Book review: Harare North

 Author: Brian Chikwava– Caine Prize winner, 2004

Publisher: Jonathan Cape, London

Year of publication: 2009

Pages: 230 (Hard cover)

Harare North is a novel narrated mostly in first person by an unnamed asylum-seeker from Zimbabwe.

It starts as the narrator arrives at Gatwick airport with only an old cardboard suitcase that has his mother’s scent and an objective to make US $5,000 – to bribe his way into being a free man again back home, and for a special ritual ceremony for his dead mother’s spirit. He is immediately detained for 8 days by immigration officers as soon as they learn of his refuge-seeking status.

After being released, he moves in with his cousin Paul and Sekai- Paul’s wife. Sekai is, as described by the narrator, a ‘lapsed African’. She has a dog instead of children, doesn’t bother cooking for visitors and throws away the small bag of groundnuts that the narrator brings from Zimbabwe because they ‘probably have disease’.

The narrator is a Mugabe sympathizer and a member of the Green Bombers, a youth movement whose work is to ‘only look for enemies of the state’. He therefore detests Sekai’s and Paul’s anti-Mugabe views. Sekai, for instance, says that the Green Bombers are “a bunch of uneducated thugs that like hitting people with sticks”. He is in denial about the mess that is happening in Zimbabwe under Mugabe’s reign such as people being evicted out of their villages for mining activities.

Besides being very imposing and manipulative he is also a freeloader. When he discovers that Sekai is having a sexual affair with a Russian man, he extorts money from her, for him to keep the secret from Paul. In addition, lives off his childhood friend Shingi (when he’s not working odd jobs in between) after he moves out of his cousin’s house and does so with entitlement. He also kills Shingi’s growing infatuation with their teenage housemate Tsitsi by hiring a Polish prostitute to sleep with him.

However, there are instances where the author makes the reader pity the narrator. This happens especially when he narrates about his past: the circumstances under which his mother passed away, him having been in jail and raped while there- under the threat of having a sharp bicycle spoke being driven into his heart, and the miserable fact that he believes that being HIV-negative can in no circumstance be any good. [How can anything negative mean good?]

Through humor, we get to see the grim existence that immigrants (legal and illegal) and asylum-seekers go through in London: ‘Harare North’. Some, like Shingi are forced to be BBC (British Bottom Cleaners) in old people’s homes, for them to make more money.

Inasmuch as Harare North is overtly about immigrant living in London, I see it as a mirror of Zimbabwe; what with the pro and anti-Mugabe factions, people just trying to eke a living despite their disadvantaged circumstances, and living in fear of those at the top -immigration officers in Harare North and Mugabe’s minions in Zimbabwe.

Harare North is a very sad story told in a very intense and comical way. It will have you laughing out loud at one moment and being irritated the next. The language is as exciting and sneaky as the story itself.

The last few chapters will have your head reeling along with the narrator’s, as the story escalates, and the narrator appears to have a mental and emotional breakdown.

I highly recommend it to anyone who’s looking for an eccentric read.


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