Review of The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu

“There are people who can get anything they want through the strength of their personality.” 

There is something refreshing about a story that doesn’t zoom in only on a small part of the bigger picture, but explores all dimensions and manages to deliver. We are generally fed dark stories about countries in Africa, always dim and repeated. Here, we are able to go see different parts of a contemporary Zimbabwe without having to neglect the biting issues, striking a good balance between all that takes place in reality.

Vimbai works at Mrs Khumalo’s hair salon and is known as the best hairdresser. Her spotlight is stolen when Dumisani comes looking for a job at the salon and makes such a good impression he becomes not just a member of the staff but the best. Vimbai is not pleased at all but her bitterness is slowly melted away by his charm. When he needs a place to stay she offers to rent out a room in her house. In need of a favour to iron out a few issues with his family, Dumisani asks Vimbai to be his date at his brother’s wedding and it is to Vimbai’s shock that she finds that he is from one of the richest families in Harare. She is also amazed at how welcoming they are and what follows that day is immense generosity towards her, changing her life in a tremendous way. The friendship between the two hairdressers deepens. A lot comes to light when Vimbai discovers Dumisani’s deepest secret about his true character.

 

The Hairdresser of Harare offers good commentary on the country’s social issues such as homophobia and survival in a country that is not blooming with opportunities for those at the bottom. Huchu’s greatest weapon in his narration is humour, so good that even at times when the story seems to lean towards a miss, the humour saves the day. Jealousy, rivalry between the two main characters, prejudice and ambition are the ingredients to this story. Although altogether an enjoyable read there are parts that are a bit fantastical, such as Vimbai’s road to success and how everything keeps unfolding in her favour, in a place where these opportunities are tragically out of reach for most people. There are also a few parts that are clichéd and a little flat. However, most of the story exhibits Huchu’s clever way of handling political and cultural issues, tragedies in families and morality. The novel is also easy to read and has satisfactory motion. He’s clearly a witty and intelligent writer.

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Tendai Huchu was born in Bindura, Zimbabwe in 1982. He went to Churchill High School and then went to study Mining Engineering at the University of Zimbabwe. In the middle of the first semester he dropped out and from there went from one job to another. He later returned to university and is now a podiatrist in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has also written An Untimely Love and The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician.

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Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

“You are all the colours in one, at full brightness.”

Genre: Young Adult Fiction

Publisher: Penguin Books

Year: 2015

 

Death fascinates Theodore Finch and he’s always thinking about different ways he could die. Broken and believing that no one can fix him, he wants to take his own life. In the same school, Violet Markey is struggling to deal with the death of her sister. It is on the ledge of the school bell tower that their worlds collide and it is not clear who saves whom. The two are paired for a project where they have to explore and report on at least two interesting and bright places in their small Indiana town.

Through this assignment and spending time together a love story unfolds, a charming yet heart-breaking one. Finch is able to be himself when he’s with Violet. At the same time, Violet no longer counts the days until she can escape the small town, and starts living those days. Her time with Finch widens her world and it is him who manages to slowly put back her broken pieces. Although the labelled ‘freak’ is actually a lively, smart and bold person, Finch’s world is still crumbling and his fascination with death and suicidal thoughts do not evaporate. He sinks into depression, his world shrinks even further and after a few days of not being seen anywhere, Violet is led by words that Finch had written and looks for him at one of the places they had wandered and when she gets there she knows he’s gone. His bloated, dead body is later pulled out of the water. Through her devastation she follows the clues that Finch has left for her and she visits all the bright places in their small town and it could be a start to experiencing that brightness in herself.

 

Niven zooms in on mental illness and suicide. The story focuses extensively on these two characters who take us with them into the dark holes of depression that swallow them up. It is impressive how the author uses the other background characters­—family, friends, school mates and community—to display society’s oblivion to mental illness and the lack of understanding of it. We see this in some parts, for example Finch’s mother says he’s ‘too tender-hearted’ or when his body is searched for in the water, one of the spectators says ‘Goddamn kids’ or when Violet’s father tells her she can’t use the death of her sister as an excuse to act out. Finch is also teased at school, called a freak and known as number one of the most suicidal people, yet some continue to torment him. It is only after he’s dead that the school goes into some kind of mourning, with his photos up and messages written to or for him. The difficult battle of depression is waved off as something to simply get over, acting up or something else that is far from the real problem.

The story is sad and tragic but Niven manages to not depress you that much. Yes, about depression but not entirely depressing, with a hopeful end, although Finch’s death leaves you feeling betrayed by the author and it feels unfair that he had to die. The critics might argue that as a young adult book it shouldn’t have involved suicide as that may send out a message to young people that that can be the way out of the four thick walls of mental struggle, but I think All the Bright Places simply tries to be realistic. There is treatment and therapy but it’s not always that straightforward for the people who struggle to step forward and say. ‘Hey, I have a problem.’ Niven handles these delicate topics with a careful hand and overall gives us an unregretful experience. I would recommend the book more for people who don’t get mental illness and suicide than for people seeking to find identity in the story.

jennifer

Jennifer Niven has written books across different genres and All the Bright Place is her first YA book. Some of the awards the book has earned are Time Magazine Best Book of the Year, Barnes & Noble Best Book of the Year, Dioraphte Audience Award for Best YA Book, Time Magazine Best Book of the Year and many more. She grew up in Indiana but lives in Los Angeles.  

 

Forgive Me But I Have to Dance

Forgive me for I can’t stay

I’ve been sitting for far too long

Even time can’t remember

So I leave you and take a step

Towards his hands, to dance

 

I heard he’s a lover on the dancefloor

Seductive in all the ways that humans crave

You know I’m one too deeply buried in troubles

And I know your intentions are as pure

As the heart of an unborn child

But there’s a song scratching within me

It wants to sing through the chords of my feet

So you see, I have to leave

 

Here he comes, the misunderstood gentleman

I want to lead, so I take him by the hand

Lead him to the rhythmic night

For there’s too much silence in this life

This life where we make excuses for our pain

Where our fears to seek a helping hand

Are much greater than the very fears we battle

 

So here we go, floating on melodious stairs

I hear the orchestra call my name

I will lead death by the hand

And we’ll dance to the song of eternity

 

Sediment

Puppeteer plays with this smile

Manipulative strings swing cracked lips

Training laughter like an obedient pet

And the sound escapes on cue

 

In the midst of many

Yet rooted by unmoving solitude

Eyes blinking without much purpose

So used to staring out a window

Painted in black and mocking smog

 

Cleansing waters fill my cup to the brim

Spill through my porous spirits

The untidy tide rises with ugly intensities

And bursts through these sockets till I can’t see

And all that’s left at the bottom of this cup

Is the bitter sediment of sorrow

Book Review: Beyond the Horizon by Amma Darko

A powerful and brutally honest account of the objectification and degradation of women, in Africa and beyond. 

I found the objectification of women to be the nucleus of this story. At the beginning of the book we have the main character standing in front of the mirror, staring at what’s left of her image. She’s a prostitute in a brothel where in other rooms the same things are happening to other women like her, their bodies being used by men as they please.

The story takes on a reflective course of how Mara went from her village of Naka in Ghana as a dutiful wife to her husband Akobi, to the city and ends up as a prostitute in Europe. Mara does not choose her husband, her father chooses the son of the undertaker and she has no say in the matter. Akobi lives in the city and when Mara moves there she finds nothing like what she expected. Her marriage to Akobi also turns to be an abusive nightmare. Akobi is a loveless brute, who is constantly devoured by the need to look after his image in the city. This need to appear a certain way is so big that he does not even want to be seen with his ‘green’ village wife in public.

Mara throws away rubbish for the local people in exchange for food and later on, when Akobi will not give her a cent she starts selling boiled eggs. Akobi is ashamed of her and the neglect and abuse seems to heighten. However, Mara still believes that it is part of her duty as a wife, to carry the burden of marriage as such. When she falls pregnant, Akobi is not pleased and this is not the expectation that Mara had because she thought giving him a child would make things different. When Akobi moves to Europe, leaving her with promises of a better life when he returns she exerts herself to transforming her image and becoming a new city wife. Later on Akobi invites her to join him in Europe. She arrives in Germany as an illegal immigrant and her life depends completely on Akobi and the decisions he makes for her. Her husband’s betrayal and deception trap her into a life of prostitution. She meets more women like her, African women who came to Germany with different dreams but learned the hardships of being an immigrant in Europe and the lack of choices they have had to live with, the life that has no turning back. Mara slowly learns everything about her husband’s life in Germany and she takes a bold move to make sure that he does not go unpunished. Yet, this does not become her ticket back home, instead she stays in that life, two children left behind at home and a family that doesn’t know the truth of her life.

Amma Darko does not spare us the painful details that portray the truth of women who are used as pawns in the games of social patriarchy, prostitution, pornography and trafficking. Her main character reflects on her story that is painful and embarrassing but she doesn’t bore us with self-pity. We witness the transformation that takes place mostly without much choice. Mara is one of many women, uneducated and without much say as to what happens in their lives. Darko’s portrayal of the extreme lengths that African people have to take to make it work in Europe is sickening and sad.

I appreciate her straightforward style of writing and beginning the book with the end, if gotten right, passes with flying colours to create interest and the urge to find out how the character got to where they were; and she got it right. The story progresses without ever lingering on any part that could lose or bore you. She exposes many of the false ideas that people have of the perfect life in Europe, and possibly other foreign countries. She also zooms in on male dominance and what’s so interesting with that is that she shows how this spares no race, with the way Akobi treats Mara, as well as his German wife. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and place it as one of the most excellent stories that add to the richness of African literature.

darko_amma

Amma Darko was born in Ghana in 1956. She studied in Kumasi where she received her diploma in 1980 and then worked at a centre for technological counselling at the University of Kumasi. She moved to Germany, where she stayed from 1981 until 1987 and wrote her first novel, Beyond the Horizon, which was first published in German. In 1998/99, she had a scholarship from “Akademie Schloss Solitude”. J.M. Coetzee had appointed her. She contributed to the Solitude publications, “Lexikon der sperrigen Wörter” (2010) and “Solitude Atlas” (2015). In 2008, she received the Ghana Book Award. Amma Darko now lives in her home country. Her other works include Faceless (2003) and Not without Flowers (2007), amongst others.

 

Book Review: The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

“Love thy neighbour? Easier said than done.”

Title: The Woman Next Door

Author: Yewande Omotoso

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Chatto & Windus – Penguin Random House UK

 

Marion Agostino and Hortensia James are two octogenarians living in the small, beautiful region of Katterijn in Cape Town. The two neighbours, one white and the other black, are sworn enemies who do not conceal their hatred for each other. Besides their mutual hatred, they have other things in common; both have recently been widowed, they both have made impressive careers in their lives and they both have personal, deep-seated bitterness.

An unforeseen event crops up and the women are forced to work together. This first begins with the continued bickering but slowly turns into slightly relaxed debates and they also begin to open up about their pasts and memories. It is possible that this new change in weather could produce a new friendship, or maybe it might be too late.

The story takes on a slow pace at the beginning, we jump from one character to the other and one space and time to another, but without exactly getting to connect with the characters. It takes a bit of a while to get to the juice of the story and get excited and eager to carry on. It’s not a particularly extraordinary story but it can be enjoyable if you give it patience.

However, Omotoso writes with good humour and through the nature of the characters, the grumpiness that we recognise from old people, we get some tickles from the story. Along the way, as slowly as she eases you into it, you get to appreciate the journeys that the two women have travelled and through their recollection of memories as well as the dialogue between them you can’t help but feel for them. As they open up to each other about their marriages, children or none, they also open up to us in an endearing manner and you can’t exactly choose one from the other. Their reconciliation is warm and it’s something the reader would want to happen. The ending may at first seem unexceptional but when I fully digested the story, to me the reconciliation between the black Hortensia and the white Marion represented the reconciliation of race in a country where racial tensions have always been so heavy and haunting. I would recommend the book for people who appreciate a simple story that does not need the burden of using grandiloquent and embellished language.

Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria and moved to South Africa in 2002. The trained architect had her first novel Bom Boy published in 2011. In 2012 she won the South African Literary Award for the First-Time Published Author and she was shortlisted for the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize. In the following year she became a finalist in the inaugural, Etisalat Fiction Prize. The Woman Next Door is her second novel.

The Drinking Sin

When Lana visited I would hide the alcohol and make sure that the room’s window was wide open to let any residual of cigarette smoke out, not that it helped as the smoke clung to everything in my room. A day came when she just rocked up unannounced and found me hungover with a stale breath of tobacco and my room looking like a tornado had just passed through it. That was the day that she decided to invite Jesus to the table.

“You’re going to have to change into something more decent,” said Lana, walking into my room without even knocking.

“Hello to you too, I’m very well, thank you for asking. It’s that simple, you know?” It was my day off work and all I wanted was to be alone.

“Hi. If you don’t hurry we’re going to be late for church,” she said.

“Uh…we? I’m sorry but they never sent me a formal invitation and I’m not one to gate-crash, I think it is bad manners. You can go alone, I’m cool.” I threw my head back on the pillow. I was in only a vest and knickers. Sleeping around was starting to make me less conscious of my body.

She went through my closet dismissing what I had just said and started going on about burning in hell for blasphemy. “You’ve been putting off going to church for more than two months and today I will not take no for an answer,” she ordered.

“I can’t leave without showering. I thought they said ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ sooo…”

She pushed and nagged until I found myself at church and was not happy to be there at all. “Stop looking like I have just forced you to clean public toilets; you ought to be grateful because I’m helping you,” she said.

We were just in time and she chose seats that were right at the front row. Her reason for sitting there was that she wanted to be closer to the Lord and receive more blessings. If that was the logic then I felt bad for the people right at the back, they would only get a whiff of these blessings. As soon as the pastor walked onto the pulpit the choir blasted into a loud and powerful hymn. By the time the song came down and everyone had settled down, he had already said ‘Hallelujah in Jesus’ name’ about twenty times. I was counting.

He opened the sermon with ‘change’. He preached on how we had the ability to change and ought to do so to please Him who had created us in His own image. I zoned off for a bit and my attention was brought back to life when I heard him read from the Bible about how we cannot ‘pour new wine in old skins.’ Now that’s what I wanted to hear; I guess church wasn’t as bad as I thought. I didn’t really have a problem with churches and I let other religions be as long as they didn’t be around me. As a Catholic child, born and raised but not exactly in practice, it was difficult to blend in with other religions and that was the main reason I had been refusing to accompany Lana to her non-Catholic church, amongst other reasons.

It finally came to an end and just when I was relieved at the thought of going home for a drink Lana had other plans. “Come on, you’re coming with me,” she commanded and at my reluctance asked more politely, “Will you kindly escort me to see someone just for a few minutes? I promise we’ll be done before you know it.”

“Yeah sure, I’ll be your escort. I’ve been told I’d make a great one.”

We met with Pastor James and the first thing I noticed at close view was how young and handsome he was. He was an attractive man who I strongly felt was wasting a lot of his yumminess.

“I asked Pastor if he could pray for you and your problem and…”

“What problem?” I quickly asked, surprised by my own offended reaction.

“Sister Lana here tells me that you have a drinking problem and I believe with the goodness of my heart and the power vested in me by God, that you have come to the right place,” said Pastor James.

“I didn’t come, I was dragged. Sorry we wasted your time Father, Reverend, Pastor; whatever the title,” I said angrily. I could not believe that she dragged me to her church where she knew I was uncomfortable and then went behind my back to tell some stranger about my “drinking” problem. I pulled her to leave but she remained stubborn and braked on her heels, “Bontle, it’s for your own good,” she said.

I could see in her eyes that she meant well and of all people, she knew me best and wanted what was best for me. I stood there and finally said, “Okay, call Jesus then and let’s do this.”

He laughed, as if he had seen my type before and then told me that God could penetrate even the most stubborn of souls. He asked me if I had been born again and I responded that I wasn’t sure if my mother could repeat the same process, given my age, body size and weight and not forgetting the impracticality of her aging body to carry out such a miraculous task.

“Yes we do have more than a minute Pastor,” Lana jumped in.

I could have just slapped her big, shiny forehead. I could have been using that time to drink. I hated their sympathetic faces and the tone in their voices that said they knew what was best and could take care of my problems.

“May I ask you something Sister Bontle?” he asked. I nodded.

“Why is it difficult for you to stop drinking?”

“It’s not difficult for me to stop drinking. That’s where everyone is getting it wrong, hence the misconception of me being an alcoholic. I can stop, I just don’t want to. It’s that simple. I do not feel the need to quit because I don’t have a problem. Don’t get me wrong, I do have problems like everyone else but it’s certainly not what I put down my throat,” I answered him. I was hoping he had caught the pun but his facial expressions remained the same – concerned.

He nodded. I was beginning to feel irritated by this total stranger who thought he was some hand of God that could heal us who were weaker than him. Suddenly the cuteness I had seen faded and all there was before me was a self-righteous joke who probably robbed people of offerings by claiming to have some healing powers.

“Let us pray,” he said. He asked that I kneel in front of him and amused by the way it would look, I certainly obeyed.

I raised my left eyebrow and pouted questioningly and she gave me an encouraging look. Well, why not get it over and done with? I didn’t mind the whole praying thing but his hands pressing hard on my braids was not something I could work with. I had just braided my hair the day before and they were still stiff and painful at a slight touch. I pushed them off slowly and he said, “Bless my hand to fight the demons that are fighting inside this child’s soul.”

He carried on praying in some language that I couldn’t understand, I assumed maybe that’s what they called speaking in tongues. He was now pushing and pulling my head violently. Not only did it bother me that he was hurting me but I felt that the whole picture did not look pretty, and I couldn’t understand why the two of them didn’t see anything wrong with it. I was kneeling in front of him and he had his hands on my head, pushing it back and forth. She was busy saying Amen and Hallelujah while he continued speaking in his strange language. It took longer than I expected; my head and neck hurt, my knees hurt and I was starting to feel drowsy from all the head pushing and whirling. I just shouted Amen, hoping that it would speed up the process. He finally switched back to English and said, “Jesus, you have heard my prayer and I believe your child has been healed. I drive out the demons in your name, Amen.” He pushed me so hard on the forehead, I fell backwards and balanced myself on my elbows in order to avoid landing on my head. I lay still on the floor for a while and waited for him to cease panting as though he had been running a marathon. He said to her; “She has been cured and she will never touch a drop of alcohol again.” I stood up silently and looked at both of them.

“How are you feeling?” he asked me, “How amazing is the power of our Lord Jesus? My sister, He who died on the cross for our sins, He who was baptised by John the Baptist, He who healed many and continues to heal you and I has placed his hand upon you.”

My head was pounding and I was tired. I needed to get home.

“The Lord Jesus has spoken to you,” he continued. “Jesus, who resisted the Devil’s temptation, has touched you and you shall walk in his shoes and resist the Devil’s temptation,” he continued louder this time. I was getting tired of the man’s circus show. Although my head was still aching, my neck was recovering from the sudden thrust with his ‘demon-driving’ performance.

“Jesus was the one…” he was about to say when I interrupted him.

“Yes, Jesus who turned water into wine, hallelujah for that, Lana let’s go.”

Lana refused to speak to me for a week until I agreed to apologise to the pastor. I lied to him that I hadn’t touched a single drop and thanked him. The pastor was pleased, Lana was pleased and I was pleased to be able to go home and wash down my sins with a bottle of whiskey. Amen.