In literature, children epitomise innocence and purity because of their lack of experience and will be bursting with wild ideas and untainted bright hopes for the future.
The displaced child in a society in conflict not only unravels the cruelty of the world but also the realities of today’s societies.
Writers use this technique as an instrument to capture the reader’s attention through child protagonists.
The simple use of language, simple ideas and settings is synonymous with books or stories in which a child is a protagonist.
Memory Chirere is one such writer. His simplicity in characterisation, representation and storytelling captivates readers and provokes the mind to decipher and uncover the story behind the seemingly simplistic narrative as reflected in “Somewhere in this Country”, a short story compilation published in 2006.
The depiction of children in conflict is quite a common feature across genres and across nationalities - a style of writing that also inspired me to adopt the idea in my English Literature Honours Degree dissertation in which I zeroed in on the depiction of children in conflict-ridden societies in Africa.
The use of child characters is an intricate endeavour, which compels one to weave into a world and mind of the young and innocent.
This style can be noted in works such as “Some Kinds of Wounds and Other Stories” by Charles Mungoshi, “We Need New Names”- No Violet Bulawayo (2013), “Mission to Kala”- Mongo Beti (1957) and in Mozambique’s Ferdinand Oyono’s “Houseboy” (1956), among others.
Professor Robert Muponde’s “Some Kinds of Childhood: Images of History and Resistance in Zimbabwe” (2015) aptly illustrates this dystopian depiction of children and childhood in Zimbabwean literature.
African writers use the image of the child to expose the displacement and erosion of African cultural values mainly due to outside forces such as colonialism.
Chirere’s “Somewhere in this Country” is one such text in which the careful and witty use of simple language and child character makes the work overpoweringly appealing to readers.
“Somewhere in this country” (2006) has an eye-catching cover of a colourful image of a dusty road with lush green grass on the sides leading to a big mountain canopied by rainy reddish clouds in the sky. It is an illustration that enthuses the reader to delve into the insides of the text.
The book is currently being studied at Advanced Level.
The book depicts a number of themes. It captures issues such as HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, love and relationships, poverty as well as spiritual and physical displacement.
Chirere’s obsession with child characters is evident in various short stories in the anthology. These include “Keresenzia”, “Sixteen” and “Beautiful Children”, among others.
The title “Somewhere in this World” might connote some distant inconsequential place but the truth is it is in such places where the pertinent issues affecting the generality of Zimbabweans are articulated and expressed in the simplest of ways.
Stories with child characters include the opening story “Keresenzia”. This is a story of a young girl living in poverty under the wing of her grandmother, Matambudziko. Keresenzia pesters her grandmother for attention with endless demands.
Keresenzia’s constant nagging reflects her psychological longing for belonging. She knows nothing of her parents because Matambudziko refuses to tell her and, as a result, the two are in constants conflict.
Instead of enlightening Keresenzia of her heritage and origins, Matambudziko wishes to die.
“Why are you crying, Ambuya?” The girl asked much later. “Tell me a later.”
“I am not crying,” Ambuya said, shedding tears. She then told a tale about a young widowed old dove who prayed for death but would not die “a peaceful death”.
Matambudziko’s death would surely give her the rest she longs for but it would worsen her granddaughter’s cultural displacement, as she would be left with no one to pass on knowledge to her and guide her.
In an interview, Chirere denies that Keresenzia’s abnormal behaviour can be attributed to Matambudziko’s failure to inform her of her heritage and origin, citing a more Afro-centric reason.
“She (Matambudziko) evades these questions because she thinks the girl is too young to handle her tragic history and will tell her later in life. She is doing this hoping it is in the best interest of the girl. In African traditions, you just don’t tell an infant its parents died, just like that,” Chirere said.
In “Sixteen”, Chirere plays with the idea of a child protagonist and places Muchaneta at the centre stage. In the story, the narrator highlights the plight of orphans and how the death of both parents robs children of immediate guardians.
The story places emphasis on the emotional strength of the girl child. Domestic violence and infidelity between mother and father lead to divorce, leaving Muchaneta as the head of the family.
Family disintegration and child-headed families are depicted as among the major problems in urban social settings.
Despite having a child at the centre of the storm, Muchaneta emerges as the hero, as she manages to take care of her young siblings and keep the family together.
Children in conflict are also depicted in the story “Beautiful Children”. Set in the background of poverty, illness and emotional and physical abuse, the story tells of Andrusha, a child immigrant from Mozambique.
The story captures these sentiments in the voice of a young child.
The story unravels the effects of name-calling and its impact on the self-esteem of children. The name “Moscan” is a derogatory name used to refer to people of Mozambican origins.
This leads to Andrusha’s self-hatred and despising of his own identity to the extent of camouflaging his shame speaking Korekore, a local Shona dialect.
The image of the child in literature tells a broader story than meets the eye.
The behaviour of child characters is a reflection of the adult. They give a background of the problems the world faces today.
There is an underlying message in each story.
The message says: the most effective way of solving societal problems is to start by imparting useful knowledge to young children.