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Review: The Mourning Bird by Mubanga Kalimamukwento

“‘NEVER LET AN OWL STAY, mwanake,’ my father warned. ‘Why, Tate?’ I asked him. ‘Because,’ he replied, throwing a stone at the mango tree, ‘they are a bad omen. They mourn at night so that we mourn in the morning.'”

– The Mourning Bird, Mubanga Kalimamukwento

The 1990s in Zambia were a devastating period of a crumbling economy, election riots and an attempted coup. It is in this same period that we meet eleven-year-old Chimuka and her family, and the tragedies that befall them.

Chimuka’s father dies from the concealed hands of AIDS, leaving her behind with her two younger brothers, the toddler being born sick, her mother and the belligerence of his bitter family. Their lives undergo a devastating change, reducing them to savage circumstances.

When loss strikes the family again, Chimuka and her brother Ali are all they have and end up on the streets, where drugs, hunger, rape, prostitution and theft become their reality.

There are books that bombard the reader with one tragedy after the other, and end up creating a boring and predictable text. However, in The Mourning Bird, Mubanga Kamlimamukwento handles these events with such impressive literary decorum, resulting in a beautiful yet heart-wrenching story. It reminded me a bit of Boy, Interrupted by Saah Millimono (war, poverty and child soldiers) but with triple the trauma, the anguish and tear-jerking.

I have to say, this story is certainly not for the lily-livered. At some point I wanted to stop reading it, afraid of the rawness of the reality it mirrors. Kamlimamukwento perceptively penetrates hard issues such as infidelity, HIV/AIDS and the secrecy that accompanies it, suicide, family betrayal and neglect, rape and prostitution.

It is undeniably impressive how, instead of creating a theme that is lightly sprinkled onto a story, she merges the story and these issues into one raw flesh, which terrifies and at the same time never fails to astonish you.

I loved everything about the book, from the plot, the characters, to the language and evident talent in writing rich prose. The one small spot that I would criticise would be the ending of the story. Throughout the book, the pace has been steady while the end comes in with a quick resolution, which could have been stretched out a little more than it was done.

The Mourning Bird is definitely for the brave but I wouldn’t advise anyone against reading it. It will open your eye to the weight that a country’s failings, blemishes and turmoil has on people. It is sad but powerful and unforgettable.

Mubanga Kalimamukwento is a Zambian award-winning novelist, a mother of two and a criminal lawyer. She’s a fellow of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program and the Young African Leaders Initiative. The Mourning Bird won the 2019 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award. She also won the Kalemba Short Story Prize, and was shortlisted for the SyncityNG Anthology and the Bristol Short Story Prize in the same year.