Monthly Archives: April 2016

And They Didn’t Die by Lauretta Ngcobo


and they didn't die.PNG

Jazile is the heroine of this historical novel, set in a rural area near Ixopo. Heroine is a word that is not often used these days. We speak of protagonists and narrators. Perhaps it is an archaic word as hero is now used for both genders. Nevertheless, I feel the need to reclaim it to describe Jezile. She is brave and principled; she fights for what she believes in; she is also sometimes timid and naive but she overcomes herself and struggles against great odds to survive. I greatly admire her and all the women she represents.

The novel is set mainly in the late 50s to early 60s; the time when black women were resisting being forced to use passes. Prior to the 50s, black women had not been required to carry a pass. Jezile lives in the Sabelweni Valley; she is married to Siyalo who works in Durban. He sends money home to her but they only see each other in the December holidays which makes it very difficult for her to fall pregnant. MaBiyela, her mother-in-law, puts immense pressure on her by making constant comments about her barrenness. Their relationship is very strained but there is nothing Jezile can do because the culture demands that she must do MaBiyela’s bidding. She has no idea how to handle this hostility so retreats into silence. She wants to go to Durban to be with Siyalo so that she can fall pregnant but for that she needs a pass. The women of the area have all agreed that they will not comply and will not apply for passes.

They have regular meetings and Nosizwe is the main spokesperson and ringleader. She is a doctor and is knowledgeable about the apartheid laws. She communicates all this to the women; how the system is designed to drive them further into poverty; how all the so-called Betterment Schemes do not help them at all; how the land and cattle issue is also designed to destroy them; how their own chiefs are being used against them to divide the communities. The inside story of the 1956 Women’s March is thrilling.  The writer uses the speeches of Nosizwe and others to tell the history of the time. These speeches can be a little didactic and I could not help but wonder if the speeches would have been quite as formal and content-rich in reality. However this flaw is compensated by the atmosphere that is generated. The description of the women singing hymns passionately, praying together with emotion, all the while being watched  by white policeman is powerful.

Jezile’s struggle continues through protests and prison, drought and despair. It epitomises that of all rural women as they fight the oppressive white government but are also incapacitated by the patriarchal culture. This renders them voiceless in different ways but does not weakens their resolve. Their imaginary lives are as real as the historical context in which the story is placed. Despite the grim reality of everyday life there are glorious moments of love and passion between Jezile and Siyalo. The solidarity between the women transports the reader into an energetic mass of singing and praying.

Anyone who wants to understand why the land issue today is still crying out to be resolved need look no further than this novel. The land that was essential to their livelihoods and way of life was grabbed by the implementation of unjust laws and the collusion of chiefs imposed on the communities. It is one thing to read this in a dry, dusty article but when brought to life through fiction, it cannot help but move the reader. In the same way, it is hard to read of the cruelty and inhumanity meted out to people by the apartheid police and officials but this is our tainted past. Not to be denied.

Malikhanye by Mxolisi Nyezwa



Malikhanye is a poetry collection. I stumbled across it at Adams book shop sale. I paged through it and was instantly captured. I have mixed feelings about poetry; it can be so dense and opaque that I am lost; the words bounce against my brain and collapse back in an incomprehensible heap. These poems however penetrate my mind and my emotions like moisture in the air.

Malikhanye means ‘let it shine’, a beautiful name in itself. It is also the name given to his son who died at the age of 3 months. The poems in the third section express feelings of loss and grief.

Many of the poems, to some extent, express loss, grief and bewilderment though there are some that express love and yearning. The way he juxtaposes the ethereal and the concrete, the natural world and the modern world widens the crack between conscious and unconscious thought. Love and violence, tenderness and cruelty – the human condition captured but not caged.

‘To know you’ is one of my favourites; it expresses all the ways in which the narrator wants to know the loved one. This is a small sample:

i want to know you like a frightened man / like a comma / in a book / with no green shops / no drunken heroes / with three hundred smoking letters / with simple phrases

i want to know you like a woman of indeterminate curves / and simple sighs / and glorious angles  /to eat you like bread

The poet uses the first person but never capitalised; does this denote a universal ‘i’ or is it another way of expressing how small and helpless he feels on this inexplicable world we live in?

Who of us have not wondered this?

i want to know how the sea flows / how the winds blow / and how love is abandoned / why things have to happen like this / oh! so over and over again 

Haunting and mesmerising, lyrical – find this collection if you can.



The Fisherman by Chigozie Obiama


the fishermen

Four brothers, ranging in age from 15 down to 9, are drawn to the forbidden river which the community has deemed dangerous. They fish there every day; fishing consumes them; they talk about being fisherman; they compose songs about it and they do not care about anything else. This simple boyish adventure results in tragic consequences.

The story is narrated from Ben’s point of view and takes place in the mid-nineties. He looks back on his 9 year old self, two decades later and realises that it all went wrong for the family when their disciplinarian father was transferred from Akure in the west of Nigeria to Yola in the north, 1000 kms away. Much as their mother begged him to take the family along because she doubted her ability to manage without him, he refused. He was concerned because historically the area was known for violence against their tribe, the Igbo tribe.

A neighbour discovered that the boys had been fishing at the Omi-Ala river which is thought by the community to be dangerous and is even under a curfew. She reported this to their mother who was “deeply shaken by her ignorance despite living in the same house”. She castigates them in English as a sign of her ire and when their father returns she breaks the news to him. He is furious and they are severely whipped. It seems an over-reaction until you understand that his fury is due to the aspirations he has for his sons; he has designated a career to each of them and is giving them a Western education to this end.

This beating sets off a spiral of revenge because Ikenna, the eldest boy,  the one who they all look up to, the one who is their leading light insists that Iya Iyabo, the women who reported them is punished. The predictions of Abulu, the madman who roams around naked and performs bizarre actions in public,  are also plaguing Ikenna. This creates a rift between him and the other brothers. He becomes disobedient, suspicious and violent until they realise that the Ikenna “who was once their brother had been bottled in a tightly sealed jar and thrown into an ocean.” The inevitable happens but the nature of its unfolding both shocks and surprises the reader.

In telling the story of this family’s descent into horror, the writer interweaves aspects of Nigerian politics into the narrative such as the brothers having a chance meeting with MK Abiola. The tension between contemporary life and traditional beliefs is a strong theme as evidenced by Ikenna’s belief in the madman’s prophecy. Community life exaggerates the impact of such beliefs, characterised as it is by gossip, exaggeration and close living quarters.

The dialogue is colourful and reflects the idiom of their indigenous languages, in particular morals, fables and specific turns of phrase. This can also be amusing as the parents use idioms and then explain what they mean lest the boys take them literally. Another aspect of the novel that is very pleasing is the way it is structured. Each chapter introduces a specific theme and is named after creatures or objects from the natural world such as eagles, snakes, locusts or leeches. These creatures personify a particular quality in a character or provide a rack on which to hang the theme of the chapter. This gives the novel a rhythm and structure  which is comforting and gives the reader a sense of the familiar.

This has all the elements that make novels by African writers so appealing; lyrical, idiomatic language; a society still squirming under the influence of Westernisation; an experience of all the senses and a compelling plot.


The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah


The Beautyful Ones

This novel was published in 1968, shortly after the coup in Ghana in which Nkrumah’s government was overthrown. The unnamed protagonist is disillusioned and disappointed at the endemic corruption after independence had promised so much. He refuses to engage in corrupt practices so falls further and further behind in the game of life. Parallels with our situation in South Africa are inescapable where a very high percentage of the population live in poverty. Apartheid is dead but its structures live on and the government seems unwilling to tackle this head-on.

The novel is bleak and depressing as well as being quite a grind because of the denseness of the language and the minute details that are painstakingly described. Despite this, it is an important and beautifully written text. The stench of decay is palpable to the degree that you will block your nose while reading. Excrement is both a metaphor for the stink and mess of corruption and a fact of life. Nothing is as much an indicator of poverty like access to flushing toilets. The communal latrine outside the man’s home features in many different situations.

The man also has to bear scorn from his own family who cannot understand why he will not jump on the bandwagon; he has to bear the resentment on their faces when he comes home every day and therefore often escapes to Teacher, his confidante, who does not engage in life at all but lies on his bed, naked, in a darkened room. His nakedness speaks of someone who has nothing to hide in stark contrast to Koomson, his childhood friend, who is portly and overdressed. Koomson is part of the government and lives in a fancy apartment with a snooty wife and Westernised children. It is a strange phenomenon that when a person is true to themselves and goes against the grain of society, that person is seen as the immoral one or as the uncooperative, rude one who is making everything in life difficult.

The novel is rich in symbolism and imagery. A simple touch of the banister by the man leads to a detailed description of its genesis, why it feels so repulsive, the people who had held on to it and what they had been doing with their hands before holding on to it. It is visceral and tactile;  a remarkably skilled use of language. One of the most evocative images in the book is the chichidodo bird; this is a bird that “hates excrement with all its soul. But the chichidodo only feeds on maggots, and you know the maggots grow best inside the lavatory.” A Ghanaian mythical bird denoting a typical Catch-22 situation before anyone had even heard of Catch-22. The man’s wife, Oyo, says he himself is the chichidodo when he speaks of the life of his friend as having more “rottenness in it than the slime at the bottom of a garbage dump.”

The element of Afro-pessimism in the novel is undeniable as he asks, “How long will Africa be cursed with its leaders?…we were ready here for big and beautiful things, but what we had was our own black men hugging new paunches scrambling to ask the white man to welcome them onto our backs.” Looking back from 2016, we can see that this is not only an African problem; politicians are corrupt the whole world over. However it is exacerbated in Africa because of colonialism-created poverty. In my opinion, this reinforces the need for the decolonisation project; then and now.

The deliberate mis-spelling of the title is another intriguing question; is the distortion of beauty in Africa by corrupt practices represented by the subversion of the spelling? is it a recognition that the cycle will repeat itself until there is re-birth? is it a subversion of the English language itself because of its association with the previous oppressors as well as the black elite who aspire to whiteness? Read it and decide for yourself.