B-Sides: Dambudzo Marechera’s “The House of Hunger”

Contemporary southern Africa is littered with the detritus of grand schemes—imperialism, apartheid, development, independence, socialism. Wrought first by colonial violence and then by anti-colonial ...

Contemporary southern Africa is littered with the detritus of grand schemes—imperialism, apartheid, development, independence, socialism. Wrought first by colonial violence and then by anti-colonial movements gone bad, the wreckages of utopia heap up in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa. The fallout of these schemes accumulates and compacts. Citizens find themselves making their lives on ideological as well as actual rubbish dumps.

The most acute diagnosis of this wreckage comes from Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera, the writer of the garbage dump. Marechera grew up in colonial Rhodesia scavenging discarded books; in later years, he examined how certain lives get designated as disposable. His 1978 novella House of Hunger, published two years before Zimbabwean independence, is itself a kind of enteric nervous system, registering the processes of political waste-making and the decomposition of the poor.

Fans of Marechera may be surprised to see House of Hunger, Zimbabwe’s most famous work of fiction, in a B-Sides column. Given that his novella anticipates key moments of postcolonial theory—Achille Mbembe on the vulgarity of power in the postcolony, David Scott on the tragic time of post-independence sovereignty—Marechera’s international reputation is surprisingly dim. Yet his view-from-the-dump unmistakably pertains to our own time, when environmental catastrophe and waste-making—first “pioneered” in the colony—are generalized across the world. A thinker who excoriated grand schemes, consistently identifying with the vagrant and the exile, Marechera would no doubt approve of being on the B-side.

As both a member and documenter of the precariat, Marechera was well acquainted with the bare-life logic of the camp and the dumping ground. Home was initially Vengere, the black “location” (i.e., racially segregated residential area) of a tiny town, Rusape, in eastern Zimbabwe. After his father was killed in 1966, the family was evicted and the 14-year old Marechera moved with his mother and eight siblings to a shanty town nearby, constructing a house out of mud and refuse.

His brilliance earned him entrance to the University of Rhodesia; student activism there made him a marked man. In 1974, Marechera fled the colony to take up a scholarship to New College, Oxford, but after spending 18 months generally drunk, high, paranoid, absent from tutorials, and occasionally abusive and pyromaniacal, he was expelled. Once again, he entered bare life. He lived in tents, squats, doorways, even spent a few months in a Welsh prison.


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In these depleted and often abject circumstances, his writing career began to take shape. His output was small—a short story collection, two novels, poetry, and a play—much of it published posthumously. With a powerful anarchist and experimental orientation, his corpus immediately caused ripples in orthodox African literary circles, then dominated by sober realism. Marechera’s 1986 self-appraisal, much quoted, still rings true: “I am the doppelganger whom, until I appeared, African literature had not yet met.”

House of Hunger was, by some accounts, written in exile in Oxford in a small tent alongside the River Isis. Yet its opening sentences forge a powerful connection between all dumping grounds, be they Third World locations and shantytowns or First World waste spaces: “I got my things and left. The sun was coming up. I couldn’t think where to go. I wandered towards the beer hall but stopped at the bottle-store where I bought a beer … I couldn’t have stayed on in that House of Hunger.”

Rubbish heaps generate their own anaerobic temporalities. While ostensibly set in late colonial Rhodesia, the novella, or sections of it, could be about independent Zimbabwe. Black policemen prey on township residents; school children make their way to their indifferent schools. Bare life endures, under colonial rule and, as the novella anticipates, under the post-independence regime. Marechera elaborates the key challenge of postcolonial aesthetics, namely what can be made from wreckage and ruin, a question that reverberates ever more loudly in our calamitous present.

Even as it opens, the narrative stalls. The unnamed narrator becomes mired at the bottle store, pursuing erratic conversations first with Harry, a school acquaintance and police informer, and then with Julia, possibly his girlfriend. Memories of childhood traumas, school cruelties, colonial brutalities, university persecutions, and failed romances crowd out the narrative present. Time appears to stutter and seize up. The messianic promise of liberation is overpowered by the reek and ruin of the township.

As Marechera saw back in the 1970s, the way in which one resists will be the way in which one is governed.

Freedom becomes another form of addiction: “The freedom we craved for—as one craves for dagga or beer or cigarettes or the after-life—this was so alive in our breath and in our fingers that one became intoxicated by it even before one had actually found it … the emptiness was deep-seated in the gut. We knew that before us lay another vast emptiness whose appetite for things living was at best wolfish. Life stretched out like a series of hunger-scoured hovels stretching endlessly towards the horizon … Gut-rot, that was what one steadily became.”

Gut-rot refers both to cheap alcohol and to its corrosive effects on drinkers. Marechera is relating the historicity of the gut under colonial rule. This cheap alcohol was widely used in southern Africa to hook migrant laborers into addiction and endless contracts. To become gut-rot is to corrode the self as one corrodes others. There is no outside in this airless system, certainly no room for “disinterested intervention,” something the narrator foolishly imagines he can manage in the triangular affair between himself, his brother, and their object of desire, Immaculate.

House of Hunger—both the novella and the loosely linked stories that accompanied it when it came out in book form—is a prescient critique of militarized and masculinist authoritarianism. As Marechera saw back in the 1970s, the way in which one resists will be the way in which one is governed. The “black fist of power” will reproduce the violence that it claims to end; it “would fill up more lunatic asylums than it would swell the numbers of our political martyrs.” The school bully Stephen is the intellectual representative of this militarized authoritarianism, evident in his admiration for a gallery of dictators: Nkrumah, Castro, Stalin, Mao.

The narrative ends with an old vagrant wandering in to tell aleatory stories of chameleons, dwarves, and fantastic happenings. He presents the narrator with a package that the informer Harry has dropped. It contains photographs of the protagonist and his friends with notes intended for the police. The novella itself comprises annotated portraits of the protagonist and his friends and so becomes yet another form of surveillance. There is no outside space of “disinterested intervention,” only degrees of complicity in the system.


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When Marechera returned to newly independent Zimbabwe in 1982, he was appalled by the prospect of life under a regime that quickly tried to ban one of his books as “offensive.” This was an early sign of the political auto-immunity that the Zimbabwean regime would develop as it turned to attack its own citizens through ethnic cleansing and forced removals. Marechera had long foreseen this outcome and from the very beginning had cast scorn on Zimbabwean independence. Not content with heckling Robert Mugabe on his first post-independence visit to England, he doubled down on his defiance by arriving at a celebratory party dressed in aristocratic fox-hunting gear.

Marechera steadfastly refused to align himself with the grand designs of the new nation, proclaiming that “my reading of intellectual anarchism reinforced my total hatred for a job which includes organizing human beings.” Another, less celebrated, line from that 1986 self-appraisal rings true: “I am aware of my vulnerability—that I am only me—and of my mortality; and that’s why it seems to me always a waste of time to waste anybody’s life in regulations, in ordering them.” He dramatized his abjection by returning to a vagrant life, cadging off friends, living in temporary accommodation and on park benches.

Dambudzo Marechera died of AIDS in 1987, aged 35. His lasting legacy is this somatically saturated work, one in which readers cannot escape the mind and body of the narrator. Bodies are broken, beaten, spat on, penetrated; they bleed, leak, and vomit over and over again, condemned to the wasting-time of the post/colony. icon

Featured image: A Barber in Kuwadzana, Zimbabwe (2009). Photograph by UK Department of International Development / Flickr