Author: Petina Gappah
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Year of publication: 2009
Number of pages: 273
Genre: Short story collection
We suffered a bit in the 1990s when the Kenyan shilling was devalued by 30% at one go in 1993 and we suffered the worst inflation in our history. The US dollar was suddenly going close to Kshs100 and thereabouts which was something when you consider that that it had always been around 20-30 bob. The price of stuff went crazy and many older Kenyans still remember that horrible time in our history which is interesting as things start becoming a bit tougher again in Kenya as the price of water, food, rates and others go up. How bad can it get with the increase in prices? Well it’s hard to imagine how Kenyans will react. Its times like this that we want to look to fiction to teach us reality and the best book for this is Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah’s short story collection; An Elegy for Easterly.
The book which was published in 2009 by Faber and Faber (who have also published Teju Cole’s Open City that I loved so much) is a collection of 13 stories from Zimbabweans with a focus on the period that the country was going through their economic meltdown that many Africans are aware of that stabilised after country adopted the US dollar as its official currency. The story shows that the people from that proud nation are weirdly very similar to Kenyans in the whole and thus is a good gauge of how we would be affected by another meltdown should it happen.
The book shows the lengths that a once proud people will go to when pushed against the wall. We see an elderly gentleman in Our man in Geneva Wins A Million Euros who becomes a victim of an email scam when receives an email telling him that he is a winner. We have all gotten them but this gentleman is still new to email and he gets taken to the cleaners the poor dear. (If you want to read the whole email scam thing I recommend that you read I do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani). Also showing the changes of to the proud Zimbabwean is the story of My Cousin-Sister Rambanai who had come back from the US to bury her father but then cannot return because she had overstayed on her visitor’s visa. She convinces her relatives to get her new papers so that she can restart her life in the UK.
Perhaps the best story showing the way that people whose lives have been affected is the title story An Elegy for Easterly. It is the tale of a village/township that appears outside of Harare that appears when the government decided to clean up its capital city in honour of the visit of Queen Elizabeth. The people from this little locality have to make do to make a living selling anything that they could. The women sell farm produce, “mbambaira, muriwo, matomato, onion, mabanana, maorange.” The men sell as well with a whole range of goods in Siyaso a second hand market. At the centre of that story is Josephat’s wife who needs a child and Martha Mupengo a mad woman who had moved into a house that was vacated when a couple died in it. There is a very grim ending to this story.
Its not just the people in the lower echelons of society that have to see fire in a society that isn’t functioning as it once did. At the Sound of the Last Post is the tale of the widow of a infamous minister and the things she has to do to secure her legacy in a country she adopted. In the Heart of The Golden Triangle tells talks about Catherine who is living in an exclusive part of Harare but is not as happy as one would imagine with her life. She was initially the small house (Kenyans know this as mpango wa kando, the rest of the English speaking world as clandestine lover) before being upgraded to first wife status and one has to feel for her in her gilded palace.
This collection is not all doom and gloom about changes in a nation however. My favourite tale, The Mupandawana Dancing Champion is the story of a dance competition that happened in the Gutu-Mupandawana growth point and the gentleman who won in called M’dhara Vitalis. Mdhara’ was a worker from Harare who when retirement time came was given a golden handshake of three pairs of shoes that badly fit him. He entered this dancing competition and won it despite his advanced age. This story shows the humour of the writer and I kept laughing at the description of the completion especially as M’dhara unleashed his awesome dance moves. Sample this;
“And then Felicitas put on Chamunorwa Nebeta and the Glare Express. As the first strains of the Tambai Mese Mujairinane filled the room, we saw M’dhara Vitalis transformed. He wriggled his hips. He closed his eyes and whistled. He turned his back on us and used the vent in the back of the jacket to expose his bottom as he said pesu pesu,’ moving the jacket first from one side then to the other…”
This is brilliant hilarious as it can get. Gappah can weave a tale better than most of them and I was very happy that I could read this book. And as I learned from this book, things could get really lousy when a country’s economy goes to the toilet.
Just like the Zimbabwe folks survived in these stories, we can too. In spite of ourselves.