Binwell Sinyangwe's A Cowrie of Hope (Heinemann AWS, 2000; 152) is the first novel by a Zambian I have read. The whole of their literary landscape is closed to me and with the exception of a few short stories in anthologies and Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid, it is one of the countries whose writing still remains hidden to me.
A Cowrie of Hope is set in the early nineties, a period that was, across the continent, marked by economic reforms and structural adjustments; changes in government or democratisation; and the discovery and spread of the HIV/AIDS disease. To these add, and as part of the setting, drought. Thus, these were the nineties became the singular refrain in this novel, an indication of the importance of such a decade. It is the turning point in the politico-economic structure of most African countries with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) adding as a condition, political and economic reforms, to aid. As an aside: it is important to note how sometimes fiction and non-fiction could merge seamlessly, as Dambisa's treatise provides the account on aid and its eventual consequences.
It is in this period that Nasula, widowed and her husband's family having captured his property after refusing to marry his younger brother, had to find the means to see her daughter, Sula, through school. Wobbling on the edge of poverty, either she fell into starvation and death or abandoned her single-mindedness of schooling her daughter - an idea that had almost become a disease, she did not dither but chose the former.
The story is about Nasula's travel to Lusaka to sell her remaining bag of beans to raise the necessary funds to sponsor Sula, who had been admitted to a prestigious secondary school. Yet, life in Lusaka could best be described as the survival of the fittest. The economic hardship had sharpened people's survival instinct, with others succumbing to their treachery instinct. And into the hands of one of these, Gode Silavwe, Nasula fell and was rid off her priced possession without any payment made. Lost and lonely, she promised herself never to return to her village until she had retrieved her money from the famous trickster.
This story that highlights a part of my life like no other. I called my mother and thanked her for the umpteenth time after reading this book. For in Nasula I saw her. All through the story we are confronted with a mother's love, that primordial instinct that many would attest to. Sometimes it is almost like an incurable affliction.
However, in Sinyangwe's effort to describe the state of the protagonist's desolation, he fell into the trap of repetitiveness and unlike the situations where the back-and-forth lead to an unveiling of secrets and the telling of the story, in this situation they were mere rephrasing. For instance compare these paragraphs:
But misfortune had not caged the woman's soul. Poverty, suffering and never having stepped into a classroom had not smoked her spirit and vision out of existence. Her humanity continued to be that which she had been born with, one replete with affection and determination. It was this which fanned her desire to fight for the welfare of her daughter. Her soul had eyes that saw far and a fire that burned deep. She understood the importance of education and wanted her daughter to go far with her schooling. She understood the unfairness of the life of a woman and craved for emancipation, freedom and independence in the life of her daughter. Emancipation, freedom and independence from men. [Paragraph I, Page 5]
Nasula was poor, illiterate and clothed in suffering, but she was an enlightened woman possessed with a sense of achievement. She had not tasted success in her own life, but she wanted her daughter to achieve much. She wanted her daughter to reach mountain peaks with her schooling and from there carve a decent living that would make it possible for her not to depend on a man for her existence. [Paragraph II, Page 5]
Ideas could build on each other, like an inverted pyramid; however, when they say the same thing but with different constructions, it encourages the reader to skim or skip entire pages. Also consider this
The first time Nasula was told about how other children teased her daughter and how her daughter ignored them and held her head high, the story so touched her that when those who had relayed the story had gone and she was alone, she broke and wept. She was moved to tears because Sula herself never mentioned this ordeal. [Paragraph II, Page 74]
And paragraphs III & IV of page 74:
All along, Nasula had feared her daughter might be laughed at, given the child's awkward clothes and possessions. The possibility haunted her and made her wonder how she would pacify and comfort the little one. But she had deceived herself. She thought that when something of this nature occurred, she would either hear about it from her daughter's mouth or see it on her daughter's face.
But what she feared had already occurred and done so without her hearing a thing from Sula or noticing anything herself. She had remained in the dark until she had been told by other people.
There were also some incongruities in some of Binwell's statements. The setting was one of drought famine, diseases - the appearance of the 'slimming disease' (or AIDS) and the devastation it was causing, the economic reforms (elimination of free education; the privatisation of farmer loans to ensure repayment) and the change in government. These had taxed heavily on the people to the point of death and abject desolation. The concomitant survival strategy was one of thievery, trickery, and treachery. The consequential paucity of food resulting from these could therefore be linearly deduced from the preceding events. However, even though the nineties was 'The years of rule of money. The years of havelessness, bad rains and the new disease. The harsh years of madness and evil' , it had become .... years of no money but plenty to sell. The nineties were years of sale, not purchase .
Regardless of these issues and the coincidences which always beset events whose ends are already determined, the language in this book is poetic. It is sweet and demands reading and immersion even in the desolation of the period described. Binwell in this book showed that being a single parent was not a death sentence; he restated the path to women emancipation: education and information. Thus, when Nasula was forced to marry her husband's younger brother, because customs demanded it or forfeit any care or property of her husband, she stood her grounds and refused it outright knowing the kind of person this would-be husband was and having heard that the new disease could be contracted through promiscuity and unprotected sex. She also saw that her lack of education contributed to her predicament and the only way to prevent her daughter from becoming like her was to educate her irrespective of the demands or commitments this would make on her.
In A Cowrie of Hope therefore, Binwell established the tone for what would become the clarion call in the new millennium in Africa: education of the girl-child; democratic governance; and women emancipation and rights. These are the attributes of this book. Besides, the ending - though predictable - was fulfilling for who would not want to see Nasula succeed in her quest to educate her daughter especially after having gone through those difficult moments at the hands of the serial and fearful robber Gode Silavwe and his clique of policemen?
About the Author: Binwell Sinyangwe was born in Zambia in 1956. He studied Industrial Economics at the Academy of Economic Sciences in Bucharest, Romania, where he was awarded M.Sc. in 1983. His first novel, Quills of Desire, was published by Baobab Books in Zimbabwe in 1993. It was also published by Heinemann in 1996. The story Wild Coins was published in an anthology of stories by Zambian writers. Sinyangwe has also had a number of articles and poems published in Zambian newspapers and magazines.