Woman of the Ashes

Written by David Brookshaw (trans.) Mia Couto
Review by Viviane Crystal

The introduction to this tale of the end of independence for the country then called Gaza (now Mozambique) is emblematic of its gradual demise. A quote describes scars gashing the land so often and deeply that its residents are prouder of the wounds than of the land itself. This fictional account depicts the role of a woman, Imani, as interpreter for Sergeant Germano, the man assigned to monitor the Portuguese control of Gaza. Imani describes the series of events leading up to the final confrontation between the Portuguese and the African emperor, King Ngungunyane.

One watches as initially the Portuguese soldiers are losing because they in no way understand the culture, psyche and determination of this hearty people, Imani’s VaChopi tribe. She recounts their elaborate feasts and religious rituals, all based on worship of Mary, the mother of Christ, but interlaced with their own African beliefs. Elements of magical realism, superstition and mythology fill these pages, just as they guide the behavior of these mostly illiterate peasants. Imani describes the history of her people, “doomed because of the small-mindedness of their leaders.” Imani loses her children as victims of this long, circuitous war but survives through her faith. In reality, she has no idea how the war will end but stands strong as a model for her people.

Though there is much pain in Imani’s life, there is immense joy and delight in her land, its people and its huge hope for a beautiful future, expressed in prosaic and poetic language that makes the reader want to meet these people. Finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2015, Mia Couto has written a story that will deeply move all readers.