Nancy Farmer

A Girl Named Disaster

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A Girl Named Disaster Summary

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Nancy Farmer’s debut novel, A Girl Named Disaster (1996), won a Newbery Honor and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. It is a coming of age story told within the context of developing the qualities necessary for survival and the role of spirituality in life.

Nhamo, a young girl from a small village in Mozambique, eventually runs to Zimbabwe. When she was a baby, her mother was killed by a leopard. Since then, she has been raised by her Aunt Chipo. Chipo does not like her niece and puts her to work doing the most difficult chores, such as collecting firewood and pounding corn. Chipo has a daughter named Masvita who is Nhamo’s age but is asked to do much less work. Masvita is nice to Nhamo, but still, Nhamo is jealous of her, especially when she passes into womanhood first and receives the traditional celebration that accompanies that milestone event. Just after this rite, the village is stricken with cholera. Nhamo’s grandmother Ambuya explains that the disease is caused by tainted water, while others in the village believe it is the result of witchcraft. Many grow sick and many die. Masvita is hit especially hard by the illness. Uncle Kufa, Masvita’s father, seeks the advice of a specialist, or muvuki, to learn the cause of the disease and to seek help for Masvita.

Villagers, including Nhamo, go to see the muvuki at the trading post, but he cannot see them immediately. One night, Ambuya takes Nahamo to the trading post where she is surprised to see Ambuya drink beer. Joao, a Portuguese trader, is troubled by Nhamo’s name which he realizes means disaster. Ambuya tells of Nhamo’s background. Her mother was married to a lazy drunk named Proud Jongwe who refused to pay the expected bride price for Nhamo’s mother because he was Catholic and not willing to abide by pagan rituals. He abandoned Nhamo’s mother while she was pregnant after being involved in a serious brawl, which left a man dead. This is the first time Nhamo has heard the story. She had always held out hope that one day her father would come and arrange her bride price when she reaches womanhood, but that she realizes will not happen. As the daughter of a murderer, she knows that she is worth far less than Masvita.

As Ambuya finishes the story, the villagers are given an opportunity to meet with the muvuki, who seems to already know Nhamo’s story. He tells them that the epidemic of cholera is the result of the wandering spirit of the man who was killed by Nhamo’s father. Aunt Chipo, in the spirit’s voice, yells for justice to be done. The muvuki announces that it is Nhamo’s life that must be used to extract justice. To achieve this, she is to marry the brother of the man who was murdered. Ambuya does not agree to this but is threatened by the muvuki; she is stricken with a stroke. In the subsequent days, Nhamo tends to Ambuya’s health but is ignored by the other women. The man she is supposed to marry is diseased and has several wives. The arrangement made by the muvuki calls for no bride price, giving Nhamo no status in the society. It is likely that she will be mistreated by the man and his other wives and will never see her family again. Ambuya is the only one who might be able to help Nhamo, but since suffering the stroke, she has not spoken.

Meanwhile, Joao, the trader, and Rosa, his wife, feel that Nhamo, who is only eleven or twelve years of age, is too young to get married and offer to have her live with them. People of the village do not agree, but Joao says that since her father was Catholic, Nhamo cannot be given away in a pagan rite. Since the rituals are legal, Joao seeks the aide of some soldiers, but Uncle Kufa and the muvuki stop him and say he will be killed if he continues to interfere. Nhamo does not know about Catholic customs so finds herself feeling conflicted in the situation. All she can do is stay with her family and prepare for the marriage. Nhamo continues to nurse Ambuya back to health, and Ambuya is now much more aware of what is going on around her. The day before the marriage is to take place, she tells Nhamo to run to Zimbabwe and seek the family of her father. This plan frightens the young girl, but Ambuya explains that it is the only way.

Nhamo follows her grandmother’s instructions and steals a boat and supplies. She follows the river on the way to Zimbabwe. She deals with numerous threats from animals and grapples with passing from childhood to adulthood. The trip that should have taken two days by boat ends up taking a year. She battles hunger and continued threats from wildlife. She begins speaking with spirits to gain advice and to deal with being alone. When she ultimately reaches Zimbabwe she lives with some scientists before meeting her father’s family. Fitting into a modern society and letting go of the evil spirits that possess her according to the muvuki become new challenges for Nhamo.

Publishers Weekly praised Farmer’s work for the various aspects of the culture it incorporates. “Farmer overlays this suspenseful tale with a rich and respectful appreciation of Nhamo’s beliefs. Without slowing the pace or changing her tone, she interpolates folktales that illuminate Shona culture; she also casts Nhamo’s ordeal in terms of the spirit world, so that Nhamo confronts not just wild animals but witches, and communes not just with memories but with ancestral spirits. Nhamo herself is a stunning creation—while she serves as a fictional ambassador from a foreign culture, she is supremely human. An unforgettable work.”