Sunday, May 4, 2014

Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende reviews Zimbabwean novel This September Sun


It's World Book Day today. We bring you Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende's review of Zimbabwean novel This September Sun.  

This September Sun is a searing account of family and “the ties that bind” as told from the perspective of a young woman trying to find her place within her family, her country and her world at large. The story is set in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and begins in dramatic fashion: “On the 18th of April 1980, my grandfather burnt the British flag. I remember because it was my sixth birthday and he ruined it.”

From this point on, Rheam reels the reader in to a heady tale of love, hate, deceit and betrayal, laughter and tears, anger and joy, destruction and renewal. Born into a family full of secrets, young Ellie quickly becomes aware of the coldness and the heavy, unarticulated emotions between her grandmother Evelyn and her grandfather Leonard. She is also aware of the tension between her mother Francie and her grandmother and is often bewildered, angered and terrified by the outburst of pure, inexplicable rage such as she witnessed from her grandmother towards her grandfather on the 18th of April, 1980. Traumatized by the divorce of her grandparents and threatened by her gran’s new love Miles, Ellie’s existence is one filled with insecurity, self doubt and unanswered questions, punctuated by occasional episodes of happiness.

Upon completing her ‘A’ levels, Ellie leaves for England, convinced that she will find herself, her place in the grand scheme of things and finally attain that state of serenity that has so far eluded her. However she soon discovers that: “It is not enough just to travel, if one wishes to change who one is. The greatest journey we go on is inward towards ourselves, rather than outwards and away. You cannot change who you are unless you know who you are and what you are capable of, and that is what I had never known and why, finally, I couldn’t move on.”

Ellie shuttles back and forth between Zimbabwe and England, a troubled young woman who is at once comforted and disturbed by how some things back home do not seem to change. Her restless spirit continues to battle with the business of finding her place and she completes a bachelor’s, a master’s and embarks on a PhD degree.

The news that her grandmother has been brutally bludgeoned to death in her home in Suburbs marks the beginning of another phase in her journey which ultimately leads her into a quagmire of secrets and revelations that help to answer some of the questions along her journey to finding herself. Her grandmother’s diaries hold the missing pieces to a very complex puzzle, one which her family had protected her from as an only child. She learns who her grandmother Evelyn really is, how she came to what was then Southern Rhodesia in 1946 and how she ended up married to Leonard, her grandfather. She unravels the mystery around the death of her uncle Jeremy and how this singular event irrevocably changed the family dynamics from what it was to what she was born into.
Rheam’s brilliance lies in her ability to weave what seem like two completely different stories into a seamless work of art that is both evocative and entertaining. The story is told in beautiful prose, peppered with old world verse and philosophical musings. Her characters are sometimes funny, foolish, tragic, selfish and downright irritating. All are bound together masterfully in the messy business of living, and searching, adjusting and moving forward. In the hands of a lesser writer, this powerful story would have been lacklustre and tedious to read. However it is told by a true craftswoman, whose style, tempo and artistry in her use of language is outstanding and therefore the story simply shines.

This September Sun was published in Zimbabwe in 2009 by ’amaBooks. The novel won Best First Book at the Zimbabwe Book Publishers Association awards in 2010 and has been selected as a set book for ZIMSEC ‘A’ level Literature in English until 2017.

The Caine Prize Workshop 2014

This blog was originally published on the Caine Prize blog in April 2014

The Bvumba is a special place for me: as a child, my family spent many holidays there and I have lots of special memories of long walks through the jungly terrain, sitting next to a huge open fire in the evenings and watching the mist rise as the sun came up in the morning.  In 1981, we lived for a year in Penhalonga, not far from Mutare along the Mozambican border.  I remember going to school in a very old bus, chugging up Christmas Pass and then that wonderful sense of almost freewheeling it down the other side into Mutare where I went to school.  It was a time of great transition in Zimbabwe: black children were allowed into what had predominantly been white government schools, and many white people were leaving for places such as South Africa and Australia.  The war in Mozambique was still in full force and, for all that we were so near, we may as well have been on a different planet.  The only interaction we had with the country was through the itinerant border jumpers who came across to sell the food aid they had received from West Germany: tins of fish which they couldn’t open.

                Years later and here I was in the Bvumba once again, attending a Caine Prize workshop.  Towards the end of our time there, we were divided into groups of four and sent off to different schools to give a talk about our writing. St. Werburgh is situated on the Burma Valley Road, on the other side of the mountain that dominates Leopard Rock.  It is an Anglican school, started in 1897, but it receives no funding from the church.  Originally situated on white commercial land, from whom it received some financial help, the school is now on its own, relying on US$25 a term school fees from its 900+ pupils. 

                The other groups of writers went to secondary schools to give talks whereas we were invited to speak to the primary school’s Young Writer’s Club, a group of 8-12 year olds.  That the school had such a group was of great interest to me as an English teacher.  From my own experience, such clubs are attended by few and usually run out of enthusiasm quite quickly.  However, the 40 or so children who all trouped into the classroom to meet us proved that this was a writing club with a difference.  Luckily, it is headed by teachers who are keen to teach and share their ideas with the children in their care.

                We were shown their writing books in which they had recorded details about their families  -many of them are being brought up entirely by their mothers – and about trips away to a nearby waterfall and the museum in Mutare.  They had also written an imaginative story; one about a rat who ate the back of a man’s coat sticks in my mind.  The man wore the coat, not knowing that the back was missing and everyone laughed at him as he walked down the road! 

                What really struck me as I read the children’s work was how good their English was.  I work at a private school in Zambia where school fees are between US$3000-5000 a term (depending on if they are primary/secondary and boarding/day-scholars) and yet the standard of English is incredibly poor.  The pupils I teach are not all first language English speakers, but they all speak English at school.  At the age of fifteen, they struggle to hand in an essay which is more than one side of an A4 page long and which has a clear beginning, middle and end.  Yet these children in a remote government school in Zimbabwe have already got to grips with the basic structure of a story. 

                Another thing which impressed me was the ease with which the children could stand up and recite poems to the audience.  Not many students I teach could do that from memory or they would mumble and look self-conscious and try to slink off without being noticed. 

                It is a generally accepted fact that if anyone wants to be a good writer, they have to be a good reader. I give talks to parents about the importance of reading to their children because more and more children are writing within a vacuum.  They have nothing to stimulate their imaginations because no one is reading to them, including teachers, who often don’t value reading as it’s not ‘part of the syllabus’.  At St. Werburgh the problem is a different one.  They don’t have any books to read to the children.  Unfortunately, the suggestion to download free books off the Internet, was not a particularly practical one in an area with no cell phone signal, never mind Internet access. 

                The children sang for us and we were also taken on a tour of the school before being offered mealies to eat.  On the tour, we saw the IT department and the special needs class.  There is also a class for children with autism and downs syndrome.  One of the girls is brain damaged after being hit by a car.  What I saw in the classrooms is some very progressive teaching practice.  There is a rota on the wall for cleaning the classroom; the children are taught skills such as knitting and the teacher plays music through her cell phone to provide stimulation.  She says that ideally they would like a CD player and I can feel that hint in her voice that hopes I might be the provider of such a machine.

I was impressed by the amount of pictures on the wall, some standard Ministry of Education posters about cholera and the importance of washing hands, but also handmade ones, some out of old corn flakes packets – vowel sounds and times tables.  It occured to me that the reason these children’s English is of such a good standard is because the basic teaching practice in Zimbabwean government schools still focuses on spelling rules and multiplication tables.  This is something that has been forgotten in many private schools and only recently has its significance re-emerged in the UK.

Abdul made a name for himself by learning part of a Shona song and also teaching a large group of school children who had gathered round him a Swahili song.  The area the school is situated in is a truly beautiful one and I couldn’t help envying the children for living in such an area.  However, it is also a place of incredible hardship.  Most of the parents who send their children to this school are subsistence farmers.  As they all tend to grow the same crop, maize, the price of a bucket of mealies is dirt cheap.  US$25 a term in school fees may not sound like a lot of money, but it certainly is for these people.  Some of the children faint during the school day as they have had nothing to eat all morning and the school cannot possibly feed them.

                It is hard sometimes, considering the history of Zimbabwe in the last fifteen years, to understand why education is still so valued in the country.  Many of the children wrote how they wanted to be pilots or lawyers because ‘that’s how you make lots of money’.  Yet the country wide pass rate for ZIMSEC O level is 16%.  Even if these pupils do go on and get their A Levels, what then?  According to one of the teachers, the best thing to do would be to teach the pupils a skill so that they can actually do something practical, besides farming, when they leave.

                Some of the children live as far as ten kilometres away, up the mountain and must not delay in their start to the long walk home.  They walk in groups as there is a danger that, especially girls, may be attacked and raped if they are on their own.  In the past, some children have disappeared, probably taken for body parts, although this hasn’t happened for a while. 

                We leave after an exchange of email addresses and phone numbers.  Can I get any of the teachers a job in Zambia?  An average teacher in Zimbabwe earns just short of US$500 a month, regardless of experience and qualifications.  A government school teacher in Zambia can earn around US$1000 a month and they are often given car and housing loans.

                As we drive away, I marvel at the resilience of these teachers, people who obviously pour so much of their time and effort into teaching these children and who receive very little monetary recompense for it.  The landscape is incredibly beautiful as the car bumps and bounces down the road.  I think again of our family holidays, how there was always this feeling of security, of knowing what was going to happen.  Today I feel that we spend too much time ticking off places we have gone to.  Holidays must always be somewhere different, somewhere exotic.  Yet there is something endearingly comforting about having a favourite place. 

It is a long time since we spent those holidays in the Bvumba and much has happened in both my family life and the life of Zimbabwe, and for me the country of my birth is a paradoxical mixture of love and incredible sadness.  I wish in many ways that the workshop had been held elsewhere, in a place with no emotional investment for me.  I think of my story that I have written over the course of the workshop.  It is sad, but it is also about letting go.  I suppose that’s what I want to do really, let go.  But in my heart of hearts, I can’t.  It’s under my skin, you see, and that’s why it’s me who can never really leave it.

Don't you know, little fool, you never can win?
Why not use your mentality - step up, wake up to reality?
But each time I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop just before I begin
'Cause I've got you under my skin.
Yes, I've got you under my skin.