Have you got a haunting or rather dangerous story to tell? Just give the task to a child narrator. Christopher Mlalazi’s narrator in Running with Mother, Rudo Jamela, recounts the story of the Gukurahundi atrocities committed by the 5th Brigade in Matabeleland during the early years of Zimbabwe’s independence.
By Beniah Munengwa
Title: Running with Mother
Author: Christopher Mlalazi
Publisher: Weaver Press (2012)
The horrifying tales of that dark era in Zimbabwe are transcribed into fiction through the voice of a teenage female narrator. But the sharpness of her perspective, commitment to detail and fluency of a linear plot is faultless. When a child has a fluent recollection of all key events that shaped a nation, it raises questions of authenticity. Can one so young master all the finer details of what transpired?
In a flicker, she witnesses life turn from blissful and innocent to being bloody. Shona-speaking soldiers turned her world into ruin. It is a government order she gets to know.
And with the order comes death, rape, dislocation and destruction. So they have to run away, running away with mother.
It seems the major crime is being Ndebele as in the unfolding chaos, Shona people are spared. The excuse is that there are dissidents supported and fed by local people in the area. The bigger paradox is that instead of enjoying the fruits of independence, the citizens have to endure untold suffering.
Along the journey, the narrator engages in conversation with her mother and aunt, who also engages with the people surrounding them, ensuring that she gets the full story of what is bothering her people. But because the narrator is a child, she is naive of the causes of such misfortune on the people.
Running with Mother is a slow narrative that unfolds as a train, slow and without hurry in shedding off detail. At the same time, it rewards the reader with humorous episodes of the characters’ acts in face of terror. It is a book you can’t get your eyes of once you get started.
Mlalazi’s characters drive the story in exploring the existing fault-lines between the Shona and the Ndebele people. One such relationship exists between Auntie, who is Ndebele, and Rudo’s mother, who is Shona. Their interaction exposes deep-seated conflicts that can constitute part of the explanation of the manifestation of the Shona-Ndebele conflict.
Auntie scorns the Shona saying they are rat eaters because they eat mice, a relish scorned by the Ndebele. This is one form of prejudice that characterises inter-tribal conflict. But when the two are then faced with adversity, yearning to equally survive in the mountain, Auntie begins to eat mice, asks for forgiveness and becomes a working partner for Mother and whole family.
Humanity is achieved from sharing an almost common urge; to survive under adverse circumstances. Society here, in the ending of Mlalazi’s novel rejuvenates itself, shedding off the layers of hatred and imagined differences. Nature is, however, proved to be more hospitable, providing its refugees with food and shelter, which the government cannot.
Such a new arrangement marks a new form of subtle realisation that what divides people is mostly superficial. But a new rift that emerges between Mother and Mkandla defines a new form of hatred, which does not emanate from the previous prejudices, but from the understanding that Shona speaking soldiers are orchestrating atrocities against the Ndebele people and, hence, cannot be treated as friends.
Towards the end of the read, only Auntie survives as a person who has managed to transcend beyond viewing the Shona as mere rat-eaters. Gift’s survival suggests that, there is hope for the Ndebele tribe, but progression can only be achieved through mutual work between the two embittered tribes.
This is against a background of having older individuals, who are in a state of being as good as dead as seen by the case of Uncle Ndoro, one who gets traumatised after getting involved in an bus accident with an army vehicle. The survival of traumatised figures like Uncle Ndoro and the emergence of hate in Mkandla point at the need for the processes of healing after a nation has gone past such experiences.
It is a narration that tempts you to follow along, towards Rudo, as you fight alongside her, feeling her pain, at times astonishingly fighting against your inner deep set demons of tribal divisions prompting you to read more and to understand the Matabele question and its implication towards the future of Zimbabwe.
The story of Gukurahundi is made listenable, as Rudo the narrator takes the reader through various interesting subplots. Auntie’s failed marriage fits in here. In the narrative, Auntie is allowed to date again, though to a married man. Rudo also gets sexual orientation.
A functional family can exist even across tribes, if the government does not disrupt the social fabric. Rudo’s father is full of responsibility while her mother is filled with untampered resilience.
Nature is depicted as hospitable and without the wretchedness that characterise lands fully governed by man. While there are lions, snakes and harsh weather conditions in the wild, the wild is not as dangerous as the rule of man with a gun in his hand. Rudo, Mother, Auntie and the teachers run away from man-made homes and find shelter in nature.
Mbanje takes a special place, as it recurs as a symbol of a threat, first as a cause for fire, second as an intoxicant disrupting good flow of thoughts.
The radio is depicted as a trusted source of information. However, it works against the ordinary people as in the text, it omits and misleads the role of the people by focusing not on all what is happening in the nation. Therefore, it becomes a tool that perpetuates the ignorance and naivety of characters like Auntie.
The fact that Auntie is naive and constantly requires Mother’s hand in correcting her conscience though maybe unintentionally showing the gullibility of the Ndebele people compared to the Shona, who are more quick to decide and full of tact as evidenced by Mother, who manoeuvres her way towards the safety of both the Ndebele and the Shona.
Running with Mother is a book that gets you asking, “Can a past be buried, or it still continues to give a bothering trickle in a house with a roof with holes during the rainy season?” Decades later, the question of Gukurahundi and the impact of Lobengula’s raids on the Shona continue to find relevance when it comes to policy, developmental issues and the lining of the social fabric.
But a constant reminder of the effects of violence will always keep us all aware that, peace is a better way to anything.
Beniah Munengwa writes in his own capacity. He can be contacted through email on firstname.lastname@example.org