The beauty of wearing spectacles is that your tears can be misinterpreted as a case of sore eyes. I cried while deeply engrossed in Phillip Chidavaenzi’s debut novel, The Haunted Trail (Longman, 2007) while travelling to Matabeleland South recently.
Chidavaenzi has mastered the art of storytelling which allows the reader to experience strong emotions such as tears inspired by overt excitement, and tears stemming from a sea of sadness. He tears down stereotypes and shows the importance of detail in storytelling.
The novel is set at a time in Zimbabwe when most people believed being HIV-positive was a death sentence. Stigma and discrimination was a lifestyle, and infected individuals and their immediate families had experienced more death than wellness.
This book is outstanding in its depiction of women. Chidavaenzi refuses to depict women as failures; rather in their diverse characters, he manages to show important aspects of womanhood in a positive light.
The women we meet include Chiedza, a well-mannered, University-educated and disciplined young woman who is impregnated and infected with HIV by her fiancé, Michael. Chiedza’s mother Fungai is a lawyer, and her sister, Itai, a journalist. Her best friend Jackie is training to be a lawyer. She has slept with several men (including Michael) but because her parents have died of HIV-related illnesses, she always makes sure she uses condoms. Michael’s mother, Stella, is a ‘shebeen queen’ who is abandoned by her teenage son. She also succumbs to HIV.
When Chiedza tells Michael that she has been diagnosed with HIV, he dumps her, abandoning their unborn son and accuses her of sleeping around. This part of the book explains why some Zimbabwean women have gone on anti-retroviral therapy in secret. Revealing your HIV status often has dire consequences.
Chiedza has been ‘schooled’ in respectability but this does not make her immune to the virus. The author shows that infection has nothing to do with what you were taught or where you came from. In Jackie, he makes readers understand that it is not the number of sexual partners, but safety that matters. In Stella we know that every woman has a story that shapes the choices she makes in her life.
Itai struggles to depict gender balance in her stories for the newspaper she works for. She is told to drop the angle on the role of patriarchal systems in fuelling the spread of HIV and instead cover how prostitutes defeat attempts to stop its spread. This is an all- too familiar narrative of how women are the face of HIV in Zimbabwe.
Chidavaenzi pays attention to the details of women’s suffering in the novel but goes on to show their resilience and pro-activity in dealing with it all: Chiedza reveals her status despite the stigma thrown her way, her mother defiantly loses her job because of Chiedza’s publicised HIV status and Jackie remains a pillar of strength for her friend.
Why This Book Matters
The book is groundbreaking in that it is written by a man; a man whose stance on HIV borders on feminism and seeks to give power to women. It is a book that should inspire change in individuals regardless of gender.
This is a book of hope for the infected and affected. Its focus on several infected women is representative of the reality that more women are infected than men. It targets the patriarchal systems that have made methods of intervention futile. It seeks to demystify HIV and de-moralise infection.
In a recent workshop I attended, Sidney Montana from the Centre for Sexualities Aids and Gender at the University of Pretoria said gender inequality was a critical and key component in fighting HIV. It has the power to equip women with the ability to negotiate for safe sex and take ownership of their health if infected like the women in The Haunted Trail.
Reflection on this book matters because the deadline of the Millennium Development Goals is looming and giving way to the Post 2015 Development Agenda. With this in mind, the rates of new HIV infections should be examined broadly.
This book matters because Zimbabwe is one of the countries with a very high HIV rate of infection. There is a need for radical policy shifts to get away from policies that fuel the type of stigma which Chiedza’s mother faced and the stigma some employees in Zimbabwe have been subjected to.
Like the journalist in the novel, writers are being challenged to create narratives that do not dis-empower individuals leading to a triumph of illness. Chidavaenzi reinforces the importance of wellness at an emotional level which ultimately blossoms to the physical. It is a book worth reading over and over again.
Chidavaenzi is a journalist and a pastor. He recently published a sequel to The Haunted Trail tilted The ties that bind, a book I hope to lay my hands on soon. My biggest hope is that this new book continues Chidavaenzi’s depiction of women as people in a position of control or making their way there.
Main image from www.sierraclub.org