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Drinking from Graveyard Wells by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu

"I’m a sarungano. I carry the stories of our people inside me and pass them to the children born here, children who don’t have to go through the ceremony. I try to train their tongues to speak the old language. The language is mangled on their tongues. I hold the language classes and story times in the basement of an old building, clandestinely organized by concerned parents who are too afraid to claim their heritage in public."(Page 31)

Zimbabwe held its harmonized elections in the past week. On my way to the polling station, I found myself clutching sarungano Yvette Lisa Ndlovu’s debut collection of fourteen short stories, Drinking from Graveyard Wells, as I anticipated spending much time there. Thankfully, my stay at the polling station was short, and I spent the rest of my day reading this collection. I am tempted to paint this as speculative fiction , but it is a layered collection. The stories cut across genres, illuminating Ndlovu’s writing mastery. In exploring myths, legends,  superstitions, and real-life stories, Ndlovu opens the world of political torture, oppression, migration, exploitation of natural resources, loss, grief, corruption, resistance, and resilience.

In this collection, Ndlovu spotlights African customs such as virginity testing through the egg test, the white sheet test, and genital mutilation in preparation for marriage. "If the egg goes in, she is not pure, and her family will be fined a cow by the chief for not keeping a better eye on their daughter. The young woman closes her eyes and says a prayer.” (Page 64), but this is not the end of the process because there are marriage rites to be done to prove that the same woman is a good enough wife. In ‘Plumtree,’ Ndlovu highlights a popular custom in that area where a father-in-law has sexual intercourse with his daughter-in-law to determine if she is fit for his son. After that, the woman must give birth to a son to be entirely accepted into her new family. After all, there are more societal expectations on women to keep those marriages intact, making them dabble into all sorts of things to stop their husbands from committing adultery and punishing their counterparts. "Ants," the act of kugadzira mukadzi, casting a spell on one’s wife with medicines. Men can punish any other men who may come into contact with what 'belongs' to them, the wife. Zimbabwe has a child marriage problem, and this takes the stage in 'Spiritual Husband,' kuripa ngozi, which is the appeasement of an avenging spirit by marrying off a young girl to the deceased’s family.

Ndlovu engages with issues that affect women, and in highlighting these aspects of tradition and custom, she refuses to negotiate with the usually proffered reasonings behind these actions but looks at the consequences to the affected. A son whose father slept with his wife before him asks himself an eternally haunting question after the birth of their first child, “…I don’t know if this child is my son or my little brother.” (Page 72) This also begs the reader to ask, what good is this practice? While some books and articles have been written, it is impressive to see young writers focusing on historical accuracy. Like some writers of her time, such as Panashe Chigumadzi (Inaugural 2019 Queen Loziba Lecture "Wathint'umfazi: The striking portraiture of Indlovukazi Lozikeyi Dlodlo, the last King of the Ndebele"), Ndlovu also lends her powerful voice to reclaiming a legacy by imaginatively rewriting and correcting revisionist history that displaces heroic women. In ‘Three Deaths and The Ocean of Time,’ she focuses on Queen Lokizeyi.

Migration is an important theme in this collection. Due to Zimbabwe’s economic decline and political instability, many people have found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Those who stay find themselves dealing with the rot. Those who leave find themselves battling being a foreigner in new lands. In ‘Ugly Hamsters: A Triptych,’ Ndlovu gives the reader a glimpse of the life of an immigrant working extra jobs and the effect of the 'black tax' on one’s mental wellness. ‘Swimming with Crocodiles,’ ‘The border between Zimbabwe and South Africa at Beitbridge stretches along the crocodile-infested Limpopo River. In 2008, when the price of bread rose from ZIM$5 billion to ZIM$15 billion, and then to a trillion, many young men and women decided that swimming with crocodiles was better than living on dry land,’ (page 50). Leaving does not always mean winning because some losses and sacrifices are to be made. Ndlovu shows that home is not always a pleasant place in ‘Home Became a Thing with Thorns,’ where she highlights the high stakes in the greener pastures: much is lost, the freedom to be, the familiar food and, at times, language, “While we all picked up the new language and tried to iron out our old accents like pressing the wrinkles out of clothing, Asha refused to learn the new tongue. It was her form of resistance. This place would take from us anyway, Asha said, why not hold on to something. Then the naturalization priest took her language.” (Page 28).

This short story reminded me of the themes in Sue Nyathi’s Gold Diggers and Mercy Dhliwayo’s Bringing Us Back (you can read my review here). Ndlovu invokes the picture of what home is like in other stories in the collection. The effect is that even though the stories are not linked, one can place immigrants in the landscape of what they are fleeing from, such as greed in ‘Water Bites Back,’ political repression in ‘Basket Women,’ a failing healthcare system in ‘Red Cloth, White Giraffe,’ poverty in ‘When Death Comes to Find You,’ and ‘Drinking from Graveyard Wells.’

Through the use of folklore and the techniques of oral tradition, which are a key part of Zimbabwe’s storytelling history, Ndlovu connects with the reader. Ghosts, mermaids, witches, and spirits narrate some of the stories. Ndlovu’s imagery is convincing, and the stories stick, cementing her power. I had difficulty choosing a favourite story and’ll leave it at that. I am glad that the text in local languages is not italicized. Ndlovu is not only clever in her writing; she is also funny, so if you are interested in disappearing houses, the power of mermaids, and how to make a Rhodesian, this collection is excellent!


Book Details

Title: Drinking from Graveyard Wells

Genre: Short Stories/Fiction

Authors: Yvette Lisa Ndlovu

Publisher: University Press of Kentucky (2023)

Pages: 160

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