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Agringada: Like A Gringa, Like A Foreigner (Part I Of The Book Review)

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By Faunus Helwane

It’s no secret Zimbabwean writing is dominated by women. Take your pick: Noviolet Bulawayo, Tsitsi Dangarembgwa, Pettina Gappah, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma among legions, I dare the boys to come and argue; yes you, controversial Philani A. Nyoni! One hidden gem is Tariro Ndoro, a rare craftsperson who handles both prose and poetry with immaculate poise.

2019 finally saw the publication of her debut book in South Africa, published by Modjaji Books. The title of the work, ‘Agringada’ is annotated as ‘resembling a foreigner’. From the onset this looks like a text about anguish, what else is there for a foreigner in these times of Donald Trump and his wall, his ICE units imprisoning children in cages, severing them from their families; In times of Xenophobia down south? Let us explore.

Tariro Ndoro

Most notable from the beginning is Ndoro’s disregard for geography or the limitations it seeks to impose. What language is Agringada? Spanish? It does not stop there, her first piece, ‘Severing’ dabbles delightfully with French. What is language? Identity or a tool to communicate?

The variation of structure is also worth noting, how each poem chooses it’s individual form to carry its message and claims a life of its own. By style, this is the most inventive work we have seen in a very long time. My favourite stylistic device? Reduction. Sometimes it reads like a declassified CIA case file but each blank space wields something more potent than the word we were meant to see ever could. While on structure as well, the collection is divided into four sections, named after each season, beginning with winter, winding upward to Spring. In effect, though the poems are separate, they then fit into a larger whole whose movement we shall explore.

Today’s bread is the Winter section, ‘The People In My Pelt’ is one of the strongest poems. The narrator (a black individual) stands out against the backdrop of whiteness. Those familiar with private school settings or upmarket suburbs will relate. The persona is bemused by the act of children, decades younger than the men who roll fields in overalls calling them by their first names. The theme of alienation carried through the book is brought closer home, to a cultural divide. In the culture of whites (for lack of a better word), at least in this context, first names are fine when addressing older people, while for blacks it is unthinkable. This divide, this sense of alienation in school drives the persona’s friend, Lorraine, described as ‘dark like night’ to tell everyone her father’s white, while our narrator, is reprimanded for horsing around by being told not to act like people from the compound…or something.

Ndoro explores a bipolar condition inflicted upon the educated African by the system. It is the same condition that associates whiteness with wealth and blackness with poverty and backwardness, barbarism as well. Across Africa, the terms ‘Ngamula’, ‘Khiwa’, ‘Muzungu’ were once used to describe Caucasians, now they are comfortably slung on fellow blacks deemed to be more liquid than the addresser. ‘The People In My Pelt’ reads like an initiation manual into this world of privilege. The privilege is glaring when the groundsmen are addressed by their names but the teaching staff, of Caucasian descent, are addressed as Mrs [REDACTED]. When Mrs. [REDACTED] addresses the young persona to stop acting like people from the compound, she means /you are one of us now, not like the black folk in the compounds, not like the groundsmen you shall call by name despite the glaring age difference. To the reader, elite education comes as an alienating force, one that turns the recipient into a foreigner among their own people.

The alienating force of education is a strong theme in this section. A favourite as well is the ode to Cecilia, whom one cannot help but suspect is the child’s nanny, a domestic worker in the sterile tone of whiteness. In the African language, she is ‘sisi’, sister and the affection is felt. Perhaps the persona has not lost herself in her baptism into this cancerous kind of whiteness.

But the self is still under attack. In the text, the student is likened to a bronco, a Western American animal that is not properly tamed. And this education does not come to emancipate but to tame the animal inside her. It must watch its tongue, guard it against Shona when it speaks in Shona speak loudly so that it is known not to be gossiping, but English must be spoken softly.

The Winter section reads as a critical interrogation of the post-independent generation and the national lookout to education as an emancipating force. Couple that with the inferiority complex we highlighted earlier: white is good and black is bad. Parents strove to get their children into ‘white’ schools. The persona’s parents succeed, but what is the price on the soul? Lorraine has denounced her father’s blackness, she and the persona are the only black faces in the class photo. At school, they are reprimanded for speaking Shona outside the time allocated for instruction in the language, while at home the child struggles with the nuances of her mother-tongue, for instance, homonyms. The child is being stolen into whiteness, surrendered by the family; For what ultimate price?

One strays to wonder if this paradoxical educated African wasn’t epitomised in the leader of that time: Robert Mugabe. Consider a Pan African with an eloquent English tongue, dapper in Italian threads, but out of touch with the traditional ground, Catholic by his own proclamation (unless politics dictated he visit Masowe) but yet holding fast to English tradition in just about every institution in his independent country. Agringada is many things, it is also a story about a country, proclaimed free from colonial rule, but trying with all the might of its freedom, to be white.

The story of alienation is not complete without the backdrop of time. It is the time of land reform, an uncomfortable time to be black in a predominately white environment, it is also the time of the first wave of migration. Mother and Father are away, Father is a postcard scented with Hugo Boss. The alienation continues, the battle for the black soul. Perhaps all this is a sneak-peak into the use of a generation: whose souls were sacrificed for superior education, but in turn, paid for it with their roots. Neither black nor white, they float around somewhere, with nothing but fancy accents to show for it.

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