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Sunday, 2 March 2014

A Cowrie of Hope - Binwell Sinyangwe

African Literature features quite heavily on my list of books that come from random countries that feature a natural UNESCO World Heritage site. This month I was off to Zambia and chose the novel “A Cowrie of Hope” by Binwell Sinyangwe. He’s a widower raising a son and two daughters, he studied Industrial Economics in Bucharest, Romania and now lives in Lusaka in Zambia.

This short tale is a revelation of Zambia in the 1990’s and as I travel the globe through various writings I come across wondrous tales of resilience and triumph over hardship. To tell a story of a single mother who lives day to day but can’t afford to send her daughter to school with compassion and an underlying tension is a great achievement.

‘They were lucky, those who went to school in the sixties, seventies and eighties, when education was not paid for and everything needed was provided free. Now in the nineties, things are different, we must accept what is happening to us. It won’t help if we complain and grieve. Who will listen to us?’

Our protagonist is Nasula (mother of Sula) and quite simply she wants a batter life for her daughter, an education so she can escape the hardship that all women have to endure in the small villages in Zambia, and our village of Swelini. With nobody able to pay for hired help, no means of income, no crops, what is Nusala to do?

These were the nineties, the years when there was a harshness and hardness in the land that had little sympathy for the weak. New people were in government and the sons and daughters of the land were breathing with a new spirit. Borrow to pay back, not to steal they were saying. A good spirit. A person must pay for what she or he borrows and work hard for what she or he eats. But when the rain is bad and the crop is bad as a result, what can a person do?

Nasula is poverty personified, each day a meal is gathered from the most unlikely of sources. So how to send your daughter to school to escape this madness? Nasula travels to the village of her in-laws, even though they had taken everything when her husband had died. Her hope is to borrow some funds as the deadline for school enrolment fast approaches. After a day long walk she finds the village in ruin, the patriarchs all dead or dying from AIDS and not a coin or even a meal available to borrow. The severity of the situation and the poverty is always our underlying theme here.

Sula, her daughter, was a blessing. She took her schooling seriously and had refused to be weighed down by the severity of their poverty or the reality that she had no father, and that she was a girl, not a boy. Given support, she would become successful and be able to make decisions about her own life, she make them achieve as a family. 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.

Our story takes a different turn when a friend arrives in the village and explains to Nasula that her one bag of beans is fetching a fortune in the capital city. She can travel to the markets of Lusaka, sell her beans and return to provide the secondary education her daughter so desperately requires.

As I do my best not to put spoilers in my reviews I’ll leave the tale here so you to enjoy Nasula’s travels yourself, will the bag of beans lead to further ruin, is the story of their wealth true, will Nasula be able to sell them and return home wit the required funds? You’ll have to explore this African novel yourself.

Another opening for me into the plight of people’s in the various countries as I travel around the globe from my various reading spots. A simple but rewarding tale of endurance, both individually and as a nation. With Zambia having a rich history in fiction the choices from here were many and varied and if you would like to lean more about this nation may I suggest the website where a great list of works are available. 

Cross posted at the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Literature Challenge blog at

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