Bones and Images from the Natural World

Margaret Hander '00, English 27, 1997

In contrast to Buchi Emecheta's treatment of the relation of the living to one's ancestors, Bones firmly advocates traditional relationships with them as a means of gaining strength and courage for the changes that must come in Zimbabwe. Chapter 7, "The Spirits Speak: 1897 My Bones Fall," begins, "Arise my children. Do you not see the vultures flying over the corpses that are not yet ? . . . The large wings of the vultures are like shady clouds that you cannot read the pattern of the sky. The sky, so old and with so many eyes that you do not see" (43). Hove often uses the combination of Shona religious symbolism worked into descriptions of the physical setting. This technique serves to further emphasize the power of the traditional culture, of the religious and the natural worlds bound together in metaphor, as they are bound together in the minds of the Shona. Here the ancestors, who implore their "children" to listen, talk of the great misfortunes and "disease" which has befallen the children. The disease grips so tightly that the children can no longer "see" the sky, the home of the god of the ancestors. They call for their children to listen and to learn ways to cure themselves, finishing the passage with, "Do not let the eyes of disease inflict its pain on the land while you sit under the shade of the tree without a name as if all is well. No, you cannot be children without parents to warn them that fire burns" (44).

Though Marita dies and Janifa goes insane before the book ends, Janifa has gained powerful knowledge from Marita, allowing her to know that their legacy will not be forgotten, and to think hopefully of the future of the struggle of her people:

They will not forget to point fingers at the place I work and the many songs I will sing to the ears of those who have died so that the bird which once had broke wings can fly for all to see. A black bird with wings broken by so many ruthless hands that many people think it is not possible for the bird to fly again. Then they will see the footsteps of the bones of the woman rising early in the morning to urge all the villagers, all the cattle, the birds, the insects and the hills to rise with the rising bones, to sing with the singing bones. (112)

Here again Janifa envisions a strong Shona people, a people looking to and listening to their ancestors (often through signs in their natural environment) to learn "to fly again."


In conclusion, a major symbol of the Shona and Yoruba people's relationship to their ancestors run through both Bones and The Slave Girl the traditional divination tools of the bones and the cowries. Emecheta's cowries make a two-pronged statement. On one hand they point to the benefit of knowledge of one's cultural identity. On the other, Emecheta does not definitively conclude that this will alone sustain a person in the modern, Western-influenced Africa. Hove uses the symbolism of bones, often in the form of mixed natural and religious metaphors, to advocate the importance of traditional beliefs, and of remembering the past, in the survival and health of the modern African. Despite their differences, both authors probe the past for wisdom to use in the construction of the future.


Bascom, William. Sixteen Cowries: Yoruba divination from Africa to the New World. Bloomington, Indiana U. P.: 1993.

Ephirim-Donkor, Anthony. African Spirituality: on Becoming Ancestors. Trenton, N.J., Africa World P.: 1997.

Fishburn, Katherine. Reading Buchi Emecheta: Cross-Cultural Conversations. Westport, C.T., Greenwood P.: 1995.

Postcolonial Web Zimbabwe OV Chenjerai Hove Overview Bones Overview Anthills of the Savannah Overview