Aug 16, 2010

A Cowrie of Hope by Binwell Sinyangwe - A Review

December 2000, General Fiction
Heinemann, 160 pages, ISBN 978-0435912024
Available on Amazon

The cover of A Cowrie of Hope states that the author, Binwell Sinyangwe, “captures the rhythms of a people whose poverty has not diminished their dignity, where hope can only be accompanied by small acts of courage, and where friendship has not lost its value”. I adore this book for many reasons that I’ll get into later, but for now let me get introduce the main character.

Nasula (mother of Sula) is a young widow struggling to make ends meet for herself and her daughter. Her daughter who recently passed her grade 9 exams has been accepted into an all girls secondary school but she lacks the money required for fees, supplies, and other things required for Sula to continue with her education. Though illiterate herself, Nasula, understands the need for her daughter to be educated and she feels the burden acutely.

As a young bride, she and her husband live in Lusaka where he works as security guard. He’s shot to death by the police while trying to escape a crime scene, leaving his wife widowed with an infant daughter. After his funeral, Nasula is ordered by her father-in-law to marry his other son, Isaki. She refuses to marry Isaki on the grounds that he is a polygamist and known womaniser. In retribution the family disowns and dispossesses Nasula and her daughter all of their earthly goods but the clothes on their backs. Homeless and stranded in Lusaka, she spends many nights at the bus depot trying to find her way back to Swelini, her home village in Luapula.

She makes it home to Swelini with the help of a friend, where she appeals to the headman for land to cultivate and build a home for herself and her daughter. She toils on her plot of land and also does piece-work to supplement the meagre income from her crops. Sula is enrolled in school, where she excels, rising above the taunts and ridicule she experiences because of her poverty. "The child was a cowrie of hope. A great gift from the gods to one who was so poor and lowly to wear round one’s neck for inspiration, and, above all, hope”.

Faced with the dilemma of her daughter possibly dropping out of school because of lack of funds, Nasula faces a seemingly hopeless situation until an exuberant friend proposes a solution. If she sells her last bag of Mbala beans, which are on high demand in Lusaka, the money will more than adequately fund Sula’s schooling. Re-energised with this new hope, Nasula sets out to earn this money.

Lusaka immediately strikes her as a “place of madness” and Kamwala market, in particular, is a “mound inhabited by huge, hungry tribes of termites in search of a livelihood”. Nasula has single minded goal, and draws often from her spiritual strength to take her that extra step needed. 

Her naïveté is touching, and her boldness inspiring. What I really love about this book is that despite the desperate situations Nasula finds herself in, she loses neither her dignity nor her sight of goal. Her daughter exemplifies this too, which speaks well for the strength of both mother and child. We often talk about the indignity of poverty, and how it slowly chips away at the soul but Sinyangwe masterfully crafts characters that transcend that predicament.
But a power she could not overcome, which was from a bleeding heart, told her not to listen to the whispers of discouragement, or give up when she had already suffered so much. It urged her on. To this power she yielded while at the same time allowing the ghost of defeat to haunt her. She struggled on, a thin valiant, invisible thread pulling her along in the direction of nowhere”.
Nasula’s exuberant friend from Lusaka, Nalukwi (mother of Lukwi), is also a great character. She and her husband live in three room shack with their eight children and dependents, and yet she opens both her home and heart to Nasula offering help and advice at every turn. She’s street smart, and yet she does not use this as a means of duping her young friend. She’s another example of someone doing the best she can with what she’s got; she reminds me of a cheerful aunt who through humour and wise words can bring a ray of sunshine on a gloomy day.

This is an intensely moving story and brought me to tears on more than one occasion. I was left with the overwhelming knowledge that despite the predicaments we face in the world today, hope still exists. There is also value in friendship, honesty, and community. At the same time, it left me a little angry and frustrated. I say this because while this book is a work of fiction, it draws many parallels from real life situations that many Zambians still face such as property grabbing, school dropouts from lack of funding, crop failure, corruption, lack of markets in rural areas, poor access to financial products for small-scale farmers, etc. Those are issues we can address in another post but still worth thinking about.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book, and look forward to reading Mr Sinyangwe’s other works. 


I'm traveling to Zambia in Feb. Have any other Zambian books, you'd recommend?

Em, I would suggest you pick up copies of Nicholas Boma's work "Granny's Love" and "The Choice" as well as Geoffrey Musonda's "Stolen Heart" and "Dangerous Power Games". These two writers are among the up-and-coming in Zambian literature and worth trying.

If you come across Monde Sifuniso's work, try that too. She's a very talented writer (and editor).

This shows he way to life and I will be travelling to Zambia in December.

it is what is happening today in our society

I love the book, so touching and similar to what is happening in Uganda.

just mesmerisingly awesome and touchingly lovely

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