My rating: 4 stars
Mulheres de Cinza, or Woman of the Ashes in the English translation, takes place in the late 19th century, during the last days of the state of Gaza, the second largest empire led by an African. However, Mia Couto gives more importance to the characters’ inner struggles than to the historical events, which develop in the background. Told from the perspectives of Imani and Sergeant Germano de Melo, this novel, the first in a trilogy, delves into imperialism, racism and cultural erasure.
Fifteen-year-old Imani is a member of the VaChopi tribe, who inhabits Nkokolani, near the coast of Mozambique. Their land was at the centre of a dispute between the VaNguni and the Portuguese, of whom they were allies. The leader of the VaNguni, Ngungunyane, was the ruler of the state of Gaza. This conflict divided Imani’s family. She had two brothers. One, Dubula, had always been fascinated by the VaNguni, having left home to live in the forest. The other, Mwanatu, was raised in a catholic mission, as was Imani, and his allegiance lied with the Portuguese. He was working at the Portuguese military barracks as an assistant of Sergeant Germano.
Throughout the book, Imani recalls events from hers and her family’s life. Her existence was an amalgam of two different worlds. She spoke Portuguese at home but at the same time wondered what her life would be like if she became Ngungunyane’s wife. Her father once told her a story about a bat that had desired to belong to more than one world. As he was wounded, the bat fell at a crossroads. Neither the birds nor the rats helped him, because he was not of them.
Colonialism was in numerous ways unfair and problematic for the native population, including in terms of identity. They accepted to follow some of the Portuguese ways of life, while forfeiting some of their traditions. For that reason, they seemed to be accepted as equals by the white people. But as soon as they started to show a deeper connection with their roots, the Portuguese rendered them as inferior and savages.
“Não basta falarmos a língua dos outros. Temos que, nesse outro idioma, deixar de sermos nós.”
“It’s not enough for us to speak another people’s language. In that language, we must stop being ourselves.”
Sergeant Germano de Melo was sent to Mozambique on a false military mission. On the surface, he was supposed to defend Nkokolani from the state of Gaza. However, essentially, he had been exiled for taking part in the 31st of January republican revolt against the monarchy in Portugal in 1891. His point of view is presented via the many letters he sent to José d’Almeida. Through them we realise that, although the Portuguese were willing to work together with their African allies against their common enemy, they had a sense of superiority that stemmed from racism. Nevertheless, Germano started to feel that he had something in common with the young black people. Both of them had dared to defy the powerful.
Germano’s letters also offer some historical and political context. Some believed that Ngungunyane was being supported by the English, and there are also mentions to the British Ultimatum of 1890, which forced Portugal to retreat its military forces from the area between Mozambique and Angola. He also muses on the nature of empires. Regardless of the emperor, they shared similar characteristics – emperors always saw themselves as heroes and never as criminals.
The parts told from Imani’s point of view have a more magical tone, while Germano’s letters are more straightforward. They are both engaging, though, and noticeably written by people from different backgrounds, but whose paths became intertwined.
There was a strong belief in superstition in Nkokolani, and occasionally women used that in their favour. Some men believed women to be witches just because they didn’t understand the tricks they employed to escape them. Imani’s mother once cut her wrist so she could use the blood to pretend that she was giving birth to a fish. By doing so, she avoided being hurt by the soldiers of the empire of Gaza.
Ngungunyane should feel like a greater threat, though. The VaNguni are mentioned as they get closer to the village, but we are not introduced to them properly. There had been a war beforehand and a new one was approaching.
Imani means “who is it?”, and in a way Woman of the Ashes is much more about her trying to understand who she really is than about the conflict with the state of Gaza, which I hope to learn more about in the next book in the trilogy.