A Letter of Love and Wisdom From a Zimbabwean Mother To Her Daughter in America


By J. Nozipo Maraire

Crown, 194 pp., $20

Mothers have packed their children off to college with clean socks and words of wisdom since the first university opened its doors. ''Zenzele,'' a thoughtful first novel by J. Nozipo Maraire, is a letter from a mother, Shiri, to her daughter, Zenzele, who has not only left home but her country, Zimbabwe, to study at Harvard.

''I alone had the responsibility of being your mother and so, by default, your guide and mentor. I have learned something in my awkward journey through womanhood. The lessons are few but enduring. So I hope you will pardon this curious distillation of traditional African teaching, social commentary, and maternal concern. These are the stories that have made me what I am today.... It is all that I have to give to you, Zenzele.''

While the novel is imbued with a compelling mix of Zimbabwean culture and recent history, many of the issues - prejudice, leaving home for the first time, the desire for a better life for one's children - are universal.

Take for instance, the woeful parenting tale of cultural and generational conflict within a family told by Shiri's friend: ''There were horse-riding and French lessons, video games, and trips to London and New York. There was nothing our children asked for that we denied them.... How do you teach integrity, I ask you? I virtually have to beg Petrenella to get her to help with little things around the house; she is out with friends all weekend long.... She is smoking and drinking without shame, right here beneath this roof!''

Shiri's generation is a revolutionary one. Her family and friends fought to free Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia) from the colonists. They took back their country. Shiri's husband is an internationally renowned lawyer, educated in America.

Her sister and cousin are mjiba, ''young women of the revolution. They were women of a new generation who wore trousers like men and could aim just as steady.... They were fit and strong, running through the bush brandishing ... machine guns.... They were as foreign to our traditional image of women as Eskimos.''

Shiri herself has chosen a more traditional role. She is the center of her family - the caregiver, the comforter, the chronicler of family history, the keeper of tradition.

''It is true that I have not fought.... To be sure, no great landscape or colossal sculpture or impassioned poem will bear my signature. I shall not be flying to Rome or London or Oslo for any awards.... But I have loved, and surely this is enough.... And what need do I have of shiny badges for bravery? Courage is, after all, to take great risks - and in loving, I have known the pain of risk and loss. And there is you. Should anyone ask what my contribution is to this world, I can only say that my conscience rests joyously with the knowledge that I had a hand in bringing you into it.''

Shiri's success in parenting is based on both love and tradition. Rather than vacationing in Paris, she takes her family to visit her village - to find their roots and to learn respect for their history. And yet, though it is Shiri's voice narrating the story, for much of the novel her character's presence is somehow blurred. The love is evident, the woman curiously absent.

Shiri's mother, who was fond of dispensing such truths as ''to be an African woman is to work hard,'' said, ''Do you see these hands? These are my words and their work is my testimony. Your words are your deeds.''

For Shiri's generation, Zimbabwe is both their future and a testimonial to what they have achieved. For Shiri herself, Zenzele in some way symbolizes the freedom and possibilities of that future - which is true, to some extent, of all children.

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