Unpacking Mungoshi’s ‘Branching Streams’

“Branching Streams Flow in the Dark” reveals that the African family is a contested arena with several voices that show discontentment. It seems, for Mungoshi, when “branching streams flow in the dark,” hope also dies

“Branching Streams Flow in the Dark” reveals that the African family is a contested arena with several voices that show discontentment. It seems, for Mungoshi, when “branching streams flow in the dark,” hope also dies

Elizabeth Dakwa Arts Correspondent
Charles Mungoshi is a prolific author whose writings transcend time, space and generations. Mungoshi deserves a life-time accolade for his enormous contribution to the development of literature in Zimbabwe.

Nowhere is Mungoshi’s artistry and ingenuity more exemplified than in his latest offering titled “Branching Streams Flow in The Dark” published by Mungoshi Press, in which he meticulously dissect issues to do with the HIV/Aids pandemic and its devastating effects on the social cohesion of ordinary families.

“Branching Streams Flow in the Dark” reveals that the African family is a contested arena with several voices that show discontentment. It seems, for Mungoshi, when “branching streams flow in the dark,” hope also dies.

The voices of discontent in this novel include those of children, women, young adults and single parents, to mention but a few. Most of the characters in the novel symbolise the branching streams.

In the wake of the stigmatisation and stereotyping associated with HIV and Aids, the streams flow towards tragedy, blind hope, death and desolation.

Yet Mungoshi still manages to thrill the reader with what Elliot Ziwira calls “Different episodes that are stitched into one national blanket of consciousness”.

The novel that took Charles Mungoshi about 20 years to write as revealed by his wife Jesesi Mungoshi , revolves around a female protagonist Serina Maseko who finds herself in a precarious situation. She grapples with her parent’s interference in her love life without her consent. What she finally tends to love, marriage to Michael Gwemende kills her. Serina’s predicament is HIV. Upon realising that their 15-month old son Zanda is HIV positive and would eventually die from Aids, Mike flees Serina and the matrimonial home.

Laiza Maseko, Serina’s mother, forcefully takes custody of Serina’s daughter Rita after which Samuel Maseko, Serina’s father, flees the matrimonial home, just like Mike. Serina fails dismally to relate to her mother’s hostile attitudes. Her condition is made worse by the community stereotyping of her as they know that she is HIV positive. All these predicaments put her on the course of a stream flowing in the dark. After a heated argument with her mother, Serina eventually leaves home for Zengeza. On her way to Zengeza she meets Saidi and befriends him, later to discover that Saidi is her half-brother. As Memory Chirere says, it is during the darkest and loneliest moment that Serina, “sees through herself and others, as if she were beyond pain and reproach”.

Laiza compares her family livelihood with her neighbours. She demonstrates great discontentment with Samuel the father of the family because he fails to provide enough for his family. The class struggle, paralysis, malaise and stasis in the family metaphorically show a diseased nation in the wake of HIV and Aids. Mungoshi still exhibits subtlety in writing just like in his earliest short story collection “Coming of the Dry Season.”

Samuel Maseko, Laiza Maseko, Haba, Julia, Saidi, Alex and many others are flowing in the dark because of family and societal neglect, ignorance and frustration. Samuel Maseko’s fleeing leaves Serina deeply wounded by his absence.

Serina’s father is, up to this point, a pillar in Serina’s life because she relates more freely with him than her mother Laiza.

His absence is a betrayal of her love for him. In the midst of this turmoil, Serina writes a long epistle to her long time school friend Fungisai Bare. The epistle forages through her turbulent life and the people around her. Serina portrays herself as a stream that is branching from light into darkness. She revisits her childhood memories so as to search for key memories to hold on to. She misses the joy of her childhood and nostalgically remembers her high school secret admirer “chiururaguvhu”, “the one with the laughter like cymbals clashing — yes Robert Nyemba”:

Him with his big blinding white teeth when he flashed them from his extra-large blubbery mouth ( . . . ) That laugh! That echoing percussion laugh of his! It made me a little sad and excited and nostalgic for something I-didn’t-know-how-I-ever-had-but-which-I-suddenly-missed all together at the same time…(pp18-19).

Serina’s memories become her only personal hope as she is only left with her inert memories which no other human being can stereotype. Childhood memories help her flow downstream.

The plot of the novel is driven by the HIV/Aids pandemic and this period of the early to late 90s when HIV/Aids drugs such as Anti-Retrovirals were not yet available to the majority of Zimbabweans. The drugs were only accessed by the rich, but Mungoshi seems to indicate that the actual disease is not physical but the family and the society is actually diseased and that is why the branching streams flow in the dark.

All the streams in the novel begin to branch into what was threatening to remain unknown. The streams flow blindly and the blindness is worsened by the HIV/Aids.

Unfortunately, the community and society is marred by blindness as well. Serina recalls the stigmatisation she faces from society:

They would see me coming towards them on the street and they would change course or, if it were too late, they would look aside and pretend to be studying or be very involved in something on that other side of the road, and pretend that they were not seeing me . . . they would even bend down to tie up their shoe laces even though most of them would be in mapatapata” (pp 26)

The society is a branching stream as it lacks HIV/Aids education, love and understanding. People are afraid of contracting the disease, therefore, we see stigmatisation worsening Serina’s predicament. It is a welcoming gesture that the novel mentions care giving centres such as Ruvajena Home of Hope which provides HIV/Aids care giving services to the infected in the hope that they would live positive lives. Yet it’s also sad that in the 90s care giving services were largely focused on the infected leaving out the affected relatives and friends in the dark of the pandemic hence we see the high rate of stigmatisation in the novel from the society.

Another branching stream is Laiza Maseko — the mother. She is a pastor’s daughter, and wished for a lavish life rather than her pathetic experience with Samuel Maseko. She shuns her husband’s job “madhodhabhini” “the garbage man” as well as his alcoholic habits. She is very vocal to the family and seem to compare her neighbour’s material gains with her family’s lack of it.

Her continuous complaints and naggings taunts and forces Samuel to flee home. This shows that one silly mistake done by a family member can cause the family to disintegrate and this cost the lives of the whole family.

Serina’s father, Samuel Maseko is pushed further down and into the darkness by pressures emanating and mounting from his family. Samuel’s intention for Serina’s life is obscure that is why he encourages Amos to have a sexual relationship with his daughter.

Instead of protecting his sheep like a good shepherd, he literary hands the sheep into the lion’s mouth. His life is pathetic in mother’s eyes, “a madhodhabhini” and Laiza makes it worse by setting a life standard he can not fulfil as father and husband. Serina again recalls;

On the other hand, if you were looking at father looking at mother, you saw shame and falseness right through everything, starting, first and foremost, with the highly out of key voice shrilling for attention so that it jarred on the nerves like a child running a razor blade through velvet or silk Branching (p 37).

Samuel in Laiza’s eyes is just as good as dead, unless if he changes his drinking behaviour and becomes a true head of the family according to Laiza’s fantasy.

Samuel flows in the dark as he abandons his wife and children. He is the double twin of Michael Gwemende who runs away from Serina, Zanda and Rita.

Mungoshi depicts fathers in the novel as cowards. They flee from family responsibilities. Samuel’s departure left a big scar in Serina’s heart. His AWOL, leaves his son Haba fatherless. The purpose of fatherhood is to nature sons and this is the root cause of a fatherless nation as noted by Kizito Muchemwa in Manning the nation: Father figures in Zimbabwean Literature and society:

In the long and often indefinite absence of men, women left behind take on the roles of ‘men’. The reverse is true in instances of women leaving men . . . Men take on the roles of ‘women’. Metaphorically, absence is associated with men that have not been allowed to perform their masculinities as they conceive them. These are men who can no longer father their own living stories (children) because of disease, and grinding poverty and therefore are prescribed from manning the nation (Muchemwa & Muponde: 2011)

The acclaimed assertion by Muchemwa clearly portrays the behaviour of the current fathers we have in the country now. They run away from family responsibilities when the going gets tough and leaves sons without role models.

Haba, Serina’s brother has no role model no wonder why he behaves like a retarded person. The fathers also become branching streams flowing in the dark. Michael substitutes his cowardice disappearance with material aid, maintenance, and cash, yet money can not buy love and happiness for a person with is HIV positive like Serina.

This is also echoed in David Mungoshi’s novel, “The Fading Sun”, Mary the protagonist who has breast cancer, accepts fully that money does not buy life. She has the money for all medical bills, for mastectomy and therapy but her life is fading away.

Nostalgia for rural life coils back into Mary’s memories she misses growing up “Kumusha”, away from all the riches and delicacies of urban life. So Michael is playing the damp by replacing his presence with money.

The reading of the novel in today’s context reveals a pain which is beyond HIV/Aids and yet today we tend to forget the devastating state of the disease in the 90s and dives into the disease of the mind and poverty. We desperately fall in love with Saidi’s character that is HIV/Aids positive. When Saidi and Serina meet in a bus on the way to Zengeza, they easily fall in a fatal attraction because;

Whoever was on that bus, who saw Serina and Saidi, couldn’t doubt that these two had known each other, very intimately, at a certain time in their life, but had been separated for an even longer time . . . ”(p 67).

“Branching Streams” revolves around the unsettling account of the challenges faced by families in the early years of HIV/Aids.

Through stereotyping and stigmatisation of infected characters, it is clear that HIV/Aids diagnosis then was equivalent to a death sentence and yet the family and society exerted more harm than good to the situation and this led to characters to flow in the dark as branching streams.

The problem is cyclic and it is clear that Mungoshi’s story chases far too many branches in one story as they fight their way downstream into the ocean. Reading the story is like reading anyone’s story in Zimbabwe as the characters live among us, in our families and country.

Mungoshi gives us poetic justice with this story with too many streams which are ordinary Zimbabweans and yet in his legendary writing hands the story is a marvellous revelation that leaves us perplexed as it poses a challenge about family relationships in the wake of diseases.

 Elizabeth Dakwa is a final-year English Honours student at the University of Zimbabwe

Article Source: The Herald