Wednesday, May 02, 2012

160. Harvest of Thorns by Shimmer Chinodya

Title: Harvest of Thorns
Author: Shimmer Chinodya
Genre: Fiction/Colonialist/Race
Publishers: AWS Classics
Pages: 248
Year: 1989
Country: Zimbabwe

Shimmer Chinodya is one of the few Zimbabwean authors I have read whose works explore the struggle for independence from the stand point of the fighters and the general pulse of the nation at the time and is able to provide cogent argument for it without questioning, unnecessarily, the human cost. Not that he assumes that all the black Zimbabweans at the time were in support of the war; he accepts the human loss but Chinodya presents his work in such a way that make the struggle more significant, for the coloniser will not grant freedom to the colonised without a struggle and there is no struggle without its human loss and if you expect otherwise then you really don't know what you want. Most Zimbabwean literature, especially those published a decade or two after the war, makes it look as if the war was irrelevant and that the cost of the human loss far outweigh the freedom to rule themselves. And this message has seemingly or subtly been driven home using the effect of the war on families, of how peoples' lives were negatively affected and of how ambitions and aspirations were thwarted. There are those who have directly questioned if the war was worth it. I really don't know if there are other means of gaining independence apart from struggling for it. Or perhaps the conditions prior to independence were the ideal. It's possible that perhaps, over time, the euphoria has waned, expectations and hopes have been dashed; perhaps, things have never gone the way the people had expected. Yet, a thick line should be drawn between the struggle for independence and the administration of the country, else we become like the Israelites on their way out of Egypt to Canaan: we begin to crave for the pre-freedom conditions where all white men are Baas and superior and could confiscate any land they deem good. Bundling the two together disrespects the memory of those who died so majority rule will be attained. Will the American Revolutionary War be seen in such a light? Whatever happened post-War and during self-rule must be tackled as such without watering down the significance of the Bush War. To quote from Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons
A people losing sight of origins are dead. A people deaf to purposes are lost. Under fertile rain, in scorching sunshine there is no difference: their bodies are mere corpses, awaiting final burial.
In this story, which won the 1990 Commonwealth Writers Prize for African Region, Shimmer Chinodya followed the life of the Tichafa family as their eldest son left home into the bush to fight the government forces. It traces the life of Benjamin Tichafa from his childhood when he burnt beerhalls because his schoolmates had called his parents sellouts to when he was arrested for participating in a demonstration against the call-up of blacks into the colonial government's military. Ben, after he was bailed by the headmaster of the school, made the long journey - fraught with near-death incidences - into the bush to fight the government. The rest of the story is about the emotional and physical pain he, together with the fighters, went through during the war. Making friends and losing them, suppression and expression of sexual feelings and instability amongst groups of fighters leading to emotional outbursts. Ben had joined the fighters at a tender age of about fourteen having never handled a gun and unaware of what really awaits him at this camp. However, reality dawned on him when one night government forces descended upon them through aerial bombings. After this, Ben moulted away his innocent cuticle and became a different person. 

The tautness of relationships amongst the fighters, the squabbles, the petty jealousies, were all played out nicely and enhanced because no one knew the other from before the war and no one knows the other by his name apart from his or her war name. The fighters were a mosaic of people: students, workers, and more.

Even though Chinodya showed the war in a kind of positive light, which it deserves, with the fighters ensuring that they gain the trust of the village folks through good behaviour - something which had been antithetically portrayed in other novels - he never shied away from the excesses the independence fighters went to to elicit total support from 'their' people. In this way, it became more natural and less dramatic. For instance, the place where the Pasi NemaSellout - Ben's war name - and Mabunu Munachapera were called upon by their leader, Baas Die, to beat a woman who had poisoned the food she gave to one member of their group and whom (the woman) upon investigations and search was found to have a son in the government forces who had given her a walkie-talkie to relay information about the fighters to them, was very sad. This Esau-ic dilemma which plagued this woman was common among the black population who were torn between listening to their growling bellies and supporting independence. Consequently, some of them held onto their jobs in the mainly white system and offered support of sorts to the government forces. 

In this book, the struggle comes alive; the pain is palpable and watching Ben lose his innocence in the war, in something he believed in and had voluntarily chosen to be part of against the advice of the camp commander, to see his youthful years coalesce and become callused, was really sad. And not only did he lose his youth but his future was also in jeopardy for he had left school without any meaningful academic certificate that would guarantee him a safe and secured job. And this would later come to haunt him as he would leave the camp at a time when he was not supposed to and had therefore not collected the required papers that would guarantee him the necessary jobs available to the ex-combatants.

During the war, the Tichafa household had undergone several metamorphoses. Mr Clopas Tichafa, a deacon and a fanatical Christian who would not allow his children to dance or listen to any song which is not gospel, ran away with the widow next door; Ben's younger sister eloped with a man and Ben's younger brother was left with her mother alone. After the war, when things had simmered down and Ben had come back home, the family would come back together again. Ben came home with a pregnant girlfriend - a girl whose parents together with the entire family were annihilated for supporting the combatants; Esther, hearing of her brothers return, came home with the man she had eloped with to, first, ask for forgiveness and then request that the proper rites be performed; Mr Clopas also came home, for once, to look for Ben. Though the family dynamics were still unstable, it was the first time the family had been together in a very long while.

Shimmer Chinodya like in Dew in the Morning showed that the African has a religion he can depend on. In this story, he showed the complicity of the Christian religion not only in the colonisation process but also in preventing them from fighting back. Through Mr and Mrs Tichafas, Chinodya explored the effects of 'exaggerated' Christianity and how these church leaders exploit their members. 

Harvest of Thorns is a brilliant book that does not belittle the Bush War that led to independence. It does not hide the barbarism that war brings upon the people and does not pretend to assume that innocent people do not die. However, the larger picture is that apartheid is a monster; that the idea that the minority of the people have absolute power over the majority and owns larger and larger portions of the fertile lands is absurd, was also carried through.

As already mentioned, Chinodya was able to delineate expectations of the out of the war from what actually transpired. He writes
'Of course, when we went out we thought our guns could change things overnight. And then we came back to find the whites could still shout at us because they still have the money and the ex-combatants have to scrounge for jobs just like everyone else. ... ' [243]
The author also foresaw that the war could easily fade from peoples' memory and they would begin to question its essence but for those who fought the scars will remain.
Five years from now the war will be totally forgotten. The truth of it is that those of us who went out to fight will carry the scars for the rest of our lives. We were heroes during the heat of the war, but now we have been left to lick our wounds. You think we consider ourselves heroes? [243]
In conclusion, it is best to quote Ayi Kwei Armah again from the same work :
Woe the race, too generous in the giving of itself, that finds a road not of regeneration but to its own extinction. Woe the race, woe the spring. Woe the headwaters, woe the seers, the hearers, woe the utterers. Woe the flowing water, people hustling to death.
 This book is recommended.
_________________

3 comments:

  1. i love african literature so much. well, this analysis was helpful.

    ReplyDelete

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