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War and Spirits

By Kirby Mania

The timing of the publication of Confession of the Lioness by Mozambique’s most celebrated writer, Mia Couto, comes on the back of the international furore triggered by the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe. The kill has stirred up a number of thorny postcolonial and ecological concerns. Couto’s novel, despite being inspired by real events – a series of lion attacks that left 20 villagers dead in northern Mozambique in 2008 – enters this conversation, presenting a nuanced African perspective on human beings and their fraught, but nonetheless indivisible relationship with the natural world that sustains them. This tension is deftly communicated in the text through the positioning of two narrative voices, those of the hunter and the proverbial prey.

This casting of two narrators, Mariamar and Archangel Bullseye (the hunter), provides a split-scene representation of events. Their respective positioning has them demonstrate opposing subjectivities, including but not limited to the following dualities: male/female, potent/impotent, outsider/insider. The parallel narrative structure allows for a slow unfurling of plot, where the reader is forced into the role of tracker, hunting down narrative spoor to make sense of a complex literary topography. Reminding us that Couto was a journalist and poet first, the prose is versatile: at times, direct and measured, and at others, textured and rich, suffused with poetic imagery and lyrical syntax.

Known for infusing proverbs into the stream of narrative, the fabric of Couto’s writing quite potently communicates the subtleties of both context and culture. Narrative time is swaddled with forays into dream and folklore, while both myth and magic blend with and upset empirical reality. It is African magical realism at its finest – although Couto expresses his distaste for the term, arguing that in “Colombia, Mexico, Nigeria, Mozambique, it’s the real thing, not magic, and the only way to tell these stories.” This genre creates an ambiguous territory that stretches the parameters of traditional fiction, allowing for the melding of fantastic realms with realism, and cheekily admitting characters such as Gustavo Regalo – who bears an uncanny resemblance to Couto himself – the writer who accompanies Archangel Bullseye to Kulumani.

The story opens with Mariamar’s version of events: she is a woman from the village of Kulumani, who is mourning the loss of her sister, a recent victim of the lions. Various explanations for the lion attacks are provided, ranging from the pragmatically ecological to the supernatural. One such explanation deduces that the villagers, as a result of their own invasive hunting practices, have eaten the lion’s natural prey, leaving the predators with no alternative food source. Other reasons invoke the spectre of the liberation struggle and civil war, positing that the lion attacks “were born out of the last armed conflict.” A blind war veteran explains that dead bodies left in the bush and along the sides of roads – a visceral symbol of the devastation of war – invited lions to break an ancient taboo: “They had begun to see people as prey.”  The nation’s colonial past and the civil war haunt the text. The blind man goes on to say that “the same thing happened in colonial times. The lions remind me of the soldiers in the Portuguese army. These Portuguese took over our imagination so effectively that they became powerful. The Portuguese weren’t strong enough to defeat us. That’s why they organised it so that the victims killed themselves. And we blacks learned to hate ourselves.”

What becomes clear early on in the novel, however, is that the lions only appear to kill women. Women are the prey, which opens itself up to a symbolic reading. Couto explains to Maya Jaggi in an interview with The Guardian that Mozambique is “a very patriarchal society, with high levels of violence against women. Women are ‘eaten’ by their society and by life itself.”

Therefore the safety of women in Kulumani is not only compromised by the immediate threat posed by the lions. The threat also lies closer to home. Mariamar’s mother, Hanifa Assulua, commenting on the gender imbalances in the village’s power dynamics, states that although the civil war might be over, women “still wake up every morning to a timeworn, endless war” – they are “sleep-deprived soldiers” getting through the day “as if life were the enemy.” This transmutation of violence within the nation state into the economy of the female body is significant. This is illustrated most painfully in the case of Tandi, the maid of the district administrator, who is savagely gang-raped as punishment for inadvertently crossing the mvera, the sacred initiation campground reserved solely for the use of men.

The novel unashamedly exposes Kulumani for its brutal misogyny and for the villagers’ cruelty towards female members of its body politic. The lion attacks can thus be read as a preternatural manifestation of a social pathology plaguing the village, transferred from the society of man to the kingdom of beasts. This unmitigated misogyny is probed in the novel, which not only interrogates but also collapses the symbolic distinction that governs the divide between human civilisation and animal brutality. The Hunter ruminates: “Everything that we have carefully built over centuries in order to remove ourselves from our animal nature, everything that language has covered over with metaphors and euphemisms (our arms, our faces, our waists), in one instant can be converted back to its naked, brutish substance: flesh, blood, bone. The lion doesn’t just devour people. It devours our very humanity.”

This is amplified later when we discover that the locals do not perceive the lion curse to have been caused simply by lions of the bush variety. Rather, the attacks owe their cause to the ntumi va vanu, the lion-people. This mythological interpretation finds the community turning in on itself, aiming to extirpate the creator(s) of the lions. The ensuing witch-hunt resonates with Achille Mbembe’s comments on Facebook about the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa – something he dubbed a “hunting season” – within the very DNA of the desire to rid a community of a perceived external threat is an impulse that “quickly turns fratricidal” in a “dramatic gesture of inversion”. In a bizarre twist of fate, one reminiscent of the colonial past cited by the blind veteran, the victims start killing themselves.

The novel’s title then becomes key to our understanding of the ntumi va vanu. Mariamar’s narrative straddles the divide between human and animal realms, embracing the magical potential afforded by local beliefs, thus giving voice to the prey, the lioness, instead of championing the hunter as the hero of the hunting narrative.


This story features in the Chronic (April 2016). To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop.

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