A Girl Named Disaster is the story of Nhamo, a girl from a remote village in Mozambique who runs away to the cities of Zimbabwe. Although Nancy Farmer, the author, is an American, she lived in Zimbabwe and Mozambique for many years.
Nhamo’s mother was killed by a leopard when she was a baby, so she is being raised by her aunt, Chipo. Aunt Chipo dislikes Nhamo and makes her do most of the hardest chores, such as pounding corn (called mealies in the book) and gathering firewood. Chipo’s beautiful daughter, Masvita, is the same age as Nhamo but does far less work. Masvita is kind, but Nhamo is jealous, especially when Masvita gets her first menstruation and is given a celebration of womanhood.
Shortly after Masvita’s celebration, cholera strikes the village. Nhamo’s grandmother, called Ambuya, says this disease is caused by bad water, but many of the other villagers mutter that witchcraft has brought the disease. Many villagers die and many others grow very sick. Masvita’s illness is so bad that she becomes gaunt and loses her monthly bleeding. Her father, Uncle Kufa, decides to consult a medical specialist, called a muvuki, who will tell them the cause of the deaths and perhaps help Masvita’s health improve.
Nhamo and the other villagers travel to the trading post to consult the muvuki, but he is too busy to see them right away. One evening Nhamo goes into the trading post with Ambuya, one of the few villagers who is kind to her; she is shocked to see the old woman drink beer. The Portuguese trader, Joao, is surprised by Nhamo’s name, which he knows means disaster in her language. Ambuya explains that Nhamo’s mother married a no-good, lazy drinker called Proud Jongwe. He refused to pay a bride price for Nhamo’s mother because he was a Catholic who was against such pagan traditions. One night in a brawl, he smashed another man’s skull and ran away, leaving Nhamo’s mother to give birth to her daughter alone. Nhamo had never heard this story before. She has long hoped that her father would come to arrange her bride price when she becomes a woman, but now she knows this is too much to hope for. She is the daughter of a murderer. Unlike Masvita, who is worth many cows, Nhamo is probably worth less than a mangy goat.
Shortly after Ambuya tells this story, the villagers are invited to see the muvuki, who seems to have magically acquired a knowledge of Nhamo’s family history. He says that the cholera in the village was caused by the wandering spirit of the man Proud Jongwe killed. Aunt Chipo falls to the ground and shrieks in the spirit’s voice, demanding justice for the murder. The muvuki declares that Nhamo’s life must be given to repay the murder—she will have to marry the murdered man’s brother. Ambuya protests, but the muvuki threatens her and she falls to the ground in a sudden attack that resembles a stroke.
Nhamo spends the next several days nursing Ambuya back to health. The other women do not speak to her, so she has time to think. The murdered man’s brother, whom she is supposed to marry, is a diseased man with several wives. Under the muvuki’s arrangement, he will pay no bride price, which means Nhamo will have no status. He and his other wives will likely beat her, and she will probably never see her family again. The only person in the village who might have the power and willingness to help Nhamo is Ambuya, but she has not spoken since her stroke.
Joao, the Portuguese trader, and his wife, Rosa, offer to let Nhamo live with them. They say that Nhamo, at eleven or twelve, is too young to be married, but the villagers disagree. Joao argues that Nhamo’s father was Catholic, like him, so she cannot be given away in a pagan ritual. Such rituals are illegal under modern laws, so Joao goes to seek help from some soldiers, but Uncle Kufa and the muvuki stop him and threaten to kill him if he continues to interfere. Nhamo, who does not believe in the trader’s strange Catholic customs, is not sure how to feel about this. In any case, she has little choice but to return with her family and plan for her marriage.
Back at the village, Nhamo continues to care for Ambuya, who now appears to understand what is going on around her. The day before Nhamo is supposed to leave to join her new husband, Ambuya suddenly tells Nhamo to run away to Zimbabwe and find her father’s family. She says that Nhamo must steal an old boat that belonged to Crocodile Guts, one of the people who died in the cholera epidemic. Nhamo can let the boat carry her downstream to the Musengezi river, at which point she needs to paddle upstream into Zimbabwe. By staying in the boat, she can avoid the landmine-covered land at the border and pass into Zimbabwe, a place with electric lights. Once there, she must find nuns, introduce herself as the child of a Catholic, and ask for help finding him or his family. “He’s as trustworthy as a rat in a grain bin, but he’s all you’ve got,” Ambuya says.
Nhamo is scared, but Ambuya says her plan is the only way. She gives Nhamo some gold nuggets she has stored to trade with Joao, and she instructs her to take food and matches from the storehouse for the journey. When Nhamo protests that this is stealing, Ambuya disagrees: “That’s survival.” Nhamo protests that the wandering spirit is still out there in need of repayment, and Ambuya says there is no spirit. The muvuki, she explains, is an evil man who used spies, not magic, to learn the story of Nhamo’s father. Ambuya is sure Aunt Chipo was not really possessed by the dead man’s spirit; she only pretended to be possessed because she wants to get rid of Nhamo. In childhood, she was always jealous of Nhamo’s mother.
Nhamo follows Ambuya’s plan and drifts to the Musengezi. Once there, she finds it difficult to paddle upstream, and she has to stop frequently for rests. She gets stranded for several days when a group of hippos with babies moves in around her boat. Hippos are dangerous, so she waits for them to leave before going on. Eventually she works her way to the electric lights and ties her boat up to some reeds. She sleeps well that night, but when she wakes up she realizes her boat has come untied. In the hours she spent asleep, she has drifted downstream, past the small stream she traveled from her village, all the way to Lake Cabora Bossa at the end of the river.
The lake is so huge that Nhamo cannot see the shore. She has no idea which way she should go. She paddles to a small, stony island. She stays there and eats most of her stored food while waiting for some...
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