30 April 2015
Through a unique blend of witchcraft, AIDS activism, religious extremism, Tanvi Bush weaves together a thrilling narrative with vivid descriptions and unforgettable characters in her first novel published by Modjaji Books. Review by Emmeline Burdett
‘Witch Girl’ is set in Zambia, and tells the harrowing story of what happens to eleven-year-old Luse (pronounced ‘Loose’) and her little brother Joshua when their HIV-positive father, Paul, brings his family to the notice of the illegitimate Blood of Christ Church.
The story opens when Luse and her brother, by now street children in Zambia’s capital Lusaka, have to leave the storm drain in which they have been trying to sleep, as it is flooding and they risk drowning. This is just one example of Bush’s knowledge of the precarious lives of homeless children in Zambia, insights gained during her time making a documentary film about this subject. ‘Choka!’ was nominated for the IDA 17th Annual Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award in 2001.
‘Witch Girl’ deals directly with the stigma experienced by people with HIV/AIDS and their families. A classmate of Luse’s spits on her and calls her an ‘AIDS baby’. When Luse’s furious mother, Esther, drives round to the culprit’s house, she and Luse find themselves confronted by his mother, who expresses similar myths, only in a more articulate way.
This is in sharp contrast to the sensible and informed attitude taken by Luse and her mother – both take part in World AIDS Day marches, and Luse makes a banner for the event showing the precautions that people can take to help them avoid getting the HIV virus.
It is on World AIDS Day that Luse first discovers her father meeting members of the Blood of Christ Church. This Church takes on great importance for Paul – members begin to arrive at family’s home for Bible Study, they influence the way Paul treats his family, and finally his catastrophic decision to stop taking his anti-retroviral medication.
The situation reaches crisis point on the morning of Luse’s eleventh birthday, when Esther breaks down with the strain of caring for the by now obviously dying Paul. This is just the opportunity that the Blood of Christ Church members have been waiting for, and Luse and Joshua are taken away to a school run by the Church. It is here that Luse begins to understand the Church’s real and sinister purpose. In the eyes of the members of the Church, Luse brought about her father’s death through the use of witchcraft, and once at the school, she and Joshua are in grave danger of being ‘relocated’ – taken to a facility called ‘The Dome’ and killed there.
This element of the story is inspired by a documentary made by a UK charity then called Stepping Stones (now Safe Child Africa). This charity had been working in the Niger Delta, rescuing children who had been accused of witchcraft. The number of such cases with which the charity was confronted peaked sharply following the release of a film entitled ‘End of the Wicked’, produced by Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries and their leader, Priestess Helen Ukpablo.
Similarly, before the breakdown of her family, Luse sees two glimpses of the true nature of the Blood of Christ Church. Firstly, at a market for the Blood of Christ Celebration Day, she spots a DVD entitled Witch Children, but is sharply told that it is ‘Not for children’. Later the same day, the Church’s Priestess, Selena Clark, accuses a boy whose father has died of being possessed by a demon, and casts him out of the Church. On this occasion Luse is safe, but the boy’s fate mirrors the later one of her and Joshua.
There is one aspect of the novel, which, though not directly related to the main plot, is also of interest from a disability point of view. This involves the decision of Luse’s beloved grandmother, Ba’Neene, to end her life at a time and place of her own choosing. This is a decision which is deeply regretted by Ba’Neene’s family, but which they also respect.
Crucially, it is also respected by the members of Ba’Neene’s community – Bush writes that, as Luse and her grandmother are making their way to the latter’s final resting-place, they meet a man who says to Ba’Neene, ‘Greetings, madam. How is your last day? How is your family?’ (p.93)
I found this very interesting, partly as an attitude, which one does not encounter often in the West, and also as a thought-provoking contribution to the current debates around end-of-life issues. All-in-all, this is an excellent novel – accomplished, evocative and involving. Highly recommended.
Witch Girl by Tanvi Bush is available on Amazon
Publisher: Modjaji Books