When a society’s structures fall, when its economy crumbles and there are high levels of unemployment and unimaginable suffering, its children face the highest levels of danger such a society of presents. The whole fabric of this society is endangered, and its future plunges into uncertainty. This has been true to the Zimbabwean situation, whose effects have begun to reverbrate through the country’s new literature, which shows how the children are responding to the woes of their environment. The works of Memory Chirere and Valerie Tagwira shed some light on this issue.
In 2007, Valerie Tagwira shocked us with “Mainini Grace’s Promises”, a powerful story about the ravages of HIV/Aids, in which the child character kills her aunt at the end. The reader can see the frustration in the girl, her anger at the broken promise of Mainini Grace, whose betrayal to the family is that she has fallen victim of the pandemic that has killed other members of the girl’s family. If Mainini should be the source of hope, why has she allowed herself to be a victim? In a fit of rage, her niece pushes her to the ground, killing her in the process.
A similar scenario is covered in Memory Chirere’s “Keresenzia”, which was orginally published in 2001, where a little girl kills her grandmother. Chirere is an expert in portraying the child character, something aptly noted by Ruby Magosvonge in her recent review of Somewhere in this Country. According to Magosvonge, Chirere’s collection of stories “offers refreshing and complex insights into the psyche of African memory, largely from a children’s perspective. Set in both the pastoral and cityscapes of Zimbabwe, the collection of twenty-one short stories in all, takes one onto the road to explore and discover the world and challenges of a burning desire for belonging.”
Keresenzia’s demands show a child’s (any child) desire for attention. That she is an orphan compounds the situation, ultimately leading to her murdering of her grandmother. You finish reading the story and the question that rings in your head is “What has happened to these children?” I had the same question after the Tagwira shocker, but it got me thinking: the child in Zimbabwe has suffered the highest degree of injustice, her freedom to be a child having been robbed by irresponsible politics and empty international bickering. Everyone has failed the Zimbawean child, whether it is democtratic country that slap sanctions on Zimbabwe, or the singers of indefatigable songs of sovereignty, or the selfish hoarder of basic goods on the black market.
So then we have children becoming carers of AIDS-torn or jobless parents; we witness them pairing with grandparents to take care of what’s left of the family. Look at Keresenzia and Matambudziko, both helpless in the face of squalor, but the latter is expected by the former to have answers about…everything: about what happened to the girl’s parents, about how to get fresh milk, about preparing the smoothest of butter, about pumkin porridge one can enjoy. It’s an endless list of needs, which the grandmother cannot meet.
In Tagwira’s story, Sarai has dropped out of school to take care of her mother. There is no one else to help except Mainini Grace who sends money and letterof promises from Botswana. When the promises are not fulfilled we see the increasing degree of helplessness and anxiety in the child character. The highest form of betrayal Sarai sees in her Mainini is when the latter turns up emaciated by AIDS, the same desease that is killing Sarai’s mother, and has already claimed the father and other members of the family. Mainini had been the only hope, full of promise. In rage, Sarai kills her aunt, who has not kept her promises of being the beacon of the family: “Why you too? Why you too, Mainini Grace?”
Discussing child characters like Keresenzia, Magosvonge asks, “Should they kill in order to discover themselves?” They kill in desparation, when the outcome is driven by the most basic instinct for protection. They kill to punish the adult society that has failed to take care of their needs; somehow in this killing, they mete out a kind of justice only imaginable in an environment where they are not allowed to be children anymore; they kill to show their disappointment with an adult world that has failed to deliver on its promise of a meaningful existence; they kill as an attempt to catch a semblance of meaning out of the rubble that has become their existence.
When adults involve themselves in costly conflicts, when they allow the national structures to crumble, leading to extreme forms of suffering for the people, the people affected the most are the children. When a we take away hope from its children, and when we break the shoots of ambition, we endanger not only our survival, but also our humanity.