The genesis of the Zimbabwean diaspora, which has become more pronounced in recent years can be traced back to as early as 1980, when then perceived to be paranoid white Rhodesians left the country for fear of persecution from the black administration.
By Nkosiyazi Kan Kanjiri
This was despite the reconciliation mood of the time. Paranoia from white Rhodesians made sense then in the face of an overwhelmingly black majority government. But how does one explain the flight of fellow black Zimbabweans who left the country a few years after independence when the country still prided itself as the breadbasket of Africa?
Surely, in a country with a vibrant economy coupled with the independence euphoria of the time, one is expected to sing “there is no place like home”. But what happens when that song becomes nothing but just a cliché? Poetry lovers would tell you it is at moments like these that the only convincing explanation comes from poets like Warsan Shire. In the poem Home, Shire writes: “No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying — leave, run away from me now, I don’t know what I have become, but I know that anywhere is safer than here”. Milk Bile and Honey is the story of a man who hears the whisper in Shire’s poem, Home and obeys.
When the war ends, Nomzamo Dube’s (pictured) protagonist becomes a fugitive and begins a war of destiny. A simultaneous war that involves running away from the freedom he fought for, on one hand, and facing his unresolved past, on the other. He is still that man born out of wedlock, now on a quest to know his father. But there is another thing, he makes a girl pregnant and denies responsibility.
There is a lot that happens in a country learning how to be free. Equally, there is a lot that happens to a boy turned into a man by the war and now has to learn to be a father by himself. These are the circumstances that shape the protagonist’s character in Dube’s debut novel, Milk, Bile and Honey.
The issues explored are gripping, but how the story begins is even more compelling: “How could a mother carry a child for nine months and not in the process think about a list of names to pick from?” Anyone who has ever attempted to write a book will confess writing is no child’s play and what is even more difficult is how to begin the story.
I have read three books whose beginning, like Milk Bile and Honey, is absorbing. Tsitsi Dangarembga begins her award-winning novel Nervous Conditions in a seemingly insensitive yet captivating way: “I was not sorry when my brother died.” Petina Gappah’s Book of Memory begins in a rather simplistic yet sophisticated manner: “The story that you have asked me to tell you does not begin with the pitiful ugliness of Lloyd’s death.” Those who have read Dambudzo Marechera will not forget the line “I got my things and left” that begins his novella, House of Hunger. Milk Bile and Honey begins with an effortless question, one that seeks answers.
Written in first person narration and spiced with humour, Dube makes you fall in love, empathise and more importantly adopt the protagonist’s inquisitive personality which is evident at the beginning of the story. Reading the book, you cannot help but ask: “How can a man who knows the pain of growing without a father deny impregnating the girl he loves?” or “How can a man fight for freedom then run away from it?” But as highlighted earlier, there is a lot that happens to a man learning to be a father in a country learning how to be free. One of the many things is captured in Joshua Nkomo’s book, The Story of My Life when he says: “A nation can win freedom without its people becoming free”.
The protagonist is a relatable character. He is a patriotic citizen repelled by his own country. He leaves for South Africa, leaving behind a beautiful girl pregnant with his child. Life in the diaspora is not easy as an undocumented immigrant. The circumstances he finds himself in are the same circumstances many Zimbabweans, young and old, find themselves in now. However, Dube does not see her story as connecting with the larger Zimbabwean story.
“I was just writing a story, oblivious of the issues and lessons thereof. This book is based on a true story and I felt compelled to document the life of someone I know, someone I regard close to me,” said Dube.
For a story like Milk, Bile and Honey, this is too simple a response, honestly. One would have thought the author was aware that her story, though just a story, as she puts it, is a story that goes beyond the horizons of her own imaginations and the realities that shape her main character.
Milk, Bile and Honey is not just about Dube’s protagonist. To regard it as such, even as the author sees it as such, would be a selfish act. The story is about many Zimbabweans and everyone who identifies with the protagonist.
The book is a multi-themed story. It touches, in the larger scheme of things, issues of tribalism and failed nation building. It also summons a revisiting and questioning of history in terms of the Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle. In a more particular sense, it explores family politics in a patriarchal society, love and marriage, religion and its relief effect. But, above all, the story is about individual determination and hope.
“Writing the story made me understand the world of men and how it shapes their behaviour towards women,” said Dube.