Telling a nuanced African story through the eyes of Gappah

By Gracious Madondo

PETINA Gappah exhibits a strong personality on and off the pages of the books she has penned. She is witty, sophisticated and candid and has a huge fan base on social platforms like Facebook.   

An international trade lawyer, Gappah has so far derived more fame and acclaim from her creative literary prowess than her legal expertise.

Since winning the Guardian Fiction Book Award in 2009 for her first book “An Elegy for Easterly,” Gappah has effectively carved a niche as a strong and respected female voice in post-independence Africa.

The success of her first collection of short stories in “An Elegy for Easterly” naturally created interest from readers and publishers. And just two years after winning the Guardian Fiction award, Gappah came out with a gem of her first novel, “The Book of Memory”.

“The Book of Memory” recounts the life of an albino female prisoner who tells the story of her life story like an internal monologue through some personal written diary.

While writing from diametrically different standpoints, Gappah’s concern for the wellbeing of women is comparable to Tsitsi Dangarembgwa, Yvonne Vera and Chiedza Musengezi.

In “The Book of Memory” Gappah displays her intricate knowledge of the judicial system, lays bare the debilitating prison conditions of female prisoners at Zimbabwe’s maximum prison, Chikurubi. He fictional narrative is both a call for corrective measures in as much as it is an appeal for authorities to improve the welfare of prisoners.

Falling short of being a sponsored project, Gappah’s main protagonist is an albino woman. Her choice of centralizing an albino is deliberate and relevant given a horde or prejudices, discrimination and superstitious regarding albinos in general.

While in “An Elegy for Easterly” Gappah vividly captures the lives of individuals struggling against insurmountable survival odds, “Book of Memory” attempts to enter the inner memory chamber of an individual faced with a multipronged odds. First as an albino, second a female and third an alleged murderer.

As Gappah herself acknowledges, “The Book of Memory” is a sister novel to the lovely collection of short prison memoirs, “A Tragedy of Lives: Women in Prison in Zimbabwe” – a 2013 publication by Weaver Press edited by Irene Staunton and Chiyedza Musengezi.

In as much as  “The Book of Memory” is a pure creative output from a very perceptive mind, it can also be read as a social project laying bare the behind the scenes stories of female prisoners as aptly illustrated in “A Tragedy of Lives: Women in Prison in Zimbabwe”.

The protagonist, Memory also known as Mnemosyne, in Gappah’s novel “The Book of Memory” demonstrates the power of memory as symbolized by her name. She tells her story while behind bars, relating to her memories from childhood while staying in Mufakose with her parents, to her new life living with the white man Lloyd Hendricks to her present in Chikurubi maximum prison. These very salient stages of her life also mark the three sections that divide the novel.

In naming the protagonist Memory, Gappah displays a deeper understanding and appreciation of art making her novel more of a psychological novel. In Greek mythology as Katie Mahaffie elaborates, Mnemosyne was not only the goddess of memory; she was also the mother of the Muses, the goddess of various arts.

Chikurubi was primarily designed to cater for male prisons and as such the facilities are not just an inconvenient for female prisoners but are not suited for them. Besides, unlike their male counterparts, women lack other essentials like sanitary pads or cotton, which sometimes results in outbreaks and deaths as recounted by Memory: “There was a cholera epidemic the year before I arrived. Ten women died.”

Besides the poor living conditions, female prisoners have to bear with the brutal treatment meted against them by prison guards.

Sinfree, a new prisoner is subject to heavy beatings by Synodia the guard because she is Ndebele and does not understand Shona and she decides to communicate in English and for each English word she received a slap until she collapsed.

Scholar Jeremy Starkin in the Journal Prisons in Africa: An Evaluation from a Human Rights Perspective refers to prisons in Africa as “another legacy of colonialism”, an institution that is foreign to African societies initially aimed at exercising superiority and administers capital and corporal punishment. As imprisonment was unknown in the African pre-colonial society, incarceration started when the first Europeans arrived.

As Starkin further elaborates, imprisonment and capital punishment were regarded as the last resort within the African Justice system, to be only used when repeated offenders such as witches posed direct risk to the local community.

Gappah rightly notes the different understanding of the idea of a prison and imprisonment. In England the prison is referred to as “penitentiaries”, jails as places of penitence, “were sinners and criminals being so close together, would make their peace with their maker”(pg113).

Whereas in America they call the prison ‘’correctional facilities”, in Zimbabwe prison bears names such as “college”, “tirongo” and “jere” are used to refer to the idea of simply locking away someone as punishment to a crime I hope it will not be repeated. Such differences reveal how the idea of prisons is almost foreign to Africa as Africans fail to fully utilize and meet it sole purpose.

For Memory, imprisonment is not only physical, it is also psychological. She feels entrapped in her own skin and wishes she would escape but both science and religion has failed to make her skin darker. Her albinism from birth and especially as a child has made her feel unwanted and this is due to the discrimination from her mother, the children playing in the streets and the community at large.

Due to the lack of melanin of her skin and the superstations people seem to uphold against people with albinism, Memory “spent most of her time trying to be invisible, to disappear, to melt and only observe…” Gappah clearly depicts the effects of discrimination upon a person with albinism and the psychological damage such as self-hate, with Memory dusting herself with her mother’s darker face powder in order to make her skin dark only to realize she would need more than just one portion of her mother’s face powder for her to cover the whole body.

Nick names of riddle also accompany the stigma, names such the vernacular “murungudunhu” or “musope”. Growing up, Memory is accustomed to such name calling and she feels unwanted and feels like an outcast, belonging to neither the black nor the white race. ”as murungudunhu or musope I found myself with normal people in noun class one. But murungudunhu is heavy with meaning. As a murungudunhu, I am a black woman who is imbued not with whitenes of murungu, of privilege, but of dunhu, of ridicule and fakery, and a ghastly white (pg10)

It is the forthrightness in Gappah’s writing that calls for a social change to this violation of human rights towards people living with albinism.

Superstition label them as carriers of bad luck and death, religion associate them with evil spirits with culture associate them with the ancestors’ anger and curse. The Book of Memory therefore stands as the herald of a society free from stigma and segregation of people living with albinism.

A pronounced number of women in Gappah’s book of Memory are behind bars for crimes such as murder, attempted murder, infanticide, corruption and theft.

“The Book Of Memory” ceases being just the single story of the character Memory but develops into a story of a collective, a troubled people screaming behind the prison walls for justice, for their stories to be heard, to make peace with society and their maker as well and also as an appeal to responsible authorizes to get involved and re-establish the female prison at Chikurubi Maximum prison.

Gappah’s writing also challenges the prison institution as a colonial creation almost advocating for the return of the African pre-colonial justice system as evidenced by her constant reference to the issue of “ngozi”, something that a death sentence or a prison cell can never appease but a proper traditional ruling, to do away with the avenging spirit and appease both the deceased and the his or her family, serving justice to both parties.

The Biblical allusion to the title of the Book of Malachi, “Those who fear the Lord spoke to another and he gave them attention and a Book of Memory was written’’ (pg 267) elevates the text as a dedication to all the women facing the horror of prison behind the prison walls of Chikurubi Maximum Prison, giving an audible voice to their cries for justice and a betterment of the lives behind bars.

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