Then a Wind Blew is Kay Powell’s first novel. The book is set in the final months of Zimbabwe’s independence war, and the story unfolds through the voices of three women: Susan Haig, Nyanye Maseka and Beth Lytton. Review by Baffour Ankomah.
The perspectives of the three women underpin the human dimension of the colossal period of change that led to Zimbabwe’s independence. Their interactions and those of the people around them reflect the attitudes and realities of the time – and their lingering after-effects.
This is an honest endeavour to tell the story of the human drama that affected everybody, Black and White and in-between during that highly traumatic period when standpoints and tensions were ratcheted up to breaking point.
Susan Haig, a White settler and a racist of the worst kind, has lost one son, Colin, in the war. Colin was accidentally shot by his younger brother, Billy, in a case of “friendly fire”, except Billy was later declared “unfit for duty” because he “wasn’t right in the head”. Susan had been a nurse trained at Guy’s Hospital in London before marrying Reg Haig, a former British army officer, with both emigrating to Rhodesia.
Nyanye Maseka fled with her sister Kundiso to a Zanu-PF guerrilla camp in Mozambique, after their home village was destroyed by Rhodesian forces and their mother went missing. It was during the wanton destruction of Nyanye and Kundiso’s home village that Susan’s sons messed up.
While Colin was raping Kundiso, Billy, mistaking his brother for an African (because Colin had used black body paint as a camouflage), shot and killed him. For months, however, the Rhodesian authorities created the impression that an African guerrilla had killed Colin, making Susan even more extreme in her views against Africans.
Beth Lytton, a White nurse trained at Guy’s Hospital like Susan, became a nun in a church mission in one of Rhodesia’s African Reserves. She is the perfect antithesis of Susan. Beth watches in agony as her adopted country, Rhodesia, tears itself apart. She had arrived in 1948 from England and worked as a bookkeeper in Harare but was uncomfortable: “The whites seemed to her so regimented in their ways and views, the blacks so deferential and distant, and she thought she might go home.
“Then, west of the city, she came across a cooperative where blacks and whites lived and worked together, growing crops, rearing cattle, running a school, and in 1959 she went to live there. A decade later, the government labelled the cooperative as ‘unlawful’ and its leaders as ‘communist sympathisers’ and detained, gaoled [and] deported them.”
Condescension and racism
Powell does not soften the condescension and the racist attitudes of the European-descended minority who ruled over the Black majority from 1890 to 1980, after stealing the land and establishing one of the most brutal dominions in Africa’s history.
In Rhodesia, the Africans were always called “Af”, shortened to make it drip with contempt. When the Africans finally picked up arms to fight for the return of their ancestral land, they became known as “terrs”, shortened from “terrorists”.
The Africans were always seen as sub-human who did not deserve to share the same status and place as the Whites. but Susan Haig, for example, comes off as an abnormal species of humans, a characteristic she shares with many other settlers.
One of Powell’s characters, Marion, a White settler, says: “The thing about Susan, you know – about many whites here – was that they have never understood the need to ask people what they wanted, as opposed to telling them what they wanted.”
As the guerrilla war escalates, Susan is both blind to the situation the Whites find themselves in and dismissive: “And who, may I ask, do the terrs represent?” she asks one day. “The old people in the Reserves whose ears and lips they have been cutting off for years? The women they have raped? The children they have dragged off to Mozambique and Zambia in their thousands and turned into killers?
“Useless people, African males. And they think they can run this country? Can’t even run a bloody kitchen. No, they are a bloody waste of time. Name me one. Name me one single damned African male who is worth tuppence,” Susan rages as she lights a cigarette.
Winds of change
When finally the Whites deign to sit down and talk independence with the “terrs”, Susan rages even more. “I still can’t believe it’s come to this [the independence talks at Lancaster House in London]. Sitting round the table with a bunch of bloody murderers. Anyway, I expect they will break down shortly, the talks.”
The book’s title refers to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s ‘Winds of change’ speech to the South African parliament presaging the liberation of most of Africa. The Rhodesians had tried to stop the ‘winds of change’ through a cruel and ruthless war but their time was up.
“There are tens of thousands of terrs now, hundreds coming over the borders every day,” says Jamie, a White settler. “But us? We are losing people at a rate of knots. Casualties, desertions, emigration. Calling up the over-60s last year was the last straw for many people. There is hardly anyone left to conscript. Basically, Mrs H, we are running out of men.”
He was speaking a few months before Zimbabwe’s independence on 18 April 1980. The “terrs” became the new rulers after the Lancaster talks, and, being true to their “African” nature, stretched a hand of reconciliation to the Whites. Forgive and forget, they told them.
But to Susan and others of her ilk, this is nothing short of betrayal: “It’s about trashing everything we Europeans have done for this country,” she rages. “Taught you people about medicine, how to be healthy, slashed your death rates, your disease rates, educated you. But none of this fits, does it, with all the nonsense you’ve picked up sitting out there in the Reserves? About imperialism, colonialism, this -ism, that -ism…
“I had two sons. I have lost them both. One was killed in the war. The other is … not right in the head. Because of the war. You don’t know. You wouldn’t understand,” Susan lectures Nyanye.
Nyanye fires right back: “My mother, she too has suffered much with death in this war and it has made her unwell in the head. It is the same. For you and for me. For us. The same. My mother, she does not talk now.”
At that point, Susan does not know that Kundiso, who had been raped by her son, Colin, had born a son out of that rape. With this revelation, Powell introduces another traumatic angle from the troubled history of Rhodesia and the war – the presence of mixed-race children, often the outcome of rapes and what happens to them.
But even as the country enters its new era of independence and Robert Mugabe asks everybody to join hands to build a new nation, Susan cannot change her ways:
‘ “Joining hands with that … murderer! It’s as if they’ve already forgotten that it was him who created that grim bloody past. How could they forget? How could they forgive? After everything we’ve been through, how hard we’ve fought to save this country from going to the dogs. After all we’ve … suffered,” Susan said as she took a tissue from her pocket and wiped her eyes and blew her nose.’
For anyone who has tried to understand the story of Zimbabwe and also make sense of what happened after independence, as well as what is happening today, I say read Then a Wind Blew.