A baobab is a monumental tree, thriving for centuries in the arid land of Southern Africa where the people shroud it in myth like a village oracle.
To Tawanda Chabikwa, graduate of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, it is a symbol of his home, Zimbabwe. His first novel, “Baobabs in Heaven,” is a fictitious story rooted in the truth of his experiences.
The title was drawn from his country’s history. In colonial times, missionaries promised Zimbabweans that pillars of gold stood in heaven, but the Zimbabweans didn’t care much for gold.
“What I would want in my heaven would be wide open spaces and baobab trees lining everything,” said Chabikwa, 25.
The ignorance of the missionaries about African culture mirrors what Chabikwa feels is the lack of clarity the world has about contemporary Africa today. The novel, released last month, follows a man of three Africas: rural, urban and mythological.
Chabikwa wrote the novel as part of his COA senior project. In it, he reflects upon his time spent in rural Zimbabwe, the capital city of Harrare, and African myths spoken through village elders.
“To me, the strongest part of this book is Tawanda’s ability to convey the realities of African life to the non-African person,” said Bill Carpenter, COA faculty member in literature and creative writing. “That’s the gift in the book: The language is a bridge between one world and another world.”
The story grew organically, without an agenda. The reality of Chabikwa’s country shaped the poetic language into vivid yet dreamlike experiences. Land reform, AIDS and the necessity of a black market in a poor economy were a part of the character’s life, as were the more universal themes of love, family and kinship.
“It leaves more questions than answers, and that’s what a lot of young Zimbabweans have right now; they have a lot of questions,” Chabikwa said.
Violence permeates the young character’s world, and despite his education and striving for objectivity, he gets pulled into the riots, politics and darker aspects of the country’s culture.
“That aspect of a culture can grow quite easily, and after a while, it can be normal and OK,” Chabikwa said. By the end of the story, even the reader might think violent action to be a natural, acceptable response for the wronged Zimbabwean.
Chabikwa avoids blaming one person or faction for the disunion and brutality in his country, but in several instances he reveals the corruption of the government; and because of that, he’s unsure whether the publication will place him in danger within Zimbabwe’s borders. He usually visits home every two years.
“It’s a very brave book,” Carpenter said. “It’s brave of him to publish it because that’s a country that you can get in trouble of telling the truth.”
“I’m not really concerned about violence and retribution,” Chabikwa said. “I’ll leave that to people that take care of that when they come knocking on my door. But I think [the novel] has to be put out there.
“When you get stuck looking through the eyes of the news, the bodies are just numbers and it starts to look like a football game. But there are actual players out there.”
Though the story is very much about a sense of place, Chabikwa was most interested in character development and exploring why people do what they do, even when their actions are problematic or self-destructive.
“Sadness, anger and depression manifest themselves in very different ways [in Zimbabwe] than they do in other places, and even love manifests itself in different ways because of that,” he said.
Though the characters’ reactions to emotions may be unpredictable or foreign to non-Africans, the flux and spectrum of emotions they experience are universal. From the first chapter, the young Zimbabwean man is essentially relatable. In that way, the character is evidence that people around the world are more alike than they are different; and through emotive sameness, we can empathize with one another, which is an understanding that surpasses intellectual agreement.
Through shared experiences such as enjoying a drink of beer with a friend, the reader begins to trust the character, who then becomes a guide through an unfamiliar culture. He carries the open-eyed reader into land that is just as much nostalgic, humorous and magical as it is dark.
“We like to laugh in Zimbabwe. There’s sadness but there’s so much laughter — open, unabashed laughter,” Chabikwa said. “The joke becomes separate from the laughter. It gets people through a lot of things and it makes people closer.”
Chabikwa’s older brother and younger sister live in Zimbabwe with his mother, father, grandparents and extended family. While reading versions of his novel, they often recognize events and characters.
“They kind of have fun trying to figure out the puzzle of who-what-where-why,” he said.
Chabikwa, the only one of his siblings to be educated outside Zimbabwe, considers himself blessed. Many scholarships have carried him around the world. At age 15, he left Zimbabwe to attend United World College, an international school in Hong Kong that brought him to many countries. He learned about the College of Atlantic from a recruiter and came to Maine in 2004.
In addition to English — with the American accent he picked up from television — he speaks the official languages of Zimbabwe, Shona and Ndebele, as well as French.
“My family totem is the zebra: the one who roams the plains,” he said. “You know, we never sit still.”
He does sit still long enough to read numerous novels, the atlas and the dictionary with a magnifying glass. The works of writers Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera and Dambudzo Marechera influenced his first novel.
In the novel, he communicates ancient African stories through the voice of a sage grandmother, Ambuya, who tells myths by firelight to the village children. She pulls the reader a mythical time, something not measured by the ticking of a clock.
“He wanted to show westerners that element of Africa that they might not understand, an element that is a part of African consciousness,” Carpenter said. “Most westerners don’t have living contact with a nonhistorical past like that.”
Much literature is written about post-colonial Africa, but it is a changing continent.
There is immense wealth in Zimbabwe, Chabikwa says. There are diamonds, platinum, gold, copper and farms with rich soil, but few benefit from it, and so there is a poor quality of life for the majority.
“I think that the biggest problem with Zimbabwe right now is that it doesn’t allow people who want to be there — black or white — to be there,” he said. “Everybody loves it there, but they can’t be there.”
Several of his friends and family members have had to flee the country.
Chabikwa is now living in Deer Isle, applying to doctorate programs in dance and working on his next novel. He always has traveled on a student visa or post-student visa. Zimbabwe remains his home, and he plans to return next year to visit family and friends.
“I want to see home,” he said. “There’s nothing like it. The sunshine is much nicer there, and the food is good.”
When he stepped outside his country 10 years ago to pursue an education, he began to see it in a new light. Writing the novel helped him understand himself in relation to Zimbabwe and the world.
“When people think of home, they think of security,” he said. “A lot of people say home is a place to receive things; to me, being away for a long time, home is a place I’m willing to give the most to.”
Tawanda Chabikwa will be reading from the novel at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 16, at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. To visit his website, which showcases his artwork, writing, photography, dance projects and nonprofit work, go to a href=”http://www.ndiniwako.org”>www.ndiniwako.org.