NOT TO BE MISSED
"Souviens-toi, Zenzélé", a novel by Nozipo MARAIRE
Paris: Albin Michel, 1996. (286p.).
Translated into French by Marie-Claude Peugeot. Original title: Zenzele. A letter for my daughter .
Ce compte rendu en français
The shadow of death is drawing nigh and Shiri is reminiscing about her life, her growing-up in a small village, the turbulent times of Zimbabwe's fight for independence and the people she met along the way. A fascinating life, one she sees as part of a continuum allowing each generation to become a foundation for the next; thus her keenness to write a long letter to her daughter Zenzele, who has left her to study at Harvard.
Understanding the meaning of life, Shiri believes, is not an introspective pursuit but an attempt to understand the responsibilities and duties expected of the individuals by their kin. Being the oldest daughter in the family, her path had been prescribed by tradition, and her mission in life had been pretty simple: to help her mother and to take care of her siblings until such time as she married and dedicated herself to perpetuating the family's good name and fulfilling her duty towards the local community.
This summation of her life, though, says nothing of the many challenges she had to meet along the way: the conundrums she struggled with, the doubts that shaped her beliefs, her remodelling of God's image, the illuminating power of love and the destructive sway of despair, not-withstanding the unrelenting questions of her sharp and precocious Zenzele, who was always looking at her with much anticipation, but also disappointment when her answers did not meet her expectations. Increasingly that had been the case as her daughter was growing older and could not see the logic of many traditional ways endorsed by her mother.
Why was it so important to keep in touch with her parents' family, to respect the etiquette and to speak Shona? Zenzele was asking. Why should a woman agree with the perpetuation of traditional dowries and a strict division of labour? Why should women lose their name and be defined by maternity? These questions and many more, logic could not answer; and, confronted by both the arbitrariness of social mores and her daughter's arguments, doubts often entered her mind, but never to the point of altering her fundamental conviction that, the world being what it was, whatever she felt right was the correct answer for her if not necessarily for others.
The point of sharing her wisdom and experience with Zanzele, therefore, did not aim at providing clear-cut answers. It was rather to invite her daughter to seek solutions resonating with her own desires and aspirations. And in order to do so, Shiri tells her, one has to look beyond the distorted images of the West and the deceptive simplicity of village life; one has to set apart appearance and reality, self-fulfilment and chimerical pursuits. She tells her of her joy at becoming Mrs Shungu when she married, and Amaï Zenzele when she gave birth to her first child; her contentment in supporting others rather then pursuing her own studies overseas; her satisfaction in feeding the troops fighting for the country's independence rather then becoming a freedom-fighter, like her sister Linda. Her rather uncritical submission to social demands does not seem right to her daughter, but she wants her to understand that everyone has to chose who they want to be and what they want to do, according to their own ideals and sense of duty. These choices determine who one is and does, but also what one ought to do to be fulfilled and at peace with one's conscience.
Zenzele, asking her mother what it meant for her to be an "African woman" is telling in this respect. Upon hearing this question, it is not of her own experience that Shiri first thinks: it is of her own mother's who, she knows, would have answered by raising her two strong and muscular arms while exclaiming: "Do you see these hands rising up? These are my words and their work is my testimony" (p.39). To her, to be an African woman meant working hard and taking what life was throwing at her in her stride, without recriminations. But as Shiri looks at her daughter, she also sees an African woman, one who, unlike her grandmother and her mother, is keen to remodel the world around her, one whose strength is in challenging common wisdom and fighting for people's rights. And it dawns on her that an "African woman" is what you will make of it. For the majority, it stands indeed for "someone working from dawn to dusk"; but for others it rather means "to serve others and yet to know and defend your rights to the bitter end" (p.40). When pressed to give an answer, Shiri suggests: Someone "strong and at peace within" (p.40). No single definition can tell what an "African woman" is, and indeed what she should be.
While it is difficult to tell what an African woman is, it is much easier to ascertain what she never was, that is a wretch rescued by benevolent whites, as some Rhodesians suffused with racists theories argued. Ergo, it is also easy to see what she never should have been: that is, one who had to thank her master for having to sleep in a cramped little room, and sitting at the back of the Master's pickup while the house-dog was ensconced in the front seat, next to the driver; one who was thrown out of many shops and public space. Thus the anger of many young women such as Shiri's sister, her friend Tinawo, and many others who left their families to join the guerrillas and became mjibas: that is, young revolutionary women wearing trousers, shooting as well as their male companions and carrying on their back, "not runny-nose babies, but the hope of a different generation in the form of rolls of ammunition, maps, codes, and supplies to fuel the battle which, ultimately, was to lead us to independence" (p.168). They too were African women who had chosen the road they should follow, individuals who forged their identity at the margin of social expectations in defiance of the impositions of an all-powerful racist minority.
It is not because Shiri never took-up arms that she did not abhor white racism and oppression. Fighting their curse was a multi-pronged undertaking, and an interesting episode of the novel highlights both a different means to fight ill-disguised pretence of superiority and Shiri's non-violent journey towards freedom that includes, not only political aspirations, but also freedom of the mind. Raised in a family brought to Christianity by the missionaries, she had internalised the "pacifying myth dreamed up by the missionaries, the plantation managers, the giant soft-drink manufacturers, the rich diamond multi-nationals, and the explorers, whose chief interest was to keep our hands industrious in this life, but keep our minds placid and fixed on the world to come" (p.184). White angels, white apostles and a mighty God awaiting her in heaven to judge her were just another fancy of the white oppressors. It is only when her daughter notices that the stained-glass windows of a small chapel nearby, all picturing biblical characters as black people, that she realises that God and his entourage, like the African woman, are amenable to an infinite number of representations, including a cast of black angels, saints and apostles surrounding a black Christ (p.261). God did not need white missionaries to intercede on her behalf.
The views of Shiri's husband on religion are even more radical as the Revolution has become his God, and the pursuit of a more equitable world his mission. He is a lawyer and an eloquent public speaker, who does not believe in an all-powerful God casting a benevolent eye on the world. Rather, he believes in the virtue of experience and the necessity for action. Life is not pre-ordained, he says. And, for better or for worse, one makes the bed one lies in. His conviction that humans rather then gods are in charge, that people's history is written by the former rather than the latter, confutes misleading religious myths. It also debunks the pseudo-scientific "truths" used by colonising powers to justify racial discrimination, the assumed superiority of competition over cooperation, and the subjective choice of historical facts brought to bear on grand narratives.
Our continent, Zenzele's father tells his compatriots during the political rallies he often addresses, is not the soulless land that missionaries, businessmen, philanthropists and ethnologists have invaded, considering it terra-nullius; it is not for them to decide what is good for us; the task of writing our history belongs to us: "Until the lion learns to write tales of hunting, we'll always glorify the hunter" (p.78). Thus Shiri telling her daughter, in unison with her husband, "Let no one define you, or your country" (p.92). This motto has guided Zenzele's parents; it has shaped their personal journey through life, and, one assumes, it will pay dividends with their daughter.
Shiri's freedom of choice is emphasised by the subtle manoeuvring of the narrator who presents Shiri as the archetype of traditional womanhood while, at the same time, showing that none of the stereotypical features attributed to an African wife and mother really apply to her persona. For example, she did not marry out of love, but it has nothing to do with family pressure: it is because her sweetheart was killed during the war and no-one could ever replace him in her heart; she is full of admiration for her husband and her daughter's impressive analytical skills, but this genuine esteem unwittingly testifies to her remarkable ability to gauge people's character and abilities. She may not have studied abroad, but her curious mind is in a state of constant flux and, because she never lost sight of the fundamental principles she inherited from her parents, she escapes the dazzling lure of illusory "progress" and its vain promises.
Her belittling of social hierarchies and economic status is also striking, not only because it flouts Western divides, but more importantly because it opens the narration to new categories reflecting her view of the world. Shiri's father was a doctor, her husband an eminent lawyer, her sister a qualified teacher like herself, and her daughter a Harvard graduate. But one soon understands that, in her eyes, glitzy qualifications count for nothing if they divide people and, are not understood as a return on the investment made by extended family, or entire villages, to secure their future. What differentiates people in Shiri's mind is not their titles and occupations, but their dedication to a common good that transcends self-interest and yet, respects people's hopes and dreams.
In this regard, the teaching qualifications and the commitment of her sister to the armed struggle against racism and the occupation of Rhodesia by white settlers have, in her eyes, much more value than any study overseas that would lead to shifting allegiances and a complete abandonment of one's roots, language and identity. The toothless elder in rags is miles above the lost soul who returns home after fifteen years of absence, in a three-piece suit, unable to speak Shona any longer, and wary of catching an infection at his dying mother's bedside; and the values taught by her own parents to their children elevate them well above Mr. and Mrs Charles Billingsworth Pelleday and their ilk, who put maids at the back of their pickup and their dog next to the driver.
This engrossing and poignant novel is well served by Marie-Claude Peugeot's translation into French; it abounds with pithy sentences that encapsulate the narrator's wisdom and make lovely epigraphs: such as, "We grow tea; they sell us tea-bags. We grow tobacco, they make the cigarettes. We grow the fruit they sell; they sell us the jam. It is called 'free trade' by one half of the world and 'economic exploitation' by the other" (p.77). Or, "Prejudice is in he eyes of the beholder" (p.85); "Racism is a phenomenal thing; it is like a thick mist that obscures the vision and judgment of even great minds." (p.85); "History is simply the events as seen by a particular group, usually the ones with the mightiest pens and the most indelible ink" (p.79).
As she reaches the end of the road, Shiri writes to her daughter in a self-effacing manner: "My name shall never appear on the roll of famous battles [...] it is a pity that I have no more to leave you than words. But what is life after all but a short story: some fiction and some truth?" (p.193). This modesty in evaluating her legacy is in keeping with her life-philosophy, but it does not reflect the true extent of her influence. She has been a role model for her daughter and, a dedicated family and community member. As the saying goes, it is the foot-soldier who wins the war, thus the all-important contribution she and the millions of anonymous women who, like her, have made in fighting racism, discrimination, exploitation, illiteracy and other curses, without making it into the history book. Shiri's story only has the honour of a work of fiction, but one written by a "mighty pen" with "indelible ink". Some twenty year after its publication, many readers will still subscribe to Kelsey Demers comments: "This book is pure excellence".
1. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/666276.Zenzele [Sighted 10 February 2014]
This review is based on the French translation of the novel but quotes and page numbers are from the English original published by Dell Publishing in 1997.
Editor ([email protected])
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities