The Mourning Bird

Publication: 2019

Author: Mubanga Kalimamukwento

When she’s not at school, 11-year-old Chimuka spends her time in a dance with her mother trying to avoid helping with the household chores. She is aware that by her age she should be able to cook already, but she would much rather play with her younger brother Ali in the backyard or listen to her father Tate, an English teacher, as he unstitches the details of his day and tells her stories.

But when Tate’s health deteriorates and he dies unexpectedly, it becomes clear that their seemingly ordinary Zambian family is brimming with secrets. This is the 1990s, and HIV and infidelity are not subjects to be discussed among adults, let alone their children. Shunned by her abusive in-laws, their mother struggles to hold the family together until she makes a tragic decision which forces Chimuka and Ali to seek escape on Lusaka’s streets. While Ali sinks into a life of drugs and crime, Chimuka is faced with the scant choices left open to girls in her situation, torn between thieving and selling her body to others to survive.

But a chance encounter with Elisha, who runs a drop-in centre and orphanage, helps her cling to the fragile stability that existed before her family broke apart. By now fiercely independent and resigned to the physical dangers she and other girls face nightly, Chimuka must decide if she will choose another way; an existence in which her country’s burden, shame and silence will not prevent her from becoming a teacher like her father and having a future of her own.

Set against the backdrop of a failed military coup, election riots and a declining economy, The Mourning Bird is both an unflinchingly intimate family story and a national portrait of Zambia during a period when a country famed for its kindness seemingly turned its back on generations of its children.

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Original Language

ENGLISH (SA) | Jacana Media

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Winner of the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award


"From the very first page one is struck by how self-assured the writing is, by the fact that the writer never feels the need to strain for effect or over-explicate the issues involved. The depiction is both unflinching and subtle.” David Medalie, head judge for the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award

“An empowering portrait of modern Zambia.” Brittle Paper, Best Debut Books of 2019

"Bold, tender ... and razor-sharp ... [Kalimamukwento] wields her words to chastise and comfort, weaving a significant story out of collective secrets." Sunday Times

“In The Mourning Bird the reader is taken on a harrowing journey of a child’s life on the streets. It’s a violent and inhuman life most of us would rather believe doesn’t exist in our world. In an authentic and brutally honest voice, Kalimamukwento tells a coming-of-age story and reveals the extremes children go to and what they endure to survive the daily ravages of life in the streets. It’s a heart-wrenching story of loss; loss of love, family and hope.” Ellen Banda Aaku, author of Patchwork

“Chimuka loses everyone she loves and is forced into the depths of hell and squalor as a street child in Lusaka. Each turn seems to worsen her life, and yet, Kalimamukwento’s The Mourning Bird comes layered with a powerful message of hope and renewal. This book stayed with me a long time after I read it.” Ayesha Harruna Attah, author of The Deep Blue Between

“Mubanga tackles a lot of very uncomfortable memories both for country and for the family in this story. She has a way of weaving in well-researched historical fact with the fiction and I found that captivating. On this journey with Chimuka, I just wanted her to WIN. We are shown the invisible side of our society which we choose not to see, or perhaps become blind to. No one is perfect. No one is a hero. No one is a sinner. It's just life unfiltered.” Natasha Omokhodion Kalulu Banda, author of No Be From Hia

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