The Stone Virgins (2002) is stunning, haunting and quite disturbing. The book centers on two sisters caught-up in post-Independence violence in Zimbabwe. It is also about Zimbabwe, represented in the first part of the book by Selbourne Avenue and then by Kezi, the village where most of the novel’s action takes place. Selbourne Avenue is in a country where an oppressive, apartheid-like system of government separates Africans and Europeans, where Africans negotiate a second or third-class existence in their native land.
Ekoneni, they say, begging for ease, for understanding. Ekoneni is a rendezvous, a place to meet. You cannot meet inside any building because this city is divided; entry is forbidden to black men and women; you meet outside buildings, not at doorways, entries, foyers, not beneath arched windows, not under graceful colonnades, balustrades, cornices, but ekoneni. Here, you linger, ambivalent, permanent as time. You are in transit. Ekoneni is also a dangerous place where knives emerge as suddenly as lightening”
Off Selbourne Avenue and and a drive of two hundred kilometers, one arrives in Kezi. With its Kwakhe River, marula trees and views of the hills of Gulati, Kezi, brimming with life, is also close to danger.
“To be in Kezi, to be in the bush, is to be at the mercy of misfortune; Fear makes their hearts pound like drums. The war so near, so close to the skin that you can smell it.”
It is the time of the Zimbabwe War of Liberation, of the Second Chimurenga. It is in Kezi that we meet Thenjiwe, the first of the two sisters, whose lives mirror that of the nation. She has a brief but intense relationship with Cephas. Their relationship fails because they are unable to ask the questions that need to be asked nor say what has to be said. A nation approaching independence and its people unable to ask their freedom fighters: what happened out there in the bush, what has our freedom cost you? A coming-together, a loss of words and a parting, all foreshadow a terrible violence.
“She takes the stranger home. She has a lot to forget, so this is all right. She has no idea now; or ever, that some of the harm she has to forget is in the future, not in the past, and that she would not have enough time in the future to forget any of the hurt.”
The second part of the novel covers the years between 1981 and 1986.
“The war begins. A curfew is declared. A state of emergency. No movement is allowed… Roadblocks. Bombs. Land mines. Hand grenades. Memory is lost. Independence ends. Guns rise. Rising anew. In 1981.”
For the people of Kezi, the joy of independence and freedom lasts only one year. Between 1981 and 1986, Robert Mugabe, the prime minister, conducted a reign of terror and violence, known now as the Gukurahundi Massacres, upon the people of Matebeleland in order to crush the supporters of his rival, Joshua Nkomo. In The Stone Virgins, Vera unleashes this violence, in the form of Sibaso, on the two sisters. The attack is horrible and excruciating in its finality. But Nonceba survives,
She holds on. Has she lived before this moment of urgency and despair? Is there something whispered before a cataclysmic earthquake, sleep, before a frightful awakening to death? Is life not lived backwards, in flashes, in spasm of hopeless regret?
This violence is completely unimaginable! And again words fail the characters in Vera’s story. Men who previously protected and fought for the country’s freedom have now turned against its people in so brutal a manner. Yet, Vera forces us to confront the figure of Sibaso, the freedom fighter who “kills not because he is hungry but because his stomach is full”, who seeks acceptance and acknowledgement from his people.
“Independence is a compromise to which I could not belong. I am a man who is set free, Sibaso, one who remembers harm. They remember nothing. They never speak of it; at least I do not hear of it.”
The rest of the books deals with the forging of new lives and new relationships. Vera seems to indicate that the characters in the book, indeed the people of Zimbabwe, will over time find the words to survive and thrive despite their ordeals. On the subject of Kezi’s and of Zimbabwe’s survival, she leaves open-ended, unresolved:
Kezi is a place grasping for survival – war, drought, death and betrayals: a habitat as desolate as this is longing for the miraculous.
Vera‘s writing is lyrical, sensual; The Stone Virgins reads like a prose poem. Her prose is among the most beautiful pieces of writing that I’ve ever read. The book may not appeal to those who like plot-driven stories. I loved it and could not for a long time find other words to describe its profound effect on me. This story has shaken me. My mother and I arrived in Zimbabwe in 1983; she, fleeing her native country and entering a long period of self-imposed exile, me, in my early teens. We lived in Harare and I remember murmurings and whisperings of war and deaths in the southern part of the country. Uprooted from the country of my childhood as a result of political upheaval, I must have needed Zimbabwe to be a stable and safe haven. And it was, for my mother and I, for seven years till I left for college. Reading The Stone Virgins now, in light of all that has and is still happening in Zimbabwe, has broken my heart. I feel the loss of home all over again.
Yvonne Vera was an exceptionally talented and courageous writer. She died, in 2005, at the tender age of forty, leaving behind an impressive number of novels for one so young. The Stone Virgins is not just a story of war and violence in Zimbabwe. It is a story of love, of community, of sisterhood, of betrayal, of oppression, of freedom, and of the sweeping landscapes of Africa.