Taking our cue from Zunguzungu et al, here’s Week Two of “Blogging the Caine Prize.” Actually we jumped the gun last week when we posted the review of “BUTTERFLY DREAMS” by Beatrice Lamwaka. So here it is again.
What I remember, as I read Lamwaka’s first words, is the way in which we woke up at 6AM in the cloud of rainy season river fog, to glue our ears to the shortwave: what a prize possession it was, in the early years we spent in Zambia. My father listened, with the worry and attachment of the nationalist, who had abandoned loved ones and nation, in a bid to secure himself, and those closest to him.
In Lamwaka’s story, we walk straight into the auditory dreaming of a “string of parents…who listened to Mega FM” every day, “[l]istening and waiting for the names of…loved ones…hearts thump[ing]” every time they hear familiar names of places or even the names of loved ones. After one hour of wordless listening, they “sighed after the programme” concluded. They listen to hear news of children lost to war and chaos, in the interminable waiting of a refugee camp. Though most abandon hope for their lost children, “Ma dreams of butterflies” filling the room, as if those wings, on their pilgrimage of renewal, are a harbinger of her child’s return. After five years of waiting, and rumours that others had seen their beloved Lamunu’s body “bursting in the burning sun,” they hear, on Mega FM, that Lamunu is at “World Vision, a rehabilitation centre for formerly abducted children,” where children are being “taught how to live with us again.” But when Lamunu returns, the facial scars scream the story of a child soldier, though the family hastily arrange for a ritual to cleanse that story out of Lamunu’s private experience, and their collective body. Lamunu obeys quietly, and remains silent.
It is then that the reader who is unfamiliar with the name learns that Lamunu is a girl – her “breasts were showing through the blue flowered dress that [she] wore.” The family wait, through her silence, to see when she will say something, laugh, and play the mischievous child they knew – to see if her tipu (spirit) has returned to her body. They have rituals to ensure that an abandoned tipu is buried into the earth with a body, but none for those whose bodies still exist above ground, with their tipu buried long ago.
“Butterfly Dreams” is a story about the interminable waiting of a refugee camp, and about how swathes of people learn to incorporate disruption as an everyday experience. Instead of groundnuts, their “gardens grow huts.” It’s a story about dreaming and aching for returns—returns of loved ones like Lamunu, or perhaps even for the life they once had—but as with the story of Lamunu, a return does not mean a return of the familiar or the comforting.
This story, though it reaches moments of revelation that are beyond “poverty porn,” does mine extensively from the cliché. Again, I have to return to zunguzungu’s anxieties about stories addressing the “Africa” of the Western imaginary, by which writers seem to be guided as they vie for prizes. Zunguzungu refers to Ikhide Ikheloa, who regards the Caine Prize’s shortlist as indicative of the How to Write About Africa syndrome, and as “a riot of exhausted clichés…huts, moons, rapes, wars, and poverty,” in which “[t]he monotony of misery simply overwhelms the reader.” While zunguzungu is “not that interested in banning all stories that contain ‘huts, moons, rapes, wars, and poverty’ from the canon of Real African Writing”—since “it’s not like slums and poverty and social dysfunction are a ‘non-African’ subject”—commodifying it may be what’s obscene. In Lamwaka’s story, there’s an element of “mining” for misery that feels distinctly unsettling.
There is a powerful Jim Goldberg photograph I’ve written about (“New Europeans”): a man stands in the foreground of the image, radio pressed close to his chest. In the background are the layers and layers of tents, the life from which this radio allows a brief respite. He looks as though he is praying, as if all the words that pour out of this antenna-ed box contain and control him.
I wish that “Butterfly Dreams” was similarly able to transcend the clichés of African war, African refugees, and African horror, and reach towards a similar kind of communication about impossibility, dreaming, and the shadows that exist between the two.