Sweet Medicine: On How to Beat the Odds as a Young Woman in Collapsed Zimbabwe
- Title: Sweet Medicine
- Author: Panashe Chigumadzi
- Publisher: BlackBird Books
- Number of pages: 210
- Year of publication: 2015
- Category: Fiction
Sweet Medicine may be regarded as a coming-of-age story, in as much as it is the story of a young woman’s acknowledgement of the odds against her, the desperation of living under the spirit-destroying burden of a collapsed modern Zimbabwe, and her decision and subsequent actions to overcome those odds.
The novel begins with a prologue – a consultation between Tsitsi and a n’anga to secure Tsitsi’s relationship with the wealthy Zvogbo. The novel then takes the reader back in time, showing how a studious Catholic girl ends up as a ‘career-mistress’ doing all she can to secure her career path.
Tsitsi’s decision seems rational. Her pious mother works very hard to give her an education, yet there is nothing to show for it but unyielding poverty: a month’s pay from the Ministry where she works meets the living expenses of just two days! She also has to think about her ageing mother and uncle.
She cried pathetically and thoughtlessly for nearly an hour…she wondered whether this was the same desperation, the same sense of impotence that grips many men by their shirts…shaking them and leading them to drink…This was the kind of impotence, futility, that blanketed the world in cynicism. The feeling of impotence that crept up on her whenever she saw children making their way to school…the same sense of impotence that made her want to cry at the cruel jokes teachers, parents and the world played on these innocent souls….
Tsitsi seduces her boss, the older and married Zvogbo, guided by her friend, Chiedza, who had long ago mastered this art of survival. Tsitsi succeeds in displacing Mrs Zvogbo, and moves in as the woman of the house. However, she still does not feel secure, and although she goes through the traditional marriage rites, throughout the novel she wants the validation of a church marriage, to ensure her sustenance is secure.
The novel, as it presents the evolution of Tsitsi, explores the themes of religion, the capabilities of women and their role in society as well as a critique of a government that disempowers its people to the point of despair. However, the novel relies too heavily on the character of Tsitsi to do all these. Although Tsitsi is the main character, her flaws and the author’s failure to lend any depth to the supporting cast mean the novel does not quite succeed in the exploration of these themes.
The narrative relies heavily on Tsitsi, whose motives come to be questionable, and there is a schizophrenic quality to her. Is she a mistress because she is hungry or because she enjoys living the good life? This is clearly seen in her dealings with the servants and changes to the furniture in her new home. At first, she is a bit reserved, not wishing to disrupt anything, but once settled in, she orders the servants around boldly and marks her territory with new furniture, mostly with a penchant for mirrors. Her motive for a church wedding – to be pious before God and man – is also in doubt because her constant preoccupation, for a considerable part of the novel, is keeping Zvogbo, or rather his wealth, even on the odd occasion when she prays to God. Although this duality makes her an interesting character, it dilutes the novel’s critique of its society, which seeks to showcase the desperate acts caused by economic collapse.
The character that truly portrays how hunger can eat at one’s dignity is Tsitsi’s mother. She knows that what her daughter is doing is against all she believes in but she accepts the food and groceries her daughter brings courtesy of the wealthy Zvogbo. She is silent. She does not complain.
There is also a lack of questioning in the novel. Zvogbo, wealthy and political, is so underdeveloped a character; there is no critique of him whatsoever. He is a high-ranking official and seemingly important person in Zimbabwe, and there is no dissection of his character as a reflection of the political and economic mess of the country. His character is unforgivingly superficial, a means to an end for a poor girl to have a good life. For a novel set in Zimbabwe, in very harsh economic times, this is a glaring omission.
Is this a feminist novel? ‘Feminist’ throughout its history and especially in the past few years has always been subjective. Therefore, an answer to the question, or to a different question, is: the novel gives a glimpse of the lives of women different in age and class, and what they do to get by, whether one agrees with it or not. The intentions of the author are not quite clear – Tsitsi and Chiedza are the only two females in the economics class at university, who hold their own when confronted by male scepticism regarding their abilities, yet later in the novel Tsitsi is upset when the former Mrs Zvogbo speaks to her husband as to an equal and challenges his views.
The author’s use of Shona in the novel is effective. Some readers may not understand most of it, but it lends an authenticity to the setting, as though the reader eavesdrops on the characters as they navigate through life unaware of the intrusion. It is also a technique used by author to differentiate social classes. For example, Tsitsi speaks to the servants in English to maintain a social distance.
Overall, Sweet Medicine is a pleasant read. However, the novel is without the questioning depth to elevate its critique of its society.
Photograph: ‘N’anga’ by bathyporeia
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