These ten stories by Zimbabwean author, Lawrence Hoba, form one of the most engaging collections to come out of Zimbabwe in the last five years. Each story opens readers’ eyes and hearts to the rural lives of Zimbabweans.
Set during the period 2003 to 2009, many of the stories offer an understanding of the challenges faced by farm workers as they sought to create farms of their own. Academic analysis of the land reform programme in Zimbabwe abounds, as do memoirs by the farmers affected by the reform. This collection is one of the first to provide a fictional – non-didactic – window through which readers experience this contested period from the perspective of small farmers.
In an interview in 2010, Hoba said he was inspired to write the stories after living in Chiredzi: “I was also lucky to have been assigned as a relief teacher in 2003 to a farm school where the new Black farmers were living side by side with a white farmer. I witnessed the despair, anger, humanity, stupidity and so on that came as a result of the tensions brought about by their co-existence…”
Hoba uses various points of view in telling the stories. Several stories are told from the perspective of a little boy. “The First Trek – the Pioneers,” for example, tells of a family’s move to a sugar-cane farm. The story is simply that of their travel in an ox-cart, but the boy’s description of their belongings reveals the nuances of his parent’s relationship and their hopes. Two subsequent stories from this child’s perspective tell of how these hopes are betrayed. Other stories are told from the perspective of a young man who has had a Western education. “Specialisation,” for example, tells of how several men try unsuccessfully to produce a good harvest, and pokes fun at both those who seek easy solutions and the educated whose book learning offers only misdirection. Hoba has received particular praise for his ability to capture the child’s voice, focusing on the child’s concerns and reporting adult activity without full understanding.
A number of the stories highlight the position of women in this farming world. “Maria’s Independence” is a love story whose main character is a woman in a man’s world, laying claim and establishing her farm even as she lays claim to a man and establishes a relationship. What could be more romantic or more poetic than the last line, “Sometimes he meets her at the Revolutionary Council’s organised pungwes and when she is tired of dancing the kongonya she jumps into no other man’s lap except his”? In contrast are stories of women supporting their families even as the men disappear: in “The Second Trek—Going Home,” the boy’s family loses their new farm, the father disappears, and the mother picks up the pieces. Similarly, in “The Traveling Preacher,” it is the woman who cares for the preacher’s children when he too disappears. These stories call attention to the importance of women in maintaining and caring for families, even while exploring the possibilities for more financial stability through women’s access to land ownership.
Finally, a group of stories underscores the incomprehensibility of the HIV/AIDs plague. In “Tonde’s Return” a sister receives her brother to die at home after years of absence, while in “A Dream and a Guitar,” a grandfather plays the guitar, sings songs, and descends into insanity in the face of the deaths of his children and grandchildren. The stories enable readers to feel both the devastation of loss and the inscrutability of a plague that strikes down the young.
The Trek and Other Stories won’t take you long to read, but you won’t forget the stories.
Lisa María Burgess has lectured in literature and writing at Tsinghua University, Howard University, Rhodes University, and the University of Dar es Salaam, having earned her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania.