Zimbabwe – The Theory of Flight

New countries are always a reason for optimism. When Zimbabwe was established forty years ago, Bob Marley and the Wailers performed before a cheering crowd of tens of thousands in the Rufaro Stadium in Harare. They were celebrating the new country’s independence, and the bright future it symbolized for the rest of the continent. A bright future that would hopefully justify the bloody, yet effective actions, that helped buy Zimbabwe’s independence.

It took fourteen years of heavily armed struggle for Zimbabwe to get it’s freedom. Two rival armed groups fought each other, and fought the British white minority. Their struggle included the use of chemical and biological weapons, and at a later stage escalated to shooting down passenger airliners. These actions are part of the history that is related in The Theory of Flight by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlove. It’s a history that fills you with optimism, an optimism that ends with disappointment. Kind of like Zimbabwe itself.

A Beautiful Death

“On the third of September, not so long ago, something truly wondrous happened on the Beauford Farm and Estate. At the moment of her death, Imogen Zula Nyoni – Genie – was to fly away on a giant pair of wings and, at the very same moment her heart calcified into the most precious and beautiful something the onlookers had ever seen.”

Death is the beginning of this story, which is kind of misleading because this book is the story of a life: the life of Genie, the protagonist, and the lives of her family and friends. Genie died from AIDS (not a spoiler), but before that happened she managed to touch the dreams of a rich cast of characters. They all have stories to tell in this book, but these stories all lead back to Genie.

The book is divided into several parts. Each part relates a character story that somehow connects to Genie’s life and helps explain where she is and how she managed to inspire so many. We learn about her entrepreneurial grandfather who was consumed by wanderlust, about the airplane dreams of her terrorist father, the happiness and guilt she brought to her adoptive family, and the happiness and guilt she brought to the street “Jesus” she helped redeem. All these characters are tied together by the love they felt towards Genie, but also by guilt.

These characters all live in Zimbabwe, a country that somehow managed to elect “the man himself” (Robert Mugabe) into power, and the man himself only cares about keeping power. Rivals are hunted and destroyed, newspapers require licenses to operate, and the most innocent of sayings can be easily manipulated into a damning testimony. The “Man Himself” never forgets, and he never lets those who help him forget. There are many guilty consciences in this book, and their guilt is also intertwined into Genie’s life.

Not What I Expected

Like any event, what happened to Genie did not happen in a vacuum: it was the result of a culmination of genealogies, histories, teleologies, epistemologies and epidemiologies – of ways of living, remembering, seeing knowing and dying.

I did not know what to expect from this book. I suspected that this book was going to be another magic realism book that told the story of Zimbabwe. The prologue tells the story of Genie growing a giant pair of wings, her father, Golide Guminede shot down an “aeroplane and in  doing so created a race of angels”, and we later learn that Genie herself was born from a golden egg. These descriptions led me to believe that this book would contain magical elements to it, and that I would be reading a fairy like inspiring story. I was wrong. 

There is no “real” magic in this book, at least not the kind that can manipulate the physical world. Rather it’s the magic of who you are and how you inspire others through your personality and actions, which is kind of important when you’re struggling against AIDS, but it’s not what I expected, and I felt it was a deliberate, very effective attempt at manipulating the reader. It worked, but I wasn’t happy about it.

The book starts off by generating a magical sense of wonder that conceals some very ugly yet also very real truths. Golide Guminede, Genie’s father, did shoot down a passenger airplane, while thinking about Frederick Douglas, and watching a herd of elephants swim across the Zambezi river. A beautiful story that he later relates to his daughter. A beautiful story that also masks an uglier reality.

As we further progress in the book, the beautiful stories fade, and with them the sense of wonder. All that was left was the darker reality. Genie is struggling against AIDS, her adoptive family is consumed with guilt, and the “Man Himself” is manipulating everyone behind the scenes. It kind of made me question whether the wonder was ever there in the first place, and if it ever deserved to exist in the first place.

That pretty much ties into the history of Zimbabwe. The same crowds that were cheering Bob Marley and the Wailers were also cheering the ascendancy of Mugabe who later ended up ruling the country with an iron fist. However, fortunately for the country (I hope), his bright future was also cut short.

Bad Timing

My timing was off with this book. I started it right after I finished Kintu, and this was a mistake because I really wasn’t in the mood for another magic realism book that tells the story of a person and a country. It influenced how I engaged with the book. I don’t think I would have been as disappointed over the lack of magic if I had read this book a few weeks later, but two heavy books one after the other were just too much for me. It’s not a flaw in the book, just a flaw in the timing that I am very much aware of.

The Omer today is kingship in splendor. This book has given me a lot to think about regarding the dreams of new countries, and the ugly realities they mask. I had already learned how a country could fall apart with Uganda, and I got to witness it yet again with Zimbabwe. There is a lot of beauty to offer, and I really would like to see (from a distance) elephants swimming across the Zambezi river to bathe in the Victoria Falls, but these don’t compensate for the necessary violent acts required to create the country in which those elephants bathed. There is beauty. There is kingship. It’s important to recognize when the former is a mask for the latter – and not lose your ability to enjoy beauty in the process. It’s food for thought.


About The Author

Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu is a writer, filmmaker and academic who holds a PhD from Stanford University, as well as master’s degrees in African Studies and Film. She has published research on Saartjie Baartman and she wrote, directed and edited the award-winning short film Graffiti. She lives and works in Harare, Zimbabwe. The Theory of Flight was her first novel.

The Theory of Flight

Author: Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu

Publisher: Penguin Books

Published: 2018

Pages: 328

Format reviewed: Digital