DIANE DE BEER
An Untold Zulu Story: Eyes in the Night by Nomavenda Mathiane (Bookstorm)
It’s been fascinating in the world of books, especially of late, to watch people find their voices to tell their stories. It’s about taking ownership of something that has always been their own but for some reason, was told by others.
That’s why the lead-in title to this particular book, is such a fascinating one: An Untold Zulu Story.
Nomavenda Mathiane is a journalist and that’s probably why her mother gave her daughter, hér mother’s pass book and asked her to reconstruct the photograph because it was the only picture she had.
Being a journalist, Mathiane did much more than that. At her mother’s funeral, she asked the firstborn in the family, Sis Ahh (short for Albertinah) why her mother had never talked about their grandmother, her mother? “It’s because her mother’s story was filled with too much drama, regret, guilt and finally, triumph. That’s why she didn’t speak about her mom,” said her sibling who, because of circumstances, had been raised by her grandmother.
Naturally that piqued the journalist’s news sense and her book was launched. But that makes it sound simple.
Making her task even more difficult, she expected her elderly sister to remember their Gogo’s exact words – no mean feat. “So I wrote as best I could, sticking to Gogo’s voice as told by my sister,” she explains the process.
It’s a remarkable story. It is the year 1879, when her gogo was forced to grow up faster “than she could shout her name. That year was the one in which we experienced events and encounters that no one, particularly a child, should ever witness. It was also the year my people lost everything – their land and their fields – and were reduced to being vagrants and beggars in the land of their birth.”
And with this her grandmother’s story begins: “I am the daughter of Mqokotshwa Makhoba, one of King Cetshwayo’s generals.”
It captures a time and a place where most (if not all) of the stories are told from the men’s (those fighting) point of view. So we will know the names of the Zulu kings and the British generals but not that of the women and children who simply slipped through the cracks – with their stories untold.
And talking of the battles, her gogo wasn’t exactly there, so these were muddled says the journalist. “I would have to refer to historical books to see which battle could have been fought in mid-winter for example,” she explains. “So oral history has its challenges.”
But that is also why this story is so important. It gives Mathiane and thus her readers an opportunity to learn about Zulu history as told by the ordinary people she and her sister met as they tried to piece together the information. They also learnt about the grand life Zulu people lived in those days. “Can you imagine an ordinary person owning 60 cattle and 100 goats. Someone described one of King Cetshwayo’s generals, Sihayo, saying his homestead sprawled as far as the eyes could see.”
She learnt more about the trials and tribulations of kings such as Cetshwayo, Mpande and Dinuzulu. “So much is written about King Shaka and very little about the other kings. It makes my blood boil. But then, come to think of it, how much do we know about King Sekhukhuni who was a powerful king of the BaPedi people who lived around the same time as King Cetshwayo? Black writers have a job ahead of them of writing about our past,” she admonishes.
She’s right. The way she tackled this particular story gives insight into a woman and a time that is invaluable and probably impossible to find any other way. Her grandmother was an ordinary woman, a child, when the war began. She and her family lost everything and she eventually had to make her own way and a new life in an extremely hostile world. Few of us would have survived, but she did and lived to tell the tale – gloriously.
Without this being a book about land issues, it is underlying throughout and for those who have never had to deal in this kind of loss, it is a very personal account of how it affects people, their lives, past, present and future. In today’s world, this is invaluable information, we all need to embrace.
When Mathiane sent her story to publishers, they initially said the writer’s voice was missing, and while she at first resisted, it meant that to rectify this, she introduced chapters of how the story was in fact recounted and written, how she quizzed and teased the information out of her sister, and why she says oral histories are problematic.
That they might be, but in this instance, it worked miraculously. Her mother obviously knew what she was doing when she sowed that little seed because as a journalist, Mathiane didn’t only know how to write the story but also knew how to get to it.
That’s the glory of this amazing tale of a young child ripped from her home and later her family and what it took for her to survive. And then, have a granddaughter who shares her story with the world.
What a rich heritage she has uncovered.