Beaven Tapureta Bookshelf
Zambian author Mukuka Chipanta’s debut novel “A Casualty of Power” (2016, Weaver Press, Harare) is largely a deep probe into the Chinese-African bond and its social impact on Africa.
The novel, set in contemporary Zambia, reverberates with the sensitive issue of China’s presence in Africa. It attempts to broaden a reader’s understanding of the new shift in African economics, say from a Western-driven dependence to a new friendship with China, with focus on Zambia.
By tackling this subject which, although it falls within the realm of economics, also has connotations of politics as seen by the debate or discourse it has attracted around the globe, the novel appeals to human compassion with the hope of enlarging our perspectives on the issue. Its realism is emotionally engaging and it is true when some critics say “fiction complements history”!
Some of the exact details about Zambia used in this fiction make the reader an “insider” to the world of the story. While the book is fictional, it widely refers to “real people, events, establishments, organisations, or locales”, thus making reader an insider to the Zambian world with fictional characters and events and therefore identifies with every African.
According to Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren in their wonderful book “Deepening Fiction” (2005, Pearson Education), fiction can successfully show humans struggling in a political or religious environment but if the fiction tries to argue for particular views or if the events and characters seem to serve as propaganda, it usually becomes lifeless and unreal, and readers feel resistant.
Chipanta, as any discerning reader would see, tries to run away from this lifelessness and unreality by using a detached approach which allows the tale to dramatically juggle problems or choices of characters caught up in a puzzling situation. He leaves the reader to make his/her own judgment.
“A Casualty of Power” is titled thus possibly because it is a novel of “chapters of accidents” which spin around a complex centre of power. The title reflects an injured ego of a person in a powerful position, a government minister.
Yet within it there are also brief moments of laughter, ease, love, and fellowship, as the author unbundles the story’s mysteries with such momentum that has deep human interest.
Fashion Zulu, a corrupt Minister of Mines, is the fire-starter of unbearable emotional, psychological, or physical suffering of main character Hamoonga and some other characters.
Lulu, a business woman whom the Minister and wife Elizabeth once helped, becomes their drug trafficking “delivery girl”. When on her sixth mission to deliver some drugs to Jo’burg she mysteriously loses the “package” at a South African airport, all hell breaks loose. The minister could not believe her and launches a brutal search for her. Lulu decides to never return to Zambia and before danger befalls her little daughter Misozi she secretly flies her to Jo’burg.
Hamoonga, in Lusaka to study Journalism, is first suspect because he was seen with Lulu (with whom he had begun flirting) an evening before. He is attacked in his room at college by some hooligans, tortured and thrown into the horrible Cha Cha Cha Prison. Ken, his room-mate, present when the hooligans attack Hamoonga, is also beaten, injured and would be wheelchair bound for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, between Hamoonga and Maya (a female student also studying Journalism at the same college) love’s light’s been budding!
Jinan, a young Chinese supervisor at Chishimba Copper Mine is caught up in a storm of angry African mine workers who are protesting against ill-treatment and some other adverse working conditions at the mine. Having lost wife and little son in a train accident back in China, Jinan is not a “happy” man in Zambia. It happens that during the mine workers’ demo, Jinan randomly fires at the workers and kills Kalala, a demonstrating mine worker.
This grips Zambia. Jinan is arrested but soon released at the order of higher authority which fears the case would ruin their trust with China, thus once again bringing up the issue of politicised perceptions of the Chinese investment in Zambia.
At the turn of each page you are trapped in dramatic yet causal interactions of the characters, you are thrown in alternating, curious back-stories and main story.
The role of the African media regarding the Sino-Africa friendship is also scrutinised in the novel. In one of their evening discussions, the Journalism club made up of students Beatrice, Temwani, Maya, Ken, Brave and Hamoonga, openly, as free-minded young African individuals, tackle the topic introduced as “a look at the Chinese take-over of the mining industry”.
Beatrice rejects the sense in the phrase “the Chinese taking over” because, she says, “it creates a false premise that somehow the Chinese are the oppressors and the Africans are powerless bystanders”. Other students offer their supportive or sharply opposing views but worth mentioning is Temwani’s suggestion that “if the tables were turned, we’d do the same”.
What would it be like if Africans were to be in China as investors (obviously dependent on the Chinese labour force)?
In reality, some pieces of non-fiction are telling us that a growing number of Africans are already exploring different opportunities in China. Where has the trade been thrown out of equilibrium? Are these benefits of the trade not worth acknowledging? One Senzeni Mpofu, a fashion entrepreneur, gives a real picture of how some Africans are benefiting from China-Africa friendship. She talks about Africans doing business in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. Writing in “The Povo Journal” in her researched essay ‘China: More than Business Buddies’ (September, 2015), Mpofu says, “It is definitely an exciting time to be a young, business-minded African in China.” In the same essay, she acknowledges “the complexity of Afrika’s perception of China’s presence within their midst” but she recommends “the need for transnational trading strategies that can outdo Chinese competitors who are operating in Afrika”.
Yet when reading Chipanta’s fiction, one wonders why it is not an exciting time for Jinan, a young Chinese in Zambia! Why he is surrounded by a certain conspiracy of silence? The novel is multifarious but also, although subtly, it suggests some solutions to the “detrition” in perceptions about the Chinese in Africa. For instance, that culture matters in the relations between China and Africa.
The mine workers respect the need for time to attend to sick relatives or bury the dead, and are not happy with the denigrating language used by Jinan when he supervises them; such words echoing “you, lazy African!” are frightening to them, and revives memories of their harsh colonial history.