Elliot Ziwira @ The Book Store
There are some people who live to eat, and others who eat to live; and others still who live off others’ sweat, all because food is central to the way Man interacts with his fellow men and the environment that surrounds him. Food is known to have created great relations in the same way it has also destroyed relationships and impeded progress; no wonder why its use as a motif in literature cannot go unnoticed.
Brian Chikwava’s “Harare North” (2009) uses symbolical elements and motifs to poke at Man’s foibles and vices which are detrimental to regeneration and progress. As poverty, disillusionment and frustration grip individuals, they seek solutions through escape behaviours. The narrator and a host of other characters escape through food, the toilet, the chestnut tree, sex, drugs and alcohol.
Like Oscar Wilde in “The Importance of being Earnest”, Chikwava is aware of the obsessive nature of food, and how it sometimes leads to unreasonable traits when individuals take their love for it to dizzy heights.
The use of the symbolic elements, like foodas elixirs from a burdened existence aggravates the situation instead of mitigating it, for they become other forms of obsession and unreasonable behaviour.
The narrator in “Harare North” is conscious of the wars that erupt over the food issue as he says:“Food is a tricky subject; things get funny over it. Even before Shingi lose his graft, food sometimes make conversation funny. And that’s not with me but also Aleck, Tsitsi and Farayi. But that’s not big surprise to me. Or even Shingi. The two of us have had chance of witnessing them troubles that food can cause from long time…The problem is that disagreement over food always end up with innocent people hurt. Food arguments don’t fail to have victim,” (Chikwava, 2009:66-67).
Many families have been broken up as a result of food wars, or the need to put food on the table. The victims of such disagreements or desires to be on top of the food game; as providers and consumers alike, will always feel alienated and hurt, as new gods are fashioned out for them.
Jung (1964) aptly sums it up: “Contemporary man is blind to the fact that, with all his rationality and efficiency, he is possessed by ‘powers’ that are beyond his control. His gods and demons have not disappeared at all; they have merely got new names. They keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food – and, above all, a large array of neuroses,” (Jung, 1964:82).
Food, like alcohol, the seeking of solace in the toilet, sex and drugs, therefore; becomes another form of neurosis, an obsession akin to madness. The food crisis forces individuals to abandon obligation, familial ties and cultural mores. Food becomes yet another god that needs to be worshipped.
Africans believe in the establishment of strong ties through food, (Hove:2002), yet the obsession with food in “Harare North” impedes social cohesion. Sekai frets about it when it involves her husband’s relatives, as the narrator tells us. She is considered to be mean when it comes to food, as she constantly takes the anti-hero to task over the “disappearance” of food in his presence. Ironically, with her friends and lover, Yakov, food is central to their relationship; it is consumed by the bucketful.
Aleck yodels over food which alienates him from others, because each time he comes home, he admonishes whoever is in earshot on the need to be soft on the consumption of food. The narrator gobbles food, yet he does not want to buy it. He seems to live to eat, and is inspired by nothing else. Food becomes both a solution to his problems, and a problem itself. He confides that he gives himself permission to eat all the food that Aleck buys, which compromises their relationship.
His obsession with food forces him to scheme against Shingi and Tsitsi’s relationship.Blind to his own folly, the narrator considersTsitsi parasitical, because she eats without working. Food complicates his relationship with Paul and Sekai. Food is central to the badmouthing between Tsitsi and Aleck.
The anti-hero’s obsession with food takes a worrisome twist when he destroys the floor of the squat that shelters him as he frantically hunts a rat he thinks is destroying his “granary”, thus further relegating him to the abyss.
It is also because of food that Shingi is psychologically, physically and emotionally destroyed in the mental streets of their existence. Instead of buying food, the desire to have it for free grips them. Taking cue from the trumps Dave and Jenny, who survive on expired tinned food from the backstreets, Shingi fights it out with vagabonds in the mental streets for free food; for himself and the lazy narrator. Sadly, his sissy nature fails to match the brawn, hardened and never say die attitude of the inhabitants of the streets of death—the death dealers. Thus, as a form of neurosis (Jung, 1964), food is deified with tragic consequences in “Harare North”.
Relationships are compromised, hope is sutured and progress is scuttled in the wake of culinary satiation.
This rationale of the destructive nature of neurotic obsession with food also obtains in Ruby Magosvongwe’s “Name Any Price” in “Hunting in Foreign Lands and other Stories” (2010). In the story, the impact of neurosis on the familial, communal and national levels is examined in an interesting way. It is not so much the consumption of food which is of interest here, but the desire to bring it on the table – materialism and individualism, which has culminated in the rush for gold in the Diaspora.
Like many husbands burdened by their wives in the Diaspora, Tomuonga finds himself at the deep end, as he grapples with a raging sexual desire and the need to keep up appearances in a materialistic world. His obsession with his beautiful wife Blessing’s pictures, which he “smooches” in moments of derangement until he arouses himself, does not only spell disaster for him, but is an indication of the vanity of materialism, especially when one partner lives thousands of kilometres from the other. He may be blamed for raping his maid, Danai to quench his carnal desires, but he could have slept with any other woman which is still immoral.
Either way the familial fabric is shred, because he is not the problem; he is only a product of a deeper rot. Marriages are never sustained from across oceans or bridges, for money, pictures and letters cannot quench sexual desires. Tomuonga’s escape from justice through corruption is as bad a rot as the flight to the Diaspora that robs him of his conjugal rights. As a senior civil servant his conduct shows the depth to which society can sink if the colour of money is allowed to determine justice. If ministers, permanent secretaries, senior police officers, judges, attorneys, prosecutors and magistrates are corrupt; then justice is corrupt and in the end there is civil strife.
In the race for money there are no winners except money itself – individuals, families, groups, communities and nations, all lose. Tomuonga loses $13 million (Zimbabwean dollars) which was a lot of money then; which his wife sweated for in the Diaspora, Danai loses everything because to her justice is a farce, for it is controlled by the tummy; her family loses through fear and intimidation, as well as the desire to keep body and soul together, and the familial ties are broken; all for a five minute sexual release.
Indeed the price that we sometimes pay for food is too high to be contemplated, as everyone is reduced to a victim, with relationships and progress being the ultimate losers.