By Namwanja Margaret Chikwabi
No Be From Hia (2nd edition, 2020) is the debut novel by Natasha Omokhodion-Kalulu Banda. The story involves three generations of the Ayomide and Kombe families. They are Zambia-Nigerian-Jamaican powerhouse families. The three main characters are cousins Maggie Ayomide and Bupe Kombe, and Grandmother Margaret.
The experiences of cousins Maggie and Bupe are potrayed as they grow up in different parts of the world from childhood to adulthood. The reader is also led through the cousins’ relationships with family members and their respective significant others. This story spans pre-colonial Zambia and England to post-2017 and it is set at different times in Chinsali, Lusaka, Lagos and London.
There are many themes running through No Be From Hia. Identity and the search for belonging and fulfillment are two of them. Betrayal and its consequences, family secrets and the unsaid things we all suspect in our relationships and families are sewn throughout the book as well. Ultimately, it’s a story about acceptance and love (of self and others).
This novel is a delicious feast and one finds themselves savouring each sentence, each page.There is a welcome non-othering of Zambian terms like munkoyo and impwa in the book. In other words, no italics are used for these non-Engligh terms as has been customary in literature. The words in our local languages are just as valid and centred as the English words. One example of this combined enjoyment of the writing and centering of local words is found on page 10. At this point, we find Maggie living in Lusaka in 1991 as she narrates the following scene:
“I’m now in grade three, and I’ve almost forgotten the rhythmic thump-thump of dad’s heartbeat through the freshly pressed button-down shirt of and the croon of his voice as he read to me before bedtime. His chin was always prickly after a shave, and I’d push my finger into the dimple at its centre when he came back from the barber.
I float out od my room, still hoping that this is an extension of my dream, that I will wake again to realise it’s not happening. The hem of my floral nightdress shakes violently. I stand still, trembling, unable to take in what I see. Our once perfect world is now upside down.
My mother stands at an angle, her neck in the forceful crook of my father’s left arm, like the innocent person in the movies whose body is being used as a bullet shield. My father holds a knife to her neck. To be more accurate, a sand knife, the one Ba Mailesi uses to prepare thickly buttered bread in the mornings, to cut through chicken thighs and backs as she makes us stew, nshima and impwa. The sand knife which she so carefully rubs against the dry rock outside the kitchen door to ensure it is sharp enough to slice through bone. Its tip now pierces the soft skin of my mother’s neck, drawing a thin line of blood.”
In her writing style, Natasha Omokhodion-Kalulu Banda moves between space, time, characters, and stories while keeping the overall narrative going seamlessly- that is genius on her part. The book is beautifully paced, and the experiences the characters go through are relatable. Nuggets of Zambian historical facts add flavour to the flow of the story, such as the car Prime Minister Kenneth Kaunda rode in at independence being called the Kwacha Car with white leather seats and left-hand drive.Also impressive is how the author gets right that nuance in language and dialect when the characters speaking are Nigerians or living in London, as examples.
The reader is drawn into, and engrossed in, this world that the author has created. I deliberately slowed down my reading because I did not want this book to end. No Be From Hia should be on everyone’s to-read-list. It is a well-researched debut novel and an accomplished piece of work from Natasha Omokhodion-Kalulu Banda.
The manuscript of No Be From Hia was deservedly selected as a Graywolf Africa Prize finalist in 2019. In addition, the book’s worldwide distribution rights were picked up by Blackbird Books of South Africa. I’m looking forward to what Natasha Omokhodion-Kalulu Banda produces next.