Review: Chioniso and Other Stories - The Herald

Chinodya on religion and scepticism

The Herald January 13, 2014 Opinion & Analysis

Review by Stanely Mushava

Chioniso & Other Stories








Book: Chioniso and Other Stories

Author: Shimmer Chinodya

Publisher: Weaver Press (2012)

If literature is to discharge its normative function as a miniature of society, then this preoccupation with religion will be indulged as an inevitable feature on the writer’s task-pane. Mankind’s progress through history is informed by a quest for meaning in which religion plays a central role.

Although the greater part of civil institutions have been secularised, the politics of survival still draw heavily on religion. Despite being tagged the opium of the people and ostracised as out of touch with trending dynamics by intellectuals, artists and media practitioners, religion simply cannot be wished away.

Terrence Ranger once said society can ignore religion at its own peril. Whether one considers the dismantling of Soviet satellites or the Arab Spring, the influence of religion, positive or negative, still commands geopolitical and social terrains.

Literature worldwide has meticulously captured the varying attitudes of faith and scepticism. These thought schools have trails in the writings of modern exponents, notably Christianity and conservatism in TS Eliot, agnosticism in DH Lawrence, occultism in WB Yeats and atheism in Ernest Hemingway.

Keynote African writers, by and large, assail Christianity as a residue of imperialism. Leopold Senghor, David Diop, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Okot p’Bitek, Taban Lo Liyong and Wole Soyinka oscillate around indigenous syncretism and atheism as Afro-centric counter-attitudes against what they perceive to be a colonially imposed religion.

Zimbabwean patriarchs such as Stanelake Samkange, Patrick Chakaipa and Ndabaningi Sithole juggle nationalism, social justice and Christian-oriented didacticism, continuing from isolated Rhodesian political evangelists like Arthur Shearley Cripps.

The second generation, featuring Dambudzo Marechera, Chenjerai Hove and Charles Mungoshi chart a departure-point, concurring with the mainstream African tradition in dragging Christianity into the dock.

The most prolific local novelist, Shimmer Chinodya, has recurrently dabbled with the faith question, drawing on sceptical characters and sketches of modern life in ‘Strife,’ the coming-of-age narrative Harvest of Thorns and other pieces.

Not surprisingly, Chinodya who once told a local weekly that he is ‘beautifully confused by religion’ devotes considerable space to this ultimate existential question in his latest short story collection, Chioniso and Other Stories.

During the brief exchange I had with him as I was collecting a copy of his book, Chinodya hinted on the role of a writer as a prophet of his own society. Considering how religion has permeated virtually every aspect of Zimbabwean life, the novelist’s preoccupation with religion is a warranted imperative.

The most elaborate piece in the anthology, succinctly entitled ‘Infidel’ deals extensively with religion as embodied in popular charismatic denominations. Regardless of where one is coming from with respect to spiritual persuasion, one is compelled to agree with Chinodya’s astute portrayal of the hypocrisy, which obtains in modern Christianity.

The story demonstrates that some people’s aversion to religion is caused by the examples of its adherents. Characters who publicly display Christian fervour, privately lead morally bankrupt lives.

We are introduced to Chinodya’s doppelganger, Godfrey, as a young student and budding writer, progressing through faith on the coat-tails of an articulate senior.

The double standards and godless exploits of the older student, Billet, repel Godfrey rather than the former’s words endear him to the church. From converting Scripture Union goods to personal use to having an illicit sexual affair as a second-year undergraduate, Billet dissembles Godfrey’s faith.

When Billet impregnates his girlfriend and fast-tracks a hasty wedding to legitimise the relationship, Godfrey asks himself: ‘Had they not transgressed the rules of the Bible by having sex before marriage?’

He is quietly smitten by conscience on his brother leader’s behalf before further indiscretions end up disentangling him from the fold.

Despite the apparent hostility to Christianity readily suggested title, ‘Infidel’ takes a needful muck-racking sweep on the modern church which has lapsed into Laodicean luke warmth and Sodomite decadence.

We are shown the widening gap between the Christ-like humility and charity which obtained in the early church and the materialism and immorality which have supplanted the former virtues in the modern church.

Godfrey faults the new churches: ‘Unlike the traditional churches, very, few built schools, hospitals or clinics. Most preached that if you were rich you were blessed, and if you were poor you were, inevitably, a sinner.’

These are issues contemporary Christendom need to process. My dissenting point is when Chinodya’s protagonist incriminates Christianity as a whole, a fallacy known as ‘throwing away the baby with the bath water.’ Godfrey yearns to tell his daughter in ‘Chioniso,’ the title piece: ‘Once upon a time I too was a Scripture Union fan, Chioniso. The Bible will disappoint you later my daughter, or some sweet-tongued boy will ruin it for you.’

Considering that Godfrey’s inventory of religious indiscretions owe their currency to the contrasts between the modern church and biblical fundamentals, it would be fair to confine indictment to the former, unless the latter is plausibly demonstrated to deserve the same.

‘Chioniso’ also takes on the institution of marriage with its modern complexities: ‘What makes some professional women so unhappy?’

Why are men cruel to their wives? Why do married women do things behind their husbands’ backs? Why do spouses need to compete and frustrate each other?’

Godfrey’s own dysfunctional family comes across as a looking glass for these problems.

‘The Car,’ further appraises the clash between modernity and tradition in the family institution. The car, a motif of modernity, is presented by the diasporan Roderick as a Christmas gift to his in-laws. The father-in-law spurns the gift as a ploy to evade the outstanding bride-price, including the mother’s heifer and the father’s six beasts.

Things get heated when mother-in-law embraces the car as her launch-pad to class and allows it to be a middle wall between the old couple. The comic story speaks volumes on the affront material culture poses to marriage.

One recalls Old Mandisa’s revulsion against sugar in ‘Waiting for the Rain’ and Muchemwa’s caution about cars in ‘The Mourned One.’ ‘Prisons on the Road’ indulges the idea of a formidable, new Africa emerging to the geopolitical summit from the rabble of the post-American world. ‘Africa used to run the world once and might do so again in the not so distant future,’ Ezeulu muses.

‘After all, it was the cradle of humanity. Remember one of the earliest civilisations in the world began in Egypt. If you think of Africa’s vast human and strategic material resources today, you will see that the continent is poised for a great renaissance,’ he says.

The traditional narrative which exclusively ascribes the stagnation of the continent to slavery and colonialism is, however, questioned and post-colonial corruption and mismanagement are implicated as co-demobilisers.

Western progress is incriminated for flourishing on pollution, climate change, recession, nuclear arms, world wars and holocausts.