BY LARA BUXBAUM
If you’re wondering what form protest literature might take after almost 20 years of democracy, Meg Vandermerwe’s debut novel provides one possible answer. Zebra Crossing introduces us to the unforgettable Chipo Nyamubaya, whose idiosyncratic voice will haunt you long after you turn the final pages of this beautifully-designed book.
The novel revisits the Soccer World Cup in 2010 and stages a countdown – not to the start of the games, but their feared conclusion. Lurking below the giddy togetherness and the call to “Celebrate Africa’s Humanity” was a resurgent threat of xenophobic attacks, cynically postponed till after the final.
Into this volatile environment, Chipo, a 17-year-old Zimbabwean girl with albinism, and her brother, George, arrive in Cape Town, smuggled across the border. The novel is narrated by Chipo, inflected with her naïveté, loneliness and her love of word play and rhymes. The prologue concludes: “Borders rhymes with orders. You follow your brother’s orders. … A border is where you swap home for hope”. However, migrant life is precarious and Chipo discovers there are some words which do not rhyme, which are “unique and terrible”.
The siblings share a room with their childhood friends, Peter and David, in an apartment building on Long Street. Jean-Paul, a reclusive tailor, inhabits the other room and takes Chipo under his wing. Besotted with David, Chipo consults Dr Ongani whose pamphlet promises to “stop suffering” and “win loved one”. However, she merely succeeds in exacerbating suffering and causes David to lose his loved one, Jeremiah.
What follows, when Chipo cannot afford to pay the “doctor” and George, Peter and David fall under his sway, is harrowing and almost tragically predictable. The pejorative names, myths and stereotypes which Chipo has heard whispered about “albinos” all her life suddenly acquire a terrible reality.
Vandermerwe’s style is measured and unadorned, yet deeply affecting. She captures ordinary, quiet and intimate moments of city life – often glimpsed by Chipo from her window perch, or observed in her brief and infrequent forays outside the apartment building – imbuing them with poignancy.
Zebra Crossing deserves a wide audience: it is a difficult but necessary book, one which will make you weep. The characters are complex, not cardboard cut-outs acting as vehicles for ideas or stereotypes, as in the baldest protest fiction which sacrifices all other literary concerns to the political imperative.
This is a novel which is sure to prompt searching conversations as well as a more critical consideration of the meaning of hospitality and freedom – beyond interventions such as “Freedom Fridays”, now that the time of “Football Fridays” has ended. It is an urgent call for change and a re-assessment of the state of the nation. Vandermerwe exposes the repercussions of prejudice and of brutality carried out in the name of national borders and fear of otherness. The reader is tasked with imagining new rhymes for borders, new words for hope.
Zebra Crossing is published by Umuzi, R190.