The Mourning Bird

When Chimuka and her brother Ali are orphaned at a tender age, they have no choice but to join the streets of Lusaka. This is despite the fact that their father was a school teacher and that they have a big extended family.

The Mourning Bird is a story of complex family relations and how these impact on children. Through Chimuka, Kalimamukweto shows how aware and sensitive children are to family dynamics. Through observing adults, they quickly learn the spoken and unspoken family language, and also act accordingly. Through observing her mother’s response to their father’s behaviour, Chimuka accepts that “That’s Sandra. Tate’s girlfriend…Even Ma knows.” But like many other unspoken family things, she knows that it is a “secret”.

The book is also a harsh reminder of the cruel treatment widows have to endure from their husband’s families. This is contrary to the values of ubuntu that are supposed to underpin an African family. It starts with the belief that no husband dies of natural causes. He is bewitched by his wife. This justifies the ill-treatment that follows, including dispossession. It is this cruelty and dispossession that leads to Chimuka also losing her mother and younger brother. In reality death rudely removes the veil of seeming family harmony and solidarity. It lays bare the reality of individual greed and selfish interests, with far-reaching implications for children. Sadly, Kalimamukwento challenges the idea that no child can be an orphan in Africa because a child is always raised by a community. For Chimuka and her brother being an orphan means “to go from nothing to less”. It means being on your own, being destitute.

Kalimamukweto also shines a spotlight on the sad reality that HIV / AIDS is still a taboo topic in our communities. Somehow “as long as they don’t say the word, it isn’t true”. Everyone in Lusaka knew of someone in their family who had died of HIV/AIDS “but no one said AIDS in real life. It was a word for adverts and plays about abstinence and condoms. People in my community died of headaches and colds and malaria. Not AIDS.”

Kalimamukweto is brutal yet tender in the way she presents life on the streets of Lusaka for children like Chimuka and Ali. In an attempt to respond to pain, shame, hunger, physical danger, emotional trauma and other vulnerabilities; alliances, friendships and betrayals are the order of the day. This is more so for the girl child whose life on the streets is rarely written about. Yet her sexuality presents unique challenges including fending off sexual violence.

But the book is also about broader socio-economic conditions in yet another failed African state. Citizens do what they have to do in order to survive. This is more so in cities like Lusaka that are supposed to be engines of economic growth and beacons of hope. But its future, the youth, are wasted and left to irk a living on the streets.

But The Mourning Bird is equally a story of courage and hope. Despite all her challenging life experiences, Chimuka believes that “life can start again”.

I recommend the book to those seeking to understand the growing phenomenon of street kids.