Nhamo is a barely prepubescent orphan, living with her Aunt Chipo in a village in Mozambique which holds to the traditional culture of the area; her mother is dead, killed by leopards, and her father fled before Nhamo’s birth after he killed a man called Gore Mtoko–only her Abuya (grandmother) remembers Nhamo’s father clearly. Chipo does not much care for Nhamo, the child of the prettiest sister, preferring her own daughter to her niece. The two cousins get on reasonably well despite this, and they both do the many chores needed; Nhamo is no true Cinderella. After an epidemic of cholera runs through the village, leaving the surviving villagers weak despite intervention from the local nganga (doctor), they contact the local muvuki to determine if the continuing illness is due to witchcraft rather than aftereffects of cholera.
The muvuki determines that the spirit of the man Nhamo’s father killed is demanding restitution. “Abuya” claims she has already done so, with two cows, but this was not enough for the spirit. Aunt Chipo appears to channel the spirit of the dead man, claiming that only the marriage of Nhamo to his surviving brother will remove the haunting and leave the village in peace. Abuya, knowing that said brother is a cruel man and a bad husband, sends Nhamo off to search for her father and his family to escape this marriage. Nhamo takes the boat of the local fisher, dead in the cholera epidemic, and as many supplies as she can carry, and sets off upriver for Zimbabwe. Needless to say, the trip is arduous and terrifying for a girl who’s never been alone away from home before; she’s always been surrounded by family and in familiar areas–but she perseveres, even settling for a time on an island midway across Lake Cahora Bassa to refit her boat and grow more supplies. Upon crossing into Zimbabwe, she is taken in by a small scientific community studying the effects of the tsetse fly, who are reluctant to send her back once they find out why she fled. They do, however, send her on to her father’s family, once they’re locate, with the promise to take her back if that proves unsuitable.
After a struggle, she does settle in with her father’s family–her father is long dead–even going to school, but retains the option of going back to the scientists who took her in.
Who’d like to read this? Possibly kids who liked Island of the Blue Dolphins but wondered what happened next, or wished it had a happy ending. (Karana’s fate was mixed, I’m sorry to say) Unfortunately, it’s the kind of book that gets assigned in classes, as a result of its Deep Meaningful Exploration of women’s rights in developing nations, and about a spunky girl who breaks ties with everything she knows to do what’s right by outside standards.
Overall, I’d call it a better introduction to the culture for “foreign ghosts” than her other book about this part of Africa, The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, as she left out the science fiction aspects and concentrated on the culture. Farmer seems to have done a sensitive sympathetic job of creating a character belonging to a culture with which she does at least have a passing familiarity–she lived in Mozambique and Zimbabwe for several years–but I wouldn’t mind seeing more books by authors who are Mozambican themselves.