Pointing fingers

In talking out loud about homeless children in Zambia, Mubanga Kalimamukwento hopes to stimulate social debate - and change, writes Anna Stroud

07 July 2019 - 00:00 By Anna Stroud and jacana media
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'The Mourning Bird' - a harsh and brutal but beautifully written portrayal of the plight of homeless children.
'The Mourning Bird' - a harsh and brutal but beautifully written portrayal of the plight of homeless children.
Image: Jacana Media

Published in the Sunday Times: 07/07/2019

The Mourning Bird *****
Mubanga Kalimamukwento, Jacana Media

'Never let an owl stay, mwanake, my
father warned" is the opening line of The Mourning Bird and it sets the same haunting tone as other iconic first lines such as "I was not sorry when my brother died" (Nervous Conditions), "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (Anna Karenina) and "You better not never tell nobody but God" (The Color Purple) - and probably, it will be just as hard to forget.

"The title represents grief in two ways; in the owl and around the girl. The one perceived to bring mourning and the other living a life filled with it," Mubanga Kalimamukwento says of her award-winning debut.

The Mourning Bird is a harsh and brutal, but beautifully written, portrayal of the realities that homeless children face. The 11-year-old protagonist Chimuka and her younger brother Ali lose their parents and end up living on the streets of Lusaka, but their family is broken long before their father succumbs to HIV/Aids and their mother commits suicide. In sparse, poetic prose, Kalimamukwento depicts this splintered family life.

"Chimuka could have been me," says Kalimamukwento. "Their story is my 200-page gratitude note to the universe for my life after my parents died."

Like Chimuka, the author lost her parents at a young age. "I came out mostly unscathed, with a law degree, a satisfying work life and two wonderful children. It may not sound like it, but I am a living miracle. I know how differently things could have gone had I come from a different family where education wasn't a priority or possibility."

It's this seed of an alternative future that compelled her to write The Mourning Bird - winner of the 2019 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award. "In my wonderings of how children as young as six ended up homeless in a country famed for its kindness, under the banner of being a Christian nation, I thought I'd write that story."

The author says she didn't intend for her book to be a critique of Zambia. "But I can see how it is a social and political criticism of some of our choices as a people. For one, I think there are a lot of harmful things that we allow, starting from the family. But what I was thinking more actively about is how we are all conspirators in the number of homeless children in Zambia, and the unreported rapes of children, and the deaths arising from violence against women. So yes, I was pointing fingers, but I was pointing at everyone."

After their parents die, men begin to prey on Chimuka. Kalimamukwento explains why rape, especially by relatives and people you know, is an integral theme of the novel: "I know this is a secret that a lot of families carry and often the justification is that talking about it will taint the family name.

"My friends and I talk about it but only within the safe walls of our friendship, and I felt that this was an opportunity for Zambia to confront its demons. I don't know why this more than any of our other collective secrets irks me so much, but I needed to scratch this one until the ugly image was clear."

Kalimamukwento carries this theme of vulnerable children growing up in a callous society with bold, tender prose and razor-sharp observation. She wields her words to chastise and comfort, weaving a significant story out of collective secrets; one that at times hits too close to home. @annawriter_

Mubanga Kalimamukwento.
Mubanga Kalimamukwento.
Image: Supplied


Mother, author, lawyer, adventurer, optimist

Books you're reading:
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. I recently read And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini and Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi. I love confident writers, no matter their style.

What do you read to your children?
My kids are enjoying comic books - it helps them to recognise images as I teach them new words. I read them new versions of fairytales because it's interesting to see how the stories have evolved from when my mom read them to me. They interrupt with questions: "Why did Red's mom send her into the forest by herself?" or "Isn't it dangerous to wear glass slippers?" - which is very entertaining.

On winning the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award:
I am an incurable optimist so when I enter a contest, I always assume I will win. But when they actually called out my name, I was speechless. I rambled on about my mother, because I couldn't read my speech!


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