By Melanie Boehi
Jimalo, the main protagonist in Farai Mudzingwa’s short story Green Shadows in the Kiya Kiya Republic (Mbonga Press, 2021), is trying to survive in a dystopian Zimbabwe in which the formal economy has imploded.
Petrol is scarce, power cuts are frequent, the money is worthless, and corruption is widespread. Like everybody else, Jimalo “kiya-kiyas”. When negotiating with the landlady for a rent delay, he says: “Madam Jessy, you know that I kiya-kiya here and there. My things will come together after I sort out one or two things.”
Jeremy L. Jones writes in the Journal of Southern African Studies that a “‘kukiya-kiya economy’” emerged in Zimbabwe after 2000. The term kukiya-kiya describes ways of “making do” that were initially located in the urban informal economy and have since moved into the centre of economic activities. According to Jones, kukiya-kiya “suggests cleverness, dodging, and the exploitation of whatever resources are at hand, all with an eye on self-sustenance.”
Central to Jimalo’s kiya-kiya activities is Cashington, a money snake that coughs up “zollar dollar” bills. Like the real Zimbabwean dollars devalued by hyperinflation, zollars are almost worthless and US dollars are needed to fund the good life. Jimalo therefore sets out to take Cashington for a currency update to Kariva [Kariba], northwest of Harare, where the god Nyami Nyami lives. Here, Mudzingwa takes creative license that is problematic because it misrepresents local Tonga cosmologies.
In Nyaminyami’s backyard
In her excellent essay “Learning From the Kariba Dam”, Namwali Serpell writes that “the word kariba was a corruption of kariva or kaliba, a local term meaning ‘trap.’” It was the name of a place on the Zambezi river around which several legends evolved, including “that this was the home of a river god named Nyaminyami, with the head of a fish and a twisting whirlpool-like body of a snake.”
Nyaminyami is said to have risen up against the colonial project of trapping the river with the dam, but is not connected to money snakes, an association that many will find offensive. Mudzingwa might suggest that in the future even the gods become corrupted. But for the purpose of not adding to already existing ethnic tensions, in Zimbabwe where the majority Shona lorded over every other group, he could have used more imagination, of which otherwise Green Shadows in the Kiya Kiya Republic is not lacking.
The trip to Kariva/Kariba is at the centre of the story. Needing petrol for the drive, Jimalo spends the night queuing at a service station, only to discover in the morning that no petrol delivery is coming and that his car battery has run flat. This is only the first of many challenges of the trip.
As Jimalo and Cashington set out to pick up Jimalo’s girlfriend, Chipo, along the way in Chinhoyi, they encounter a hitchhiker, David, an economic historian turned life coach and motivational book author, who questions the ethics of money snakes. Then police stop Jimalo and try to extort a bribe from him. And just as Jimalo and Chipo descend to the shores of the lake, a ghost appears in their backseat.
The biggest challenge is caused by Cashington’s currency update. To cough up zollars, Cashington needs regular feedings of breastmilk, which Chipo provides. But for US dollars, he must consume human blood.
The warden of the god’s cave explains the rules: the person whose blood the snake drinks will eventually die, and the owner then has to commit another person or will himself be consumed.
Green Shadows in the Kiya Kiya Republic is a sharp commentary on the politics of post-coup Zimbabwe, drawing from anthropological observations (Mudzingwa quotes Jones’ article in the preface) as well as local cosmologies and urban legends. Snakes feature prominently in southern African cosmologies: pythons are a protected species in Zimbabwe, not just by the law but also in Shona metaphysics, as a species favoured by the gods.
Felicity Wood (2005) writes about snake narratives in South Africa that snakes were initially perceived as spiritual messengers and ancestral manifestations, and later acquired more dangerous qualities when wealth-giving snakes appeared in stories about individuals entering pacts with occult forces to gain wealth in exchange for life.
In Zimbabwe, witnesses claim to have seen snakes spitting money or withdrawing it from ATMs, and snakes “which can vomit a lot of money” are “advertised” on Twitter.
In addition to providing insights into how the natural and spiritual are present in everyday life, Green Shadows in the Kiya Kiya Republic is of interest to researchers in the Environmental Humanities because it is also a work of climate fiction (“cli-fi”).
Antonia Mehnert in her book Climate Change Fictions (2016) describes it as “literature dealing explicitly with anthropogenic climate change” that “gives insight into the ethical and social ramifications of this unparalleled environmental crisis, reflects on current political conditions that impede action on climate change, explores how risk materialises and affects society, and finally plays an active part in shaping our conception of climate change.”
Green Shadows in the Kiya Kiya Republic is a scathing account of what future life might be like in an “African Anthropocene”, a term suggested by Gabrielle Hecht (2018, 2018) to highlight unequal distributions of responsibility and vulnerability to climate change, of which the African continent is particularly affected, and as a strategy to localise the Anthropocene and analyse it across scales. Mudzingwa presents the environment as more than just a backdrop but as a protagonist that actively shapes the story.
The heat is palpable: “thirty-four degrees in the shade” in the early morning, Jimalo is bathed in sweat as he drives from Harare to Chinhoyi and to keep focused, he has to rub his eyes with an ice cube. The water levels at Kariva/Kariba are low, and the longing for rains is the subject of small talk.
The human interference in the climate has been so severe that the sun changed its colour from yellow to green: it “was corroded when a chubby-faced hustler tried to harness its energy using solar panels made from greed, corrupt dealings, cheap materials, and prayers to weak ancestors.”
This changed sun in turn disfigured the shadows of the people engaged in dubious money-making schemes by making them green. The police roadblock that Jimalo encounters is wrapped in “a dark green cloud” and after Cashington’s currency update, Jimalo too casts a green shadow.
Laura Pereira and her co-authors (2021) in their chapter in the Oxford University Press’ handbook on Futures criticise that much modelling of Anthropocene futures is biased towards the Global North and West, and that African science fiction has much to offer for reimagining the Anthropocene. They write that “[d]ecision-making in an era of sustainable development requires transformative ways of seeing the future that disrupt the status quo.”
It is in this context that Green Shadows in the Kiya Kiya Republic is hopeful reading. In this dystopian future, there is also hope in spontaneous acts of kindness and unlikely friendships.
“In these times of green shadows,” Jimalo tells the guy who helps him to kickstart his car, “it is hard to find someone who will help another from the goodness of their heart.” “We are all tainted,” agrees the stranger, “however, here and there, we are driven by forces beyond our understanding.”
The relationships between Jimalo, Chipo and Cashington are in many ways transactional, but there is also love, as Chipo tells Jimalo that she is with him for who he is, and that he doesn’t have to prove anything to her. Cashington is like the flawed version of the dog who is supposed to be man’s best friend: The witty serpent offers no-nonsense comments, teases and even swears at Jimalo, yet he is also a loyal companion.
Having gone without food for too long, he feeds on Chipo’s breasts so greedily that she bleeds, giving him a taste that, together with the currency update, increases his appetite for blood. Rather than sacrificing herself, Chipo negotiates with Cashington that he will take turns feeding on her and Jimalo in exchange for precious foreign currency.
Both breastmilk and blood are substances that create kinship, which is here extended across species boundaries.
This is where the story speaks most powerfully to the current moment of mass extinction and to questions like the ones asked by Juno Salazar Parreñas in her book Decolonizing Extinction (2018), if it is possible to “embrace the vulnerability of sharing our lives together, however fleeting those moments might be” without resorting to “violent domination and colonization over other, particularly nonhuman beings.”
In their human-reptile pact, Jimalo, Chipo and Cashington bind their fate together; to live and eventually die together. While not averting death, this solution at least prolongs life and potentially allows the protagonists to figure out new ways to kiya-kiya beyond extractivism.
Green Shadows in the Kiya Kiya Republic (Mbonga Press, 2021) is available on Amazon.
Farai Mudzingwa’s fiction has been published by Kwani?, Writivism, Weaver Press, Enkare Review, Short Story Day Africa, and Kalahari Review. His non-fiction appears in Contemporary&, The New Humanitarian, Chimurenga Chronic, The Johannesburg Review of Books, Africa Is A Country, The Africa Report, This Is Africa, Mail & Guardian, TRT World and New Frame. He is Miles Morland Foundation Writing Scholarship shortlisted (2019).