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Words and Other Weapons by Thembe Khumalo

“During the genocide, I learned that I could get into trouble, very very big trouble, even if I hadn’t done anything wrong. I learnt that a long flat box in which a mother housed a knitting machine could be a source of suspicion, because it was just the right size and shape to house a rifle. I learnt that a mother, alone with her daughters, her family incomplete, could try very hard to be very brave, and her girls would still be enveloped in terror.” - ‘Tears In Matabeleland,’ (page 35)

Words and Other Weapons is a collection of twenty-two essays and short stories by Thembe Khumalo. This is her first published book. I got this book after hearing Khumalo speak at the Business of Books event held in Harare recently. I was intrigued by what she had to say. Reading these stories felt like a catch-up conversation with an old friend over a good cuppa. This collection is easygoing for the most part, raw, and a brave pursuit of self-expression. Khumalo explores the nature of personal relationships and how we navigate them. Khumalo takes the reader through the ebb and flow of life from spiritual and familial to friendships. Whether fiction or non-fiction, Khumalo’s writing is clear and strong. I enjoy debunking titles but have yet to get around this one.

The book peels off the masks on wounds that are still healing, such as loss through sickness/death,  change, the traumatic experience of a genocide that sought to dismantle an ethnic group, gendered violence, and the grasping of straws in a country with a deteriorating economy. While Khumalo acknowledges that her experience of the genocide was different from others who experienced it with more intensity, her story is valid. If people can see how the genocide affected a group of people, even those they may have considered 'sheltered,' perhaps those wrongs can be atoned for with the depth of the issue in mind. ‘Harare, Circa 2007’ might as well have been a story about life in 2023. Often, we are afraid and ashamed to tell the stories that reveal our wounds, but it is crucial to record history, offer each other new perspectives, help each other heal, and come up with solutions. Some scars may never go away, but Khumalo shows that it should be safe to experience and voice mixed feelings as you go through life. Changes will come, '...all change is loss, and all losses must be is not only death that summons grief, but any type of separation or loss.' (page 110). This stuck with me.

The essays on motherhood are more than personal testimonies. They are also love letters to her daughters and her mother and a show of the changing colours of the journey. ‘Courage’ and ‘Words Don't Teach’ are a call to realize the power of courage and revelations through storytelling. Khumalo unpacks womanhood in its beauty, strangeness, and the burdens that come with it, thereby extending her reach. Linked to this are career and motherhood expectations, friendships, the maze that is love affairs, marriages, and being a single/child-free woman in a society that places much value on those aspects. Khumalo is hilarious. I will never forget that Sabona Satane line, but my favourite story has to be ‘Guess What?’ because the lady at Number 272 made me laugh, and I wished I could get to know her more. I am still wondering what exactly she does in there. The sarcasm and wit in Khumalo’s writing is not lost on me. I finished This thought-provoking and engaging book in a couple of hours, and I highly recommend it.


Book Details

Title: Words and Other Weapons

Genre: Short Stories and Essays

Authors: Thembe Khumalo

Publisher: Carnelian Heart Publishing (2023)

Pages: 128

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