After reading one paragraph of Zimbabwean writer Brian Chikwava's debut novel , Stanley Makuwa knows he has found the kind of book he has been looking for. Chikwava's tale of a youth militia trained to kill enemies of the state for the Mugabe government and who migrates to London (Harare North) is 'a very sad story told in a very funny way' that exposes the hardships of trying to live in a foreign land. Full of praise for 'an honest book that you feel the author wrote from his heart', Makuwa writes, 'Chikwava is an international award winner and this is clearly another triumph for him. If this comes with another major award, it shouldn’t be a surprise.'
As I a writer myself, I am always looking for new books to read, and my first choice is always African literature. However, I find it not that easy to find a good book. For a few months I had nothing much to write so I thought I'd look for inspiration through reading more and more African books. The ones that fell into my hands came up as too slow or too far-fetched. Not that they were bad books. It was just personal preference. I threw them aside one after the other, until I found one new book that captured my imagination. I am naturally a slow reader, who takes at least two weeks to finish a two hundred page book, but after I read the first paragraph of Caine Prize winner, Brian Chikwava’s debut novel, Harare North, I knew I had found the kind of book I was looking for. It took me a record one week to finish it, and for me to achieve that it takes a very good story.
Harare North is one book that would make one laugh, click their tongue and drop a tear or two at the same time. It’s a book that makes you feel like you know the main character in real life and you met him and spoke to him just a few days ago and you really hate this man and you don’t want to speak to him ever again. It’s a very sad story told in a very funny way, and to this day I wonder how Chikwava managed to create a comedy out of such a chilling story. It is an honest book that you feel the author wrote from his heart and not just from his gift of creativity.
In Shona we say do not expose your armpits to the public because people will not be happy with the smell coming from under there, meaning you can’t let your secrets known to every Jack and Jill, but while reading Harare North I felt like Chikwava had exposed many armpits for the whole world to smell. So many shocking stories are told about life in the diaspora, particularly in the UK, but the stories seem to be told through clenched teeth because people want their families back home to believe that all is well out there, but Chikwava would not have all of that. He brought everything out in the open, exposing the hardships of settling in a new environment, the difficulties of finding decent jobs, proper accommodation, food and just being a normal human being in a foreign land. He touched racism in a 'cunning' way and gave an insight into intercultural day-to-day relationships, including how a simple greeting could mean in the diaspora. He exposed some of the things that you wouldn’t dream fellow Africans would put each other through just for the gain of the British pound. Things like blackmailing one another and leaving a friend to die, only because you don’t want the burden of looking after a dying man. Chikwava also gave the other side of satire that will even make Mugabe himself smile with envy.
The story is about a young die-hard Robert Mugabe supporter who goes to the UK to raise a bribe-price of US$5,000. His past life as a youth militia trained to kill 'enemies of the state' taught him that only the fit survive in the tough foreign world. He moves from the tense home of his cousin to take up residence at a Brixton squat. His mind is so focused on raising the US$5,000 that everything and everyone is meaningless to him, and that is clearly expressed when his close friend, Shingi is stabbed and hospitalised with life-threatening injuries.What I remain unsure with in Chikwava’s novel is the language he used. For me language tells where one is from. As Africans we have 'Africanised' the English language to a stage where one can pick where the other is from through the way they express themselves in English, and Chikwava’s language came out to me as pidgin mostly associated with the Nigerian community, which might give an impression to some readers that that could be the way Zimbabweans speak. The language also reminded me of two Nigerian books I have read in the past, Sozaboy by Ken Saro Wiwa and Beasts of no nation by Uzodinma Iweala. It left me with an impression that the language was inspired by these two novels. But this can never take away the deserved success of one of the greatest upcoming writers to emerge from Zimbabwe. Chikwava is an international award winner and this is clearly another triumph for him. If this comes with another major award, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
* Stanley Makuwe is a New Zealand-based Zimbabwean playwright. He is the author of Under This Tree and Other Stories.
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