I heard about Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter (1996) by J. Nozipo Maraire in the alumni magazine for the College of Humanities of my undergraduate university. In that little publication, there’s a section called “Books that Made a Difference,” and I once had published there my thoughts on Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943). I kept an eye on that column, and when a nice review of Zenzele appeared, I immediately got a copy of it because it sounded like such a great book. I’m glad I finally had time during the holidays to sit down and read it.
The novel is written in the form of a letter from a Zimbabwean mother to her daughter, a student at Harvard. While there is certainly a narrative arc, I won’t go into all of the stories or the characters of the daughter and mother. I think their relationship could be archetypal for any sort of generational relationship. What I want to focus on today are the pieces of advice that are scattered through the story. The mother has much wisdom to impart, and I see it as applicable to all of us, especially at the start of a new year with our changes and resolutions in mind. Not all of the advice is given in a proscriptive manner, nor is it necessarily broad, but I choose to see the beauty and universality of these words and I choose to interpret some of the tacit advice. I see much of this advice as translatable to current-day situations and my own experiences. I will leave it to you to interpret these words through your own lenses.
Here are sixteen pieces of advice from a Zimbabwean mother to her daughter.
“Being an African woman is what you will make of it, Zenzele. But never forget that for the majority, it also means to rise out of bed before others, to make the cold kitchen warm, to work the fields in the blazing heat, to walk for miles on dusty paths carrying water on your head, wood under your arms, and a baby on your back” (p. 41).
“How I wished then that my body, too, if it had to droop and shrivel, for surely everyone’s did, would furl and decussate with grace to sculpt the victory of my spirit: that I, too, when heavy and bent with age, could caress my wrinkled lids and hold my sagging flesh as a majestic robe of a life well lived” (p. 45).
“We grow the fruit; they sell us the jam. It is called ‘free trade,’ by one-half of the world and ‘economic exploitation’ by the other. . . . Our indicators of health-care equity, education for all, the family, the drug-free schools, expenditure on services for the disabled and handicapped—these have no place in their economic ledgers. Yet these reflect our values and our achievements. All I am saying, my daughter, is to keep your eyes open out there, continue to ask as many questions of them as you do of us, and you will not get lost. You will make us very proud, I am sure” (p. 77).
“Until the lion learns to write, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter. So it is with us, too. History is simply the events as seen by a particular group, usually the ones with the mightiest pens and the most indelible ink. . . . Until the ivory turns to a rainbow with all countries represented, you would do well to be suspicious of the so-called facts” (p. 79).
“Prejudice is in the eyes of the beholder . . . Racism is a phenomenal thing; it is like a thick mist that obscures the vision and judgment of even great minds” (p. 85).
“A racist can come in such pleasant attire and speak with such beguiling words that you almost forget the malevolence therein. . . . [I]t was just her paucity of experiences that had led her to be so foolish. She had paid me neither compliment nor insult by her words. You must never be flattered or dismayed by such remarks. They are testimony to an appalling ignorance of African civilization. Nothing more” (p. 91).
“My daughter, you will meet many men in life. Allow none to tempt you to abandon your principles. Follow what is right. Stick to the path of honesty and integrity. You are a strong girl; let no one break you. There is not a man in the world who is worth your dignity. Do not confuse self-sacrifice with love” (p. 111-112).
“[A]t the end of the day you will meet only two men in your life: One will make your hands tremble; the other will make them steady. The first will be your passion of youth, but like the blazing fires of the bush, it will soon die to glowing embers, then cool ashes. The second will enter your life quietly, like a thief in the night. He will be like the mighty trees in the forest that we do not see before us, yet they are there, strong and tall; in rain and sun, they dig their roots deep and shade us with their leaves. It is the second one who you must marry. He will be a good husband and father to your children” (p. 113).
“Freedom is something you all take for granted. Yet fifty—no, not even twenty years ago—it was a dream we dared not even dream of” (p. 169).
“It is disgraceful . . . to allow another person to make you their slave” (p. 172).
“[W]hat I hate about our churches—they teach people that they cannot do anything to change their lives. All you can do is pray and leave your affairs in the hands of God. As far as I am concerned, God helps those who help themselves” (p. 173).
“Too many people give up too soon; they do not fight for what is truly theirs. And the government, church, and television keep the average man so mired in petty concerns that he can no longer discern which battles are worth fighting for. For that matter, even if he had a consciousness, he would be too exhausted to face a struggle. . . . They should be fighting for their land; it is theirs. The evicted do not know housing laws, the maimed are ignorant of disability laws, the blind cannot read the rights of the handicapped, the battered wife has no idea of her rights, and so on” (p. 176).
“God takes whomever he pleases, whenever he pleases, almost as a mocking reminder of our helplessness” (p. 177).
“I no longer see the world as ready-made, requiring only that we occupy our own little spot and do unto others as we would have them do unto us, as they taught me at the Sunday school in Chakowa Mission. Like your father, I am coming to understand that this world is as yet unfinished. There is no Eden here save the one we create for one another. Our mission is to complete and preserve the work that was started. And that is why we are created in God’s image” (p. 185).
“It is true that I have had no great visions. But I have loved, and surely this is enough. It is to have tasted from the cup of milk and honey. And what need do I have of shiny badges for bravery? Courage is, after all, to take great risks—and in loving, I have known the pain of risk and loss” (p. 193).
“Should anyone ask what my contribution is to this world, I can only say that my conscience rests joyously with the knowledge that I had a hand in bringing you into it. . . . It is a pity that I have not more to leave you than words. But what is a life, after all, but a story, some fiction and some truth? In the end, there are words. They are the very manifestations of our immortality” (p. 193).
I see value in all of these ideas, and I wouldn’t have noted them if I didn’t love them all. However, I am leaning toward number fourteen as my favorite one. Do you have a favorite?