Geoffrey Ndhlala's The Southern Circle

Rino Zhuwarara, Ph.D., Chair, Department of English, University of Zimbabwe

Another novel published after the attainment of independence was Geoffrey Ndhlala's The Southern Circle (Harlow, Longman, 1984). The novel covers a more or less similar historical period to that in which Chinodya's Farai's Girls is set. The new novel is in many ways a logical sequel to Ndhlala's earlier novel, Jikinya. Ndhlala's narrative strategy in The Southern Circle is to rely on a forty-year-old, guiltridden narrator whose reminiscences portray the fate of three generations belonging to the same family. In essence the story is about Zengeza, a son, Masutu, and the narrator himself, Rugare. Although remnants of that idyllic rural life depicted in Jikinkya are still discernible in the new novel, these are manifested as an aspect of childhood nostalgia. The narrator is haunted by the past, when his grandfather was in his prime and the world looked reassuring:

We were the children of happiness. In the arms of our fathers and mothers; in the warm hand of our dear earth which, even then, unknown to us, was shifting its hold, its euphoric grasp; oblivious to the world beyond where cities and dwarfing things were rearing their heads. We frolicked in the grass and the bush looking after our cattle; we sucked from the cow's udder; we robbed the hive of its moon-white honey and rubbed amicably the sores of stings. Oh, what a time! We fought among ourselves too; we laughed. Why do we have to grow old? (4)

Rugare's recollections of childhood days are, in fact, an evocation of an idyllic rural existence characterized by rhythms of communal living. The countryside is lush, the cows produce milk aplenty as if to say that nature provides everything mankind requires. There is warmth in human relationships as the African community thrives. But as White Rhodesia extends its grip into all the four corners of the colony the family fortunes of Zengeza's family disappear. The narrator bemoans the coming of the White man and the subsequent resettlement of the African into desert-like areas. Later on in the novel, Zengeza reappears as a refugee at his son's home, a shadowy ghost of his former self.

As the situation in the rural areas deteriorates further, thousands of Africans are compelled to attend school in order to prepare themselves to tackle the new hostile world introduced by the settlers. A typical example is Zengeza's son, Masutu, who is literate enough to find a job in the city. Masutu has the energy, the heady optimism, the generosity and showmanship which make him all the more admired and envied by his less-successful kinsman. For a time he feels, and everybody agrees, that he has made it in the new world. Masutu's uncritical addiction to the White man's clothes and food and his irrepressible and extrovert temperament make him a proverbial success. But, of course, Masutu's fortunes dwindle the moment he is mysteriously dismissed from his job. Rhodesia has no permanent or meaningful role to offer Blacks.

In desperation Masutu builds a home at a semi-urban place called Ruva Township, located on the outskirts of the White man's city. He feels marginalized, but, the human spirit being what it is, he soon becomes resilient enough to start cultivating a patch of land that is constantly smitten by drought, as if to mock his attempts at improving his material conditions. The formerly irrepressible Masutu succumbs to brooding moroseness; he is a defeated man whose only remaining hope lies in his relatively better-educated son, Rugare.

In a way reminiscent of the relationship between Lucifer and Tongoona in Waiting for the Rain, the relationship between Rugare and Masutu is one of misplaced trust. Rugare turns out to be the wrong person to shoulder the burden of looking after the family. Compounding Masutu's dilemma is the fact that his son cherishes his alcohol and women more than he does the family role assigned him. In this sense he suffers from some of the hedonistic and more or less anarchic traits which characterize Sam's behaviour in The Non-Believer's Journey. The only difference is that Sam is relatively more perceptive and more mature than the delinquent and adolescent Rugare. The latter's irresponsibility goes to the extent of celebrating a job that is not yet offered him.

What is painfully obvious in all these three generations is that they are not well placed to comprehend fully the economic and political forces operating in the country. Zengeza simply belongs to an earlier traditional era and cannot cope with the new one; Masutu's attempts to readjust to the colonial era are hopelessly inadequate. His attempts are not based on an accurate understanding of the settler state which oppresses him in its own smugly exclusive and racist manner. As for Rugare, he is temperamentally as well as intellectually incapable of comprehending the larger historical forces affecting the colony. Throughout the novel, allusions are made in regard to freedom fighters but these allusions do not awaken him in such a way that he can define the role he should play in removing the obstacles placed in his way by settler rule. Even his budding cultural nationalism is brought about by a fortuitous event. In other words, Rugare is another version of Farai in Farai's Girls and Sam in The Non-believer's JourneyThe Southern Circle does not cover new ground at all, that is, in relation to pre-Independence fiction. The novel simpliamplifies issues which are explored more convincingly in the works of Mungoshi, Nyamfukudza, and Marechera.

As a novel, The Southern Circle is far more ambitious in scope than Jikinya but not as well executed artistically as one would wish. Rugare's narrative role is not disciplined enough to offer an in-depth exploration oi the nature of settler society against which he protests. Also the protests themselves are often muffled by periodic bouts of moralistic self-criticisms and feelings of helplessness as well as personal speculations about the meaning of existence. These fictional elements do not cohere well enough to constitute a carefully structured story -- hence the diffuseness in focus which pervades the novel.

  1. An Introduction to Zimbabwean Fiction in English
  2. Novels of Cultural Conflict and Protest
  3. Zimbabwean Cultural Malaise of the 1960s and '70s
  4. Geoffrey Ndhlala's The Southern Circle
  5. Samuel Chimsoro's Nothing Is Impossible
  6. Edmund Chipamaunga's A Fighter for Freedom
  7. Garikai Mutasa's The Contact
  8. Spencer Tizora's Crossroads

This essay first apeared in Zambezia: The Journal of the University of Zimbabwe (1987) 14 (1987): 136-37.
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