subject and his was going to be the first complete study ever of vaRozvi.

Equally, Mudenge and Bhebe had successfully resuscitated the Unesco project to convert the eight volume General Histories of Africa to pedagogical use in primary and secondary schools which resulted in the international conference held in Harare in 2011. As this was only the first stage, the project must not only be completed but be seen to pursue his dream to pedigree Zimbabwean scholarship in general and historical research in particular, as second to none internationally. May his soul rest in peace.

  • Dr Mazarire is a post-doctoral fellow at Stellenbosch University’s Department of History.

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