Tumi is fourteen-years-old. He lives with Mkoma, his elder brother, and throughout his short life has faced bullying on a daily basis because he is an albino. Even his supposed friends joke that he is ‘too white to be black, or too black to be white’ but he’s a talented swimmer and when he’s in the pool can forget about the colour of his skin and feel less excluded from his peer group. He’s desperate to be selected for the Zimbabwean national swimming team, not only to be able to demonstrate his prowess, but because he hopes this will enable people to see beyond his albinism. The date for the trials is imminent and he is training hard, eager to prove to his coach that he is worthy of a place on the team. However, a family emergency forces Mkoma to make alternative childcare arrangements for Tumi and Noku, his pre-school daughter, when his job takes him away. When Tumi discovers that this means they are going to have to spend a week in the countryside with Thandiwe, his ambuya (grandmother), he’s worried that, with no swimming pool available, his dream will be shattered because he won’t be able to keep up with his training.
Overwhelming memories of the terrifying experience of being abducted when he was a small child by his uncle, Thandiwe’s son, come flooding back, making him feel very anxious and fearful. Although his uncle is now in prison for the crime and so poses no immediate threat, Tumi hasn’t seen his grandmother since the abduction happened. However, vague memories of her laughing with his uncle and half-heard, mysterious phone calls, have convinced him that she played a part in the abduction and he worries about whether he will be safe with her. He also recalls being disturbed by the alarming scars on her face. He doesn’t know how she got them and when he once asked his uncle about them, was beaten for being disrespectful.
When he is packing for the trip he discovers a cache of numbered letters she had written to his brother when Mkoma lived in America for a time. Each letter included pages from the diary she wrote in 1975/6, when Rhodesia was still under British colonial rule and the fight for Zimbabwean independence was becoming ever more violent. A quick glimpse at the content makes him realise that they must be important so he grabs the first two wondering what family secrets they’ll contain, whether he’ll learn more about her part in his abduction and whether he’ll finally discover how she got the scars on her face.
This story is told through the alternating voices of Tumi and Thandiwe and I found the way in which the author wove together the two storylines and the two timelines to be very effective. Each of the switches – between the two voices and between modern day Zimbabwe and 1970s Rhodesia – always felt smooth and timely, enhancing the storytelling rather than distracting from it.
I don’t want to go into any details about what Thandiwe’s diary reveals about the brutal and heart-breaking experiences she faced as a young girl because the gradual revelations are central to contributing to making this such a powerful, disturbing, moving, and yet ultimately compassionate, story. However, his grandmother’s revelations enable Tumi to not only gain insight into these experiences and the ways in which she has managed to come to terms with her past, but also to understand more about his family’s history and his cultural inheritance and demonstrate that confronting what we fear helps us to reduce the power of our nightmares. Both characters carry emotional and physical scars from their experiences but the time they spend together not only helps them to bond, but also enables Tumi to learn some important life lessons as he discovers how his ambuya managed to find room in her heart for forgiveness.
Although this is, at times, a deeply disturbing and upsetting story it is not devoid of humour, much of which is provided by Tumi’s delightful young niece, Noku. There were so many moments when, with her droll observations, she amused not only her family but made me chuckle too! One of the strengths of the author’s writing is her ability to draw characters who seem to leap off the page and, for this reason, I know that not only will her story remain with me for a long time to come, but so too will her characters, each of whom was impressively nuanced.
Rutendo Tavengerwei lived in Zimbabwe until she was 18 and, as her family had been deeply affected by the war, she had grown up knowing about how they had been mistreated and discriminated against, about the atrocities they’d witnessed and for some years had wanted to write a story based on this awareness. Although I’m familiar with the history of colonial rule in the country and the hard-fought fight for independence, seeing this through the eyes of Thandiwe and being reminded of the endemic discrimination and brutal ill-treatment which was meted out to the native population, purely because of the colour of their skin, felt truly shocking and upsetting. A sign above the door of a restaurant read “EUROPEANS ONLY, DOGS AND AFRICANS NOT ALLOWED” – the order of the exclusions making the discriminatory message even more shocking.
However, I appreciated the fact that, in an admirably even-handed way, the author included illustrations of the fact that atrocities were committed on both sides. One way in which she did this was by making a group of white missionaries central to the 1970s story. These characters were based on the Elim missionaries of Vumba, people who had lived as part of the black community, providing schooling and medical services rather than seeing their role as “saviours” of the indigenous population. She’d grown up feeling inspired by the fact that they had lived their lives with love, not hatred, in their hearts and, in part, she dedicated this story to their memory.
There was another story she had been burning to tell and that was of the way in which albinos were, and still are, treated in certain sub-Saharan African countries. The superstitions which surround the condition can lead to people with albinism being kidnapped, sold across borders, having limbs chopped off or even being killed, all because of a belief that their bodies have supernatural powers. In the end she decided to combine both stories because both are about ignorance, hatred, prejudice and being discriminated against purely on the grounds of skin-colour.
She poses the question “will we let our misconceptions about each other, especially where colour is concerned, allow us to perpetuate hate? And if we do, when and where will it end?” However, she also points out that these are issues which also face anyone who, for whatever reason, is perceived as being “different” and challenges her readers to “ultimately refuse to tolerate injustice in any form”. A challenge which is pertinent at any time but perhaps particularly so in view of recent events and the consequential mass-protests now taking place across the world.
Although this novel is being marketed as a YA story and is written in a rather simple style, the range of important, thought-provoking themes it contains challenges such a narrow targeting. I’m sure it will appeal to anyone who has an interest in exploring their own assumptions and prejudices, whatever their age. It would also be an excellent choice for book groups.
With my thanks to Readers First and Hot Key Books for a copy of this story in exchange for an honest review.
Review by Linda Hepworth
Personal read: 5*
Group read: 5*
Hot Key Books (Bonnier Books UK) 14th May 2020