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Grace the village girl and other matters

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Grace the Village Girl is the title of a novelette by Blantyre-based Matilda Phiri. It was one of the top three prize winning entries in the Peer Gynt competition of 2015.

The theme of the novel could be succeeding against odds, from beggar to multi-millionaire, or a similar theme that encapsulates honesty, self-help and hard work.

The protagonist of the novel, Grace Masiye, is introduced to the reader at the age of 10. She dwells in a mountain forest in Mwanza District. Alone, she subsists on wild fruits and gets malnourished. The sound, or sight, of a hissing snake forces Grace to quit the forest and head for Blantyre. She has never been there but she has heard from people that it is a good place to dwell in.

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After walking on the road for a while, a minibus driver gives her a lift. This happens after she is refused a free lift by another driver.

The second chapter takes us to her roots. In a village somewhere in Mwanza, a farmer called Mbuyache loses his whole family to lightning. He is too old to marry again and raise a family. But one day he hears the sound of a baby crying outside. He goes there and finds a basket with a baby inside and a bottle of milk. He takes the baby to the village chief, who summons women and asks them about the identity of the mother of the child. None of the women confesses.

The village headman suspects the mother to have been impregnated by Mbuyache, which is not the case. Mbuyache agrees to have the baby and rear it.

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When Grace is 10 years old and in Standard Five, Mbuyache falls seriously ill. Realising that he is about to die, he goes and asks his neighbour, Sayamika, to take care of the girl when he dies. Sayamika agrees. It is the beginning, for Grace, of staying with family and being forced to leave.

She is a diligent girl. She is especially good at mathematics. She leaves Sayamika’s home because the wife is jealous of her cleverness compared with her own children. She, therefore, deliberately overworks her. She quits.

At another family, she has to quit again because the well-to-do single mother chases her at the instigation or her son, who steals his mother’s money and convinced her that it is Grace who has stolen the money.

At the last family home she stays, she leaves because the man of the house tries to rape her. On the advice of an illiterate friend called Falesi, she goes and seeks shelter at an orphanage. After passing her Primary School Certificate examinations brilliantly, she is selected to the oldest secondary school in Malawi, where she excels in class and gets disliked by some teachers.

There is a student strike involving loss of property. At the instigation of some teachers, Grace’s fellow students accuse her of master-minding the strike. The headmaster suspends her for a month and reports the matter to the Ministry of Education. Instead of the officials dismissing her, they give her a bursary to attend a private school.

At the orphanage one day, there arrives two women, one of them recognises her as her daughter. The story ends with Grace taking a four-year degree course at a university in England. Back home, she sets up a foundation to assist the deprived and empower women. She becomes wealthy and drives a Mercedez Benz.

Matilda is a good story teller. She achieves high verisimilitude, but is not equally good at characterisation. Some of the characters mentioned could be made more distinctive. But so what? The great English novelist of the 20th Century, W. Somerset Maugham, answered to similar remarks by referring to the Arabian Nights in which characterisation is weak, the plot is strong. Yet, these stories have become world classics. It is a novelette that should be bought, read and stocked in libraries.

Miss Phiri (no relationship) visited me at my office and presented me with a copy of her book. She told me she had published it using her funds. Perhaps she is one of those who have spare cash to engage in self-publishing— the only alternative in a country where the publishing industry is still infantile and reluctant to publish fiction on the ground that the reading public outside school classrooms is too small.

Most books by prolific writers have been published by long established publishers. Not many Malawian budding authors can continuously engage in self-publishing. The Malawi Writers Union (Mawu) has been very good at supporting budding authors, soliciting funds for short story competitions and getting anthologies published. But the issue of growing the reading public seems to have been overlooked. Unless this is solved, many of those who want to become professional writers will be discouraged.

Sambalikagwa Mvona is a dedicated president of Mawu. The organisation is now identified with his name. Some people accuse him of running Mawu like a family business. But are these people really committed to the cause of promoting Mawu? Why do they fail to call for annual general meetings where problems can be discussed? In most cases, when people gather, it is to witness prize giving or someone giving a lecture. It is up to members of the Executive Committee— if there are any— to share views with the president on how the interests of established writers can be catered for; otherwise, budding writers will never mature.

I would suggest Mawu should approach publishers, booksellers and Ministry of Education officials to have a joint meeting and discuss how reading culture can be enhanced. Where nothing is done, nothing happens. What do people do in other countries to boost the culture of reading? We should find out, instead of complaining that there is no market for books.

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