Setting is a vital element of A Girl Named Disaster—at least as important as character or plot. The general setting is the border country of Mozambique and Zimbabwe in 1981. Both countries had recently won independence from colonial rule: Mozambique freed itself from Portugal in 1975, and Zimbabwe overthrew English domination in 1979. These were not peaceful transitions. Echoes of the recent violence occur in Nhamo's story in passing conversations, the presence of freedom fighters and land mines, and the hostility between the Shona and the Matabele tribes and between native Africans and white settlers. In 1981 both countries are a study in contrasts. In more urban areas European influence has changed tribal life through the introduction of Western technology, institutions, religions, and ideas. Although no scenes take place in cities, the reader, like Nhamo, learns of the wonders of civilization through her grandmother's reminiscences, Portuguese traders, the staff of the science station at Efifi, and old magazines that find their way to the village.
The first third of the book is set in and around Nhamo's village in Mozambique. Although a few of the men have learned the rudiments of reading and writing and the villagers trade for valued items like sugar and tea, for the most part the village follows the traditional ways of its ancestors. Males and females are segregated by duties and social standing. Females tend to cooking, serving, childcare, and making cloth and pots, while males protect the village from predators such as leopards, tend the domestic animals, hunt and fish, and rule the households and the village. Unmarried girls share a sleeping hut, the onset of menstruation is cause for ritual celebration, and brides are purchased through contract for a predetermined gift of animals and material objects.
The Shona are a paternalistic tribe, so children are perceived as belonging to their father's family. Thus Nhamo has no social standing in the village because she lives with her mother's relatives. Her father, Proud Jongwe, came from a distant town in Zimbabwe and has not returned to claim his daughter.
The Shona revere their ancestors, respect their elders, and fear incursions from the spirit world. A traditional healer takes care of minor illnesses and spiritual attacks, but for serious problems the Shona consult a muvuki. In Western culture, the muvuki has long been stereotyped as a witch doctor. Farmer is careful to avoid the stereotype. She never uses the phrase "witch doctor," and her glossary defines muvuki as "A medical specialist who deals with causes of death." But witchcraft is a serious threat in the Shona belief system, and a muvuki may practice witchcraft himself as well as sniff out other witches.
As a contrast to the village setting, the first part of the book also introduces the reader to a Portuguese trading post. Although the Portuguese no longer rule Mozambique, many white settlers remained after independence. Representatives from Nhamo's village come to the trading post to consult the muvuki when the village is hit with a cholera epidemic. Compared to Nhamo's village, the trading post is a thriving metropolis with a diverse population. The Portuguese trader and his Shona wife are Catholic and eat foods out of tins and listen to music on a radio. At a nearby army camp a group of native soldiers maintains a military presence. Nhamo is shocked to discover that some of the soldiers are women. Despite these indications of a larger world beyond the tribal village, traditional ways are still foremost in importance at the trading post, and the strongest influence in the area is that of the muvuki. He may wear European clothing, but his power derives from centuries of tradition.
Almost half of the book centers on Nhamo's journey to find the Jongwes, her father's family. The setting alters to Nhamo's small boat and its constantly changing environment, but in Farmer's hands even this limited setting comes alive. The climate,...
(The entire section is 3,487 words.)