The long letter with life lessons

Christopher Farai Charamba The Reader
One finds that the best books are those that you can immediately establish a connection with. If a book should resonate then it certainly makes the reader more interested in reaching the end. This is perhaps the best approach to getting young people to develop an appetite for reading and literature. Finding books that they can see themselves in or at least written in a language they comprehend is the gateway to a wider appreciation of books.

In place of the classics by Dickens and Shakespeare they can turn to Adichie or Gappah who write contemporary African perspectives. The continent too has its fair share of classical African literature by Achebe, Soyinka, Thiong’o, et al, which indeed to some will be more interesting than Dostoyevsky or Austen, not to downplay the importance of their work.

Every so often the question of how one can become an avid reader comes up and one’s response to that is you should always start with books that you enjoy, but also that move you. Nozipo Maraire’s novel “Zenzele: A Letter for my Daughter” is one such book. Although a work of fiction, the narrative is familiar and one would assume based on the author’s own experiences. In the novel, Zenzele is at university in America and her mother, a housewife married to a world renowned human rights lawyer, writes her this letter giving her life lessons based on her personal anecdotal evidence. The setting of the book is a post colonial Zimbabwe during the 1990s. Zenzele’s mother affectionately known as Shiri by her loved ones, grew up in the village of Chakowa and constantly refers back to her upbringing and her relatives in the lessons that she gives. Each chapter focuses on a different theme and through these, Zenzele’s mother explains some of her actions towards her daughter, particularly when Zenzele was younger as well as why certain things were the way they were.

One of the earlier thematic issues tackled in the novel is that of the balance between traditional and cultural modern norms and values and modern, urban living. Shiri explains to her daughter why it was important for them to go back to Chakowa every single holiday while her peers in her social circle travelled to Victoria Falls and other countries all over the world. The issue of culture and identity is a central themes reflected throughout the book. In one anecdote, Zenzele’s mother speaks of her cousin Byron Makoni, who is the first person from their village to receive a scholarship to go to Oxford to study to be a doctor. Byron, however, loses his way and his identity, does not return home for over 12 years and when he eventually does he does not speak Shona, has an English accent and wife and returns without a medical degree and becomes a disgrace to his mother.

Shiri critiques Western imperialism and Africans, who forsake their heritage and skills believing the propaganda of a helpless continent. She bemoans the fact that skilled Africans would abandon their own people and not return to their countries to contribute to making them better. In another chapter she mentions how white people will default to looking down on black people particularly African and the divide that exists between Black Americans and Africans due to their different circumstances. She warns her daughter to be wary of this, but not feel disheartened when she encounters racism in the West or be treated like a second class citizen.

Shiri shares about her experiences with love, “the heart knows no logic beyond need and desire; the head has no senses beyond the common and the pragmatic. Neither is particularly useful in love anyway.”

Towards the end of the book Shiri goes into her understanding of the liberation struggle and what it is she encountered. Her sister and cousin were freedom fighters and her husband worked tirelessly to defend in court and on the streets many of the freedom fighters. She shares through them the importance of the struggle and what it meant to be in an independent Zimbabwe, but more importantly why one should strive for truths that they believe in. The novel though quite dated, published some 21 years ago is still quite apt one feels.  Today Zimbabwe is faced with an identity issue particularly where the hegemonic of nature of Hollywood runs rampant. So too is the issue of brain drain a contentious one. The lessons given, though to a daughter, apply to all as Adichie did say “we should all be feminists.”

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