Tuesday, June 14, 2011

83. Shadows by Chenjerai Hove

Title: Shadows
Author: Chenjerai Hove
Publishers: Heinemann (African Writers Series)
Genre: Novella/Pastoral/Politics
Year of Publication: 1991
Country: Zimbabwe

Chenjerai Hove's Shadows is a story to read. In just 111 pages, Hove tells a story about love and death and the politics surrounding and leading to Zimbabwe's independence. Johana's father left his ancestral home to Gotami's land. There he became famous and rich, until the arrival of Marko. Johana walked with the boys and did the things they did. She herded the cattle and milked the cows. She found the classroom hostile. And she loved the boy with the civet cat in his mouth. But the boy seems to see through her; not talking to her after he had initially expressed his love for her. Then Marko came. A boy who had escaped poverty from his own land. The two saw within themselves a common destiny and fell in love, platonic initially but then with time it morphed into something emotional, something that needed to be fulfilled. And it was fulfilled. When Johana's father heard of the happenings between his daughter and Marko, the boy from far away, he disapproved it and almost killed him. Later Marko would die by his own hands and Johana too. One from a rope, the other from a poison.

Written along the line of Romeo and Juliet, Shadows weave within its pages the politics of the day. How misunderstanding broke within the camps of those who were fighting for independence. How this fight for independence and this misunderstanding lead to the death of innocent rural folks. Within this we find that Johana's father is an alienated figure, neither supporting the freedom fighters nor supporting the colonialist. However, there were places in the story where one is more likely to assume that Johana's father appreciated the white rule more than the 'unknown' fighters in the bush and their cloudy course. 
He is a master farmer, he remembers. Do people not remember how the white man who teaches the good ways of farming came to our house, spoke a lot of things many of which no one could understand? Did he not mention my name so many times that people thought I was the younger brother of the white man? Every time he opened his mouth, his tongue danced with my name on it. Who in the whole village has had the white man come to praise him in his own home? They were jealous, their eyes looking at me as I stood there next to the white man like his interpreter, nodding as if I could understand the language of the nose. (Page 43)
And there were other places where Johana's father saw the white man (the colonialist) with a different eye. This makes Johana's father a character difficult to comprehend. He was a mix of everything: apprehension, fear, love, hatred, indecision and more. Just like all of us are. In him we find a man who would protect his children and his family and yet when his actions lead to death would also take the blame and suffer for it.

Having invited death onto his homestead, Johana's father left home for the city. While in the city he was officially declared a fugitive from justice by the guerrillas for being a saboteur. The brutal killing of his sons reached him and this dissociated his awareness of himself from himself.  He was later to be killed by the very individuals who killed his sons. Like Johana's father, Hove, a critic of the Mugabe government, would also go into exile in 2001.

Described as an extended prose poem, this pastoral story written in the vein of Mia Couto is evocative and makes the reader think and ask questions. Though the narrative keeps changing from an omniscient narrator to the first person (mostly, Johanna's mother), such shifts do not distort the read. One does not find the bump that one finds in stories of switching narratives.

My only problem with this brilliant piece is a problem I have had with most stories by Africans but one I have not written about. It is the use of a refutable 'lack of knowledge' for 'mistrust'. This is not only demeaning of African native farmer but also a continuous misunderstanding of the ways of our people. Recently, a body of knowledge has become approved in Agriculture, Indigenous Technical Knowledge. This body of knowledge shows the depth and level of thinking of the African farmer. For instance, why does he/she practice mixed cropping instead of monocropping? Now we know that, in addition to the diversification of production which leads to food security should a given crop fail, there is also the gain in nutrients released by one plant and taken up by the other. A simple example is the nitrogen-releasing leguminous crops interplanted with nitrogen requiring crops like maize. Yet, we who are of our people refuse to learn of and understand their ways. In Shadows Johana's father was a farmer who rears cattle. However, when he bought a piece of land at Gotami and was asked not to take his cattle there because of tsetseflies he became worried. And mistrusted the District Commissioner who had sold the land to him. He asked himself how flies could kill cattle. My problem is that wouldn't cattle raisers know of the tsetsefly, especially if they have been doing this all their lives?  However, we find that Johana's father did not know of the tsetsefly.

However, this may be my own misinterpretation and whether it is or it is not, it takes nothing away from the beautiful and carefully woven story of Hove. Though this wasn't the Hove I was after, I knew after I completed this that I would search for Bones, his most acclaimed piece. This piece is recommended to all who love beautiful prose.
Author's Bio: Chenjerai Hove (b. February 2, 1956), is a leading figure of post-colonial Zimbabwean literature. He's one of Zimbabwe's finest writre's now living in exile for fear of his life. Novelist and poet Chenjerai Hove gained international fame in 1988 with his novel Bones. In recent years, his work (which revolves around the theme of the spiritual importance of land in African cultures) has gained a new significance in the light of the social crisis unfolding in his native Zimbabwe. In 2001, Hove left his country of birth amid the escalating violence triggered by the government of Robert Mugabe. He now leads a migrant's life in the West and is an outspoken critic of the Mugabe regime.(Source)

ImageNations' Rating: 5.5 out of 6.0


  1. Sounds like a really interesting story, I'll add it to my wish list. I see what you mean about the ignorance that is often portrayed when common sense and history tell us that the Africans must have already known that. The only excuse I could think of is if he had gone into farming without learning from others around him or ignoring local knowledge because he favored what the white man told him or something? But yes, frustrating now that you point it out!

  2. @Amy, I also get your point. Though there was nothing to indicate that. Perhaps there are statements which allude to that implicitly.

  3. I am surprised that at only 111 pages there is more to this book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. I was also thinking of Romeo and Juliet before you mentioned it, and think this book sounds like an excellent choice. I am glad that you enjoyed it and am wondering if it would be difficult for me to get a copy for myself. Fantastic review, Nana!

  5. @Geosi, Chenjerai Hove's work is one that needs to be appreciated. You should give it a try...

  6. @Zibilee lol... the copy I have is a used copy. I don't know if it is available on amazon. Probably...

  7. This sounds interesting and your review apt on the love story angle. I'll keep an eye out.

  8. @MW, it is an interesting story...

  9. Oh, Nana, I love seeing contemporary Zimbabwean fiction reviewed! Thanks very much!

  10. Thanks Sarah... that's ImgeNations duty...

  11. For all their good intentions, some of our African authors do condescend to rural folks and assume that they know less about the world. Though I know of Hove, I;m yet to read a book of his. Bones is also on my TBR. I really want to read this now. I find the figure of Joanna's father compelling. Don't you think though that a lot more people are ambivalent (like Joanna's father) when it comes to colonial rule? Thanks for the review

  12. @Kinna yes. I have read this kind of ambivalence in several novels. And mostly by people whose present governments are in some way perceived to be 'not doing well'. And this is my greatest fear! We have become the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt to Canaan. Most of us think that it is better for us to be under colonial rule than to be under governments who are perceived to be 'corrupt. In fact at Ehalakasa there was a contribution by someone who alluded to the fact that the world is now for the powerful and he sees no wrong with someone who has the military might invading another country. Yet these are people who complain of slavery. Had people accepted that it was the order of the day and that it is the big against the small, would it have ended.

    Yet that's the kind of youth we have today, unappreciative of their present state. looking for material wealth rather than communal development.


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