The Herald (Harare)

19 March 2012

Zimbabwe: Crèche for Sex Scandals

book review

Norton area qualifies to be the crèche for sex scandals in Zimbabwe. Chibhoyi became enterprising with at least one housewife on his farm in that area. He ended up being the first white person who appeared before the real community court in independent Zimbabwe.

The multitude filled the football stadium in Norton and witnessed local councillors dispensing justice with an even hand. Chibhoyi had been caught in a compromising position with the wife of one of his workers.

The farmer and his mistress took their seats beside each other in the middle of the pitch. The exhibits before the court were the pair of shoes and the shirt that Chibhoyi had been wearing on the day when he was caught.

Chibhoyi admitted his crime of seduction. He gave three cows to the man that he had given a pair of horns. The trial of Chibhoyi brought to mind the case of Mary Turner, the main character in the Grass is Singing.

Doris Lessing portrays Mary as a victim of sex across the racial divide, which settler farmers in Ngezi area don't approve of. Mary herself is not among the first people to settle at Ngezi.

Her father and mother are of pioneer stock. She grows up in this farming community and when her parents die she goes to work in town. Mary doesn't want to marry early because she has seen her father abusing her mother. However, when she turns 30 people start making unsavoury remarks about her status.

Her marriage to Dick isn't a happy one. The thread running through the Grass is Singing chronicles the pain which Mary endures when she seeks comfort from their cook. The men who bring sex across colour to Zimbabwe enjoy the fruits of their enterprise, but they are loath to see men of colour doing the same. They ostracise Mary not because she is not faithful to Dick, but because she has a crash on Moses.

Their women find relief in men of colour because their men spend all their energy amassing wealth on farms and on mines. The women finding themselves in this situation become targets of vilification. Doris Lessing presents a depressing picture, showing how Mary Turner goes for two years without people of her own colour coming to see her and Dick at their farm.

When she marries Dick, Mary Turner hopes to lead a peaceful life on the farm. The mistake that she makes is to think that life on the farm is a bed of roses. This message is also for people who receive offer letters in Zimbabwe: Life on farms can be hard and lonesome. Even on Christmas day the cow has to be milked and pigs have to be fed. Mary, without waiting for Dick to come home from the fields, runs away from the farm, hoping to get her job back, but the dust that is covering her pair of shoes disqualifies her.

The hostel where she used to stay before she went to the farm reminds Mary that they don't take in women who are married. She doesn't have money to book into a hotel. Her old friends are not forthcoming.

Debts force Mary Turner and Dick to sell their farm, but they are supposed to remain there managing it. Before they go on their first holiday, Dick shows the stand-in manager what to do on the farm. The young man goes to drink water from the main house and finds Mary out. The scandal rocks Ngezi at its foundation.

Doris Lessing makes the mistakes which is common among Caucasian artists, including Shakespeare himself. There is no evidence showing that jealousy is the prerogative of the people of colour. Mary loses her balance when the fawning community of Ngezi plucks her away from Moses. For her, life loses its meaning. Doris Lessing destroys her fine narrative in the last chapter by her choice of the hand which takes the life of Mary.

Though other people treat her as an untouchable, Mary is a practical woman who finds practical solutions to practical affairs of the heart.

The "native question" features prominently in the book. The foreigner sees the African as lazy, given to excessive drinking and prone to raping white women.

For all the hard work that the African does for peanuts to cushion the life of the foreigner, that is the thank you that he gets. It upsets to think about it.

Book

Title: The Grass is Singing

Author: Doris Lessing

Printer: Michael Joseph

Pages: 256

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