Tag Archives: community

After Tears by Niq Mhlongo

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after-tears

Niq Mhlongo has a wonderful knack of writing about important themes with a light hand and wicked wit. After Tears is no exception; I find myself switching between laughing out loud, wringing my hands, hurting and being appalled. He is not afraid to show the worst of people yet this is done with an affectionate touch as well as insight into the context of their actions.

Bafana, the ostensible protagonist of the novel, returns from Cape Town in November 1999, without having passed his law degree. He is met at Park Station, Johannesburg, by his uncle and three friends. Before he is able to divulge the bad news, Uncle Nyawana or Jabu, who calls him Advo, is already attempting to trade on his future success, a fait accomplit as far as Uncle is concerned. Bafana also fails to be honest with his mother and tells her the results have been withheld due to non-payment. She decides to sell their house to pay the fees and Bafana is stuck in his lie. Throughout the rest of the novel, this action sinks him into an ever-deepening hole from which he cannot extricate himself without further lies.

Despite Bafana’s actions driving the narrative, I refer to him as the ostensible protagonist, because he has so little agency. His role in the novel is as a foil to the other characters. He is merely buffeted about by the decisions that others make. The uncle and his three friends, dominate the novel. They are brilliantly characterised both in descriptions and through their dialogue. The funniest thing is that Uncle has a dog called Verwoerd who he regularly tells to ‘voetsek’,  a stroke of genius. He has one leg because he was pushed off a train when trying to steal a woman’s money and he plays fah-fee, using dreams to determine which numbers to play. His three friends, Zero, PP and Dilika are respectively a taxi driver, a carjacker and a teacher. If you want to understand what rape culture is, these four men typify it. According to Zero, “there’s a minimum of five chicks for every dick in Soweto”. Their reprehensible behaviour is counterpointed by Bafana’s Mama and her friend, Zinhle, who do their best to curtail them. Mama warned Bafana that “in Zero and PP’s universe, a man was a man according to the number of ladies he was dating.”

Although it is shocking to read about the way women are objectified, abused and disrespected, it is important that topics which are not often spoken about openly, are exposed in this novel. There are many women that have to endure this treatment, some who do not even realise it is wrong.

Another theme in the novel, is the fraught housing situation. John Sekoto visits Mama to inform her that he is laying claim to the house as he is the rightful owner. This creates a furore in the family especially as Mama is trying to persuade the other family members to allow her to sell. This reveals the different family traditions as elders have to be consulted but also exposes some RDP housing scams.

Soweto is brought to life by the characters and their daily lives. The reader rollicks from Christmas to New Year festivities until brought back to earth by a funeral. These events are vividly represented and add to the sense of authenticity engendered by the writer’s intimate knowledge of ekasi life. The older men often reference apartheid laws and conventions with cynical humour. At the ‘after tears’, PP complains that AVBOB is chosen as the funeral service; when Bafana says he thinks they have handled it well, PP explains:

Look at the name AVBOB itself. You know what it stands for? The name is an abbreviation for Almal Vrek Behalwe Ons Boere. These Afrikaners are here in the township to continue what they have been doing for centuries: killing abodarkie. The only difference is that these days they’re making a huge profit out of it because they kill you today and bury you tomorrow.”

Everyone laughs; it is funny and it expresses things that are truths to them. The corruption in which so many are steeped is linked to the way people had to survive under apartheid. This point is not hammered home but the link is clear.

These are real people muddling through life as best they can; in this novel the dichotomy of family life reminds us that the ones we love are not always saints, that life in Soweto is tough but vibrant and that though humour is often laced with uncomfortable truths, laughter is the best medicine.

The Fisherman by Chigozie Obiama

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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.