One can often feel embarrassed with their deepest and morbid feelings when they visit hospitals or attend funerals and weddings. Thoughts that revolve around death and the essence of life can leave one wondering why they bother doing certain things while comforting themselves that in doing so they are being a ‘good’ person. Kopano Matlwa’s Evening Primrose will bring such thoughts to the fore and may leave one less embarrassed about their inner most thoughts on death, identity and other complex topics.
Early this year, while visiting my sister, our conversation, as usual wondered to books and expression. She asked me if I was ready to go through the rawest emotions of being an honest woman in present day Africa. I said yes I am! She recommended that I read Kopano Matlwa’s books. I started with Evening Primrose. Kopano, a South African Doctor and Author, has written other award winning books including Spilt Milk and her award winning 2009 debut novel Coconut.The book was first published as Period Pain by Jacana Media, South Africa in 2016. The title Evening Primrose is more apt and simply means no ordinary flower. An evening primrose is a wonder plant associated with beauty, perfection, healing and positivity. Its oil has amazing healing properties. It is no ordinary flower.
In this novel Kopano vividly represents the heartache and confusion of so many South Africans who feel defeated by the horrors of xenophobia, neglect, violence, corrective rape, corruption and crime. Closer to home, she manages to capture the migration of skilled Zimbabweans and other African countries into South Africa escaping crumbling systems, in search of greener pastures. The story revolves around Masechaba, who as a teenager suffers from terribly painful periods and dedicates her life to practicing medicine. Her secret plan is to one day convince a colleague to give her the hysterectomy that doctors refuse to perform and is taboo to her mother who believes a painful period is one of ‘the thingswomen had to endure’.
She finds her self stuck practicing in a medical system where doctors have to do ‘all they can’ with limited resources in the wake of xenophobia and racial segregation. Masechaba navigates the limited resources plaguing the South African healthcare system with a brave face, a tired soul and unanswered questions. The way she talks about the system in South Africa forces me to reflect on our own health care system in Zimbabwe. I got to confront the system in 2015 when my father was admitted in one of the country’s ‘best’ hospitals, the food, shortage of medical staff and drugs all made the situation more difficult. Exactly five years later the same system is confronted by COVID-19, the corruption scandals, strikes, shortages of protective equipment for doctors continue to show the despondency. Kopano re-presents the harsh realities faced by most African health systems.
The story gets interesting when Masechaba meets, befriends and moves in with Nyasha, a very opinionated Zimbabwean doctor who believes all her problems come from white people. The young women’s friendship is tested by their opposing views on colonization and culture. Masechaba’s mother does not approve of their friendship, she is a typical traditional African mother.
The young doctor, has also suffered the painful loss of her only sibling Tshiamo who she believes understood her. The loss and pain is spread throughout the book. Masechaba keeps on writing emails to her dead brother to express herself. She writes the emails as way of mourning. Her mother thinks she is in denial. In her defense she says,
“Of course I knew Tshiamo was dead. There was no shortage of reminders. But what is knowing, anyway? I’veknown ever since I’ve had a thinking mind that I would one day die, but does that mean I wake up every morning preoccupied with it? Of course not. That would be absurd. I know Tshiamo ’s dead, thank you very much. “
Masechaba acknowledges and owns her feelings, even the most selfish, absurd, negative ones, An example of that is when she says,
“I certified two patients dead this morning. I felt nothing. I tried forcing myself to pause, to stop, to acknowledge. But nothing came. I even tried doing the sign of the cross, but nothing stirred within me.”
And then, she goes on to write in her journal,
“I feel nothing but dread for the hours I will be spending sucking dead babies out of little girls’ vaginas…I hatethe environment; I hate the smells. The nurses there are mean and cruel, especially to the foreign patients. They call them dirt…”
Like Kopano, I keep a journal. I write my innermost embarrassing and elevating thoughts, once my mother read one entry and she told my father that I was depressed! I felt like she invaded my privacy and that’s how I felt when I read Kopano’s book. I felt like I read what she never meant for anyone to read.
However, I then understood that Kopano uses Masechaba, to teach us to acknowledge our most private feelings, even those that may embarrass or shame us. She brings the realities of xenophobia to fore and expresses that even though there are people who champion the killing of foreigners in south Africa, many are repulsed by the mere thought of it. She asks really pertinent questions about who we are and calls us to embrace humanity.
“What is it inside of us that makes us so evil? And how do we become better? Why are we capable of so much harm and badness? How do we change? And stay changed?
Through Nyasha, Kopano brings to the fore the debates around cultural imperialism in simple and creative ways. Nyasha, who clearly detests white people, asks Masechaba to tell the new interns to not put on weaves as they are an expression of self hatred.
“We know we hate ourselves as black people. But now we’re exposing ourselves to white people, too. Now we are exposing this dark stain of self-hatred on our race. We’re giving them evidence that we are indeed a foolish, self-loathing people. How much do those weaves cost?…they’re enriching the industries that strive to oppress us instead of building our communities.”
Kopano gets the reader to think about what it means to be African by contrasting in one narrative the twin forces of xenophobia targeting Africans on the one hand and cultural imperialism on the other. She forces us to have discussions we never want to acknowledge. She confronts us with the reality.
Kopano’s writing style is emotionally invested. She writes the novel as a journal addressed to God, punctuated with verses and words of wisdom to guide each chapter. Writing in the first person narrative, she manages to express and trigger raw, deep emotions we often do not acknowledge outside ourselves. Kopano makes me acknowledge my secret thoughts. The ones that I always feel guilty of. Thoughts that make one question if they are truly a good person. Her writing though in the stream of conscious is structured, well thought out and her expressions are albeit deliberate.
Kopano calls us all to be aware of our realities. The novel is a critical exploration of contemporary issues in Africa, she explains how we are our own impediment to progress and peace. This is a book of acknowledging pain, the protagonist in the end finally finds hope and peace in an unlikely place. Each chapter takes you to a whole new emotional journey!