African Library: Harare North by Brian Chikwava

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Harare North
Brian Chikwava

Chikwava’s Harare North (published in the UK by Jonathan Cape, 2009) presents readers with an evocation of conflicted Zimbabwean identities, struggling to come to terms with Mugabean rule in their motherland, with their implication in the maintenance of that power structure and with making lives for themselves in Britain, where so many of their compatriots have inserted themselves (either as legitimate employees or asylum seekers or illegal immigrants scraping a precarious existence) that they have mockingly re-named London "Harare North" (Johannesburg being known as Harare South). The author first came to attention when he won the 2004 Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story “Seventh Street Alchemy”; Harare North is his first novel. The narrative so-to-speak entraps one in the fierce, but often befuddled and profoundly troubled mind of an unnamed narrator, who is a young man (he turns 22 early in the narrative) whose murkily complicated reasons for being in the UK are gradually revealed to the reader.

Yet the reader is never allowed to be entirely sure of his true circumstances. He may, indeed, be insane, or become so towards the end of the text; he is certainly an unstable personality with almost equally strong kindly and viciously destructive impulses; plagued by guilt, fear and insecurity in the urban jungle in which he finds himself making his cocky gestures of knowing the score and being a great deal more street-wise than he actually is; always touchy about the many forms of condescension, distrust and dislike he encounters.

The language of the narrative is an accessible but often ungrammatical English, with very occasional Shona expressions, but the narrator’s frame of reference is almost entirely Zimbabwean, even in London, since he lives among and is involved primarily with compatriots. His speech (the text being almost entirely written from a first-person perspective) is wonderfully vivid and convincingly evokes an outsider / underdog’s awareness. One scene that vividly illustrates this occurs aboard a bus when the narrator and his friend Shingi are on their way to a free concert, having just bought a loaf of bread at a supermarket:

I pull and tear [the loaf] in half. Shingi grins in nervous way and he look at them people around us. The bus is full and everyone on the bus point they eyes at us.

I apply myself on the bread. This feeling that I have not have in years now come over me; my senses get more fire. I clutch the half loaf between them arm and ribs, and rip into it with them fingernails. The warmth of bread against my body, together with the happiness of discover the freedom to tear down loaf of bread on London bus, send message of goodwill to my bones. I feel free.

Then out of the blue skies we get ourselves some fan; one small plump boy sitting with his mother leap to his feet with big eyes. He wear T-shirt written ‘Made Of Money.’ Shingi have good talent at reading them people so he see quick that likkle boy Made Of Money is in grip of big hunger. He break small piece from his bread and stretch out in that good-old-uncle kind of way, and hand it to the likkle man. The look of horror on the likkle boy’s mother’s face can kill a hippo. She look on but she is helpless. I can see that she want to stop she son from taking the bread but hold sheself back because she is frightened of the racialism thing. She remain on she seat, and only watch with sickly smile as she son hit the bread with more fire. (136-137)

In a scene like this the outsider status of African immigrants, particularly if they are poor and behave in ways as culturally distinct from the local ethos of public conduct as in the cited scene, is confirmed, but with a redeeming edge of humour and glee that the rules of politeness have allowed this small moment of spontaneous sharing across racial and class lines to occur, or could not thwart it.

The points we soon gather concerning the narrator’s background have to be picked up by the reader "by the way" as the text moves along, for although the account of life in London is more-or-less chronological, the Zimbabwean part of his life is conveyed in hints and by-the-way remarks and obscured by the narrator’s secretive and guilty inclinations. We gather that he grew up as a poor (only) son of a widowed rural mother. After school, he goes to Harare and at some point lands in jail – more precisely, Chikurubi Maximum Prison; his experiences in jail have a determining influence on his life, but we only find out much later what happened there and how it has affected his conviction about the unfairness of the world. We do soon find out that his mother has died and that one of his main aims is to make enough money in the UK to allow him to buy a return air ticket and to pay for and organise the special ceremony that should be held a year after a Shona person’s death to allow them to join the Ancestors. About this ceremony for his mother, some familial controversy has arisen that has prevented the umbuyiso ceremony from happening when it should. Much later, the narrator drops the incidental information that his mother died of an overdose; although it is never spelt out, we are led to speculate that she committed suicide like his uncle did; possibly in despair about the narrator abandoning her or his having landed himself in jail or because he joined one of the gangs of young ruffians employed by the ruling party to intimidate, rough up or even murder the Zimbabwean opposition supporters.

Another vividly depicted scene occurs in Harare. The narrator had been attempting to eke out a living as a stallholder to whom people can bring shoes and belts in need of mending. When a van carrying newly recruited young thugs – members of the so-called “green bombers” – comes past, he unhesitatingly kicks over his flimsy stall and abandons that semi-respectable life to savour the thrill that membership of a flamboyant group of young bullies provides him with. The narrator recalls himself rejoicing: “That’s how new beginnings start”, he proclaims, feeling he has been rescued from the dead-end street of a “rubbish life” and enjoying the cheek of “defying the whole township as you speed away” (18). There is nevertheless some ambivalence – a mixture of macho pride and guilty shame – in the narrator’s frequent invocation of this brutal militia as “the boys of the jackal breed” (8). The youngsters (have some been kidnapped?) are taken off for training under the eagle eye of a brutal commanding ‘officer’, Comrade Mhiripiri. This man inculcates an ethos of ruthlessness and resentment in the recruits; telling them that they must learn “how to tie they hearts tight like ball of twine” (94). Much later, further details emerge. Under Mhiripiri’s command, this particular group of recruits is taken to a police station where an opposition supporter is in detention awaiting trial. They invade the police station and despite initial resistance by the police take the man deep into the forest where the narrator is given the "privilege" of killing the kidnapped prisoner. This deed results in his being wanted by the police; subsequently Comrade Mhiripiri promises to bribe the police to make the case "disappear", but the amount required to pay the bribe constantly escalates (according to Mhiripiri), ending as 4 or 5 thousand US dollars. Unable to raise such a huge sum, the narrator turns to his uncle, who buys him an air ticket to London where he can stay with his cousin and his wife and work to earn the needed sum (such is the plan), getting into the UK (ironically) with an application for asylum and claiming that his life is in danger in Zimbabwe because he belongs to the youth branch of the main opposition party.

Throughout the narrative, we see constant oscillation between two "sides" of the narrator’s personality. Early on, there is a poignant passage in which a dream of the narrator’s is recounted – one in which he (himself unseen) "visits" his mother’s home. The scene is vividly imagined and clearly pictures her involved in ordinary daily tasks; sweeping the floor or watering plants; chatting to a near neighbour who has fixed her bicycle; knitting doilies and having women friends to tea. There is a framed photograph of the narrator on his mother’s display cabinet and he dreams how she shows her visiting friends photos of him in London, feeding pigeons on Trafalgar Square. One friend of his mother’s complains of his doing so when back in Zimbabwe people are starving! But even in his dream, the vision disintegrates as “black winds start to tear through garden” and the window bangs open; knitting needles fall and tea is spilt – the narrator recognising that he is “like ghost” in this dream  disaster (15). But when silence has fallen, he envisions his mother on her knees, praying, in her bedroom; he himself is “settl[ing] over [her] like mist”, but enabling her to hold his little-boy self tightly and comfortingly. In the next moment, as he imagines her breast swinging towards him, it is elusive and when he at last gets hold of it, it is “dark”, “dry” and “cold”, for: “the milk dry up long time ago” (16). Surreal as the cited passage is, it conveys a deep poignance and yearning for an irretrievably lost innocence and great pain at his betrayal of his mother’s hopes and ideals, so vividly and deftly evoked in the dream. His rough side, on the other hand, is made evident in the brutal words with which the text opens (the narrative as a whole will return us to the same point at the end):

Never mind that he [the narrator’s old school friend, Shingi] manage to keep me well fed for some time, but like many immigrant on whose face fate had driven one large peg and hang tall stories, Shingi had not only become poor breadwinner but he had now turn into big headache for me. When it become clear that our friendship is now big danger to my plan, me I find no reason to continue it, so I finish it off straight and square. (1)

When the narrator first arrived in London, his cousin’s wife soon made it clear to him that she saw his presence in their lives and in their flat an unwelcome burden and an irritation, so when Shingi – with whom he had been at school – took the hint and offered him a place to stay, he immediately took him up on it.

As the cited passage indicates, Shingi provided the penniless narrator with food; he also allowed him to share his mattress and bought the narrator his first pair of working boots when he later on found (illegal) employment as a labourer. Later on Shingi lends the narrator his passport as well as the document proving his (Shingi’s) asylum status. It is probably this act that puts the idea of identity theft (obscurely hinted at in the opening passage) into the narrator’s head. Shingi also has to pay their "housemaster" Aleck the rent for both of them, initially, but it is the narrator who – when Aleck’s dominance is undermined by a series of revelations (Aleck in turn also having harboured a few unsavoury secrets) challenges and eventually "unseats" Aleck, who actually flees the house they share with two other young Zimbabwean men and a young Zimbabwean girl-woman named Tsitsi (she is barely 17 years old). The fairly squalid conditions in the house are obvious when the narrator first visits the house, but in Harare North survival is a struggle for immigrants, whose “asylum-seeker eyes” are noticed by the narrator, the effect (as he says) of “a reptile kind of life, that life of surviving big mutilation in the big city and living inside them holes” (2). Shingi and the narrator lose or are fired from various jobs as the story proceeds, ranging from building and demolition (hard labour) jobs to picking vegetables or working as a cleaner in a fish-and-chips shop. Tsitsi actually "hires out" her baby to other black women who take her child with them as ‘evidence’ when they apply for council allowances, purporting to be single mothers; this is her only source of income until the scam is exposed and has to be discontinued. The narrator is adamant (although he is unceremoniously chucked out by bouncers when he tries to find work as a porter at a grand hotel) that he will not descend to the ignominy of working as a BBC – the mocking acronym among immigrants and temporary workers, not referring here to the well-known British Broadcasting Corporation, but to being a "British Bottom Cleaner" or care worker – a much better paid job than any of the others available to unskilled immigrants, but a position which the narrator declares beneath his principles and forcibly discourages Shingi, too, from taking up. The first of the revelations that expose Aleck as having much a much lesser social stature than the role he had arrogantly assumed in their household, is that he is actually the father of Tsitsi’s baby and hence guilty of statutary rape, given her age, despite having posed as the benefactor and protector of the young woman. Tsitsi had earlier been sent to live with an aunt of hers in London, but she had fled the household, describing the woman as a tyrant. The exploitation of poor relatives by more established and successful immigrants is of course a well-known phenomenon; the narrator had initially assumed that in this case Tsitsi’s aunt’s husband had seduced or raped the girl and that she had fled her aunt’s wrath. Next it emerges that Aleck, who had all along pretended to be a shop assistant in one of the city’s more up-market establishments, is actually working as a BBC. The last straw to burst his bubble of superiority is the discovery that he pays no rent for the house while charging all the other occupants (except Tsitsi, whose consumption of food he often begrudges her, causing rows) and steadily increasing their rent money. A post-card reveals that the house is a ‘squat’ – an unused dwelling occupied by squatters from which they may not be evicted unless they break other laws or misbehave – which was passed on to Aleck by a couple who were previously squatting there. The narrator then starts taunting Aleck by deliberately eating his food (breaking the major rule of the household) and flaunting this fact; eventually driven to fury by this provocation, Aleck tries to attack the narrator with his fists, but is easily defeated by the much more hardened fighter.

What happens next, however, is that Aleck disappears – arousing immediate fears that he may in revenge on his former housemates have snitched to the police that several of the house’s occupants are illegal immigrants, vulnerable to immediate deportation. Shingi has asylum, but Aleck may have lodged other accusations. The only thing to do is to leave the house. After a night in the open and only after careful scouting by the narrator, they cautiously return and find that Tsitsi has already moved back into the house. At first, everything seems easier, with fewer occupants and no overbearing Aleck to deal with, but sexual rivalry for Tsitsi’s (never given, but hoped for) sexual favours between the narrator and Shingi muddies the waters, as does the cost of feeding Tsitsi and providing for her baby (who once has to be hospitalised because of serious undernourishment). The narrator earlier wangled blackmail money out of his cousin’s wife when he found out that she was cheating on his cousin, but this source dries up after her extended absence in Zimbabwe (the woman’s brother, an AIDS sufferer, committed suicide) and on her return, she defies the narrator to expose her infidelity if he wishes to do so, stating that her affair was in retaliation for her husband’s own earlier unfaithfulness. Increasingly worried that he will never have enough money to return to Zimbabwe or to pay the police bribe that will let him off the hook with the supposedly pending court case, the narrator discovers (or at last admits to himself? Or is it all a fantasy?) that the Commander who had inspired him in his “green bomber” days was actually trying to fleece him (the narrator) of the large sum he demanded for bribing the police. At this point, the narrator appears to identify a venerable old man who is of uncertain (immigrant) identity as the very same Commander Mhiripiri, himself hiding out in London as a legal immigrant with deserved asylum status, fiercely denouncing and ‘exposing’ the old man in a public rant at a gathering of down-and-outs.

By allowing several unsavoury characters (a prostitute and a drug-taking, hippyish couple) into the house, the narrator eventually succeeds in scaring off Tsitsi, who leaves with her baby. His next steps are obscured in a mist of his increasingly unstable rantings. All along, there has been a strange "doubleness" in the narrator’s co-habitation with Shingi. While on the surface there is the crude opportunism of identity theft which possession of Shingi’s passport and asylum status will allow him, there is an increasingly porous border between their two identities, even physically – the narrator wears Shingi’s clothes and even his glasses, he replies to letters for Shingi and even speaks for him on his cellphone. One strange evening the narrator walks along the dark streets and in a park finds (or so he claims) a crippled squirrel, which he "puts out of its misery" by stabbing it with the sharpened and polished screw-driver which he has from his early days in Harare North been carrying with him. The description of the act is both horribly detailed and disturbingly, eerily surreal:

I take out my screwdriver, put my boot on squirrel’s head to pin him down, position my screwdriver right behind the head; on the spine. One quick jerk of the wrist, and snap. The screwdriver go through the neck right onto the grass and wet ground below. The squirrel don’t even feel anything. No pain, no movement except them front paws that shiver like the squirrel now go spastic. Blood squirt everywhere. I put him out of his misery and put back some order into his life.

I pick the dead thing and throw him inside bin and wipe screwdriver with my shirt.

My feeties take me around the pond. I sit down. I can’t sit. The trees, they is swaying around because of wind. The winds is causing havoc inside our house I know; the windows was open when I leave.

Some old tune have start spinning inside my head; Togure Masango. Low volume; it is like listening to faraway people. Even my breathing now feel like it come from someplace else; from way beyond the hills. Everything fade away to great distance. (184)

Almost immediately "after" the squirrel episode (according to the now obviously unstable narrator), he supposedly hears a cry for help which turns out to be from Shingi, who is (so he says) being attacked by a big man, a tramp, “holding sharp instrument” (185). He runs after them and finds Shingi lying in a heap, soaked by the heavy downpour of rain that has come down, but eerily likening the rain-water to blood that has soaked Shingi’s trousers. The narrator observes "philosophically": “poo happens o’! And the world is not fair place” (186), as he did when referring to the murder of the ‘traitor” in the forest.  He claims that he next dials 999 to summon help for Shingi, but cannot risk divulging his own identity and watches from afar as the ambulance picks up Shingi (or his body?). Only slightly later on he almost word-for-word reiterates his former remark (with its tang of self-justification): “World is not fair place o’ and poo happen in it. Before we go to bed that night Shingi is fighting for his life” (186). Has he murdered or fatally injured Shingi so as to be able to stay on in London with the latter’s identity and legal status? It does seem so … In later passages the narrator frequently claims that he wants to visit Shingi in hospital; buys fruit which he says he wants to take to him but ends up eating himself, and so on. But he nevertheless seems to be in two minds whether to invoke Shingi as dead, dying, or capable of recovery. What is evident, as the narrator’s mind frays, is his terrible isolation. He chases away the hippy couple who had moved into the house as on-and-off housemates (his last human contacts), and starts breaking down the house in a supposed, and futile, search for an elusive rat under the floorboards – an unconscious evocation of a gnawing conscience? In the final chapter the narrator, wandering the streets in a distraught condition, feels Shingi’s spirit inhabiting him. He says: “You start hearing in tongues; it feels like Shingi is on his way back to life. You can tell, you know it; Shingi is now coming back” (229). Shingi is also associated with the narrator’s innocent, pre-murderous (almost dead?), former self, further complicating the depiction of the narrator’s involved psychic processes and emotionally damaged state.

This complex text is a more mysterious and moving document than a profile like the present piece can fully convey. Its evocation of the disturbed mind of a poor young Zimbabwean man who has been used and abused by ‘military’ and politically stronger persons does much more than fill us with revulsion against the narrator. What emerges to redeem him (even if his murders and mayhem are never condoned) are certain almost ‘hidden’ revelations, obscure because the narrator himself does not altogether understand what he was and is and how he has been abused, or only obscurely so. One point that emerges later in the narrative occurs when he is recalling his execution/ murder (on Comrade Mhiripiri’s orders) of the “traitor” whom their group of “green bombers” kidnapped from police custody. This is how he recalls that event and his own feelings at the time (he speaks the words when he is ‘exposing’ the old man he takes to be Mhiripiri in his respectable "Harare North" disguise or "reincarnation"):

“Officer in charge [of the police station] suddenly realise quick that even if we is sons of the soil, we have sharp nose for treason. Them stocks clang open and the traitor is quickly handed over. We drag him away to the forest where it is easy to give him plenty of forgiveness [their euphemism for torture and murder]. But that was not the only traitor I deal with on that day and you, you will never know. You only chose money. You, you know nothing. You never know of the other traitor, the shoe doctor inside my head. But that’s the one I take out first.” (182, emphases added)

What the cited passage refers to in the italicised sections, is one of the deep secrets of the narrator – his natural disinclination to the violent, murderous power abuse he seemed to have embraced so readily, hiding his better feelings from the Commander who forced him to do the "dirty work" and subsequently blackmailed him on the grounds of this very deed.

But there is another secret. We find out that the thing which the narrator has kept especially deeply hidden inside his suitcase is the HIV-negative certificate that was given to him when he was released from jail. We also work out now that he had been raped in jail (hence his terror of being sent back there) under threat of having a sharpened bicycle spoke pressed into his heart. A further (if slightly contrived) twist to the story is that he, pathetically, believes that being HIV-negative cannot possibly be good news and (on top of that) that he had overcome his revulsion against committing his first murder (of the “traitor,” in the forest) because he had believed that he, too, was doomed to die soon of AIDS. With such darkly conveyed, half-hidden "mitigating evidence", Chikwava as author complicates our sense of the narrator being nothing more than a vicious lout or a ruthless criminal – as he does with the numerous instances indicating softer feelings or describing spontaneous acts of generosity or care on the narrator’s part. Such details, along with the recurring indications of the dreadful loneliness and isolation from which he suffers as well as the shame and guilt that so plague him, force us into some degree of human identification with the narrator. A powerful illustration of the author’s ability to arouse empathy for the narrator occurs on p.75, in the latter’s rural-inflected speech:

When the past always tower over you like a mother of children of darkness, all you can do is hide under she skirts. There you see them years hanging in great big folds of skin and when you pop your head out of under the skirt you don’t tell no-one what you have see because that is where you come from. You tell them and people will treat you funny. Especially civilian people. You don’t tell no-one about the past or you frighten them. (75)

The great achievement of this text is its author’s success in making us care about so unlikely a subject for such feelings – but more particularly, his doing so by means of unobtrusive touches that lie partly even beyond the narrator’s own comprehension. The tragedy of many disrupted, distorted Zimbabwean lives (and the lives of African youths and children in similar circumstances) is laid bare in this narrative of a cocky and rather horrible young man, who is also someone who had his youth, innocence and psychic health ripped from him by those who had the power to do better. I end on a quotation delineating the terrible but haunting self-image of the narrator, evoked towards the end of the text, in a passage which also encapsulates the horror of fear, guilt, shame and loneliness in which he is entrapped:

I feeling like umgodoyi – the homeless dog that roam them villages scavenging until brave villager relieve it of its misery by hit its head with rock. Umgodoyi have no home like the winds. That’s why umgodoyi’s soul is tear from his body in rough way. That’s what everyone want to do to me, me I know. (226)

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