Journey into Shona culture

4th April 1997 at 01:00

By Nancy Farmer

Phoenix House Pounds 15.99

Imogen Forster admires a portrait of a value system.

How 12-year-old Nhamo ("Little Pumpkin", "Little Disaster") gets from her village in Mozambique to a research station in Zimbabwe, from the family of her mother (killed by a leopard) to an alternative "family" with whom she finds acceptance and independence, is the tale of this substantial novel for teenagers.

A journey that her loving grandmother, her Ambuya, tells her should take two days' paddling up-river lasts for months, as she strays into Lake Cabora Bassa and survives accidents and dangers that often threaten to be fatal.

Nhamo has a huge repertory of skills and reserves of courage and optimism that return (just) after every setback or bout of illness. The details of her ordeal and her adventure may sometimes seem incredible, but they hold the reader because the evocation of the bush setting (based on intimate knowledge) is matched by Farmer's sensitive depiction of psychological proc-esses, and by the vig-our with which she shows Nhamo struggling to reach her father's people. All this takes place within a framework of the cosmology, myth and folklore of the Shona people, who live on both sides of a historically artificial border.

The elements of Shona culture, revolving around the obligations and rituals of a complex kinship system, especially as they concern marriages, and around the perils of witchcraft and spirit possession, are skilfully integrated into the narrative; every motive and event, and every creature in the story, is connected in some way with this belief system.

Nhamo's flight is set in motion when she is destined for an unwanted marriage in order to placate the spirit of a man murdered by her ne'er-do-well father, and is blamed for an outbreak of cholera in the village. These problems take us into the world of the ngozi, the angry spirits of the dead, and of the nganga and the muyuki, traditional healers who mediate between the living and the ancestors.

Nancy Farmer's achievement is to make this material essential to her text, whether through the stories Nhamo loves to tell, or as her delirium calls up the underwater world of the beguiling njuzu (water spirits), or when an encounter with an animal sets off a train of reasoning that is both practical and magical. All the time she is making sense of the world and coming closer to her goal of arrival and self-knowledge, in a work of power and originality which holds this value system in great respect.

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