Violence: Red Soils’ expression of anger

Elliot Ziwira , At the Bookstore

Sitshengisiwe Ndlovu’s “Red Soils” (2016) interrogates the reality of the contestations of heritage that the Fast Track Land Reform Programme leaves in its wake, especially so when more emphasis is put on the agrarian side of the reforms, with the mining side ignored; and where women suffer the double blow of disempowerment and womanhood.

The action of the story revolves around Nsizwa Resettlement Area and the adjacent mining settlement of Shamba-Shamba in independent Zimbabwe at the onset of the post-2000 Fast Track Land Reform Programme.

Inhabitants of the agrarian space of Nsizwa fret over the encroachment of their land by residents of the mining settlement (makorokoza), yet they are lured by the opportunities the Shamba-Shamba offers.

To the inhabitants of Shamba-Shamba, among them Gogo Thekeni, Komanisi (a war veteran), Jabu, Mfokazana, Major, Zwelibanzi, Tshanda and Derby, the tussle between death and life is simply a way of life; whether one dies or lives. So they have learnt to partner fear, harness expectation and manacle hope for it to remain within their reach. And to make it out in this area, one has to have an unending reserve of hope.

The red soils also connote death, spiritual demise and moral morass.
Here, as in many other settings where time and space are the levellers, what separates death and life is survival, where the desire to live is closely linked to death.

As life and death tussle it out underground, where male characters like Zwelibanzi, Major, Jabu and Mfokazana engage in the battle for survival through gold panning, a similar battle plays out on the ground, with female characters in the novel selling just about anything and everything.

Morality is one of the trendiest commodities on sale in Shamba-Shamba, attracting good rewards and diseases in equal measure.

It is called survival, and only the fittest come out of it with a semblance of unscathed life, for the red soils will not allow it. So it is with this in mind that Tshanda, Gogo and Derby circumvent the limitations of their sex to make it in the cut-throat settlement. Gogo grows and sells marijuana and fronts a white man, Saunders’ gold enterprise.

Ndlovu presents Derby and Tshanda as having the agency to capitalise on socio-cultural shifts and embark on other openings created by the land reform programme, outside agrarian sites.

The Shamba-Shamba commercial hub offers opportunities to young women with the eye to see beyond the claustrophobia of agrarian spaces.

However, the movement into spaces previously dominated, or considered a male domain, complicates the situation for women like Derby and Tshanda.

In the novel, violence and mercury poisoning are major claimants of life as the red soils demand blood. Zwelibanzi, Gogo’s grandson and other gold panners die as the shaft they are working in collapses.

There does not seem to be much progress on the part of the gold panners in terms of tangibles, especially for male characters. They just live each day as it comes, slaving it out for barons like Saunders who have gold claims.

The violence, the wanton destruction and collapse of familial and communal bases prevalent in mining spaces of the Shamba-Shamba are symptomatic of a larger malignant tumour, though the morass is blamed squarely on mercury poisoning.

Ndlovu captures the sad scenario in Shamba-Shamba where everything is in abeyance with the red soils and the fortune hunters alike, losing out.

She writes: “The animals that fled the infernos, and those that were destroyed by same, would never be restored let alone the polluted rivers and the aquatic ecosystem therein that was destroyed by the chemicals used in mining and gold panning.

“The people themselves that had flocked to Shamba-Shamba for prosperity find themselves not only deeper in the tentacles of poverty, but also deeply emotionally bruised as family break-ups took their toll on them as well.”

The above illustration paints a sad picture of gold panning as a way of sustaining livelihoods as the gains accrued are outweighed by the destruction caused on the same landscape that should be reserved.

There is not much gained in terms of tangible heritage as those that seek prosperity in Shamba-Shamba “find themselves not only deeper in the tentacles of poverty”, but are “emotionally bruised” because of the stress that comes with family break-ups. Spiritual connectedness which is an intangible heritage also suffers major setbacks due to land degradation, loss of both human and animal life as well as disregard of cultural norms and values.

Ndlovu delves into the realities that come with mining activities where the spiritual connectedness between the dead and the living is sustained through blood. It is a give-and-take situation where: “The red soils feed on human blood and sweat. In exchange, the living are rewarded in gold”.

Angered by the rise of new “gold-gods,” so it appears, the spirits of the red soils demand ransom for the desecration of their abode.

Ndlovu’s emphasis here is on the communion between the dead and the living which has been disrupted through land reforms that do not take into consideration the cultural nature of the communities into which people are resettled.

Shamba-Shamba inhabitants are exposed to mercury poisoning, and most of them die as well. Children, like Derby’s, who has breathing complications, are born with deformities. And the scarred red soils continue to open up to swallow even more miners. The Gods are angry, yet Gogo, who is supposed to be an autochthon of wisdom fails to read into the hornbill’s warning at Zwelibanzi’s death and subsequent burial.

She can no longer share rapport with the ancestors because she has been caught up in the race for material gains, thus, death continues to lurk around the environs of the red soils.

There is, need, therefore, to return to the past to fetch that which risks being left behind (West, 2004), and merge it with the present to shape the future for the common good of all the inhabitants of Nsizwa Resettlement Area, particularly the Shamba-Shamba communities. As miners are trapped in the same graves they dig for themselves in search for gold, authorities should consult community leaders to have cleansing ceremonies to appease the spirits of the land.

This is the message that the hornbill carries as it appears at Zwelibanzi’s death and during his burial. In Ndlovu’s view, it is a message that can only be ignored at the risk of many more deaths, for in the African worldview, the ancestors, whose abode is the land (Lan, 1985; Asante, 1998), and is now being degraded and debased, have ways of expressing their anger.

Without their land, indigenous people cannot sustain their livelihoods. Through juxtaposing the “urban” mining landscape of Shamba-Shamba and the “rural” space of Nsizwa Resettlement Area, Ndlovu brings to the fore the challenges and opportunities the red soils offer black people in their quest to sustain their livelihoods and fight poverty (Telmer and Viega, 2008:37).

Ndlovu’s characters; both male and female navigate the shrinking openings within the agrarian and mining spaces to escape colonial limitations that separated them as either urban or rural dwellers; as well as societal considerations based on gender.

The rationale of the significance of red soils to the struggle for liberation is echoed in the freedom fighter, Komanisi, in “Red Soils”, who believes that land is “a means of production—be it mining or farming”.

The agrarian and “mineral resources, (which had been) hidden under the monopolistic LSCF (large-scale commercial) farms” (Moyo 2011: 501 cited in Mandizvidza 2018:225), need to be unlocked for the betterment of the livelihoods of black people.

With the return of the red soils to indigenous communities, material gains, which are the tangibles in heritage, are bound to be realised, so are the intangibles associated with spirituality and morality for long captured over eons of colonial “pillage, plunder, and murder” (Wa Thiong’o, 2018:69).

However, as Ndlovu highlights, and (Magure, 2014:29 cited in Mandizvidza, 2018:226) contends, due to lack of balance between human populations and mineral resources, conflicts are bound to rise over their extraction with both farming and mining spaces becoming battle zones. In the ensuing melee land reforms are compromised and women’s roles are conflicted.

With the red soils offering multiple sites of escape, individuals are in a hurry to position themselves for the big haul often at the expense of societal balance. In such a situation where survival is mean, women in both agrarian and mining spaces, devise strategies to relate to each other as well as to the men around them.

Mindful of pursuing a rather linear ontology that presupposes the existence of a holistic approach to land reforms, Ndlovu’s female characters have to decant the colonial baggage that confine them to rural spaces, debunk the stereotypical definitions of the city woman, and ride above societal restrictions on their sex, without compromising their relationships with men.

The Nsizwa Resettlement Area offers two land use options; agrarian and mining. For the inhabitants to succeed, especially women, they should desist from getting hooked up to the statistics that 70 percent of them lived in rural areas during colonialism (Sylvester, 1994:419 cited in Lyons, 2004:68), and that in the post-2000 period, 80 percent of production in communal and new farms is attributable to women (Mutopo, 2015:13).

Though such figures are exciting in situating women in the success of land reform, they should not be seen to be restricting them to agrarian spaces, when opportunities exist in other rewarding sectors, like mining.

Ndlovu’s thrust, therefore, is to subvert such delineation of spaces to open up new opportunities for women by collapsing “the physical/geographical margins of what home means for Africans” (Mandizvidza, 2018:226).

One of such women, who manages to circumvent the delineation of spaces, is Gogo Thekeni. In the African context, the term Gogo, Ambuya or Grandmother connotes wisdom, caring, spiritual connectivity and collective memory.

She should be a repository of memories; the past and the present, which are key to mapping a sustainable future for the black people, yet she is hooked up into a capitalist society, where individual gain overrides collective gain.

A useful accomplice in the behind the scenes deals, Gogo betrays the common man, who struggles to make ends meet in the harsh terrains. Also, by fronting a White man, she reverses the gains of the whole process of land reform.

The claims to the African’s heritage remain in the hands of settlers with the gold panners owning nothing, with characters like Gogo capitalising on their suffering.

She sells them marijuana, with the belief that the drug will make them mitigate or tolerate their suffering, but instead, it aggravates their situation, and she reaps rewards for it.

Inasmuch as the African should desist from remaining ensconced in the past without seeking interfaces with the present, forgetting his/her roots is equally calamitous.

Though material spaces are part of the contestations of heritage, such spaces should not be allowed to thrive without the cultural component that shape African communities.

The urban set-up, like the rural set-up, is a colonial creation, whose pull is the material gain, unlike the rural space whose attraction is its ability to hold communities together through a cultural environment that supports societal cohesion.

The challenge though, is how a balance may be struck where material gains are tapered with cultural considerations, with the view to achieve outcomes for the common good.

Through Gogo’s portrayal as a conflated character, Ndlovu shows how crucial physical spaces are in shaping dreams where material gains are sought, but such spaces should take cultural assertion into consideration as well.

The cultural, spiritual and moral heritage of the black African should not be sacrificed on the altar of economic expediency.

The spiritual agency of the African cannot subsist in an environment where those expected to be custodians of mores and values because of their advanced age, which should make them respectable (Schmidt, 1992), are the ones who need to be brought back to the fold.

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