Today’s Zimbabwe shows that you don’t need a war to destroy a country. After a promising start and years of prosperity, a toxic blend of unbridled power and unrestrained corruption has led to the current disaster: a nation ravaged by AIDS, farmland lying idle, and inflation so mind-boggling that it has rendered the Zimbabwean dollar more valuable as an eBay curiosity than as legal tender.
An Elegy for Easterly, a debut collection of stories by the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah, turns this dire situation into a series of short, heartbreaking tales. Like people everywhere, the Zimbabweans in these stories personalize their troubles, viewing the social and economic forces that batter them in terms of the choices they make in their day-to-day lives.
“Small, small things burned in the flames of inflation,” thinks the unhappy wife in one story, remembering the days when the family had two cars and could send their children to school.
Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s ruler since 1980, is a constant presence, though rarely named. His photo hangs in every store and government office, yet he is glimpsed in person only once, by a widow burying her husband at Heroes’ Acre outside Harare. Although she is fully aware of what Mugabe has done to the country, her view of him – at least as a man – is surprisingly sympathetic. “He brings his hands together in a clasp that puts the sinews of both hands into relief. It makes him, for a fleeting moment, the very old man that he is. Unexpected pity wells up inside me.”
The characters in these stories are not Zimbabwe’s worst off. They are not dying of AIDS, though they know people who are. Many have seen foreign countries, though they may no longer be able to afford a plane ticket. Many are educated, with bits of T.S. Eliot and Thomas Hardy in the backs of their minds.They are suffering, though others are suffering far more, but they face the grim realities of their country with creativity, liveliness, and a resilient sense of humor.
“An Elegy for Easterly,” the title story, follows the lives of the inhabitants of a squatter settlement until the government’s bulldozers come to scrape away their homes of poles and mud and plastic. “The Annex Shuffle” is about a law student’s mental breakdown, temporary yet long-lasting in its effects. “The Mupandawana Dancing Champion” tells of an aging coffinmaker with an unexpected flair for disco dancing.
“Something Nice from London” may be the most accomplished and most heartbreaking story in the collection. It begins at Harare’s airport, largely deserted since the disappearance of tourists. A boy in an orange shirt tells Mary Chikwiro that his mother is bringing him something nice from London. Mary, who narrates the story, is waiting with her family for her brother Peter, but it turns out that he is not on the flight. It is some time before the reader realizes that Peter is no longer alive.
Peter’s death brings tensions in the Chikwiro family to a boil. Relatives from the countryside arrive in Harare, needing to be fed and housed for day after day, though Peter’s body has not arrived. Peter himself, it turns out, has been impoverishing his family and ruining his mother’s health with his constant demands for more money.
Wafa wanaka, the old people say, meaning don’t speak ill of the dead. But Mary cannot contain her own feelings, and they break out explosively near the airport gift shop. “I feel rage so bitter,” she thinks, “that it is like bile in my mouth. I am unaware of the first hot tears that course down my cheeks. They are the first tears that I have shed, but I do not cry for him, they are tears of hatred for him and his miserable little life and what he has done to our family.”
A summary of this book inevitably makes it seem bleak, but these stories are shot through with humor and empathy. And for anyone who has been in Zimbabwe in recent years, this book is full of closely observed local detail that will bring back memories: Kingsgate cigarettes and Castle lager; white-robed fundamentalists worshiping in open fields; ramshackle “emergency taxis” running through Harare; and the music of Andy Brown, Oliver Mutukudzi, and the Bhundu Boys.
Geoff Wisner, the author of “A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa,” spent six months in Zimbabwe working for a volunteer program.