Simmering racial tensions

2011-04-20 00:00

ELISE is a 12-year-old girl growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe. Her life is typical of that of a white child growing up as a farmer’s daughter. She has the freedom of space, she is looked after by a beloved nanny, Beauty, whose real name she only discovers when Beauty is dying, and her life is carefree and privileged surrounded by servants and the beauty of the Zimbabwean bush.

Although the book is fiction, there is nothing fictional about the subject matter as it is set during the nineties and early 2000s, right at the time that President Robert Mugabe tried to cement his power by orchestrating the invasion of white-owned farms by so-called veterans of the bush war.

It is these farm invasions that will change the lives of Elise and her family forever. As the farm invasions become increasingly violent, Elise finally becomes aware of the simmering racial tensions and the undercurrents of mistrust between white farmers and black farm workers. The political tensions inevitably change the relationships between blacks and whites, and reveal the truth behind the image created by farmers sipping gin and tonics on their verandas and workers singing in the fields.

Reading the Cry of the Go-Away Bird produced an eerie feeling in me, as if I was sitting in the author’s lounge and watching the events described unfold through the window. The reason for this is that I was living in Zimbabwe during the time in which this book is set. The story had a strange sense of familiarity about it as I recognised words and phrases peculiar to Zimbabweans. Despite this, the book did not reveal anything new, and it would be the same for most Zimbabweans reading it. I’m not sure if non-Zimbabweans would gain any further insight either. It’s almost a timeline of Elise’s life and reaches its ultimately predictable ending. However, it was a light read that kept me entertained enough to keep me reading long after my light should have gone out.

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