Tying Symbolism and Irony in ‘Our Christmas Reunion’ by Edward Chinhanhu

When the African continent, and especially the Southern region, was grappling with HIV/AIDS pandemic, SIDA, in collaboration with the University of Cape Town raised awareness of the same by showing how communities were dealing with the disease through literature. Edward Chinhanhu’s short story Our Christmas Reunion is among the pieces that shone in the ‘Share Your Story about HIV/AIDS’ creative writing competition and anthologized in Nobody Ever Said AIDS: Poems and Stories from Southern Africa. A story that interweaves love, family, innocence, loss, sex education, and AIDS so well that in the end, every one of the themes is felt in equal measure.

It is also in the way Chinhanhu ties in symbolism and irony that shows the course and outcome of a society whose members, including influential institutions on which we place our hopes, have a prudish attitude towards sex and sex education.

Narrating in the first-person point of view, Tawanda is skinning a goat with excited anticipation of his big brother’s, Selby, arrival. He gives a brief background of his family, including an aging mother, a “drunk as ever” father who drowned in the nearby Mutorahuku river, and a brother who is Tawanda’s best friend till the last day. As early as two years of age, the narrator would accompany his only brother to wherever he went, including school.

Tawanda then gives an account of a fateful day when he joined Selby in the school playground. An incident occurred that nearly got his brother expelled and cost him a prefect position. He blames himself for causing Selby this pain and embarrassment but in retrospect, their sibling bond never changed and grew even more intense over time. Selby later goes to London, then returns home, and acquires a job with a bank in Harare.

It is now a rainy morning on the 24th day of December and with the festivities, a freshly-slaughtered goat, and most importantly, Selby coming home, the mood is just right for a celebration. Tawanda hears the bus coming around the station and covers the goat’s carcass hastily to go and meet his brother. Selby is unrecognizable as he descends from the bus. On their way home, the two stop several times for him to catch a breath. Back at home, dogs have torn the goat into pieces and as the two brothers stare at the remains, Selby hints to Tawanda that he has AIDS. The narrator faints in shock. On waking up, his mother has left to find medicine for Selby, never to return. Selby dies five days later with Tawanda and other family members by his side.

The goat, which Chinhanhu mentions right from the onset is symbolic of two key things in the story. First, it symbolizes Selby’s prosperity and subsequent illness. In literature, the goat animal often represents abundance, wealth, and prosperity. From his prefect position in school to getting a scholarship and later flying to London, there is no debate that Selby is destined for success. This coincides with the narrator’s joy in the opening paragraph when he says,

“Nothing, absolutely nothing in this world could beat the sweet, joyful anticipation that filled my soul at my big brother’s homecoming”

Here, the goat represents excitement and abundance in joy but this changes as the plot takes shape. On arrival from the bus station with his brother, Tawanda finds the goat’s carcass’s eaten up to pieces, just like how the virus has torn Selby’s body that he is nearly unrecognizable. Notice that the author mentions AIDS and the dogs eating the goat in subsequent sentences.

The goat could also symbolize a society that has carelessly and haphazardly shunned discussions on sex among its members, especially young people. This includes the nun’s reaction and remarks upon finding a group of boys playing with a condom, the school’s extreme decision to nearly expel Selby for the same offense, his mother’s reaction of the incident, the peering crowds at the bus station, and more. Thus, it is rather ironic for the same members to be surprised when they find out that the outcome of this attitude is the rise of a sexually-, among others, transmitted disease among young people. Chinhanhu integrates this irony ingeniously for communities to reflect on their rules, attitudes, and beliefs, and determine whether they hinder AIDS education efforts.

The author also uses a deeply ironic title that intensifies the pain experienced by people who lose their loved ones to AIDS. The title ‘Our Christmas Reunion’ suggests a happy gathering among friends and families to reconnect during the merry Christmas season. On the contrary, the friends and families who gather at Tawanda’s home have come to bid goodbye to a dying Selby. The stark contrast and sudden change of events from celebratory to sad shows the magnitude of the effects of AIDS and how it can easily tear families apart.

I like to mention the aspects that make me fall in love with the stories that I share here and for this one, it is how Chinhanhu manages to introduce and sustain the love and bond between the two brothers. Even on the deathbed, Tawanda does not leave his brother’s side and I am certainly right to say that the connection is moving from the beginning to the end.

At the time of publishing this book, communities in South Africa were still struggling to deal and live with a disease they knew so little about. However, there has been massive awareness and enlightening on the risk factors, causes, prevention measures, and living positively with AIDS. Yet, the rate of new infections is still at a worrying high with more than 4,000 new infections per week as of 2018.

The AIDS Foundation of South Africa (AFSA) is doing a great job by implementing strategies that address the social and structural drivers of HIV/AIDS by integrating interventions into a broader sexual and reproductive health framework. Show your support by Being The Change.

What are your thoughts and questions on Our Christmas Reunion by Edward Chinhanhu? Let me know in the comment section.

Photo by Peter Lloyd on Unsplash

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