Portrait of Emlanjeni: A review by Memory Chirere

Portrait of Emlanjeni

Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya’s novel, A Portrait of Emlanjeni, which was published by the UK-based Carnelian Heart Publishing in March of 2023 brings us to the literature and environment subject.

From a human perspective, it is very easy to declare that this is a story about the rise and fall and rise of one Zanele, the daughter of Hadebe of Matobo, Zimbabwe.

The first time that I read the opening phase of this intriguing novel, I kept on saying to myself, but where are the people, where are the people? As in Mungoshi's Waiting for the Rain and Vera's The Stone Virgins, you may only fully appreciate the people if you are ready to feel the pulse of the landscape from which they erupt.  

In what many will be able to call an environmental novel, Emlanjeni in Matobo, is integral to the story and it becomes one of the major and very active characters. It is an art that uses a known geographical area thoroughly, describing and dwelling on its natural features elaborately in order to show that the life, social relations, customs, language, dialect or other aspects of the culture of an area and its people, can indeed become overridden by what the environment is becoming.

“To reach Emlanjeni, one has to plan a three-hour drive from Ematojeni, about twenty kilometers South of Bulawayo. Ematojeni Hills of the famous Njelele Shrine and Matopos National Park, a national heritage site, lies on the village’s north. You drive on a strip road, curving, turning and meandering around huge rock boulders, past the balancing rocks…” the novel begins.

You know that you are already journeying. Then you are warned, “The place is dry. One can smell its dryness. Acacia bushes dot the flat landscape which is littered with little, whitish, dusty stones. The whole surrounding area, all the way to Mwewu River, is mostly gullied and dry, giving the impression of a place being frequently cleaned by nature’s maids....”

Then you are taken into the sky: “If one cared to imagine the aerial view of the two rivers bordering the village, Simphathe and Marabi, with the Kwanike hillocks on the south, the picture would be a breath-taking one, the kind you find framed as a monument in a museum. The sandy loam, some patches of black clay on some areas and red soils on the other, holds the ground together. Grass slowly dies of thirst after the February-March rains only to come to back to life during the October-November planting season…”

Then you are told that the journey has always been bumpy, “...that is the bridge that makes bus drivers forbid women and children from occupying the front seats. As the bus descends, fearful passengers on their maiden trips to Bulawayo, koNtuthuziyathunqa, let out shrieks which sometimes cause the driver to lose control of the steering wheel…”

Eventually, the people fully pour into the story, creating a din- “Most young boys in Emlanjeni do not take school seriously. The schools are far apart such that pupils walk long distances. Even if some, especially girls, want to pursue education, they fail to do so because idlers and school dropouts wait for them on their way from school. These girls are persuaded and forced into love affairs which lead to pregnancies and hastily planned marriages…”

You have now landed in the territory of Malayitshas who bring groceries in big tshangana bags from South Africa and Botswana, blankets and other items given to them to take home.  It is said that some mothers, upon receiving these parcels, forget their disappointment. Those whose daughters send a malayitsha frequently, are seen wearing beautiful izishweshwe dresses, berets and sneakers to village parties and other communal meetings.

It is also indicated that everyone cycles in Emlanjeni and women even as old as seventy cycle to church, miles away. They are serious about attending these church services where they give God the love they could have been giving to their absent children and spouses! At the local St Joseph’s Secondary School, bicycles can be seen balancing on each other, piled on trees within the school premises. Younger women cycle to clinics with babies strapped on their backs. Some experienced women even cycle balancing beer calabashes to village parties.

Then suddenly we come to the eye of the storm when Zanele, the apple of Emlanjeni’s eye, and one of the greatest scholars in the region, realises that a “wrong” person has made her pregnant somewhere in the thorny bushes! She decides that this has to be her secret because if the world knows then her very own world will fall apart.

Zanele has a very challenging predicament. The man who makes her pregnant is a known layabout- a long time friend of hers who dropped out of school because he has nobody to pay his fees. Sipho is his name and he herds cattle, reading books and writing brilliantly desperate poetry in the arid bush.

During some moments, Zanele thinks that she loves Sipho. But in some, she tends to think that she actually pities him and that this cannot be the basis for a good marriage. Besides, Zanele wants to remain in school like her niece, Nonceba. But… Zanele is already pregnant! How will she go back to boarding school?

Sipho wants her to stop going to school. Sipho does not want to see any man close to Zanele. His knife is already sharpened and ready. He follows her everywhere, listening into her conversations with people from behind the scanty bushes.  He is becoming an animal, making appointments with Zanele in the bush so that he beds her with a curious sense of vengeance. Zanele is both attracted to and repulsed by him…There is a morbid attraction between them and that thing runs across this story. You read on with a sense of trepidation as the least expected happens… Discordant lovers in their beloved dry land.

Meanwhile the dry countryside goes on, rendering this book a festival of a variety of cultural materials. This novel is a bewitching manual on how to make beer for the rain making ceremony. You read about the ijumo ceremony: “This is a cleansing custom which is performed before the rain dance ritual they are brewing beer for. All village men, including boys, wake up early to clean the forests of dead animal carcasses and bones, bringing down disused birds’ nests, removing debris thrown on the riverbanks and destroying abandoned homesteads.”

This book teaches you;  how to prepare isitshwala with impala biltong in marula-nut sauce,  how to prepare isitshwala senyawuthi, a type of thick porridge cooked with finger millet, served with amasi for supper, how to use the umsuzwane herbs to heal deep wounds, how to draw beautiful portraits on walls of huts using white ash, how girls play the inkente game and you also read about the character of the now defunct Nholowemizana ritual, which was about a bride having to have sexual intercourse with her father-in-law… and many other items.

This book teems with characters; various and unpredictable. There is Mamoyo who “would darn, darn and darn, her hands moving softly, slowly and carefully.” There is Sikhwehle Jiyane, a fully grown man and “had things been alright with his mind, he would have made a wonderful husband and father. What baffled a lot of people was that most of the time his faculties seemed quite alert. This made some people think that he was alright after all, while others were not too sure of that. He was one of those people the villagers called ‘umuntu kaMlimu,’ meaning God’s person.” There is Sibanda who rapes his daughter in front of his wife. There is also Tholakele Mpunzi, an extremely beautiful woman in her late twenties who is married to an old man and men try every trick in the book to woo her.

A Portrait of Emlanjeni tries to take a panoramic picture of this place from the unique landscape, the minds of the people, their rich culture and the subsequent challenges that they face in the changing times in Southern Zimbabwe. It is a story told through a woman’s gaze, very sensitive on how women experience a landscape made by nature and men.

Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya grew up in Matobo in Matabeleland South, Zimbabwe. She was first published by University of South Africa Journal, Imbizo, in 2014. In 2016, Radiant Publishing House published her first novel, Izinyawo Zayizolo written in her mother tongue, IsiNdebele. The novel was received with much critical acclaim in the academia. In 2017, Royal Publishing House published her collection of short stories titled, The Fifty Rand Note.

Related Topics