Tag Archives: prison

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

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The Book of Memory

Memory is the name of an albino woman who is in a Zimbabwean jail, awaiting the death sentence, for the murder of her guardian, Lloyd Hendricks. Her parents sold her to this white man when she was 9 years old and she never saw them again.

The title has two meanings, in that it is the book Memory wrote about her life and it also explores memory itself; its fallibility, its haziness, how it can be misconstrued. Memory is writing to an American woman, Melinda Carter, who writes columns in a magazine. Her focus is to expose miscarriages of justice so Memory’s lawyer, who is appealing against her sentence, introduced Melinda to Memory in the hope that a sympathetic article in a prestigious magazine would help her cause. This device enables the writer to explain village life, Shona culture and Zimbabwean politics as it would be explained to a foreigner.

Her story shifts between village life, life with her birth family, prison life and life with Lloyd in a largely white farming community. The vibrant essence of village life as well as the squalor is brought to life. Memory is ostracised, feared and teased because of her albinism. She is further excluded from normal life by having to avoid the sun. Her life is lived narrowly between home, school, church and hospital. By contrast, life at Summer Madness, the homestead in which she lives with Lloyd is tranquil and calm; it has a swimming pool, a library, a treehouse, dogs and horses. She is bewildered by her surroundings and longs for home. She also has no idea why she has been removed from her family. She remembers her mother’s ‘white dress with big red poppies all over it’. She remembers her two siblings that died, the one shortly before she was handed over to Lloyd and she misses her sister, Joyi. She suffers from terrible nightmares.

Memory’s life in prison is brilliantly described; the conditions in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison are appalling as is the manner in which the inmates are treated by the wardens. The corruption is terrible as the wardens take supplies meant for the inmates home; even the sanitary pads. Despite this, the conversations held between wardens and inmates are very funny. The warden, Synodia, makes so little sense that Memory refers to her statements, as Synodic Utterances. This tone of witty cynicism permeates much of Memory’s writings on the deprivations of prison life. Some of the inmates too are quite eccentric and their attitudes to their crimes give more than an inkling about their lives outside prison.

The story of how she was sold and how Lloyd died are the two things, the reader is dying to know. This is eked out in between flashbacks to early childhood, flashbacks to life with Lloyd and prison life. At times the flashbacks to village life were a little repetitive but it certainly has the effect of increasing the tension. When the truth is revealed, Memory has to re-consider everything she previously thought about her life.

One of the major themes in this novel is the effect that superstition and cultural beliefs have on people’s lives. The customary practice of ngozi in Shona culture is meant to appease the spirit of vengeance that follows a violent death. It raises the question of what is to be done when traditional cultural beliefs and practices place limits on human rights. Furthermore, the superstitions around albinism are highlighted; a taboo that must be exposed as such. Another theme is the effect on a person of being removed from their culture but never quite being accepted by the culture in which they are placed; reminiscent of Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga.

It may seem, on the face of it, that the novel is tackling too many pressing issues and may run the risk of doing too much; however, this is not the case. The different strands knit together naturally and show the domino effect of how decisions taken before one is even born can have dire consequences on one’s own life. The writing is exemplary and the suspense as the story unfolds ensures the reader’s interest does not flag.

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And They Didn’t Die by Lauretta Ngcobo

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Jazile is the heroine of this historical novel, set in a rural area near Ixopo. Heroine is a word that is not often used these days. We speak of protagonists and narrators. Perhaps it is an archaic word as hero is now used for both genders. Nevertheless, I feel the need to reclaim it to describe Jezile. She is brave and principled; she fights for what she believes in; she is also sometimes timid and naive but she overcomes herself and struggles against great odds to survive. I greatly admire her and all the women she represents.

The novel is set mainly in the late 50s to early 60s; the time when black women were resisting being forced to use passes. Prior to the 50s, black women had not been required to carry a pass. Jezile lives in the Sabelweni Valley; she is married to Siyalo who works in Durban. He sends money home to her but they only see each other in the December holidays which makes it very difficult for her to fall pregnant. MaBiyela, her mother-in-law, puts immense pressure on her by making constant comments about her barrenness. Their relationship is very strained but there is nothing Jezile can do because the culture demands that she must do MaBiyela’s bidding. She has no idea how to handle this hostility so retreats into silence. She wants to go to Durban to be with Siyalo so that she can fall pregnant but for that she needs a pass. The women of the area have all agreed that they will not comply and will not apply for passes.

They have regular meetings and Nosizwe is the main spokesperson and ringleader. She is a doctor and is knowledgeable about the apartheid laws. She communicates all this to the women; how the system is designed to drive them further into poverty; how all the so-called Betterment Schemes do not help them at all; how the land and cattle issue is also designed to destroy them; how their own chiefs are being used against them to divide the communities. The inside story of the 1956 Women’s March is thrilling.  The writer uses the speeches of Nosizwe and others to tell the history of the time. These speeches can be a little didactic and I could not help but wonder if the speeches would have been quite as formal and content-rich in reality. However this flaw is compensated by the atmosphere that is generated. The description of the women singing hymns passionately, praying together with emotion, all the while being watched  by white policeman is powerful.

Jezile’s struggle continues through protests and prison, drought and despair. It epitomises that of all rural women as they fight the oppressive white government but are also incapacitated by the patriarchal culture. This renders them voiceless in different ways but does not weakens their resolve. Their imaginary lives are as real as the historical context in which the story is placed. Despite the grim reality of everyday life there are glorious moments of love and passion between Jezile and Siyalo. The solidarity between the women transports the reader into an energetic mass of singing and praying.

Anyone who wants to understand why the land issue today is still crying out to be resolved need look no further than this novel. The land that was essential to their livelihoods and way of life was grabbed by the implementation of unjust laws and the collusion of chiefs imposed on the communities. It is one thing to read this in a dry, dusty article but when brought to life through fiction, it cannot help but move the reader. In the same way, it is hard to read of the cruelty and inhumanity meted out to people by the apartheid police and officials but this is our tainted past. Not to be denied.