ASHES OF PEACE BY KWIBISA LIYWALII: A BOOK REVIEW
In March, I found myself sitting in a car parked outside a supermarket in Zambia with a friend of a family friend. Not only was Kwibisa Liywalii a friend, once removed, but he also worked in the Agricultural department of the Zambian Government, and alongside the United Nations’ development organisation IFAD. Even at my most relaxed and loquacious I would be considered a reserved person, and sharing a car with such an impressive person didn’t help. However ill equipped I was as a conversationalist I fumbled for something I thought would be a universal topic of interest between two men sharing nothing else but proximity: beer.
Salted with some irony, I asked what was a good beer in Zambia, and after cracking a smile he began to outline the varieties and his personal favourite. This led into a conversation about the name given to one beer—Mosi—which takes its name from the Zambian waterfall which is the largest in the world; that natural wonder that was given the windy and dull name of Victoria Falls by David Livingstone. Before Livingstone’s monarchic sensibilities replaced its old name it was called Mosi-oa-Tunyawhich means ‘the smoke that thunders’. With the beauty and evocation in its original meaning, never have I been so disappointed in the use of the English language, or so proud of beer.
From that conversation onwards Kwibisa and I shared only a few more, including a common admiration for Patrice Lumumba, and the utility of a free press. Only after I had left Zambia, it struck me by chance that he was a novelist as well. As soon as I could, I purchased his book and began to read with the intent of discovering what more we could’ve talked about, and what more I could’ve discovered about Kwibisa.
Ashes of Peace is a book set on no certain grounds. The narrative follows many characters throughout the fictitious country called Mabumbu, which itself goes through the turmoil of transition and change. Struggling to reconcile the difficulties of tribalism and democracy both in government and society, the population of Mabumbu is subjected to mysterious magic, suspiciously political deaths, and generational rifts. The one seemingly constant element is Ndate Maliwa, an old man whose Socratic behaviour keeps him from getting caught up in the chaotic gusts and breezes of change.
The most refreshing aspect of Kwibisa’s writing and Ashes of Peace as a book is its devotion to the emphasis and irresolution of contradiction. As with any novel worth reading conflict abounds on every level. Characters come into contrast with each other, against the society and government of Mabumbu, and across generational and historical lines. Religion and the Church are subject to the same laws of conflict and contradiction which ripple throughout Mabumbu. Kwibisa is not content to resolve contradictions into a neat parcel that a reader can send away, he leaves it bare, naked, and present so that it stays a sharp point of contention in the mind.
The title itself is a metaphor for this contradiction. In answering my question posed to him about the title Ashes of PeaceKwibisa said that
Ashes can be both a sign of what has been destroyed, or burnt down and also a sign of available nutrients to nourish what is yet to come.
The importance of this metaphor, and the place contradiction holds in this book, is that whatever ‘nutrients’ exist within ashes imply nothing as to what they will nourish. For an author to say what is yet to come, or what should come, turns literature into a platitude and lowers the writer to a pedagogue or astrological fortune telling. The book ends on an uncertain note, without real resolution, but a new set of problems. Kwibisa leaves the reader to discern for themselves how to resolve the conflicts and problems of their time and the shape of their future.
It has become an epithet of our time to be considered ‘political’. It is something to be earned not something to participate in. Usually words such as ‘ordinary man’ come at the expense of supposing there is an ‘extraordinary’ one. This is a mistake Kwibisa avoids by his numerous examples of ‘ordinary man’ politics that characterize the society of Mabumbu. Rather than it being something done on behalf of the ordinary, politics is defined as something done by them. For the characters politics is ‘matters of bread and butter’, and as one university student replies to his colleague ‘food is politics’. The reduction of politics to the fundamental and the culinary does nothing to denigrate it, but instead intensifies it.
It is within this theme of consumption and food that Kwibisa touches upon perhaps his most arresting metaphor. Engaged in one his many vocal trains of thought the main character Ndate Maliwa tells his children:
My children, this system survives on cannibalism. It is bent on swallowing human beings. It is eating its own people; the people that are the very resource this land so much needs.
Instead of portraying it as scavenging or preying on the people, cannibalism as a description identifies the leaders as part of the people. No difference or distinction can erase the need for the problems to be thought of as embedded in society rather than imposed on by an elite. When I asked him about the uncertain ending of the book, and the fate of Mabumbu, Kwibisa answered:
Politics in Africa and the life of an ordinary man does not change for the better, because of none other than the ordinary man himself. It is the ordinary man who votes. The ordinary people allows themselves to be manipulated for anything, including being manipulated for ‘’unseen freedoms, human dignity, political independence”. The ordinary man is a cause of and an accomplice to his own misery! This explains Ndate Maliwa’s pessimism.
Here Kwibisa diverts from commentators on African politics whose emphasis is in separating the ruling elites from the people, as prey from predator, and blaming the latter. Instead he gives a responsibility and agency to the people within society. Kwibisa in his own words almost perfectly mirrors what Thomas Paine once wrote in that in a failing democracy ‘our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer’.
In a time where politics is thought to be nothing but a chess game between elites, Kwibisa holds the line of responsible civil society against a tribalism that is endemic to modern African politics. Political writing is defined by its necessity to confront unpopular truths, and Ashes of Peace beyond its many literary and aesthetic qualities is at its heart such a book. In identifying ‘tribalism’ as the root of many problems of modernity, Kwibisa takes his turn to critique every aspect of society in his book.
There are many unresolved issues throughout this book, many of which I was able to ask Kwibisa about personally, and more that I wasn’t able to. There is also many conversations that time didn’t allow, and it is this the realization that Ashes of Peacebrings about. Perhaps had there been resolution to our conversations I would never have discovered the book. Had I never read the book I would not have been brought in contact with more of the realities and difficulties of modern Africa, and the conflict and tensions that this book refuses to dissolve keeps the topic sharp and current. So long as problems exist, Kwibisa’s writing will keep any reader grappling with them, dedicated to leaving literary conflict open in order to resolve the real problems of the world.