When Mulumbe’s mother is killed by marauders, her father turns to drink and abandons his children to cruel Stepmother. She wants Mulumbe to marry beer-smelling, wife-beater Olinji. But Grandmother protects Mulumbe. She passes on stories about clever Hare and how strangers had dispossessed them of their fertile land by damming up their once great river. Life is now a constant struggle under the African sun and, after Grandmother dies, Mulumbe flees in search of her beloved brother Tom. In a dangerous journey across the border to the faraway City of Gold, Mulumbe needs all Hare’s tricks and Grandmother’s stories to survive.
The eloquent first-person narrator is an older Mulumbe. The Author’s Note explains that she is from the Tonga people who lived alongside the Zambezi until ‘a historical injustice’ in the 1950s. Grandmother does not describe the strangers as white and there is no mention here of European colonialism. Readers might also wonder how, in this remote Tonga-speaking community, Mulumbe calls her brother Tom and his friend Peter by English Christian names. An interwoven Christian motif includes Siana Sulwe the Hare who dies saving Mulumbe. The story leaps along, with skilful twists and turns, slipping between reality and fable in a kind of magic realism. The message is about the need for hope and, implicitly, faith. With such a frightening picture of social devastation in southern Africa, more of shebeeny queeny Mama Sikelele’s type of straight talking about past and present would have been welcome.