This novel is based on real events that happened to real women I interviewed in depth over several months during an extended stay in Zimbabwe. My research was funded by the World Health Organization, who had commissioned me to document the real-life context of childbirth in rural areas, particularly the work of ngangas (traditional birth attendants). It turned out to be a crash course in the importance of traditional beliefs in rural Zimbabwe. In the extract below, one of my central characters starts to fear that supernatural forces threaten her unborn baby.
Four generations of women in Zimbabwe: baby Tendai lies waiting to be born in her mother’s womb; Beauty pregnant for the first time and fearful of witches’ spells, returns from the tobacco fields to her native village – and to her mother Miriam, midwife and hot-headed nganga; and Miriam listens for the spirit voice of her dead aunt Eustina to tell her how best to bring Tendai into the world.
But there is conflict in Miriam’s mind between the traditional ways of her Shona ancestors and the teachings of Sister Tekedi at the clinic. Once revered and respected, Miriam is now shunned by the villagers after one of her treatments failed: a young nephew has died and been laid to rest with the other children who sleep by the river, where the water washes away the evil that killed them.
‘makes high literature out of the humblest material… A quite astonishing literary, imaginative and documentary achievement’ People
‘Debbie Taylor’s striking novel simply bowls one over… leaves one full of awe for life itself’ Daily Telegraph
‘a poetic and beautiful account of the lives of Black women in rural Zimbabwe – birth, life, work, magic and politics are powerfully interwoven’ Everywoman
‘a dramatically beautiful and haunting first novel’ Publishing News
The Children Who Sleep By The River (excerpt)
‘The dancers wear masks so you can’t tell who they are – they’re possessed by evil spirits. People say they eat the raw intestines of chickens and drink their blood while it’s still warm’
Beauty was sweeping the ground around the house – like women and girls in every household: backs bent, arms swinging rhythmically with bunches of fine twigs in their hands, feet shuffling backwards in the wake of wide arcs in the dust. Swish, swish: the sound mingled with the clank of buckets, the clatter and squawk of chickens, and the ceaseless rising and falling of human voices as the compound prepared for the night.
The drumming began hesitantly: so that, at first, it was difficult to pick out the sound from the usual twilight noises. But soon it was unmistakable – an urgent galloping rhythm coming from the hill just beyond the beer hall.
Beauty stood up and squinted into the sun, looking for the source of the sound. And, one by one, the other sounds faded as sweeping, pouring, carrying, chopping, pounding and washing stopped, conversations were abandoned in mid-air, and soon everyone was gazing across to where the sun’s last red rays glanced at crazy angles off the jumble of huge rocks at the foot of the hill, casting long black shadows towards the compound.
‘What is it?’ Beauty whispered to her mother-in-law who had come to stand beside her.
‘They begin every year at around this time: drumming and dancing until they’re exhausted. The dancers wear masks so you can’t tell who they are – they’re possessed by evil spirits. People say they eat raw intestines of chickens and drink their blood while it’s still warm. And they have to open a new grave and eat the heart of a dead person before they’re allowed to touch the drums. Can you hear the singing? That’s the children. They go to watch and learn the songs…’
Together the two women gazed at the hulking black rocks as the drumming rolled like thunder around them and the blood red sun was sucked slowly down behind the hill. Instinctively they stepped closer to one another as the children’s voices, eerie in their innocence, chorused mysterious Malawian phrases into the night.
The singing continued all evening and the family was quiet as they sat around the fire, drums numbing their brains like narcotic, making them incapable of speech. The sold white sadza seemed to cling to the roof of Beauty’s mouth and to swell so she could not swallow it. Nausea welled up in her stomach and nudged at the back of her throat and she excused herself politely then hurried out of the house.
Outside, the drumming was louder, but a cool wind blew in her face as she leaned against the wall, lulling the sick heaving of her stomach.
‘Are you feeling better?’ asked a soft voice beside her. ‘The first child is always the worst. But the sickness means your baby is taking hold strongly in your womb.’
Beauty stared at her mother-in-law in amazement. ‘How did you know?’
Out of print but available soon as an e-book (watch this space!)