- By Tsitsi Mapepa
- Catalyst Press
- 274 pp.
- Reviewed by Susi Wyss
- November 14, 2023
A mother and daughter navigate their complex relationship amid turmoil in Zimbabwe.
In a recent interview, Tsitsi Mapepa laid bare her aim as a writer: “My only intention is to draw the readers in right away and make them feel as though they are part of the story too.”
It seems only fair, then, in writing a review of her debut novel-in-stories, Ndima Ndima, to start at the beginning, with the opening story, “Sunset Street,” where we meet Zuva and her youngest daughter, Nyeredzi, newly moved to one of Harare’s high-density suburbs, looking out over a plot of land they hope to clear of overgrown grass. They have come with high hopes to Zimbabwe’s capital from a small city, and the family of six more than makes up for the absence of electricity in their home by spending joyful evenings around a fire entertaining each other.
Still, there are undercurrents that foretell challenges ahead: the discovery of snakes and ragged, bloodstained clothing in the tall grass; stories of pregnant girls, rejected by their boyfriends, who take their own lives by lying on nearby train tracks; and Zuva second-guessing their move to Harare (“the capital city…was going to bring fortune to her family. But were all these hopes she had going to make her regret her decision?”).
For much of the novel, Zuva’s question lingers unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, but Mapepa succeeds in hooking the reader: We want to find out what happens to this family.
While several stories in Ndima Ndima are told from Zuva’s point of view, most unfold through the eyes of young Nyeredzi. From the beginning of the book, when Nyeredzi is 7, to the end, when she’s in her early 20s, we watch her grow into a woman shaped by Zimbabwe’s traditional culture, as well as by patriarchal social norms and political violence. Throughout, her ballast is her family — her three older sisters, loving father, and Zuva.
Nyeredzi isn’t perfect. She’s prone to occasional outbursts and experimenting with blackmail, all the while both drawn to and mystified by her mother. Zuva, born with a patch of white hair on her head, is a respected member of their community and is consulted on religious and traditional matters. A fighter and comrade from the Second Chimurenga, or the Zimbabwean Liberation War, she is now seen as a peacemaker by her neighbors.
It is in “The Call of the Ancestors,” that Nyeredzi, at the age of 9, gets her first inkling that her mother may have passed more onto her than just a physical resemblance. Ndima Ndima — a word Mapepa made up — refers to a traditional rain dance (featured in the story “The Call of the Ancestors”) the community offers to its ancestors in an attempt to bring desperately needed rain during the drought of 1992 that “arrived to devour people and animals.”
We soon discover, in the longest and strongest story in the collection, “The Return,” that Zuva is descended from a long line of chiefs. Through flashbacks and a trip to Goho Village, we learn of Zuva’s parents’ decision to pass the role of chief onto their daughter, of Zuva’s resolve to fight in the Second Chimurenga, and of the reasons she left Goho for good. For the rest of the novel, Nyeredzi seeks to understand herself in relation to her mother and her ancestors: How do they live through her, and how is she her own person?
Mapepa, a Zimbabwean author residing in New Zealand, uses a writing style that is spare and to the point. Without much flowery language, the heart of the stories are Nyeredzi, Zuva, and their bond. Like many mother-daughter relationships, theirs is not always easy; they both learn hard lessons about when to accept what life deals them and when to rise up and take charge. The stories, told chronologically, hang together well, with a novelistic arc characteristic of the best novels-in-stories.
Unlike last year’s Glory, by her compatriot NoViolet Bulawayo, Mapepa doesn’t tackle in her book the intricacies of Zimbabwe’s past and current political landscape. She uses pseudonyms for the candidates in the 2000 elections and moves up the election by a year in her fictitious world, and in the stories “Mayhem” and “Separated,” Nyeredzi can’t tell which side happens to be the one perpetrating violence. As a result, Mapepa’s message is less political analysis and more a cry for the innocent civilians who are collateral damage in the crossfire, including one of the book’s secondary characters.
Eventually, Zuva and Nyeredzi’s collective grief over losses to violence and disease lead them both to have crises of faith, creating a divide between them that Nyeredzi must attempt to bridge. It is a testament to Mapepa’s writing that, as she intended, readers feel pulled into the women’s woes, a constant reminder that, according to Zuva, “We are all related through humanity.”
Susi Wyss is author of The Civilized World, a novel in stories set across Africa that was largely inspired by her 20-year career in international health. In addition to receiving the Maria Thomas Fiction Award, The Civilized World was named a “Book to Pick Up Now” by O, the Oprah Magazine.