When I received the request to write a foreword to Footprints in the Mists of Time, a tour de force novel recently written by Spiwe Mahachi-Harper, I hesitated, wishing to disqualify myself from such a mammoth undertaking.
Beyond being just a consumer of literature, what could I, an economist and a banker, have to say on any literary work, especially this particular one, I wondered. I had been privy to earlier drafts and had seen the manuscript transform into a novel that one Zimbabwean writer and critic, Memory Chirere, has dubbed Zimbabwe's longest novel to date in any language. To write a foreword to the novel was, however, an entirely different matter, yet I was also conscious of the great honour bestowed upon me.
The novel, which is essentially about labour migrations in Southern Africa can be read through multiple lenses. There is an extended debate, often couched in broader economic, political and social terms, on the causes and effects of migration on the receiving and sending countries.
Spiwe Mahachi-Harper contributes to this debate in novel form and tells the story of the lives and experiences of migrant workers at a mine in Southern Rhodesia. It is a story told through the voices of four generations of migrants from Nyasaland. For Spiwe, herself a Zimbabwean living in Great Britain, the story of migration is more than economics and politics. It is above all a human story. Migrants are people with dreams, desires, hopes and plans. Their struggle is a common human struggle, but one that is lived and experienced in foreign lands, with all the attendant challenges of alienation, loss of culture and crisis of identity. Migrants lead exilic lives suspended between home and away, always mentally projecting the geography of another space separate from the one they physically inhabit.
Nobel laureate, V.S. Naipaul has written about this sense of exile, isolation and loss of identity in A House for Mr. Biswas, a story about a descendant of East Indian migrants who were brought by the British to Trinidad as indentured labour. Mr. Biswas exists on the margins of society, and is in a constant search for identity, acceptance and independence, and the house represents all these; a yearning for a place called home.
Similarly, Spiwe's characters endure lives carved out of marginalisation, alienation and disdain. In their new adopted homes, they are looked down upon by their white employers and never really accepted by the locals. When Dhairesi, the free-spirited grand-daughter of Bhaureni the patriarch immigrant, falls in love with a local Shona boy, Tatenda, she has hopes of marrying him one day. She is soon disabused of any such ideas by her own community, and even more brutally by Tatenda's aunt, Amai Moyo, who makes it clear to her that Tatenda's family would never accept a daughter-in-law "who has neither a totem nor acceptable roots."
Running through Footprints in the Mists of Time is the theme of culture and identity. The migrants at Patchway Valley Mine live at the cross-road of cultures. They hail from different countries, tribes and clans. They also have to contend with the dominant local Shona culture. While the older generation of immigrants resist assimilation and do all they can to retain cultural purity, the younger generation yearns to conform into dominant as well as trending cultural idioms. The result is cross-cultural and intergenerational conflicts.
Spiwe captures the complexity these cultural conflicts and identity crises in the life of Dhairesi, the spirited grand-daughter of the patriarch immigrant. All Dhairesi yearns for is to emulate local Shona girls, have a Shona name -- and Fadzai is the Shona name she adopts for herself--, fall in love with a local Shona boy, and not have to practice the dated rituals of her people, such as initiation into womanhood or being forced to shave off her hair in honour of the dead. She wants to follow a culture that she and her young friends call "isimanje-manje" or modernisation. The result is all too familiar.
In the end Dhairesi cuts a tragic figure, accepted by none and rejected by all. Her Shona friends refuse to call her by her adopted name, her community treats her as a freak, lumping her together with the disabled and the mentally unstable, and her wish for marriage to Tatenda ends in rejection and disappointment. She yearns for acceptance, independence and identity but finds none.
The novel is not only about hardships, conflicts and shattered dreams, it also about hope, determination and the future.
Spiwe closes the novel with the voice of Mavhuto, the great grandson of the patriarch immigrant, who left his Nuhono village in Nyasaland and travelled many months to the mines of Southern Rhodesia. Mavhuto demonstrates that same spirit, a determination to break with the past, and for him it is a determination that transcends everything. It is a spirit born out of a realisation that this adopted land that they inhabit, the new Zimbabwe, is also their own. Mavhuto does not need to go back to Malawi to trace the histories of his people because this piece of earth beneath him is his own patch as well and from it, he will trace the footprints of his people through the mists of time. From this patch of earth that he has claimed as his own, he will make other destinies for himself and his progeny, his own footprints in the mists of time.
Spiwe is a talented story teller. Zimbabweans will be familiar with her other works, such as Echoes in the Shadows or Trials and Tribulation, all told in lucid language and in gripping tones. In Footprints in the Mists of Time, she gives an honest voice to migrants, allowing them to narrate their hopes, their pain, their despair and their dreams. It is also our story, a human story in this era of globalisation and human movements.
Kupukile Mlambo, Ph.D. (Econ)
Deputy Governor, Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe
Harare, Zimbabwe, 4 September, 2013