Arts, Books & Critical Theory

Heritage and Social Memory in Emlanjeni Village

Portrait of Emlanjeni author Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya (Credit: Ngwenya)

By Onai Mushava

If you don’t believe in the end of the world, imagine the day when digital vixens who only connect with their villages as tourists with selfie-sticks become the ancestors of this country. For Zimbabwe to avoid this Armageddon, it needs more works of art that spread out the memory and the magic of the village like Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya’s third novel, “Portrait of Emlanjeni.” Reading this book, I was enchanted by the breezes, the folds and the moods of the village the same way I felt when I came across Mbeu’s “Nhimbe” video late last year.  And, of course, it is more than just the romantic scenery of the village. Ngwenya lets you picture the young men and women whose dreams for Zimbabwe only form in rear-view pixels on the highway to Egoli.

If you read this book but do not feel the roots of your heart tracing their way home, my friend, you probably need a geologist to examine you. In the village no plate in the smoky hut is too small for kinsmen to bond over it, and whoever has a totem is not an orphan. Misery is to be lost out here in the city, where a brother is forgotten as easily as an umbrella, as Will Self puts it, and she that suffers breeds worms on the secret farm of her brain. Ngwenya is a town planner during the day but as a novelist she knows too well that the city has nothing on the village.

To deep-dive into the writing of a professional, the first problem is to soak up the language of her trade for ease of navigation. But office habits turn out to be a thing of delight when town planner Ngwenya puts her strong sense of place to use to create an idyllic village in the heart of Matobo. In “Portrait of Emlanjeni”, Ngwenya gets a grip on Ndebele heritage, social memory and the rights of marginalised girls. The various concerns of the story run into each other in a small fictional village wedged together with familiar simplicity and life-like beauty.

It has been said that in the infinitely divergent characterisation of Kojo Laing’s masterpiece, Search Sweet Country, Ghana  herself turns out to be the main character. If the same can be said of Ngwenya’s Emlanjeni village, it is for the opposite reason. Emlanjeni village is where peasant farmers, cross-border hustlers, sangomas, students, doctors, armed robbers, police officers and so on dissolve their individuality into an overwhelming community spirit.

Of course, everything is not all heaven in the village. Emlanjeni, like every village, has its share of contrasting characters, some a little too contrasting they become the proverbial black patch of the white garment. There is Sibanda, the sex-crazed juju man who trains his rusty gun on everything in a skirt, even if it is his own daughters. There is Apostle Joshua whose disciples almost echo him before he speaks. The two men serially cuckold others; if they were to be caught in these days of filmed reprisals, mass anger would leave nothing to be filmed.

A likely readers’ favourite is Sikhwehle whose mental illness does not cost him the warm regard of the village. He gets to be the ladies’ man in his hard-working involvement with every village task including the brewing of rainmaking beer. At gatherings and at the chief’s court, he has an unwritten contract to say the truth that polite society chokes in the decency of silence. Speaking of silence, MaNkomo’s heart is an ocean, soaking up the secrets of others in her intuition but never known to spill one.

There is MaMpunzi whose lovers’ feet stamp out an atlas of their own in the bush. The old women’s nearness to heaven speaks through wisdom and virtue. The women of Emlanjeni are a chatty lot, alternating between stories of self-development and graphic songs about taming all too predictable men. There is a coordination with and acknowledgement of modern judicial processes at Chief Mlotshwa’s cases. The man acts so listening and thoughtful it is almost too hard to imagine him as a real-life leader.

Novelist Ngwenya says she finds her day job as a town planner similar to creative writing because of the creative demands of both fields. “There is no Emlanjeni village in Matobo,” Ngwenya reveals. “It is a name I created after my editor, Dr Tanaka Chidora, encouraged me to. In ‘Izinyawo Zayizolo’ (the Ndebele version of ‘Portrait of Emlanjeni’, whose title literally translates to ‘Yesterday’s Footprints) the village is not even mentioned.”

Ngwenya goes deeper than recapturing the enchantment of the village – the place we now hear so little about apart from its political distance from the city and its nostalgic delights – to pick – in Chenjerai Hove’s words – the bones that sit within its psyche. The highway to Egoli, sets in early into the novel, sustaining a community that has been hard done by the closure of Bulawayo industries. The golden highway does not just bring the much-need rands and groceries but is also paved with vice and pain.

“A year or so later, Malayitshas would bring babies as young as six months as part of the parcels,” Ngwenya writes of the grandchildren of Emlanjeni. Add to the new life, the lifeless parcels, “mostly bodies of people who die from a disease called ‘the disease’.” And then the unbroached subject of Aids, where embarrassment and denialism lead to unnecessary deaths.”Once the invalids (shipped back for home-based care) get better, Malayitshas come for them. Off they disappear only to forget to take their medicines again. When they return, they too, would be in trolleys underneath groceries.” The other dead bodies are of young men, fallen in crime, taking a recourse from their lack of education and economic opportunities.

Ngwenya tells of the warm hearts of these nocturnal hustlers when they come home for holidays, getting their hands dirty in community development projects and spending generously for the same cause. This, then, is a story of how broader structures impact on lives of ordinary people. The fact of Emlanjeni people’s love and respect for each other, and service to the community, in spite of being caught up in vices elsewhere to just to get by, shows that they are what was done to them but their goodness still refuses to be erased. It is Fyodor Dostoyevsky who showed that there are no bad people and Ngwenya’s villagers assume such complexity.

Emlanjeni is where death sits uncomfortably in collective memory, where silence is an official language and the muted cry for healing goes unanswered.Journeys by bus overlooking the Bhalagwe Mine dump remind villagers of the uncollected bodies of children, some fallen in fire, some in airless bags, in the national tragedy Novuyo Rosa Tshuma calls Zimbabwe’s original sin. “The silent drumbeats echo from the mine dump, sifting their sounds past the leaves of the trees that are dotted around the mine dump, past the rocks, past the rivers and the vast sands in them into Emlanjeni inhabitants’ hearts. Sadness. Sorrow. Fear. Anger. These feelings, the villagers do not show to strangers. They say nothing about the atrocities to them.” Ngwenya too tells overlooked stories with neither provocation nor complacency but the quiet wisdom with which elders speak.

“Portrait of Emlanjeni” is largely the story of young Zanele, a high-performing village girl who falls pregnant to an early school dropout whose only dream is crossing the border. There is little comfort in the bulging secret as the father, Sipho, increasingly shows himself lacking in emotion, industry and sophistication. Zanele’s dilemma, spread out over many chapters is only worsened by the generous expectations that she knows she can no longer perform. The clash between punitive conservatism which not only threatens affected girls’ livelihoods but also lives in some cases, and campaigns such as the one pioneered by Thomas Sankara for pregnant girls to be allowed to stay in school, is given close-up treatment in Zanele.

The novel goes in on the relative values of customary law and modern law, with a couple of cases that seem to shift the author’s bias. Little Khethiwe is raped by her father, Sibanda. If Emlanjeni is a place of beauty and simplicity, these qualities are ably contrasted by Sibanda, a hustler of the underworld who uses charms to supposedly block avenging spirits for his clients, performs abortions on young women, some of whom are his lovers. He believes in “testing his daughter’s virginity himself” before marrying them off. Sometimes proof is tied to power. As such, Sibanda is the kind of man whom modern courts apparently absolve for lack of evidence, much like the case in Willie Chigidi’s ‘Atsunzunya Rega Atsikwe”, though the village’s verdict is rightfully against him. It takes a sangoma’s dirty trick on Sibanda to right miscarried justice.

And then there is Dube, rightfully absolved by the magistrate in a homicide case. His victim Ncube proverbially falls on his own sword during an unwarranted attacked on the former in his own compound. But then being cleared by the courts does not protect Dube from an avenging spirit that goes after the lives of his family members and the sanity of his sister. Here it is hard to follow the judicial logic of the indigenous system. However, a wealth of the wisdom of ancient ways is shown in how Ngwenya’s treatment of cases such as the spirit of community, mental health and so on.

The rising writer was recently a guest at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where some students are using “Izinyawo Zayizolo” as a reference text for studies in languages and linguistics.  She has also been invited to Tanzania to give a talk in April as well as few other countries in the region. At a time when our people seem to have given up on reading fiction, partly due to the economic situation, it is beautiful to see a novel in an indigenous language (the Ndebele version of “Portrait”) connecting regionally. Other African countries are showing that we can be thriving art markets by ourselves, and this is where the opportunity is to grow our own languages. Memory Chirere, who has two Nama-winning Shona texts, makes the point well in an article where he complains that Simon Chimbetu was poorly marketed regionally, though he had continentally themed songs in broadly spoken African languages like Chewa, Swahili and Shona.

Ngwenya came to writing through national circumstances. “I started writing in 2009 during the days we waited for the introduction of the multicurrency system after the collapse of the Zim dollar. I wrote out of anger after losing so much investment which left me in debt,” she said. It is not hard to imagine her writing a lot more in these hard times.

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