Author's Short Stories Offer Peek Into Zimbabwe

The characters in Petina Gappah's first book, An Elegy for Easterly, could people a town in her native Zimbabwe.

She's written a collection of stories about every layer of Zimbabwean culture: from the educated and the elite to the quirky, the completely mad and the children running in the street.

Each are affected by the modern problems of the African nation: runaway inflation, unemployment, AIDS and death.

But the stories are peppered with humor and charm, and more than a bit of irony.

The story "At the Sound of the Last Post," is set at the funeral of a high government official, a hero of the revolution that ended colonization and put President Robert Mugabe into power some 30 years ago.

"I wrote this story actually because I have become increasingly upset about the way the government of Robert Mugabe has sort of appropriated this struggle as their struggle," Gappah says.

"It's now become a political game," Gappah adds, "where you only become a hero if you happened to be in agreement with the president at the time that you died."

The funeral takes place at what's known as Heroes Acre, Zimbabwe's version of Arlington National Cemetery. Gappah uses a speech there on Zimbabwe's sovereignty to illustrate the cost of years of official corruption and mismanagement:

I say to Blair and to Bush that this country will never, a trillion, trillion, trillion times never be a colony again. The microphone gave a piercing protest at the trillion, trillion. Making the phrase jump out louder than the other words. There was a nugget of newness in the use of trillion and not million as a measure of recolonization. It is three months since inflation reached 3,325,000 percent per-anum. Making billionaires of everyone, even maids and gardeners.

But, of course, the economic crisis and runaway inflation turned all but the richest and most powerful Zimbabweans into paupers.

"There's a joke about Zimbabweans being the poorest billionaires in the world," Gappah chuckles.

She also writes of how the professional and educated in Zimbabwe, what once was the middle class, have had to change. Gappah says "they've become dealers selling anything and everything that comes their way. It can be milk, it can be Pampers — it can be anything, really."

Gappah's short stories go beyond the headlines and news reports. She's quick to point out her countrymen's love of the written word, from characters quoting Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll to small dust-pocket towns where a newspaper or a tabloid is a treasure.

"People always ask me how I manage to find humor in so much bleakness," Gappah laughs. "I think this is almost a necessary skill to have.

"I always say to people that Zimbabweans are the funniest people in Africa," Gappah says. "We even laugh at funerals. And it's true. I mean, there are so many jokes about funerals. There are so many jokes about AIDS.

"We find ways of coping with pain by laughing at it and by laughing at ourselves," Gappah says.

Excerpts from 'The Mupandawana Dancing Champion' by Petina Grappah

'An Elegy for Easterly'

When the prices of everything went up ninety-seven times in one year, M'dhara Vitalis Mukaro came out of retirement to make the coffins in which we buried our dead. In a space of only six months, he became famous twice over, as the best coffin maker in the district and as the Mupandawana Dancing Champion.

Fame is an elastic concept, especially in a place like this, where we all know the smells of each others' armpits.

M'dhara Vitalis was forced to retire three years earlier than anticipated. His employer told him that the company was shutting down because they could not afford the foreign currency. There would not be money for a pension, he was told, the money had been invested in a bank whose directors had run off with it kwazvakarehwa to England. He had been allowed to keep his overalls and had been given some of the tools that he had used in the factory. And because the owner was also closing down another factory, one that manufactured shoes, M'dhara Vitalis and all the other employees were each given three pairs of shoes.

Jeremiah, Bobo, and I saw him as he got off the Wabuda Wanatsa bus from Harare. "Thirty years, vakomana," he said to us, as he shook his head. "You work thirty years for one company and this is what you get. Shuwa, shuwa, pension yebhutsu. Heh? Shoes, instead of a pension. Shoes. These, these..."

The words caught in his throat.

"Ende futi dzinoshinya, all the pairs are half a size too small for me," he added when he had recovered his voice. We commiserated with him as best we could. We poured out all the feeling contained in our hearts.

"Sorry, M'dhara," I said.

"Rough, M'dhara," said Jeremiah.

"Tight," said Bobojani.

We watched him walk off carefully in his snug-fitting shoes, the plastic bag with the other two pairs dangling from his left hand.

"Pension yebhutsu," Jeremiah said, and, even as we pitied him, we laughed until tears ran down Jeremiah's cheeks and we had to pick Bobojani off the ground.

M'dhara Vitalis went back to Harare to look for another job, but who wanted an old man like him when there were millions unemployed. He looked around Mupandawana and was fortunate to find work making coffins. M'dhara Vitalis was so efficient that he made a small contribution to the country's rising unemployment—his employer found it convenient to fire two other carpenters. And that was how he became known as the coffin maker with the nimblest fingers this side of the Great Dyke.

We had seen his hands at work, but of his nimble feet and his acrobatics on the dance floors of Harare, we had only heard. As the person who told us these stories was the man himself, there was reason to believe that he spoke as one who ululated his own praise. As Jeremiah said, "There is too much seasoning in M'dhara Vita's stories."

[But] to appreciate M'dhara Vita's skill is to understand that he was an old man. They had no birth certificates in the days when he was born, or at least none for people born in the rural areas, so that when he trained as a carpenter at Bondolfi and needed a pass to work in the towns, his mother had estimated his age by trying to recall how old he was when the mission school four kilometers from his village had been built. As befitting one who followed in the professional footsteps of the world's most famous carpenter, he had chosen December 25 as his birthday, so that his age was a random selection and he could well have been older than his official years. What was beyond dispute was that he danced in defiance of the wrinkles around his eyes.

Even if he had not gotten his drinks on the house, many of us would have bought him if not his favorite brandy, then a less expensive alternative....We began to gather at the [Why Leave Guesthouse and Disco-Bar] every Friday evening to watch M'dhara Vita. Fueled on by the bottom-of-the-barrel brandy and the museve music, his gymnastics added color to our gray Fridays.

It was no different on that last Friday.

[The owner's wife] had come to understand that it was the Congolese rumba, which demanded agile waists and rubber legs, that really got [M'dhara Vita] moving. So on that night, the Lumumbashi Stars blasted out of the stereo as [he] took center stage. He stood a while, as though to let the brandy and the music move its way though his ears and mouth to his brain and pelvis. Then he ground his hips in time to the rumba, his eyes closed all the while and his arms stretched out in front of him.

"I am Vitalis, shortcut Vita, ilizwo lami ngi Vitalis, danger basopo. Waya waya waya waya!" He got down to the ground, rolled and shook. We crowded around him, relishing this new dance that we had not seen before. He twitched to the right, and to the left. The music was loud as we egged him on. He convulsed in response to our cheering. His face shone, and he looked to us as if to say, "Clap harder."

And we did.

It was only when the song ended and we gave him a rousing ovation and still he did not get up that we realized that he would never get up, and that he had not been dancing but dying.

Excerpted from AN ELEGY FOR EASTERLY, published this month by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Petina Gappah. All rights reserved.

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