Review of Strife - Mukai

Mukai Jesuit Journal for Zimbabwe
No. 39 May 2007

‘Science, Bones or Bibles?’
Strife by Shimmer Chinodya. 2006. Harare: Weaver Press, 223 pp.
Reviewed by Oskar Wermter SJ

The story of this story of culture conflict is a well-established Zimbabwean novelist who wrote Dew in the Morning (1982), a classic describing traditional village life, followed by Farai’s Girls (1984) and Harvest of Thorns (1989), a story of war.

Strife is told in the first person and suggests an autobiography. It operates on two levels of time, past and present, constantly switching from one to the other. The past that is the ancestors, the elders, the Gwanangara parents and their origins. The present, that is the Gwanangara family of today, the hard-working, ambitious parents and their brilliant children who succeed where their parents failed, in science and the teaching profession. They may think that they have left the past behind, but it catches up with them. This is their story, ‘when they tried to cut the umbilical cords of the ancestries, to challenge fate’ (8).

The first signal that the ancestors are not happy is the epileptic fit which the eldest, Rindai, suffers during his wedding night. His mother is prepared to meet the challenge. ‘She Believes in the Holy Ghost and in medicines, but she is convinced that some cases are best left to the traditional healer’s bones. Her instincts tell her that black people can never escape from themselves, from their customs. If this had been a problem he had been born with… she would have been happy to leave matters with Jesus and the hospital doctors, but this is something else. On his wedding night!’. Even the son involved, ‘a scientist, a rationalist,[…] feels they must be spirits who need appeasing’ (28).

‘His name was Mhokoshi. He was a hunter; he had no wife and hunting was everything to him. …Nobody knew when he died, where, or why … all three diviners advised atonement, urging that his bines and weapons be found, brought back from the forest, buried and cleansed’ (3). Kelvin, student of political and social sciences, leaves university, subsequent attempts to go back to college fail, he gets mentally disturbed, drinks, plays around with various women, his life in tatters he finally dies (of AIDS?), all because he feels Mhokoshi wants to possess him. ‘I want my weapons back, father,’ the ancient hunter insists (207).

Mother pays the highest price for taking on the might of the ancestors. ‘I will fight all the evil spirits myself.  I have taken them on and I will crush them one by one with my willpower. there’ll be no more suffering in this family. Kelvin will be OK. Rindai will be OK …. The bug is now in my veins and I am fighting it I and will crush it with my willpower’ (144). But Godfrey (the writer), forever a ‘fence sitter’, blames himself for not having called the doctor earlier, ‘We were all so in thrall to our mother, her powerful believe in the moon and in the power of the ancestors, their moody judgements have manipulations of us their living relatives, that no scientific information could persuade us that the health of the family was within our own control’ (145). Valuable time is lost while dealing with the ancestors. ‘The doctor closes the file and says, ‘She left it too late. There is nothing more we can do’ (152). Maybe father was right, ‘Leave the dead alone. The more you worry about them, the more you get entangled with them’ (206). She dies a horrible death, half her face eaten away by cancer. her husband, a lifelong Reformed Church member (‘sloth and superstition were [his] biggest foes’, 120), stops going to church, and when he dies soon after, he is denied a full Christian burial. Some swear, ‘I am done with midzimu (211), others are scared, ‘What if she were to die? Her ngozi could haunt us’ (190). The old generation thinks as ever before that it ‘wasn’t prudent for the whole family to leave the land of our ancestors where the bones of our forefathers lay’ (143). But who is in the new generation, forever on the move, can take that advice?

No one seems to win this contest. The ‘ fence sitter’ asks, ‘ I don’t know what I believe in any more. Science, bones or the Bibles?’ (214). The author does not like missionaries, or young pastors, for that matter, either, the ‘sort more to regard priesthood as a good livelihood than a calling’ (188/9). The Bible and churches are mentioned quite often, but Jesus only twice, once as an alternative to ‘medical doctors’ (28). The characters of the novel either quote the Bible or try and please the ancestors: no one makes an attempt to relate, late alone reconcile, the one to the other. Even though the Gwanangara children liked Sunday school (Rindai liked ‘Mark and the parable of the wise and foolish maidens’, Godfrey preferred ‘St John and the prodigal son’ (111), they see in Jesus, at best another healer, in competition with n’angas and medical doctors.
‘Bones and the Bibles’  – in the end there seems little difference. ‘They had goblins and crocodile teeth stocked in their granaries with which to attack their spouses, we have guns, and legal papers in our safes; durawalls, razor wire, electric fences and Rottweilers to shield us from our neighbours. Who is better? Superstition has merely charged its format, its imagery.
Even the priests spreading incense are superstitious. What better way to enact the partaking of human flesh and blood than the Eucharist?’ (220).

The Gwanangara including Godfrey the author, never seem to have discovered faith – faith which overcomes all-pervasive fear, faith which does not necessarily cure cancer, but allows the victim to die in total trust. That door is closed to the disillusioned author because to him religion remains a technique to harness spiritual powers for one’s own advantage, and therefore superstition. ‘Strife’ tells the story of the central conflict of tradition, western civilisation and Christianity, and tells it well. The latter adds no new dimension. Christ does not really figure. The God of love, only known to faith, remains hidden.
Or perhaps is there a faint echo in the way Mai Gwanangara gives her life for her sons? The author does not really suggest it. He merely asks, ‘ How much must one suffer in order to believe?’