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Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Talakata, By Princess Zindaba Nyirenda (A Review)

Talakata - The Tears of Africa, By Princess Zindaba Nyirenda
A Zambian Economist Review

Talakata - The Tears of AfricaTalakata is an autobiographical based assessment (discussion or “indaba” with the reader) of the pressing challenges facing Africa and what could be done to bring about meaningful change. Given the personal element of the book, Zindaba is quick upfront to state that “this book is not written to laud or exalt any girl and her dog, a family tribe, institution, or people, nor is it written to point fingers and blame others for our present crisis”. Rather the aim is to suggest “how we can all work together and end poverty and fight AIDS on the continent, and our world at large, starting with a single person. This book is my attempt to raise awareness, funding and support around the world from those who sympathize and empathize with this cause”. Consequently, the first time author understandably weaves together the narrative and analytical accounts in what she hopes is a meaningful book to spur you onto further indabas with her.

Given the task at hand it should therefore come as no surprise that although the book seeks to address “all of humanity”, the primary audience is “western” and more specifically American. The book is part of a broader initiative by the author to build “a bridge between Africa and America, only because I have lived in both lands, born and raised in the former and now two decades in the latter”. It is rallying cry to an American audience who can make a difference, “my prayer is that wise men will read this book and show up...and help me. Two decades have come and gone, the orphans of Africa are growing up alone and neglected, and I continue to wait”. It’s also obvious that the author also has the African American in mind. There are also repeated references through the book to African Americans (“our brothers”) to rekindle the relationship with Africa and overcome the scars of slavery. In the post-Obama world this may presumably include the larger African Diaspora, who though not explicitly acknowledged would undoubtedly resonate with her story of traversing oceans in search of a better life. In that sense it unfortunate that this angle is not sufficiently explored in the book.

At its most basic, Talakata is a story of how Nkhosikazi-Princess Zindaba Nyirenda grew up in Zambia, spending her young life in Zambia and then relocated to Chicago in the United States. It is a story of the challenges she faced along the way and how those came to shape her vision for a better Africa. The journey begins with her recollections of a privileged childhood in Chilabombwe, attending a school where she was the only “black student in my classroom of largely European miners’ children, because most miners could not afford to send their children to private, fee-paying Christian schools”. There’s little discussion in the book on how those early years impacted on her perspective about life, except to note even with such background, she was instilled from the early years of Royalty. The father was the grandson of His Royal Highness Chief Mphamba of the Tumbuka, something that has continued to shape her respect for African traditions and the will to stand by the people of Mphamba.

The traditional heritage gained further prominence when her family relocated to Lundazi from Chilibombwe. It was during those formative years "full of "bliss" that she rediscovered the Tumbaka’s many traditional village practices, including the traditional dances such as vimbuza, fwemba and chidyake. In vimbuza the colourful dancer dressed up in bright beads, ankle bells and coco shells is supposedly possessed with her ancestors’ spirits, and this spirit is expelled from the body as the dancer vigorously moves and shakes the rhythm of the drum beats. This “joyous spirit” allegedly lifts one out of depression. Zindaba, an evidently committed Christian, is quick to note that this is different from the “night dance and spirit exorcism”. The point being of of course that vimbusa is okay, night dancing is not! Unfortunately, she does not provide a deeper basis for drawing this sharp distinction - particularly for the Christian audience. Having grown up in the village and seen the village exorcism first hand, albeit in Luapula, it is hard to distinguish theologically, from a Christian perspective, the differences between theses two dances, since in both cases the appeal to the spiritual world is self evident.

Beyond the village and rural experiences in Eastern province, the remainder of the book is taken up to narrate her experience of living in the USA after joining her husband who she married while studying at University of Zambia. As the narrative unfolds a number of issues begin to emerge, chief among them the struggle to adapt so far away from home. Zindaba narrates, “I missed my sunny and warm Africa, the friendliness and closeness of our people, and the togetherness”. A particular challenge that she overcome as her Christian faith deepened and she became more involved in her local suburban church in northwest Chicago. Her faith, though not without challenges, proves not only the anchor through that helps withstand the external forces from home, but also now propels her going forward.

The other challenge was financial. Though Zindaba does not spend too much time discussing this, we see it woven through her many challenges. Often these are presented in coded fashion, for example, we learn early on  that her children were never taken to Africa which given her endearing love for her parents it was most likely due to  her financial position. In an explicit and moving acknowledgement after her father passed away she explains her deep frustration at not being able to attend, “With two little children at home and an income that barely took care of the rent, I knew a trip to attend the funeral was out off the question. I could not afford to travel.....I hated being poor and not having much money, because it meant missing Daddy’s funeral....I will bear this burden silently until the day I lay my wreath on his grave and gain closure...”.

In many ways these challenges are not uncommon. Many members of the African diaspora living abroad not only find themselves in a lonely place but financially strapped. The glorious pictures of snow and city lights are immediately met with the tough challenges of western commercialism. It is therefore profoundly useful that Talakata opens these highly personal challenges and shares them to the those left behind and others similarly struggling. I was once told by a young man in Ndola that “even babies here dream of going to London”. There’s a view shared by some in Zambia that the west is a land full of plenty, though I admit the issue is one of relative plenty. The reality of course is that such relocation choices carry huge costs as well. As Talakata illustrates the financial needs from those left behind (in Zindaba's case medical treatment costs for her late parents at the time) push many people into struggling position especially debt. For some it’s even worse. Many sad tales of mostly young Zambian women litter our western capitals (I need not say further). In this sense it is most invaluable to have a fresh and honest perspective on the challenges that the Zambian diaspora face.

Talakata's honest approach is best exemplified by Zindaba's willingness to admit that her father died of HIV/AIDs. Though in his case from giving blood donations. Although people are now freely able to come out and talk about HIV/AIDs this, as Zindaba notes, this remains a taboo subject. We must continue to speak and support those who champion such openess like Princess Kasune Zulu.   To Zindaba's credit, the untimely death of her father was not the end but the beginning of her journey to rally the American audience to do all it can to tackle the menace of poverty in Africa and the problem of HIV/AIDs, with the formation of The Light on The Hill of Africa organisation.

As an autobiography, the book holds its own. Indeed some of her descriptions of the current problems facing Zambia, and Africa in general, are well diagnosised. She makes good observations on obvious linkages between poverty and HIV/AIDs. Equally valid are the perspectives on the environmental pollution wreaked by the mines in Kafue river and the need for better sanitation. She is also right to acknowledge the historical nature of  Africa's current problem vis-a-vis colonialism. Unfortunately, the problem in Africa is not the diagnosis, but the remedy. Many of the issues she identifies are well known and do not really add to the intellectual depth – they are too obvious. Perhaps more worrying, is that this is often the case for areas where she
ought to be better placed to formulate better ideas given her background.  Two particularly stood out.

First, the approach to African development is western-centric. In one passage she narrates “we must consider the fact that most African have had less than fifty years of formal Western will take intellectual, technical know-how, and tones of will take a lot of money”. In another she notes, “we cannot do this without your financial support, without proper education, without intellectual capability, without technical know how”. Her heart is in the right place, but this is not the way to develop Africa. Aid is to Africa is certainly important and all must continue agitating for better aid effectiveness, but the debate is moving on onto how Africans themselves should take advantage of the resources they have to make a difference. There’s very little discussion in the book about the failure of African leadership or what can be done from the ground up to ensure we have the politics that serves our children and mothers. Zindaba has not sufficiently demonstrated that she understands that change must begin with Africans developing African solutions for Africa. An intellectual renaissance is what is missing not intellectual capability! Incidentally there’s also no mention on how the diaspora can be more effectively part of the solution, which is quite ironic.

Secondly, the approach to the traditional question is deeply inadequate. Zindaba must be applauded for her fierce promotion of the “madango” and the ability to draw contrasts to how such values absent in the west should make all of us proud of our heritage. Indeed the repeated use of Tumbuka is extremely admirable and something for future writers to emulate.  However, her traditional thesis is riddled with structural problems. Principally, there’s an inherent lack of balance. For example, Zindaba is full of praise for the initiation ceremonies for young women, where they are taught how to be a good future wife. However, there’s no recognition of what is now being acknowledged in Zambia that these ceremonies have become responsible for destroying the lives of your people in an increasing poverty ridden society. Once the girl completes these traditional lessons tradition expects them to get marriage, indeed many not only feel ready, but are actually forced to do so in exchange for cattle and money. These practice forces children out of school and further exposes them to the risk of HIV/AIDS. The very problems Zindaba wants to tackle. There are ways around these challenges but the start point is to acknowledge that these challenges exist along side others e.g. sexual cleansing.

The other issue is that the Talakata proposal for getting traditional leaders involved in development is inadequate, and perhaps not fully thought through. Zindaba rightly notes that traditional leaders “have vision and a sense of ownership, [but] too often lack the tools, expertise, and resources to accomplish these objectives”. So what is the solution?  Zindab's solutions amounts to the following: “I believe this could be a very a very good solution, and to test we can begin with the House of Chiefs in Zambia. Bring in the children from every street corner have them matched up and placed and raised in the chief’s vicinity with dignity”. This unfortunately, patterns the general analytical approach. There’s insufficient attempt to hold one  line of thought and explore it to its natural conclusion. As for the idea of getting each chief to adopt a child, the starting question, which leads to the answer is “why don’t they do that already?” Not only is it resource intensive but traditional leaders are not sufficiently integrated in development period. Incidentally, some chiefs would rightly resist taking on such children given the perverse incentives it carries for generating future “orphans”. The underlying point is that such proposals need careful thought and this is not demonstrated.

To conclude, it is therefore apparent that this is very much a mixed read. It is certainly difficult to fault Zindaba’s quest to tell her story as honestly as possible. Indeed given the general absence of Zambians penning their reflections, this is most welcome. In that sense the book should appeal to those more comfortable reading autobiographies. It is less likely to appeal to those who interested to know a bit more about how we can move beyond our current challenges. Presentationally, some readers may also find certain parts a bit repetitive and indeed for the Zambian audience, the use of Africa where Zambia is more acute may further distance the reader. Aside from not sufficiently giving appropriate distinction between the problems facing Zambia and those facing Africa in general it may unwittingly reinforce the stereotype of Africa as a country. I am led to conclude that the book never quite figures out whether it is fundamentally about Zambia or Africa.

Note :

This was a somewhat strange book to review because in coming to this point, I have broken one of the cardinal rules that underpins my approach to book reviews: approach with complete ignorance. As a personal rule, I tend not to read book reviews about books I am going to read. Nor do I listen to any views of the author about the book. Unfortunately prior to writing the above review, not only did I read this favorable review , but also heard the on blog talk radio. I also watched this video clip. I don't think this has shaped my view, but in the interests of transparency its worth sharing. Readers are therefore asked to take bear this in mind as they read the review.

Update (18 September 2010) :

Princess Zindaba Nyirenda has now kindly responded to this review - see Talakata Review (A Response by Princess Nyirenda).


  1. It would appear the author will be on Diaspora Voice tomorrow morning (Sept 18) in which she will respond to your comments and more. Just a heads up.

  2. Thanks for the heads up!

    She has also forwarded her response which is published above.


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