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Dominic Mulaisho: The Tongue of the Dumb

Mulaisho’s novel is somewhat unstructured and meanders a bit but is an interesting account of the theme of many African novels – what happens in traditional village life when the white man arrives. In this particular village, Mpona is the chief. He had gone mad and gone away for five years, when he had been temporarily replaced by Lubinda. Now he is back and Lubinda is back to being councillor and medicine man but he covets the position of chief. Lubinda has various tactics to turn the people against the chief. One of the tactics is to say that Mpona is too cosy with the whites. Mpona is cosy with the whites but because he realises that if he is not, the village will pay a price. When the District Commissioner visits, Mpona goes through the motions of appeasing him – putting up fake latrines and pretending to send the lepers to hospital – but does not really cooperate. Another of Lubinda’s tactics is to blame disasters on witchcraft. When there is a flash flood, Dulani, related to the royal family, is killed and a python is found by his body. His wife, Natombi, is blamed and is condemned as a witch and, throughout the novel, she barely escapes execution. Her son, Mwape, is dumb and she is blamed for that. When the boy is taken by the whites to hospital to be cured and then seemingly disappears, Lubinda blames Mpona’s collusion with the whites for the disappearance.

As well as Mpona and Natombi, Lubinda sets his sights on the teacher. As he teaches in the white man’s school and teaches white man’s teaching, he is an obvious target and he really ends up in a bad way, being partially burned and then suffering from his burns. Lubinda is also afraid of the power of the whites. There is a mission nearby and we also follow the activities there, with the conflict between Father Gonzago, the head of the mission but a mild mannered man who is sympathetic to the locals and Father Chiphwanya (real name Paul Oliver), a doctrinaire priest who believes that the Christian faith should be rigorously followed but who is the one who brings in the money to the mission.

Mulaisho jumps between the two plots and, at times, seems to be dragging the story out, but he does come to a resolution to both plot lines, even if the resolution is not entirely unexpected and does tend to rely on somewhat stilted plot conventions. It is still an interesting story, showing the internal clash, with the issue of the white men used somewhat as a sideshow, rather than as the main plot element.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Heinemann