BOOK REVIEW Heroine finds life’s a bitter pill to swallow

2015-11-30 11:06

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Sweet Medicine by Panashe Chigumadzi

BlackBird Books

192 pages

R203

...--

‘You cannot fight an evil disease with sweet medicine.”

So begins Ruth First Fellow Panashe Chigumadzi’s debut novel, Sweet Medicine.

It narrates the story of Tsitsi, a young woman in Harare who is struggling to make sense of her rural, Catholic upbringing in a Zimbabwe that forces her to make some difficult economic decisions.

In the prologue, Tsitsi secretly meets a sangoma in the early hours of the morning. She’s hiding, afraid someone might see her, afraid she is there herself, that it has come to this.

But as Tsitsi’s mother says: “Women can’t cry when they must get on.”

This is how Tsitsi attempts to get on when prayer, hard work and education have failed.

Zimbabwe’s rapid economic decline in the early 2000s means that the years Tsitsi spent with her head in books, either the Bible or her schoolbooks, have not resulted in much. She’s still living at home, sharing a single bed with her mother.

“Yes, she had to get on. Her mother, too, wanted to bask in the satisfaction of having successfully raised and educated a child...”

Tsitsi will have to make a plan.

Delivering water to people who can’t afford it? Working in South Africa? Buying eggs and bread in South Africa to resell despite the expensive permit?

“She anticipated the questions of their lost expectations. Where is your house? Where did you leave your car? Where did you leave our two-in-one blankets, Chibuku, and the rest of the gifts you are supposed to bring us? Where is the place that you are hiding these things? Where are the things that we were promised when we, although struggling but nonetheless diligently, sent you to the best schools in our reach – with tuck money and groceries?”

And so Tsitsi makes a plan, gets on with her older, richer employer Big Man Zvobgo. Zvobgo divorces his wife and lives with Tsitsi, but she soon realises that even this will not suffice.

“Where are the things we were promised? Where are the things
Tsitsi?”

This is the question of the book. How do you “get on” when the promise is not enough, when the dream is deferred?

Sweet Medicine does a decent job of attempting to navigate that question, of sketching the lives and decisions of a people caught up in an unstable, unpredictable government and an economic meltdown.

But the characters are outlines, personified metaphors, and the situations they find themselves in are just events with quick entrances and exits.

While this is a fair attempt at a debut novel, the language lacks the nuance and complexity to fully reflect the issues (modernity and spirituality, patriarchy and poverty, desperation and greed) that it attempts to tackle.

It uses blacks and whites to speak about the greys in between, and the result is a book that, at times, feels as young, rushed and confused as Tsitsi is when we meet her at boarding school.

Sweet Medicine carries all the characteristics of an MA programme’s African novel.

It’s the coming-of-age-story that we all apparently want to read, it’s more Americana than The Reactive and We Need New Names.

I applaud Chigumadzi for an ambitious book, but it lacks the literary rigour displayed by writers such as Masande Ntshanga or Noviolet Bulawayo.

I applaud Chigumadzi for an ambitious book, but it lacks the literary rigour displayed by writers such as Masande Ntshanga or Noviolet Bulawayo

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