Coming back to Zimbabwe on holiday just before Christmas was a mistake. Now everyone expects a special Zim present. Instead of enjoying the flowers in bloom and relaxing in the humour and kindness of the Zimbabwean spirit, I have to scour the shops for small, light gifts.
Beautiful stone sculptures weigh too much, baskets are too big, and so I’ve bought some very striking beadwork animals. Then, I go to my friend’s for tea and see she’s reading Charles Mungoshi’s Walking Still and I’m reminded that Zimbabwe has many fine writers.
After fruitlessly trying Kingstons, Mambo and Baroda for some local fiction, someone recommended Folio bookshop in Borrowdale, a charming little shop with a nice display, but not much Zimbabwean, though I do buy a copy of the much-heralded We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, which was shortlisted for the ManBooker – a perfect gift for a friend who has just won a scholarship to America.
Finally, my friend and I land at Weaver Press hidden in the suburbs without even a sign on the gate. Of course, all they have are Weaver books because they’re a publisher not a bookseller but I do manage to winkle out a few others: September Sun by Bryony Rheam, the story of growing up in Rhodesia and learning to become a Zimbabwean. Great fit for my Aunt Bessie, I thought, who still wavers somewhere between the two worlds. I buy my father two volumes of poetry by two very different poets, John Eppel with Songs My Country Taught Me and Julius Chingono, the man with the wonderful smile and great spirit, with Flags of Rags, plus his collection of stories Not Another Day, which my friend says are as funny as they are poignant.
For my kind, religious uncle, I buy a hard copy of Conscience be My Guide, which even I find absorbing after just a first dip: how does one survive years in solitary confinement with a sense of humour and resilience intact?
At this point, I can check four names off my Christmas list, so I take a deep breath and keep browsing. I’ve read The Hairdresser of Harare and loved it for its contemporary feel and because it made me laugh, though the issues it deals with are not always a joke. I’ve also read An Elegy for Easterly, which is equally fine and perceptively written, but these two books have been passed right round my immediate family.
By this time, I’m flagging, and only wanting to lie by the pool, so I decide on three other collections of short stories on a hit and miss basis, hoping to fit them to a family member, post-eventum as it were. Writing Free, as it is an anthology with a selection of writers, and still quite new and relevant, White Gods Black Demons because I love the dry sardonic humour of the first few pages, and Chioniso and Other Stories because I remember Shimmer of old, that big man with a deep voice and a kind heart whose first book Dew in the Morning was among my first forays into Zimbabwean literature.
In fact, I feel so proud of myself for finishing off my shopping at one go that I treat myself to a copy of Valerie Tagwira’s The Uncertainty of Hope. I love stories about women being strong together, so I’m sure to finish reading this novel before the end of my return flight. Then I’ll share it with my book club and give those overseas friends of mine a taste of the Zimbabwean spirit.
I may not have bought for everyone, but I have a range of titles in my suitcase that will carry a little of Zimbabwe with me, and give my friends and family exiled but aching for home, a sense of the complex realities that are a part of our beautiful but troubled country.
And with such a fantastic solution to my shopping challenge, I’ll have room in my suitcase for a jar of homemade peanut butter.