Patricia Barnes-Svarney. Zimbabwe. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999. 128 pp. $19.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7910-4753-8.
Reviewed by Peter Midgley (Department of English, University of Alberta)
Published on H-AfrTeach (February, 1999)
Generally Well-Written, But with Notable Flaws
This introductory book on Zimbabwe is aimed at readers in Grades 5-8. At the beginning of the book there is a map of the country, outlining the major rivers, dams and lakes, as well as the important cities, while an insert map of Africa provides a more general geographic orientation.
An overview of the contents page provides a clear picture of what to expect: Zimbabwe and the world, the history of the territory and its geographic location, its struggle for freedom from colonial domination, the people and culture, resources and economy. Also included are government, health and education, and finally, the challenge of the future.
A "Facts at a Glance" section provides key information on population, language, geographic location and size, as well as about ethnic and religious diversity, aspects of the economy, and the government of Zimbabwe. This section was accessible, though lacking in foresight. I was concerned, for instance, by the inclusion of an approximate exchange rate with the U.S. Dollar. Particularly now, when the rates of exchanges fluctuate so dramatically, it is unwise to include such information, as it is dated even before publication. Highly changeable facts such as these are best left out, in my opinion.
The "History at a Glance" section was informative and accurate. I found no problems here, except that the section ends in 1996--three years before publication. This implies that the book has been drifting through the publication mills for at least three years--a disturbing fact which calls into question the current accuracy many of the figures mentioned in the text. For instance, the latest figures on AIDS infection have risen dramatically from the 10 percent given in the book.
The introductory chapter, "Zimbabwe and the World," provides a succinct summary of the history of Zimbabwe, its current problems and its hopes for the future. I did get the disturbing feeling, though, that the author was writing yet another colonial narrative that looks beyond the people to celebrate the land. The opening passage inscribes a central myth of Africa: this is a continent of natural beauty first, to be appreciated by the West. Its people and their concerns are an afterthought. My suspicions are, I am afraid, borne out by a closer look at the photographs in the book. The frontispiece presents us with a hunter in traditional garb--the first and lasting impression the writer wants to create, that of a country stuck in a traditional past, ready for the click of a Continental or American tourist's camera. Then follows a stunning example of modern indigenous artwork and a picture of a "protected village." Only after these three stereotypical pictures have shaped the way we view the country are we presented with a picture of Prince Charles attending a dinner of the eve of independence. This, too, is significant: "Let us bask in the dying moments of colonial glory," the book seems to want to shout. Stuck in the midst of these images is a photograph picturing the founders of the ZANU party which today governs Zimbabwe. The colour pictures in the centre of the book show the natural beauty of the country, communities at work on traditional crafts, and a charming picture of the Zimbabwe ruins to whet the appetite of any foreign visitor to the heart of the Dark Continent. While there is a colour picture of Bulawayo, it is significant to note that in the other pictures of urban areas, we find citizens partaking in colonial pastimes such as playing bowls--spare a thought for the majority of the people who play soccer--or wearing clothing that dates from the 1960s. When urban Africans are the focus of a picture, they represent the stereotype of picturesque poverty. In other words, the pictures reflect an image of Africa that the people of the continent a desperately trying to counteract--that of a continent that is either an idyllic paradise or an economically backward territory that relies on hand-outs from colonial and neo-colonial powers. While I am not suggesting that African countries can ignore the assistance of developed nations for their survival, I am saying that we cannot become independent until the perception of Africa as a developmental backwater changes.
The second chapter, "Tabletop Country," provides an interesting and well-researched introduction to the geography of the country, its natural wonders and resources, and its climate. I particularly liked the fact that figures were given in both imperial and metric measurements. Again, however, the paternalistic tone of a foreigner writing about Africa creeps through. The chapter ends with the moralistic warning: "For centuries, Zimbabwe's geography has been a balance between land, climate, wildlife and people. It is a delicate balance, one that must be nurtured in the years to come." Note, yet again, that people are the added final concern in this tableau.
From this aerial view of the country, we hone in on the pre-colonial history and the struggle for independence. Like with the previous sections, the information is factually correct and presented in an informative and interesting manner. The history of the struggle for independence is an intricate web of political intrigue which the author manages to untangle with great efficiency and clarity. She highlights the conflict between rival revolutionary movements as well as the internal divisions within the Smith regime. She presents the problems that faced (and still do face) the newly-independent state with insight and honesty. This section is, in my view, the strength of this book and can be used very effectively by students.
In a lucid section on culture, the writer notes the variety of cultures found in Zimbabwe. She manages somehow to retain a balance between providing enough information and not becoming too detailed. Most of the common traditional and beliefs are covered in the discussion, and the writer correctly notes that there is often a tension between the urbanised people and those who try to remain true to traditional customs in a rapidly modernising world. There is a healthy mixture of cultural information and interesting trivia, which is what often makes a book readable. So, for instance, the author mentions that Albert Luthuli, the First African leader to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was born in Zimbabwe. The fact also illustrates another important fact--that there is a great deal of shared history among the nations in southern Africa. My concern about the western bias of the book surfaced again with the discussion of Zimbabwean literature. The author mentions Albert Luthuli, but then goes on to discuss Henry Gouldsbury and Doris Lessing. While Lessing is certainly one of the most significant writers that Zimbabwe has produced, she is hardly representative of current Zimbabwean fiction. She has spent most of her adult life in England and, although her fiction draws on her experiences of racism in Zimbabwe, she writes primarily for a European audience, and her work follows very much in a European writing tradition. No mention is made of an exciting new generation of writers which includes Tsitsi Dangarembga, Chenjerai Hove, Chirikure Chirikure, David Rubadiri, and Charles Mungoshi. The work of these new writers is rooted firmly in the struggle for freedom and in the growth of a newly-independent nation and is therefore far more topical and informative than Lessing's slightly distant, calculated prose or Gouldsbury's colonial eulogies.
Once the author returns to a more factual narrative, the discussion improves significantly. However, slight discrepancies in the remaining sections bothered me. So, for instance, the caption on page 96 notes that "railroad lines helped make Bulawayo the industrial center of Zimbabwe," while on page 106 we are told that "Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, is the center of industry." A minor detail perhaps, but which is it going to be? Attention to these details and discrepancies is what makes the difference between an average and a truly outstanding book.
In the final analysis, I was disturbed by the colonial bias that kept surfacing. In all likelihood the author does this unintentionally, but it nonetheless skews the picture we get of modern Zimbabwe. The lack of attention to detail, the carelessness about the order and content of photographs and the disregard for careful phrasing of certain paragraphs all detract measurably from what could otherwise a very good book.
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Peter Midgley. Review of Barnes-Svarney, Patricia, Zimbabwe.
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