Was it William Gibson who said, “The future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed”? Now we’re saying it too. A dystopian future has arrived early in Zimbabwe, where writers and readers go about their business in a collapsing post-colonial economy suffering chronic hyper-inflation and the absence of a reliable state currency or any stable banking system. Internet access is priced out of reach for most people, and such quaint establishments as the local bookshop and literary publishers have mostly closed up shop. Zimbabwe has a cellphone network that reaches everyone, and it has become home-base to an economy that circulates new writing to readers. Nyasha Bhobo, a young writer who grew up in the rural Mutare district, tells us how it works, and explains how her career as a “WhatsApp writer” harkens back to the great strengths of her childhood village, where everyone shared all the reading and writing that came their way.
I live in Harare now, a city as big and modern as, say, Manchester, but I grew up in the rural Mutare district in the eastern part of Zimbabwe. We spoke Shona, and at our village school we learned in both Shona and English. As a child I wanted to become that elusive thing, a working writer, and I worried that not being a native English-speaker would prevent me. I also didn’t know if my parents would accept writing as a real career. And what about university training? We couldn’t afford it. If I became a failed writer, would I be left with any income-earning skills at all? These were real questions with real consequences.
In the early 2000s, our main reading material in rural Mutare was old copies of Newsweek, Readers Digest, and The New African. They were hand-me-downs, left by well-traveled church ministers, nurses, or teachers coming home from the city. Sometimes we saw school books, either donated by UNICEF or the New Zealand Embassy, or brought to the village by teachers. There’s no public library in Mutare, a district as big as Norfolk County. The nearest library was 120 km away, and you needed bus fare to travel there. It wasn’t feasible.
A few of our neighbours had books, usually the families of teachers or civil servants. Mr. Bande’s house, near me, included a proud corner of the living room, its wooden shelves stuffed full. He bought used books on the pavements in the city, and had some that were donated by aid groups. He was generous with his books, while others who had books kept the most interesting ones for themselves. One neighbour would demand that I do chores, like cutting the grass at her front gate, if I wanted to borrow a book. For the gain of reading a thrilling novel I gladly laboured for a few hours. Stiff rules would accompany any book she lent me. Never fold the page as a marker. “Ears”—as folded book page corners were called—were seen as signs of truancy. Never mark passages with a pen. Pencil was allowed, but then only lightly, and one was well-advised to erase the marks before returning the book.
There was always the problem of accuracy: which parts of the old news were still true, or not, and whose account to believe? Newsweek did not always agree with The New African. And the books! Much of it was literature, novels depicting histories, including ours, first in Rhodesia, as British colonial settlers called this land, and then Zimbabwe. Was Doris Lessing’s disturbing portrait of white settlers Dick and Mary Turner, in The Grass is Singing, more accurate than Wilbur Smith’s pro-colonial novel, The Sunbird, in which racially superior whites arrive to save the Black man? And the Black writers, many of whom had been banned in their lifetimes: Was the conflicted, crazy world of Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger just one man’s fever dream, or the most perceptive portrait of Zimbabwean society ever written? And then there was the most common book of all, found in multiple copies in every collection, The Bible: who was in charge of fact-checking that? I eagerly consumed it all, sure of myself and hungry to be the judge of truth and fiction.
The books were all hard covers. In the earliest years of the 21st century, light soft-cover paperbacks had not reached our rural village. Donated copies from foreign countries had sewn bindings with thick string often exposed, resembling the string nets wrapped around coveted bottles of old whisky stored in cellars. The books smelled of glue adhesive when teachers would re-bind the covers and pages that fell apart after being passed through numerous hands. When a child in our village finished high school, as I did in 2006, it was taken as a kind of civic duty to hand down our torn personal copies of, say, Oliver Twist or a textbook on geography, to younger students coming up in the grades behind us.
To deny others the chance to read was unacceptable. Literature was our collective space, always shared, and any limits that kept these-or-those books locked away or this-or-that magazine restricted to the hands of a few did terrible injury to something precious that we all enjoyed together. This series calls it a “polity of literature.”
The colonial seeds of censorship
The legacy of literary publishing, though extensive in colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe, excluded millions. The publishing economy of Rhodesia was entirely in the hands of white publishers, mostly based in England, circulating Eurocentric literature to the swiftly growing literate population. The Rhodesian Minister of Law and Order was empowered to regulate it. Settler-run publishing companies emerged in the 1920s. The Rhodesia Printing and Publishing Co. and Graham Publishing Company grew to dominate the book and magazine markets, printing periodicals such as “Rhodesia Call,” and books like Rhodesian Pre-History, while reprinting English literature for the African market.
In 1953, the Rhodesia Literature Bureau (RLB) was established to cultivate production of a native Rhodesian literature. It paid authors to produce books, sponsored writers’ van tours of the country, and directly supported books reinforcing white superiority. Later examples include Peter Stiff’s The Rain Goddess and Michael Hartmann’s Game for Vultures (both 1973), portraying Black Rhodesians as criminal saboteurs. The RLB imposed a kind of apartheid by supporting Black writers only if they refrained from depicting white lives. As the independence movement gained strength in the 60s and 70s, the RLB went a step further and began actively inhibiting Black books that might feed “the unrest,” including Charles Mungoshi’s story collection, Coming of the Dry Season, in which educated Blacks who come into contact with white society are blocked from influential civil service jobs and other aspirational paths.
The Ministry of Law and Order’s censorship reached its zenith in 1975 when the government granted “emergency powers” to control all press and publishers, in the name of “public safety.” Rebels detained in the colonial jails were denied access to all “anti-colonial” books, from Coming of the Dry Season to that illustrious piece of political literature, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks. Joshua Nkomo, one of Zimbabwe´s anti-colonial war heroes, called this a tactic to “cut us from the world, make us forget it, and it forget us.”
But they say that good cooking happens inside a pressure cooker. As the end of Rhodesian rule drew near, Black literature flourished under the increasing severity of the crackdown. In the 1970s a bevy of radical Black writers laid the bedrock for the Zimbabwean literature that I would be taught in school twenty-five years later. Of notable mention was Marechera’s book of stories, House of Hunger (1978), portraying the chaos of a nation soon to emerge from the shackles of colonialism, and Mungoshi’s follow-up, Waiting for The Rain (1975), which captured the growing identity crisis among educated Africans as it dawned on them that the settler-colonial structure would soon crumble—and their lofty jobs along with it.
In the new Zimbabwe it was hoped that the legacy of censorship would vanish. Instead, censorship was carried over, all the way into my generation, and it persists today. After the guerillas—led by a bookworm named Robert Mugabe—won a bitter bush war and took control of the state, the Rhodesia Literature Bureau was renamed the Zimbabwe Literature Board, and the country’s new Black rulers took over the machinery of repression. The Zimbabwe Literature Board retained the power to examine any film or book and reject it, or reject specific advertisements in a film, or ban a theatre play, or prevent bookshops from stocking certain books and magazines. During this transition a bitter domestic war broke out, in which Zimbabwean security forces tried to suppress the country’s Ndebele minority ethnic group. Observers says the state-sponsored killings claimed between 3,000 and 80,000 lives between 1982 and 1987, though the exact figure is widely disputed. Books were another casualty of the hostilities. Black Sunlight, Dambudzo Marechera’s overlooked follow-up to House of Hunger, was banned. Mugabe’s government claimed that Marechera’s fictional tale of Chris, a wandering journalist who falls into friendship with anarchists and rebels, would harm the state’s effort to re-unite various ethnicities. Thus, censorship continued in post-colonial Zimbabwe. Today, “uncomfortable” literature, paintings, films, plays, and newspapers (one literally bombed out of existence) are banned by law.
In these broad outlines, Zimbabwe resembles other post-colonial countries, saddled with the inheritance of a colonial past while evolving in ways that can never fully escape its legacy. But in other important ways, Zimbabwe is unique—even a harbinger. If the future looks bad for global capitalism, then the future has already arrived in Zimbabwe. The complete collapse of our economy in the last two decades—with as much as 1 billion percent inflation and no viable state currency—has made of our country a test-case for dystopian futures. US dollars circulate without any functioning bank system. Such old commonplace things as literary journals or bookshops have mostly closed up. A few brave publishers like Weaver Press continue, despite being decimated by high operation costs. Meanwhile, talented editors, critics, and writers have joined the great exodus, a Zimbabwean brain-drain to Europe, South Africa, and North America.
What remains are a handful of digital journals, including KwaChirere and The Mosi Oa Tunya Review, valiantly persisting online (mostly managed by Zimbabwe emigrants in the diaspora), rare foreign imports, and all the readers and writers one needs for a thriving polity of literature. In the midst of this nightmare I’ve become the working writer that I grew up hoping to be, with a functioning career—and not a journal, nor prize, nor a “real” publisher in sight.
What if it’s WhatsApp?
How could this happen? The reason, in short, is WhatsApp. Because broadband Internet is so expensive here, most writers and readers use their cell phones, not Internet. Cellphone usage has a 100% penetration into the Zimbabwean population, and Internet is just 50%. In 2016, Chinese-made GTel cellular phones (preloaded with WhatsApp) became the cellphone of the masses in Zimbabwe. And with them, WhatsApp became the front door to our publishing economy, the way for readers and writers to access news, literature, and the merchants who sold them or gave them away. Publishing and marketing of every kind—from novels to poetry to gossip magazines, news outlets, and the most urgent community political forums—happen chiefly over cell networks. And, among cell-based publishing platforms, WhatsApp is the best and the cheapest.
For those who haven’t used it, think of WhatsApp as a well-equipped chat platform. Anyone with a phone number can have an account. On your smartphone it opens to show you contacts, groups, past chats, and other options. The chats with your contacts look just like most text-based messaging chats. But the “WhatsApp groups,” introduced in 2011, soon after the app launched, proved to be a game-changer. A WhatsApp group is a virtual “room” of sorts that any WhatsApp user can create, name, describe, and invite others to join. Whomever makes a group becomes the administrator. They’re in charge: admitting members, setting rules, enforcing them with the threat of expulsion, and sharing their administrative privileges with others. The maximum members in a WhatsApp group is 256. Any user can join up to ten groups at a time, and quite a few will double or triple that limit by keeping more than one phone active.
Whether in individual chats or when shared en masse via groups, WhatsApp has a second tremendous advantage: documents—including pictures, short video, music, and texts (basically any digitized media)—can be shared using very little data. Yasin Kakande, a widely published critic of censorship in Uganda and Zimbabwe, explains, “an e-paper coming via WhatsApp can be 15 pages long and consume only 2 megabytes of data rather than the 400 megabytes, or more, that a full internet newspaper takes. This is a great literature ‘democracy’ for those who can’t afford more.”
Writers and publishers in Zimbabwe have also turned to WhatsApp as the main distributor of writing that could otherwise upset state censors. The regime tries to police WhatsApp by placing informers in the groups, to lift content and pass it back to police. Numerous ordinary citizens and even free-speaking police officers have been prosecuted in Zimbabwe for writing in WhatsApp groups, mostly for calling on the president to resign. But the medium is too decentralized and nimble for the bulky state-apparatus trying to contain it. The harder police and censors bear down on free expression, the greater the advantages of the WhatsApp platform.
One example close to home is 263Chat, an online news site reporting on political, social, and economic issues affecting Zimbabwean people. Launched in 2013 as an independent digital platform in Zimbabwe, it quickly added a WhatsApp group in 2014. WhatsApp became its gold mine. “We have over 49,000 subscribers today and that’s operating within WhatsApp’s 256 people-per-group limit,” Nigel Mugamu, 263Chat’s “chief storyteller” says. In 2017 they launched a weekly magazine exclusively through their more-than-a-hundred WhatsApp groups. The interest was immediate, and they soon launched a daily 19-page service summarizing their output into one PDF that their WhatsApp group users can share widely, cheaply, and with less risk of censorship.
Larger, traditional publishers are also pivoting to WhatsApp, because that´s where new readers can be found. Building on success at South Africa’s traditional investigative newspaper, The Mail and Guardian, writers Simon Allison and Kiri Rupiah turned to WhatsApp to publish their new, weekly broadsheet, “The Continent.” The Continent carries in-depth, human-interest stories based on the hard, fast news that comes out daily in Africa. And their reason for choosing WhatsApp is telling: “By using the same viral networks exploited by disseminators of disinformation, the publication aims to counter the fake news on people’s phones with real news,” reads their online FAQ. Indeed, with decentralization and accessibility, “fake news” has come rushing through WhatsApp like a flood tide. In this way, WhatsApp can be a lot like the suitcase of old magazines and forgotten novels that the visiting teacher brought to our village, back in my rural childhood—a treasure trove certainly, but full of hazards and deceptions that demand our independent judgement.
The trend of WhatsApp becoming a central part of the new literary economy does not end with Zimbabwe, but reaches most of the southern African region. WhatsApp seems to be thriving anywhere that the old post-colonial, global economy is breaking down. “I’m a super novel fan—on WhatsApp,” 18-year-old Tasha Mapfumo tells me. She estimates the number of printed books that she’s ever touched at fewer than ten. But in her phone? Hundreds. Her addiction to WhatsApp novels began at 16, when her family moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, fleeing Zimbabwe’s biting unemployment. She joined a WhatsApp group with English and Shona stories, and was hooked. “Immediately my dad said, ‘I have never met anyone who reads madly like you, on the cellphone,” Tasha says. On her Huawei smartphone, Tasha eagerly awaits each new chapter of “Stories by Lovely Rutendo,” a widely popular serial novel, written in Shona and published via Facebook and WhatsApp.
“Stories by Lovely Rutendo” needs no physical distributor nor bookshop to reach its 62,000 readers. Written by Rutendo Nzira, a Zimbabwean writer living far from home in Namibia, the WhatsApp and Facebook series delights its readers by giving glimpses of daily Zimbabwean life to a diasporic audience that’s scattered all over the globe. “It was a no-brainer,” Rutendo told me. “I didn’t even think of book royalties, fairs, author tours, or publishing agents. I hook readers with the thrilling chapters without giving away the whole plot.” Drawn in by WhatsApp, readers can buy printed copies of the book directly from Rutendo.
“Many of these books speak better to our situations,” Obrien Nachos, an avid WhatsApp reader and sociologist with the Centre for Natural Resource Governance in Zimbabwe, added. “They could be stories mimicking the travails married women endure at the hands of abusive in-laws here in southern Africa. We see ourselves, our own lives….Winning a Booker Prize in London doesn’t make a writer relatable to us African audiences.” In Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa—again, wherever old systems are breaking down—the bandwagon of writers decamping to WhatsApp is crowded.
A Typical WhatsApp Writer
WhatsApp serves the writers of Zimbabwe just as effectively as it serves readers. The two go together, of course, and in my hope to become a working writer I naturally gravitated toward this new, busy platform. I have no traditional work experience, such as in a newsroom with colleagues working at desks near to mine. All my writing research begins on WhatsApp: developing ideas with other writers; pursuing sources whom I then interview (on WhatsApp); back-and-forth editing with editors sending our docs attached in a WhatsApp chat—and, in the end, also publishing my writing through WhatsApp. So, how does it work?
If anyone asked “where’s your office?” I’d point them to a WhatsApp group called “Writers Wardrobe.” It was formed in 2017 by my friend and colleague, Tichaona Jongwe, to bring local writers together to share news of overseas editors and publications that want to hear our pitches—it’s a job-board of sorts. I was briefly a co-administrator until I relinquished the post. We called it Writers Wardrobe because we visualized the WhatsApp group as full of racks of clothing that come and go daily. In Writers Wardrobe, every member must contribute at least one outfit—an editor’s call for pitches—each week. For example, on Monday the administrator may drop a list that includes editors at The Atlantic, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, or Lapp The Brand Magazine, with names and email addresses of those calling for the pitches. The calls are culled from Twitter boards, including @writersofcolor and @studyhall, and posted to our group. In any given week we have up to 200 editors and publications listed. Everyone is free to craft a pitch and try their luck with any editor, and then keep the money for themselves. However, after getting published you’re required to share a sample of your original pitch—so that other writers in the WhatsApp group can learn from your success. I’ve benefitted a lot from such feedback. When members share the names of editors in London, Johannesburg, or Berlin who they know are taking pitches, we all earn our income as writers here in Zimbabwe.
Writers Wardrobe has a few housekeeping rules: keep it strictly business; no posting non-fact-checked gossip; no pornographic videos (a single warning is enough); no posting of personal or family vacation photos (we don’t want to hear about the baby shower of your partner’s friend). The group also serves as a financial sounding board. We share editors’ rates (on an oath that we won’t report the rates back to other publications; so, if The Guardian pays $120 for a feature and Rest of World is paying $700 plus bus expenses, no one at Rest of World is tempted to lower their rates) and we reveal all rates openly to our fellow writers. At the end of each month we also invite members to self-report their total earnings, as motivation for all of us.
Now and then we encounter disputes about writers “stealing pitches.” In 2020, we defused a tiff that began when a writer shared a half-drafted pitch idea with another freelancer, looking for her opinion. The listener “stole” the pitch and sold it to a BBC editor, pocketing a $600 fee when the story was published. The aggrieved party wouldn’t be consoled until the “pitch thief” agreed to pay $200 for the tip. With the community of Writers Wardrobe looking on, the two feuding colleagues settled their differences, and we’ve all been able to continue amicably. In this way, peace and order are served by the WhatsApp writers’ group. I and my colleagues became journalists and essayists without university degrees or “real publishing” experience or any social presence in the publishing capitals of London, New York, or elsewhere—simply by creating a culture of sharing, using these free, collective tools. While participation in a WhatsApp group is free, we occasionally ask members to donate small amounts, when one or another of the members has a family funeral or some misfortune.
Because WhatsApp groups are tight communities of trust, it is very important to nip security threats in the bud. Writers Wardrobe won’t accept members who work for Zimbabwe’s state-owned media, including newspapers like The Herald or The Sunday Mail. We know the Zimbabwean C.I.O. (our version of the Central Intelligence Agency) is very active inside Zimbabwe’s state press newsrooms (also vetting the applications of foreign journalists who want to work in Zimbabwe). They, the spooks, have repeatedly said so themselves. Our rule isn’t moralizing—it’s just for everyone’s safety. If we invite writers employed by the state media in Zimbabwe we risk opening our WhatsApp groups to wiretapping, and having our screenshots exported to…who knows.
The clumsy, large-scale crackdowns imposed by the state—multiple internet blackouts, denial of registration of old-style independent newspapers deemed to be critical, the pre-publication vetting of novels—may have shut down some traditional parts of a healthy polity of literature, but it has accelerated the shift of writers and audiences to WhatsApp and other nimble platforms. Zimbabwean writers and readers no longer care so much what comes out of high-street newspapers or what’s found in the novels lining the city pavements. They’ve moved to platforms where censorship can’t keep up. If the state has not lost its mouth, it seems to be swiftly losing any listening ears.
With my home-base at Writers Wardrobe, a typical day as a WhatsApp writer unfolds like this: On my two cellphones I juggle twenty groups. In the morning I scan the latest local gossip, politics, finance, and outright fake-news snippets in three or four of the groups. What I see there are screenshots of articles grabbed from websites and then uploaded for group members to read. No direct URL links, because those quickly drain huge amounts of Internet data, too pricey for me and many here in Zimbabwe. When I have any Internet access, I also take screenshots and upload them to the WhatsApp groups, sharing whatever catches my eye. Each day, I also act as a WhatsApp fact checker, for instance correcting a family member who posts an article saying that covid vaccines have hidden computer chips in them, to enable state surveillance (spoiler alert: they don’t). I take my WhatsApp fact checking role very seriously. I join debates about the trending WhatsApp stories. I repost what I find most interesting to five or six other WhatsApp groups and spark further debates. I lift interesting story screenshots from different groups and bring them back to new audiences.
In short, for the first four hours of the day I perform like some sort of WhatsApp “story exchange” worker. I use the most topical WhatsApp stories as springboards to pitch expanded articles to editors in London, New York, or Johannesburg, whom I find listed at Writers Wardrobe. I even use fellow group members to develop my stories. For example, if I see a fascinating picture of Zimbabweans putting nets on their car windscreens, it grabs my attention. What is this? A fad, or a cult, or car artists celebrating their wheels? I ask the other members of the WhatsApp group for their opinions and insights. I get dozens of answers because the members all know I am a journalist. This way they’re almost writing the story via their enthusiastic WhatsApp debates. In one WhatsApp group I saw reports of Instagram-happy tourists falling to their death at the Victoria Falls, one of the world´s most eye-catching waterfalls, trying to take the best selfies. I commented and asked if this was really true. The torrent of answers I got in the WhatsApp group formed the basis of my pitch and subsequent article in Fodors Magazine.
For two hours each evening I write a summary of that day’s trending WhatsApp stories to post to a WhatsApp group of family, friends, and strangers back home in rural Mutare. I feel like the traveling minister or returning teacher, my suitcase full of old copies of Newsweek and Readers Digest—except that I’m bringing the very latest news and new writing to my rural friends, and no one needs to mow my front lawn for it. This is where the strength WhatsApp gives to a healthy “polity of literature” can be felt at its greatest—the value of collectivity and sharing is made clear every day in every way. Working within WhatsApp groups, all readers and writers know—without any doubt—that their fates are tied together and mutual aid comprises the wealth that all enjoy. I bring the city’s news to rural readers on the same day, so we’re all “on the same page.” In exchange, I get the news from rural family and friends, to which I add my fact-checking skills as a journalist. I also get fresh story ideas from rural districts. Story ideas that I can refashion for the international media.
That’s how WhatsApp drives the writing ecosystem here in Zimbabwe, by way of juggling a few dozen groups on my two cellphones, working hard, and sharing. My experience launching a writing career using WhatsApp is not unusual. Here in Zimbabwe and southern Africa it’s perfectly normal, and perhaps a harbinger of what’s to come elsewhere.
The Future Resembles the Past
It is naive to say that literature couriered under the platform of WhatsApp in Zimbabwe is safe from the reach of police or censors. As is the case in most of the world, the state can access your phone activity and spy on a WhatsApp group. If you type something and post it publicly, know that you no longer have control over where the message will land. Zimbabwe’s courts have seen many cases of students, trade unionists, villagers, police officers, and writers who stand accused of writing “insulting anti-state” material in WhatsApp groups. Writer Yasin Kakande explains, “The regime actively encourages its informers to join WhatsApp groups where all sorts of material are written, and report offenders. No WhatsApp anonymity can completely guard independent literature against the prying eyes of the regime in Zimbabwe.”
Also, anyone relying on WhatsApp, either for reading or writing, must wonder about issues of credibility. My role as a family WhatsApp fact-checker has given me new perspective on the ways WhatsApp can be counterproductive and lead to misinformation. In the past, a book might go through fact-checking that could take months, in advance of being published. Now, the cart goes before the horse: every day we publish fake news and rely on readers to catch the errors and correct them. In WhatsApp groups, I see entire passages of fake geography or fake history being passed off as nonfiction. Maxwell Chimedza, a trailblazing WhatsApp e-teacher who has built a thriving career using groups, echoed this caution. “Around 2016,” he told me, “I thought WhatsApp literature and publishing was this new game-changer for a more truth-driven media in Zimbabwe. I was clearly misinformed and quickly disillusioned when I began to see entire passages of fake history, dismissing World War II as a staged invention, distributed as history exam-prep literature in some of Zimbabwe´s WhatsApp groups.” It is as it ever was: in the end it’s up to readers and writers to separate the fake from the credible.
Finally, the main shortcoming of the WhatsApp ecosystem here in Zimbabwe is its inability to monetize. WhatsApp platforms don’t run adverts, hence the writer cannot drive income directly from WhatsApp, as with traditional newspapers, magazines, or radio. WhatsApp still brings us back to legacy publishing in this way—to make money we need to source story ideas from WhatsApp and then pitch them to traditional media, because traditional magazines, newspapers, and radio pay writers (at least some do). WhatsApp can get us there, but it can’t put the food on our tables. Whether WhatsApp will evolve to become a sustainable platform for writers to earn a living has yet to be seen.