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Mia Couto: Mulheres de Cinzas (Woman of the Ashes)

This is the first in a trilogy called Sands of the Emperor about Portugal’s colonial war in Mozambique in the nineteenth century. Like, I imagine, most non-Portuguese, I know very little about Portugal’s colonial wars in Africa and this trilogy is certainly enlightening in that respect.

Much of this book is set in the territory of the the Chopi people. We essentially follow two main characters and the people they associate with.

The first is Imani which, in her language, means Who’s there? She had been called Ash and then Live Girl (as she survived while her two sisters died) but my dear old father reconsidered, and eventually reached a decision. I would be given a name that was not a name: Imani. At last, the order of the world had been re-established.

She tells the story from her side and the side of her family. In fact her people are generally on good terms with the Portuguese and look to the Portuguese to protect them from their main enemies, the Gaza Empire, led by Gungunhana. The Gaza had invaded the Chopi but had apparently partially withdrawn. However, at the beginning of the novel, they seem to be coming back and several of the Chopi, including Imani and both her parents will encounter them.

The family had lived by the sea but had essentially been made to move by Tsangatelo, Imani’s grandfather. Initially it is not clear why but all is eventually explained. They now live in the village of Nkokolani and are not particularly happy there. Katini Nsambe, Imani’s father is an alcoholic and hits his wife, Chikazi. Was your mother beaten?, Imani asks her mother. She answers Your grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother. It’s been like that ever since women were women. You’d better get ready to be beaten as well. Chikazi says of her husband he knows about everything except the business of living.

Imani is fifteen but most girls of her age are already married and pregnant or mothers. Only I seemed condemned to a barren fate. In fact, I wasn’t just a woman without a name. I was a name without a person. Without substance. As empty as my belly. However, her Aunt Rosi has a pragmatic view: Do you want a man who doesn’t lie to you or betray you? You’ll die single, my dear daughter.

Imani has been educated in a Portuguese missionary school so she speaks excellent Portuguese and does not see the Portuguese as the enemy. The other key character is Portuguese . He is Sergeant Germano de Melo, appointed captain of the garrison at Nkokolani. He had been living in Porto where he took part in a republican rebellion. Some of those detained as a result were freed, many others imprisoned. He was sent to remote Africa and is not too happy about it. We follow his story both in letters he writes to Counsellor José d’Almeida in Laurenço Marques (now Maputo). Or, rather he thinks he is writing to Counsellor José d’Almeida. He also thinks his letters are secret but Imani manages to read a few.

The main issue is On one side, the Empire of Gaza, controlled by the Nguni chief, the emperor Ngungunyane. On the other side, the Lands of the Crown, ruled by a monarch that no African would ever see: Dom Carlos, king of Portugal. There are continuous incursions from the Nguni and neither the Portuguese nor the Chopi have the resources to defend themselves. We see several of these incursions which do not go well for the local populations. Part of the problem is that the Portuguese government has little money to finance a colonial war. However there is some hope as both sides are expecting the arrival of Mouzinho de Albuquerque and his army.

For our family the war is made more complicated by the fact that one of Imani’s brothers, Dubula, is on the Nguni side, while the other brother, Mwanatu, works for and then (in theory) fights for the Portuguese.

As well as the war the other main theme is what might be described as the cultural differences between the Portuguese and the Africans and also between different African groups, the Chopi and the Nguni in particular. Imani, having been educated in the local Catholic mission, is nominally Catholic but, like all her family, firmly believes in the local traditions, gods, spirits, myths and so on. The difference between the Chopi and Nguni is pointed out by the Portuguese. The Nguni look down at the Chopi the same way the Portuguese look down at all Africans. Indeed, for the Nguni, killing and/or enslaving the Chopi is the natural order of things.

Sergeant Germano de Melo is concerned about the Nguni issue. He has few forces, antiquated weapons and seemingly limited support from the capital. (Just as this building cannot be called a barracks, neither can we call the rusty pile of junk here weaponry.) However, perhaps not surprisingly, he starts to go native. He is physically attracted to Imani (his feelings are partially reciprocated) and he starts buying in to the local customs and traditions. However, most of the village look up to him as the representative of Portugal and thus their saviour from the Nguni, little knowing there is not much he can do. In his letters he seems eager to return to Portugal and feels that he was badly treated by being sent to Africa. He is also critical of his superiors: In truth, the worst way to lose a war is to wait endlessly for it to occur. He also complains that the Portuguese know so little about the Nguni and that you have to know them to defeat them and compares the Portuguese to the British who made an effort to learn the language and ways of their African enemies.

As mentioned this is the first book in a trilogy and, at the end, two characters turn up whom we will also meet in the next book: the aforementioned Mouzinho de Albuquerque and Bianca Vanzini Marini, an Italian woman who came to Africa to die but who is known as the white woman with the hands of gold.

Couto as always tells a first-class tale, both as regards the historical issue of the Portuguese colonisation of Africa but, more particularly, the cultural issues of the Chopis and their enemies and how the Portuguese struggle with them.

Publishing history

First published in 2015 by Companhia das Letras
First English translation in 2019 by Picador
Translated by David Brookshaw