The cover of “A Cowrie of Hope” states that the author, Binwell Sinyangwe, “captures the rhythms of a people whose poverty has not diminished their dignity, where hope can only be accompanied by small acts of courage, and where friendship has not lost its value”, these qualities are mainly encapsulated in the main character, Nasula:
Nasula (mother of Sula) is a young widow struggling to make ends meet for herself and her daughter. Her daughter who recently passed her grade 9 exams has been accepted into an all girls secondary school but she lacks the money required for fees, supplies, and other things required for Sula to continue with her education. Though illiterate herself, Nasula, understands the need for her daughter to be educated and she feels the burden acutely.
As a young bride, she and her husband live in Lusaka where he works as security guard. He’s shot to death by the police while trying to escape a crime scene, leaving his wife widowed with an infant daughter. After his funeral, Nasula is ordered by her father-in-law to marry his other son, Isaki. She refuses to marry Isaki on the grounds that he is a polygamist and known womaniser. In retribution the family disowns and dispossesses Nasula and her daughter all of their earthly goods but the clothes on their backs. Homeless and stranded in Lusaka, she spends many nights at the bus depot trying to find her way back to Swelini, her home village in Luapula.
She makes it home to Swelini with the help of a friend, where she appeals to the headman for land to cultivate and build a home for herself and her daughter. She toils on her plot of land and also does piece-work to supplement the meagre income from her crops. Sula is enrolled in school, where she excels, rising above the taunts and ridicule she experiences because of her poverty. "The child was a cowrie of hope. A great gift from the gods to one who was so poor and lowly to wear round one’s neck for inspiration, and, above all, hope”.
Faced with the dilemma of her daughter possibly dropping out of school because of lack of funds, Nasula faces a seemingly hopeless situation until an exuberant friend proposes a solution. If she sells her last bag of Mbala beans, which are on high demand in Lusaka, the money will more than adequately fund Sula’s schooling. Re-energised with this new hope, Nasula sets out to earn this money.
Lusaka immediately strikes her as a “place of madness” and Kamwala market, in particular, is a “mound inhabited by huge, hungry tribes of termites in search of a livelihood”. Nasula has single minded goal, and draws often from her spiritual strength to take her that extra step needed.
Her naïveté is touching, and her boldness inspiring – crucially, despite the desperate situations Nasula finds herself in, she loses neither her dignity nor her sight of goal.
“But a power she could not overcome, which was from a bleeding heart, told her not to listen to the whispers of discouragement, or give up when she had already suffered so much. It urged her on. To this power she yielded while at the same time allowing the ghost of defeat to haunt her. She struggled on, a thin valiant, invisible thread pulling her along in the direction of nowhere”.
Nasula’s exuberant friend from Lusaka, Nalukwi (mother of Lukwi), is also a great character. She and her husband live in three room shack with their eight children and dependents, and yet she opens both her home and heart to Nasula offering help and advice at every turn. She’s street smart, and yet she does not use this as a means of duping her young friend – in a way, she embodies the ‘hope’ of the title of this book.
The key message of this harrowing story is that despite the predicaments many face in the world today, hope still exists. There is also value in friendship, honesty, and community. It should be remembered that while this book is a work of fiction, it draws many parallels from real life situations that many Zambians still face such as property grabbing, school dropouts from lack of funding, crop failure, corruption, lack of markets in rural areas, poor access to financial products for small-scale farmers, etc.
Direct buses between Lusaka and Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, are infrequent and slow, so I do this trip in stages. From the BP petrol station on the main street in Chipata (capital of Eastern Zambia), regular minibuses (US$2) run the 30km to the Zambian border. Once I pass through Zambian customs, it’s a few minutes’ walk to the Malawian entry post from where I get a shared taxi to Mchinji for US$1.50 followed by a minibus to Lilongwe (US$2). My ultimate destination in Malawi is Masitala; a small village in the Kasungu region.
To reach this place I decide to hire a car, and opt for a 4x4 from Apex Rent-a-Car, who are based in Lilongwe, for $80 per day. Compared to its neighbours, the main roads in Malawi are in surprisingly good shape: the volume of traffic is low and most people drive reasonably slowly. Also, like most other former British colonies, traffic moves on the left in Malawi with my car being right-hand drive, which is a bonus for me. However, road travel after dark is not advisable as road markings are poor to non-existent and not all cars have headlights.
I encounter a couple of police check points along the major roadways, but they just ask me where I am going and check my documentation (passport, driver's licence, permission to use the vehicle, etc.), and I am on my way without any issues.
And so, with a sense of hope I travel to Zambia’s diminutive neighbour Malawi and another story of hope against adversity – “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”: this time a true memoir by Malawian, William Kamkwamba.