(This review of short story #1, is my second post on African Roar 2011. I will be blogging about all the fourteen short stories in the anthology. My introductory post is here)
There is a tendency, in most African societies, to explain away the character of a childless woman in terms of her childlessness. If she is nice, she is solicitous and wants to attract other peoples’ children. If she is mean, she does not know how to nurture; she’s hardened from not having children. If she’s talkative, then she doesn’t appreciate silence since she has not had to share her space with noisy children. Similarly, in Witch’s Brew, Mai Chamboko is labeled a witch by her community. A hard-working woman, Mai Chamboko is more successful at generating income from her small business. The township folk thought:
Mai Chamboko had killed her child in exchange for the chikwambo (goblin). It had fed off the child’s flesh and sucked her blood dry. According to them, the chikwambo had imprisoned the child’s spirit in a blood-soaked gourd. This was the source of the power of the muti that made Mai Chamboko earn more money than other women.
Mai Chamboko lived alone with her devoted husband. Few people came to visit her. Most children stayed away, scared that she “would kill them, then cook and eat their flesh”. But 0ne child, the narrator of the story, visits Mai Chamboko often. A young boy with a club-foot who is also ostracized by the community, he feels a certain kinship with Mai Chamboko. He sees and understands the “shards of her broken heart in the depths of her eyes”. He discovers that her dark eyes light up when he enters her house and her sadness gives way to the most-warming laughter.
One day, when I saw her light up like that as I walked in, I blurted, “You are the most beautiful woman in the world”.
How she glowed then
Our narrator describes his relationship with Mai Chamboko in the first part of the story. A relationship in stark contrast to that which these two outsiders have with folks in the township. And while I enjoyed the detail, I felt that the writer belabored the point a bit. This is really the only negative in the story.
In the second part, 0ur narrator’s gaze shifts to look upon and comment on life in the township, which immediately rescues the story. He sees a people struggling to cope in the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s stunning collapse. He is a clairvoyant, often punished and feared for daring to warn people of his visions. He sees spirits and muses that “darker monsters walked in (other people’s) minds and hearts”.
The ugliness inside them made their eyes blind to everything else around them, even the beauty that could be found in our overcrowded township… The decaying garbage and the stench from broken sewer pipes sang hymns of rot to whose rhythms many souls moved.
Our narrator has his clairvoyance, his visions to comfort him and give him hope in these hard times. And if that is what it takes to survive, what then is Ruzvidzo Mupfudza saying about the ability of his people to weather these times? I have written elsewhere that Zimbabwe served as a haven for my family when we fled Ghana in the 1980s. I’m hard-pressed to recognize my people in Mupfudza’s township community. Obviously, the people, under the demanding conditions, have changed.
A change does come for Mai Chamboko and our narrator. A funeral and a coming together of community. In the end, I thought theirs was a case of bewitching as opposed to witching.
There is quite a lot going on in this story. I’m wary of the use of child narrators in delivering portrayals of communities that are often laced with gravitas. I accept this presentation in Witch’s Brew because of the magical realist elements in the story. In Ghana, when a child makes wise statements and seems to understand issues that are beyond and above her years, we say that that child is an old soul, an old ancestor who’s come back to the land of the living. This describes our narrator nicely; he acts and speaks like a linguist. He probably told folktales to an enthralled crowd in his past life!
Witch’s Brew is a most apt, well-written opening into African Roar 2011. We’ve started on the outside. Are we working our way in or do we continue to observe away from the circle?
Ruzvidzo Stanley Mupfudza was born in Zimbabwe and his short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Sadly, he died in May 2010. African Roar 2011 is dedicated to his memory. A tribute, written by Memory Chirere, is included in the anthology.
(African Roar 2011 is currently available at Amazon.com as a kindle e-book.)