This copy was given to me by a friend.
I finished The Horns on a Thursday, and that Friday, the day I set aside to review the book, Mugabe died.
The news hit me like a wave full of debris – no joy, no relief, no anger – it just thudded me on to a shore that was no longer there.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe appears in The Horns, but only towards the end of this first book in the trilogy.
The novel (1939 -1966) is set in the land between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers, known today as Zimbabwe. It follows the lives of four pre-school friends on their separate paths to adulthood, each of them rushed into a future that they, like their country, cannot resist.
My assumption is that the author, Jill Baker, is the only female and white child in this young group. In the book her name is Carol, and the others are her friends, each based on real childhood friends, and through their lives and her own she mixes autobiography with story to explore the beginnings of Zimbabwe.
She writes with great care – I think her father would have approved:
“Dad always said, “Compare as many pieces of written research and articles as you can find about a particular action or time. As many as possible. Read them, understand that every one of them will be written with the pretty undisguised bias of the writer, but each will contain some almost identical components. Those will be the truths. Find them, harvest them, use them.”
The book’s four guides each have a parent or guardian employed by the colonial administrative system in the south of the country – it is why they become friends – but circumstances, and their lives, change fast. By the end of the book each is in a new setting: one is a farmer’s wife; another, a rural businessman; one, a legally trained government development officer; and the fourth a Russian-trained member of the ‘armed struggle’.
As the differences between the four widen, the country itself begins to tear apart, both nationally and internationally, with its people trapped in the middle.
It sounds dramatic, and it is, but the telling is restrained, built carefully on original sources – many are new to me, even though I was born in the country and schooled in its capital.
The oral storytelling style of the book slows the pace of the tale, and forces the focus on to the bones it digs up.
“Lobengula made an apt comment when he said, ‘The chameleon gets behind the fly, remains motionless for some time, then advances slowly and gently, first putting forward one leg and then another. At last, when he is in reach, he darts his tongue and the fly disappears. England is the chameleon and I am that fly.'”
The paragraph below is from a question and answer session that covers several chapters. In the book it’s part of a conversation between Carol, her father and her friends – it’s a lesson in many ways, with more information than action, all carefully laid out in black and white.
Angus let him speak, then said quietly, “We’ll certainly talk about that tomorrow Jabu. It’s a pivotal point in the whole settlement of this country. There are more exaggerations, distortions, untruths and lies about that one episode than almost anything else.”
Snatches are also shown of what is happening in the lands far removed from the great rivers of Zimbabwe.
“In 1884 the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, invited 13 European nations plus America to take part in a conference in Berlin to ‘work out joint policy on the African continent’.”
More follows of course, but balanced from many sides within the story, and condensed into steady, well-informed discussion that’s easy to follow. I read, I learned, and I was fascinated … and I knew that the man who died in Singapore, on 6 September 2019, was bound to appear.
He does, not far from the end:
“He was a compelling speaker. He talked of the exciting developments in Ghana since 1957 and of the benefits of Marxism and its care for the oppressed povo. He said the word ‘proletariat’ was too long to remember, but both the word ‘povo’ and ‘proletariat’ meant the same thing – the poor people who work, work, work and never make enough money.
His name was Robert Mugabe.”
A few chapters later the book ends abruptly in a farm store, some six months after Rhodesia issues its unilateral declaration of independence from the United Kingdom.
I know – and I don’t know – what comes next. Already I feel a raw frustration mixed with dread … but I want to read on, and I hope many other Zimbabweans will get the chance to do so too.
These stories are part of our history, and The Horns is a rare chance to see many viewpoints brought together. Thanks to Jill Baker for setting them down.
The Zambezi Trilogy – Book One – The Horns by Jill Baker
This paperback edition published in 2019 by Vivid Publishing, a division of Fontaine Publishing Group
P O Box 948, Freemantle
Western Australia, 6959
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019
Below is an interview with Jill Baker. It is 22 minutes long – if you’re short on time I would recommend going to minute 13 as this focuses on the background to her books and her writing.