Friday, September 3, 2010

BULAWAYO, the city that raised me , and its emerging artists


I just finished reading two books, the first one I read is by Chris Mlalazi and it is called “Dancing With Life, Tales from the Township. The second one is by Irene Sabatini and it’s entitled “The boy next door.” I did not intentionally read these books that are rooted in the city of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe where I grew up. It just happened that way so that by the time I was done with the second one, I was homesick, but glad to be away, happy but also very sad.

Chris Mlalazi describes a Bulawayo of which I only recognized tiny remnants. Having left Zimbabwe, Bulawayo in 1990, and only returning for very short periods since then, the Bulawayo he describes was unfamiliar, frightening and in cases quite repulsive. I do not recall ever having such feelings about Bulawayo even on my last visit there in 2002. Clearly, there has been a decay and a degradation which Mlalazi captures in his vivid descriptions. This is not only experienced in the portrayal of the external environment, but it is apparent in the nature of the interactions among people, a sense that “Ubunthu”, “I am well if you are well” does not exist anymore. One gets the sense that one is in the wild and it is survival of the fittest. In the story “dancing with life” a scene which captures both environmental and human debauchery reads thus: “Virginia hates Mxolisi. She also wishes him ill. Two weeks back, he had been intimate with her in the public toilet behind Figa Sports bar, and, afterwards, in the feaces smelling darkness, had given her a roll of money .” Then poor Virginia finds out later that she has been given counterfeit notes and so basically she has not been paid for services rendered. Fine so the trade she is in is not exactly an orthodox and legitimate business, however one would have thought that even in the world of the illicit, there is a sense of “Ubunthu”. The total cold lack of remorse by Mxolisi and the stench of feces bring home to me that the hardships people have experienced and are still experiencing can kill compassion for the other. Throughout his stories Mlalazi depicts a mean spiritedness and a lack of conscience in most of his character so that by the time I was done with the book, I felt a little queasy. I was compelled to read it because if this is the ugly truth about Bulawayo then I would rather know, despite the agony this knowing induces.

Irene Sabatini’s offering is a painfully beautiful work that describes the lives of particular characters in the historical context of a downward spiraling Zimbabwe. The eye opener for me with this book, was her exposure of the life of a group of people that I, as an African girl never had access to. The colored people of Bulawayo. It was interesting how she briefly touches on the fact that even within this group there are subgroups, those colored from Thorngrove and those from the more affluent suburbs. It is interesting how the mother of Lindiwe, a Black Ndebele woman wanted so badly that people know that her daughter was not a pure black, but a colored. This highlights the apartheid system that existed in Zimbabwe during the Smith era, where Whites were the top tier race, followed by the Colored /Indian and then the Africans at the bottom of the racial, and therefore, social and economic ladder.

Bulawayo is evocatively described in its glory as well as in its era of demise. One cannot help but feel robbed of the beauty of the Centenary Park, the famous Bulawayo Christmas lights, and the general warmth and welcoming nature of the city with its curio shops, wide roads and the abundance of goodwill in its people. The love story of Lindiwe and Ian seems to flourish, despite the negative effects of their environment, their complex history and how it has shaped them and their own personal struggles with family dysfunction and demons.

The question that this book had me battling with is: Did the dismantling of a racist, oppressionist and unjust societal structure necessitate the destruction of everything else? Did the ushering in of black majority rule have to mean the ushering in of bribery and corruption and a general top- down lawlessness ? Did giving land back to the people have to result in reduced food production so that the very people supposed to benefit from it end up starving?

Sabatini tackles complex issues with a sensitivity and a clarity that is rare. Her characters are real human beings with faults that sometimes drive you to distraction. Yet it is these weaknesses that endear them to the reader in sympathy and compassion.

For anyone from Zimbabwe, it is an essential read. For those interested in complexity and no simple solutions as well as good, well written literature, these two books make the cut.


  1. Great review. A great read indeed.

  2. Thanks Mimi! watch this space for more on my fave books!

  3. Interesting review Barbara, but let not my mean painting of Bulawayo discourage you from visiting - thanks again for taking your time to read my book and write the review...Chris Mlalazi

  4. He who has seen one cathedral ten times has seen something; he who has seen ten cathedrals once has seen but little; and he who has spent half an hour in each of a hundred cathedrals has seen nothing at all.

    Cheap Flights to Bulawayo