I was interested in reading this book, because I have a real gap in my knowledge when it comes to the final days of Rhodesia. I’ve read missionary’s accounts of leaving the country, but as these were largely from church sources, told through solely white, Christian, missionaries I feel my knowledge is very limited. We talk about literature as a way of understanding human experience and it’s important to me that my reading covers diverse human experiences, not just my own reflected back at me. In this novel set in the final days of Rhodesia, before it became Zimbabwe, there is a nun in a church mission called Beth, who has adopted this country as her home and is now watching it tear itself in two. Susan Haig is a white settler, who has lost one son to war with her second declared unfit for duty. Nyanye Maseka is in a guerilla camp in Mozambique, with her sister in tow, after their village was destroyed. Heartbreakingly, her mother is missing and they have had to take flight without her. This gives the reader three different perspectives on what is happening. The women’s fates become entwined as the lives they were used to, become a casualty of war.
In a similar way to Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, this author concentrates on the female experience of civil war. Adichie wrote about the Biafran conflict in Nigeria through two sisters. Here the three women’s story of everyday lives in war, tell us wider stories about society and politics in Rhodesia. It’s not an easy book to read, but it shouldn’t be. It should make us uncomfortable. It should be harrowing. This is what it takes to put across the horrors of war. War is harrowing, and knowing these experiences come from factual accounts and from an author who has lived there, gives the story authenticity and makes it hit home even more strongly.
Susan. Well it’s hard to write about Susan’s views because they made me so angry. Sadly though, they did echo a lot of the views I’ve heard from white settlers who left Rhodesia during the Wars of Liberation. They were views I had shared with me very recently on Facebook, from a friend who was born out there in the late 1960’s. The killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests seemed to bring these views out into the open. As if they were ok. My friend’s list is a little bit lighter these days. Views like ‘there hadn’t been any African history until the European arrived’ are staggering in their arrogance and ignorance. As if it’s unthinkable there is any other way of doing things than the British way. I’ve heard ‘they need someone to organise them’ or ‘if we weren’t there they’d just kill each other’. The use of ‘they’ tends to push all Black South Africans and Zimbabweans into an homogenised mass, with no individuality or humanity. I couldn’t believe I was still hearing the Victorian attitude that natives were little more than savages. Yet she was needed in the narrative. The reader needed her to show the entitled attitude that comes from empire and from one nation thinking it’s a show of greatness to own another. Without Susan there would be nothing to fight against, however difficult she is to read. I imagine there was an element of catharsis in writing her character, the ability to put all the hateful words and attitudes you’ve encountered in one place, and leave them there. A way of doing something good with such evil.
Through all of these characters we see the strength and the fight women must have to survive a war. War often leaves women with the greatest burdens to carry and that was an important thread woven throughout, with all the women. I loved Nyanye’s fight and her need to let others know she wasn’t beaten or conquered. The love the author has for the country shines out of the pages, with vivid descriptions of nature and the weather she really set the scene for me. In one scene, at night, she describes the sound of wind in the grass, calls of distant animals and crickets calling all under a sky filled with stars. It felt poetic, and created such an atmosphere for the reader, adding to the sadness that such a beautiful country is being torn apart. The way her writing is so lyrical one moment, then so raw and brutal, really brings home the horrors of conflict. Yet, there is such beauty and hope. These women show such strength and faith. It could be faith in their role as a mother, as part of a sisterhood serving God. There’s also a sense that these women are learning they’re part of a greater sisterhood of women, no matter their race, religion or colour. They have also learned to have faith in themselves, to realise their strength and will to survive. The book ends with this hope – for justice and equality. It acknowledges a need for peace and for people, like these women, to work together to achieve it. I was left with an aching sadness for the people who lived through this war and the turbulent years since. This is a book that has made me think and will stay with me.