My Totem Came Calling
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My Totem Came Calling
Through the bars of my window I see the zebra standing in the garden, beside the old jacaranda tree with its crooked branches and tiny green leaves. I know it's waiting for me, but nobody else can see it. Not Lameck, our gardener, who is now watering the border hedge – it's the kind of useless thing he does – and not anybody else. The other day when I saw the zebra in the middle of an intersection at rush hour, nobody in the street saw it, nor did any of the people at Sam Levy's shopping village. It's getting scary. And the zebra seems to pop up more and more often.
Chanda is a 17-year-old schoolgirl in Harare, Zimbabwe, who suffers from unexplained memory lapses which become even more worrisome when she starts seeing her totem animal, a zebra, in all sorts of places. But nobody else can see it.
Afraid of being institutionalized in a hospital, Chandra follows the advice of an old aunt and sets off for her ancestral village, a backward, primitive settlement without the amenities she is used to in the city. But there she meets the rest of her family, including her grandmother, and learns the hard way who she really is – not a superficial, rich city girl with foreign habits but someone who is somebody and whose name carries a history of her African people.
My Totem Came Calling is written in the first person, and the main character Chanda shares her sense of disconnection from her world, her friends, her parents and her culture, struggling to understand who she is. She is in treatment for her blackouts and memory lapses which, on one level, are a medical condition but, on another level, are symptoms of a deeper disconnection she carries within her on her life journey towards adulthood – finishing high-school, growing out of relationships with friends and her boyfriend, sensing an absence of connection to her parents, and alienation of living a modern lifestyle with severed ties to her culture and extended family.
Chandra’s journey takes her to the African countryside and her ancestral roots, meeting her grandmother and extended family, experiencing their traditional way of life and wisdom that comes from the land, understanding a deeper sense of place in the world. Her friends that accompany her on her journey offer a playful presence in contrast to her own personal struggles.
While My Totem Came Calling illustrates well the universality of adolescence, that a young person’s struggles in growing towards adulthood are similar everywhere, from Nigeria to North America/Europe/etc, deeper personal emotions remain unexplored. Chanda is often left as an observer of her plight and less an active participant questioning and sharing insights with the reader, all of which could have in the process developed deeper connections. Overall though, My Totem Came Calling was well-written with a good sense of voice.
Ray Fernandes, a Youth Services Librarian/Consultant with the Nova Scotia Provincial Library, lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.