Tsitsi Mapepa’s powerful debut novel tells the story of a family who find themselves in the devastating situation of having to put down new roots – in their own country. Set in Zimbabwe after independence, Ndima Ndima follows the fortunes of the Taha family as they rebuild their lives in Southgate 1, one of a growing number of satellite settlements outside Harare. The family digs into what main character, school-age Nyeredzi describes as ‘this new raw land’– planting maize, laying the foundations of a house, connecting with community, and, crucially, rediscovering the depth of culture that has been stripped away by brutal colonisation and its aftermath.
Central to this tale are the women. Nyeredzi, the youngest of four sisters, is brave, sensitive, questioning; she loves to sink her toes into the red earth. Her mother the matriarch Zuva is a former fighter in the second Chimurenga War who is both no-nonsense and deeply spiritual. The three other sisters reflect contrasts of place and of human nature: Abigail’s loathing of dirt, Ruth’s cautious self-protection, Hannah’s love of jokes. One thing these girls and women have in common is that they have seen more than they will ever tell. That sense of testimony – what is remembered, what must be said, what cannot be told – percolates every page.
The novel reflects Mapepa’s profound imaginative connection with Zimbabwe, where she was born and grew up. (She now lives in Tāmaki Makaurau: I first encountered her when she was a student at the Manukau Institute of Technology.) In the great tradition of the postcolonial novel, Mapepa unfolds a world that is sprawling, complex, detailed, steeped in history yet looking to the future, a world centred on land that has been taken away and land that must be reclaimed.
Nyeredzi craved the taste and texture of iron–rich dirt on her tongue and was eager to lick it, but she was shy about being judged by her new friends. She never told them that back in Marondera, she used to lick her muddy fingers while she played with Cleo and Tariro. Or that she ate soil from the termite hill at the edge of Mr. Davidson’s farm.
The novel begins in 1990, ten years after a hard-won independence from the former white Rhodesian government which in turn had broken away from British colonial rule. Zimbabwe must now pick up the pieces from years of multiple occupier theft and turmoil. There is poverty, displacement, little rule of law, and every family has been touched by loss and trauma.
But there is also an exciting sense of renewal in this story, with communities, houses, services springing up around Harare. While thugs roam the adjacent bush, and the local ‘Monstrous Joy bar’ is a trial, Nyeredzi’s father is building a haven for the family ‘brick by brick’. While pregnant girls are known to throw themselves into the path of a train, Zuva is determined to create a safer world for her daughters and for all women. While Christianity has become paramount, traditional beliefs of place are resurfacing.
It is these contrasts that Mapepa juxtaposes so vividly in her textured telling. For its combination of direct narration, elegant descriptions and startling metaphors, Ndima Ndima is a compelling read. Point of view remains solidly with the quick-thinking Nyeredzi. Her tone, distilled through the third-person narrative, is at once sociopolitical and up-close personal. When a cousin arrives fleeing an abusive husband, Nyeredzi wonders if ‘this was what happened when you got married. Being beaten. Being sad all your life’. During the drought which plagues the new settlement, Nyeredzi observes, ‘It was as though their ancestors had forgotten about them and swallowed all of the saliva left above the Earth’.
While Ndima Ndima is the story of a country, it is also that of characters. Zuva the matriarch carries the spirit of the ancestors, a heritage disturbed by the war but beginning to resurface. At Southgate 1, Zuva clears land by scything and pouring boiling water down snake holes to benefit the whole community – a stunningly described sequence. She leads at the Christian church yet welcomes the traditional. When the family are being attacked, Zuma keeps planting, saying, ‘If you run today, do you think they won’t come back tomorrow?… You have to deal with your problem before another one comes along’.
Nyeredzi has inherited Zuva’s traits and is the one who will carry them into a new era. It is she who persuades her reluctant sisters, and in turn hundreds of people, to take part in the eponymous Ndima Ndima dance which is at the core of the novel.
When Southgate 1 is drought-stricken, the community calls on the ancestors to bring rain. In this gloriously described episode, we see not just the vibrant actions of the people and their renewal in their culture, but Nyeredzi’s inner quest for self-determination for herself, her family and country: ‘Even with all the proof they had heard her, she didn’t stop’. Mapepa weaves together these elements with remarkable intensity.
Ndima Ndima is a ‘novel in stories’. ‘Fulfilled’ traces the building of the house, an important motif, ‘The Hollowed Scar’ tells how sister Ruth was shot in the foot as a baby, and ‘African Fish Eagle’ concerns Nyeredzi’s destiny to travel. While the structure remains episodic, it appears to echo the experience of characters who have witnessed events no one could ever forget. Moment follows moment, memories of loss and torment interrupt, and this story circles and builds.
For its intensity and sense of witness, Ndima Ndima could be compared with fellow Zimbabwean novelist Petina Gappah’s The Book of Secrets. Certainly, Mapepa has produced a novel that joins the literary outpouring on independence across African nations.
While this poignant novel is grown from a literary heritage, it is also utterly original, like the new way of being its characters must inhabit. Ndima Ndima is many things: a deep portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship; a synthesis of past and present; an aching yet hopeful story. Ndima Ndima explores what is precious – a place to be, a future, loved ones, community, resilience. Ndima Ndima is beautifully, urgently, page-turningly uplifting.