146. Harare North by Brian Chikwava

Title: Harare North
Author: Brian Chikwava
Genre: Fiction
Publishers: Jonathan Cape
Pages: 230
Year: 2009
Country: Zimbabwe

The narrative in Harare North is unique; it dealt away with the entire grammatical caboodle that burdens the writer when using a character who is not versed in the English syntax because it is not his first language; or even if it were, because he has adopted and adapted it to suit his daily needs. Brian Chikwava's protagonist is not burdened with the flowery, indulging, and literary complications of the English language; he has given the layman's English as it is spoken and understood by the majority of non-English speaking folks whose formal education was cut short before they could imbibe the whole grammatical rules. In this way, Chikwava has created a character who is not only believable in his actions but also in his speech and thought. Perhaps this is the closest, and the boldest, one has come to delineating between the two levels or standards of spoken English. The Nigerians do it a lot, but mostly in the dialogue. However, since Brian's narrative is in the first person, this sort of language - again not Pidgin as in the case of most Nigerian authors, but of one struggling to speak English as it is known - runs through the entire 230 pages.

The narrator - unnamed - has come from Zimbabwe to London, or Harare North as it is referred to in this book, at a time when Zimbabwe's land reclamation policy is in full swing. Like most African migrants he came under the pretext of fleeing political persecution as a member of the youth wing of the opposition party in his home country even though it is him who have committed a grievous crime back home, as a member of the government's Green Bombers, and fleeing prosecution. His entry into the country was scrutinised by the immigration officials at the port who only allowed him entry after several checks, but warning him not to work until his asylum claim is fully granted. Again, like most Africans, this new immigrant has relatives in London and it is his cousin's wife, Sekai, who picks him from immigration and into their house.

Brian Chikwava painted a different story of London. His brushstrokes are not the usually white and sea-blue or red and yellow; they are not the replication of postcards featuring the eye of London, the Buckingham Palace, the London Bridge, the doves feeding from people's hands, great statues, Big Ben, Harrods, and all those fanciful things one is likely to see in the tonnes of pictures that newly-arrived migrants show their folks in Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya etc. Chikwava does not play the 'all-things-are-beautiful-all-problems-are-solved' kind of London - the path that many writers have chosen to portray, where characters who run away from home to such places suddenly become settled and begin doing great things; where the most these writers give to their characters in terms of anything negative in London is the snow, which when it falls makes them nostalgic; and sometimes racial discrimination. Chikwava presents the ghettos of London; the London that is unpopular but real; the London that has swallowed many immigrants into its ginormous belly, turning people into junkies, scavengers, predators and preys amalgamated into a single entity; the London that transforms, not only a person into a selfishness so that he or she is afraid to share a loaf of bread, but it can tease out that latent primeval soul to inhabit the body so that one begins to live like an animal, unawares.

This nameless narrator's relatives, knowing the extra cost the family budget is going to swell by, played the cold-dumb-and-silent game. Not responding to questions, not providing food, and complaining at the least misplacement of his step, by his cousin's wife especially, who seemed to be the head of the household, the narrator set out to look for his old classmate, Shingi who had been in London for sometime now and whose email address, and others, he has kept with him.

The narrator finds his friend living with four other people - including a young girl, Tsitsi, and her child. In this congested household are rules; the first being: don't eat what you did not buy, the second is a repetition of first, the third is don't eat what is not yours, the four: if you don't work you don't eat and the fifth is about washing plates after eating. Like most immigrants, our narrator also has a target or an aim: to get US$ 5,000 to clear his problem back home, US$4,000 to make the murder case against him go away and US$1,000 for the uncle who paid for his ticket, and then go back home. But everybody's story begins like this yet few has been able to catch this mirage. Because as almost every non-paper-bearing illegal immigrant knows the key to survival is to capitalise on one another at the least opportunity, compatriot or not. For instance, though Aleck received the squat his compatriots were living in for free habitation, he charges each person 35 pounds a week rent. The narrator would also blackmail his brother's wife - Sekai - when he caught her in bed with a Russian. Sekai would counter-blackmail him to neutralise his after her visit to Zimbabwe.

The people in the household are all doing odd jobs: digging, masonry, hiring out babies (only Tsitsi does this) to women applying for council homes for single women, BBC (British Buttocks Cleaning, which is caring for the aged) and yet no one wants the other to know exactly what he does. The protagonist - illiterate, military-trained, opinionated - is not interested in very debasing jobs like BBC and during periods when jobs are scarce prefers to live off Shingi. Just as their compatriots can and do cheat on them so do their employees. Knowing very well that they have no legal status in the country, they pay paltry sums, and threaten those who complain with sack. Gradually, as the narrator and his friend moved in and out of jobs, and life became unbearable, Shingi - who was already suffering from AIDS after his imprisonment in Zimbabwe, entered into drugs; the narrator on the other hand becomes homeless and somewhat insane.

The story began on an almost satirical note, gradually exposing the rot, the plight and the miserableness of being an illegal immigrant in London; of how you become food for those who specialises in cheating. The credibleness and beauty, albeit it sorrowful, of this story could be attributed to the careful and slow development of the characters; of how things moved gradually into rot and how one thing led to the other. The metaphors and similes are also fresh. Through the narrator and Shingi the author is able to compare life in Zimbabwe with all its 'crises' and life in London as an immigrant. So that as the immigrants in London struggle to make ends meet (the unreliability of jobs, the monstrous demands by relatives back home, the fear of being arrested by the authorities for not having the correct papers), their relatives back home also struggles with the government's ejection of entire populations to allow for mining, land reclamation from, terrorising from the government's youthful supporters. In all these, the narrator seems to think that the report about his government in the newspapers is pure propaganda. And that
You always know more than you believe in but always choose what you believe in over what you know because what you know can be so big that sometimes it is useless weapon, you cannot wield it proper and, when you try, it can get your head out of hear and stop you focusing. [43]
This story brings the harsh realities of life abroad; that it is not all rosy whether you are legal, like Shingi and Aleck, or illegal like the narrator and Tsitsi. That the demands on you from home and from the system can be so enormous that it can drive you insane, making you pliable to other peoples' caprices. It also brings out one thing: learning, for at the beginning the maxim of the Green Bombers was Punishment is Forgiveness but in the end when things got worse and the protagonist had to carry his cardboard suitcase he had brought from Zimbabwe around the streets like all homeless people do, he realised that forgiveness is the best form of punishment. In running away from the authorities, in refusing to face justice, in not seeing what his government was doing to his people even though he had played his part, he also ran from himself and lost himself in the rubble of London, in that densely populated region where 'each for himself' is the ultimate maxim.

But what if Zimbabwe is a character in the novel that takes on the ghetto-life of London?  

My only problem with this story is that, like most stories coming from the region, it plays on the 'Mugabe-demon' ideology. That kind of thoughts common in the West; perhaps land reclamation is a bad policy so that the minority whites continue to own the largest and most fertile portions of the land. Or perhaps it is a good policy badly implemented. Or perhaps Mugabe is the Zimbabwean problem. Whatever the case may be, I believe that most people are forgetting or forgiving the earlier days and unity has ensured that we give more of ourselves. Again, aside being another story of migrant adjustment, Chikwava treated very salient issues like the gradual descent into insanity, drugs, the family-demand burden, individualism and more. A good read.
About the author: Brian Chikwava's short story Seventh Street Alchemy was awarded the 2004 Caine Prize for African Writing and Chikwava became the first Zimbabwean to do so. Brian is among the exciting new generation of writers emerging on the African continent. Although born in Bulawayo, Chikwava's formative years were spent in Harare, where he attended university and frequented the popular artistes' venue The Book Café. He has been a Charles Pick fellow at the University of East Anglia, and lives in London.

This story was recommended to me by Ivor Hartmann when I read and reviewed Brian's short story The Fig Tree and the Wasp published in the Granta magazine.


  1. I have the chance to leaf through this book in the bookstore and your introductory paragraph is right on point. However since I had not read the book I thought it was pidgin.

    1. It's not pidgin but bad grammar, of sorts. Hope you're having fun at the festival.

    2. I fell in love with the way the Zimbabwe-an situation is reflected in the eyes of the already traumatised anti-hero who is now scavenging the streets of the alien world. It clearly shows that Zimbabwe is its own tragic hero and that some its political reforms and operations pauperise the nation outright. Lets face it; what kind of sub genre is the novel? I myself considered it a tragedy. But i am still hanged about the characterisation of the protagonist when the text approaches its denouement/ resolution, if the hero is rigidly unrepentant, staunchly refusing to change. He still has the zeal to inflict pain upon people. I saw him one day threatening to petrol-burn Paul and Sekai's house, on many occasion he is armed with a screw driver with a ready zeal to drive its tapered end into anyone's flesh. This kind of text resolution devolves the effect of catharsis which every writer is obsessively jealous of.

  2. this one appeals to me I had it on my radar for a while was considering it for Kinna's challenge ,all the best stu

    1. Try getting hold of this. You might enjoy its general theme.

  3. Good reivew and insight into the political background. will add it to my TBR list. Thanks.

  4. Great review! I think you make a very good point about the Mugabe-demon ideology, which goes down very well in the West, Britain especially. I suppose Zimbabwean writers and readers would know the full context and be able to put the criticisms of Mugabe into perspective, but Western readers tend to see only the Mugabe-demon phenomenon, and ignore the injustices of British Rhodesia.

    The picturing of London sounds very real, a much more prevalent part of the city than the rich/touristy parts that people often associate with it.

    1. Thanks Andrew and I'm glad you understood what I was saying.

  5. I'm looking forward to reading this myself soon so have skimmed through your review. Thanks for it.

  6. Thanks for pointing this out, Nana. It sounds like a strong work all things considered, so I'll have to keep it in mind for later in the year when I hope to try some new-to-me African novelists. I tend to enjoy stories of immigrant and expat life, but the stories themselves are often distressing in terms of hearing about the struggles immigrants face.

  7. What is your opinion on Harare North as a book exploring globalization ??

    1. By globablisation are you referring to the migration of people from one country to the other? If so, then what came out clearly was that there are issues to be solved, especially regarding the state of migrants. With poverty and lack of opportunities leading to madness, with drug use rampant amongst migrants - a result of the latter, all attest to the fact that there is the need for change.


Post a Comment

Help Improve the Blog with a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

10. Unexpected Joy at Dawn: My Reading

Quotes for Friday from Ola Rotimi's The Gods Are not to Blame I

69. The Clothes of Nakedness by Benjamin Kwakye, A Review