Precious Lives Interrupted Yet Never Silenced in Stories Sensitively Shared

DIANE DE BEER

These three books all deal with children who have lost their mothers and how that influenced their lives:

BK girl

 

 

 

The Girl with the Louding Voice

  by Abi Daré (Sceptre):

“I tell you true, the day I stop school and the day my mama was dead is the worst day of my life.”

And that sentence explains  what is to follow in the 14-year-old Adunni’s life. Her mother is the one who paid both to keep her at school and the exorbitant rent for their house.

But since her death, Adunni has become a valuable commodity. In fact, her life amounts to four goats, two bags of rice, some chicken and a new TV, as she is sold as the third wife to an old man. With a dedication to the author’s mother (the first female professor of taxation in Nigeria) and someone who promoted the importance of education and sacrificed so much that her daughter could get the best of it; and a prologue that points to Nigeria as the 6th largest crude oil exporter in the world (and with a GDP of $568.5 billion, the richest country in Africa, yet with 100 million people who live in poverty surviving on less that a $1 a day) that’s who this story deals with, one of the many young girls who become the sole provider for their family, not by choice but because they don’t have any.

Whatever your level of interaction with the rest of Africa, we have all heard of the plight of the Boko Haram girls who were abducted. Some will never be returned to their families, while those who do are often rejected, with the children forced upon them by their vicious captors.

Think about those 16 year-old girls kidnapped by the marauding monsters only to be blamed on their return at a time when being a teenager should be your only worry. It’s the kind of book that hopefully opens new worlds and reminds you how lucky we are to have the luxury of only discovering this kind of terror in a book.

I loved the story and the writing. It’s a unique voice, as so many from Africa are.

 

bk crawdads

 

Where the Crawdads Sing

by Delia Owens (Corsair)

Kya was only six when her mother walked out on the family. In the following few weeks, an older brother and two sisters also drifted off and Kaya was left with her favourite brother Jodie and her drinking dad.

Jodie didn’t last that long and neither did her father, only a few more years. By the time she approached her teens, without any schooling, neither writing nor reading, she was on her own living in their shack in the marsh on the edge of Barkley Cove.

Not only had this young girl been deserted by her entire family, the town also rejected her and she had no one to turn to. Dumped on by everyone who saw her as the Marsh Girl, she was laughed out of school, her only resource the marsh and its embracing flora and fauna that taught her about life.

It reads like a modern-day folktale, almost too far-fetched to hold on to and yet, we all know the Kyas of the world, those living on the edge, some who manage to get ahead in spite of the struggle and the way the world has turned its back on them.

The author Delia Owens has three internationally best-selling non-fiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa including Cry of the Kalahari, and this is her debut novel, which is probably why it has such an almost naive yet wondrously unique voice.

It’s beautifully written and takes you to another world as Kya tries to face a world that keeps turning its back on her.

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The Dutch House

by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury)

From the time that Danny and Maeve’s mother leaves home – and this time doesn’t come back – their lives are about longing, which is very closely linked to the Dutch House.

“Like swallows, like salmon, we were helpless captives of our migratory patterns. We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father.”

And thereby hangs the tale in a fascinating story that is viewed from many different perspectives, all of this packaged with a delicious caricature of the evil stepmother at the centre. But this isn’t her story.

Patchett is a familiar name but this is the first of her novels I have read and from the first page just loved the writing. It’s clean yet charming, shows an insight that is uncanny and hitches your heart to the characters whose lives have been thrown into a storm that is beyond their means and abilities to deal with – yet they do.

Because the brother and his older sister are dealing with the same trauma, it’s also intriguing to see how they deal with their loss, abandonment and sheer misery of what they have to come to terms  with in their upended circumstances.

It has to do with age and gender, how a mother’s absence plays into their lives and how they deal with these emotions – whether it is anger or longing that lingers most strongly. The older daughter might find it difficult to resist clinging to old feelings because there are clear memories to return to time and again, while the younger brother might be more broody and resentful about a mother leaving her children still so young.

Yet it is these close family ties that are tied up and thrown about in different scenarios to see how they play out.

And in the end, although all three the books hold a certain longing from those who have lost what is one of their most impactful relationships, it is also the different voices, the way the authors tell their stories and their writing, that is finally quite extraordinary in all three.

I will certainly want to read more by Patchett who has quite a resumé, but am also hopeful that the other two writers will keep writing following these brilliant debut attempts.

The First Klein Karoo National Arts Festival Virtual Gallery Is Visual Feast

DIANE DE BEER

KKNKBarbara Wildenboer in die 3D Virtuele Galery 2
Festival Artist Barbara Wildenboer in the 3D Virtual Gallery 2

 

The arts have been reeling from Covid19 from the word go especially as it all began locally right at the start of the festival season when many artists earn the bulk of their bread and butter money.

It’s been a frantic scramble for artists to find a way to function in this new world and as many of us realise, this (which we don’t yet understand in its fullest) is the new normal. Awful phrase, but we might as well get used to it because it is what it is and even though Donald Trump is trying his best to ignore the many dying from the virus, the whole world has had to reinvent and find a way to start functioning again.

In the arts, it has been fascinating to watch because this is what artists do – they reinvent themselves – but for some like visual artists, it is perhaps an easier process. They’re not quite as dependent on live audiences in close proximity as actors and musicians for example.

With this in mind, the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK) was quick to react.

Their festival, which would have been held at the end of March, like all those following, had to be cancelled and they are still scratching their heads about how to proceed in the future.

KKNK Barbara Wildenboer in die 3D Virtuele Galery
Barbara Wildenboer in the 3D Virtual Gallery

But what became pretty obvious fairly soon was that they could create a virtual art gallery of the 11 exhibitions which were on their way to Oudtshoorn just as the festival was closed down.

“We are extremely excited to launch the first Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK) Virtual Gallery, where art enthusiasts from all over the world will now have the opportunity to engage with the festival’s visual arts exhibitions,” explained Hugo Theart, Artistic Director of the KKNK.

Theart says the festival has built a reputation for its extraordinary visual arts exhibitions over two decades and this year has encouraged them to take the virtual leap. “Although the cancelation of the 2020 festival due to the current Covid-19 pandemic remains a great disappointment, we are excited about this new digital experience”, he says.

And that’s exactly the thing. In this new world artists have to get creative and find new ways to do their work.

KKNK Usha Seejarim Nesting installation SMAC Gallery Photo Credit Zivani Matangi (002)
Usha Seejarim Nesting installation SMAC Gallery. Photo: Zivani Matangi.

As chance and luck should have it, their brand-new visual arts curator, Dineke van der Walt, is young and probably grew up in a digital world. She was excited about the possibilities of this virtual gallery and says that in the future it can only get better. What it does is allow an international as well as local audience to visit this year’s art contribution with the theme Down to Earth.

KKNK Maryna Cotton and Sarel van Staden, MeerKat, Exhibition Karoo Stories
Maryna Cotton and Sarel van Staden, MeerKat, Exhibition: Karoo Stories

According to Van der Walt, art can be viewed and bought directly in the Virtual Gallery. “Festivalgoers, art enthusiasts and collectors now have the opportunity to roam the digital halls of our visual arts programme, viewing the splendour of 11 exhibitions without the crowds. The offering includes works from 45 artists and more than 200 artworks”, she explains.

And she’s not exaggerating. Even though the exhibitions weren’t created with the digital space in mind, the curator and artists have been extremely creative, finding a unique way to show the work in a way that works specifically with each individual exhibition.

KKNK Sbongiseni Khulu The Creation of Famine Exhibition Another Kind of Blue Curator Amé Bell David Krut Projects (002)
Sbongiseni Khulu: The Creation of Famine Exhibition: Another Kind of Blue; Curator Amé Bell, David Krut Projects

Running through the different exhibitions, Van der Walt points to a few talented young curators, including Amé Bell, Tammy Langtry, Tlotlo Lobelo and Suen Muller. “Artists include Usha Seejarim, Lisl Barry, Manyaku Mashilo, Strijdom van der Merwe, Heidi Fourie, Linda Ballen, Zhi Zulu, Olivia Botha, Ronél de Jager, JP Hanekom, Keneilwe Mokoena, Maryna Cotton, Sarel van Staden, Owen Claassen, Vincent Osemwegie and Nanette Ranger – as well as a collaborative exhibition between Jenna Burchell, Jaco van Schalkwyk and Wayne Matthews”, she says.

She notes that artworks by three young artists from Oudtshoorn are also presented by the Absa Gallery. Colin Meyer, Zietske Saaiman and Earlyn Cloud.

KKNK Barbara Wildenboer, Festival Artist Portrait with Pareidolia series
Barbara Wildenboer, Festival Artist Portrait with Pareidolia series

 

 

 

“A highlight of this project is a remarkable retrospective of this year’s festival artist, Barbara Wildenboer,” Van der Walt explains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Translating exhibitions which were planned for very specific brick and mortar spaces to the digital sphere proved to be specifically challenging,” she notes. A particular struggle was to find the best way to showcase installations as well as an interactive “sound painting”. “Due to the immersive and interactive qualities of these works, they are designed to be experienced by bodies in spaces,” she says.

“I also wanted to make sure the virtual rooms didn’t feel too empty and therefore thought it best to make as much information as possible available around the artworks and the exhibitions. The inclusion of the audio walkabouts also really helped to add voices to the spaces and give visitors accessible information delivered by the respective curator or artist. I enjoyed adding these different voices talking about their exhibitions in their own words – it helps add personality to each exhibition.

“I’m very interested in utilising curatorial strategies to effectively engage audiences and throughout the process tried to keep in mind how visitors might move in the space, and what could be included to facilitate a pleasant experience in the virtual gallery. I realised that different visitors might prefer different modes of viewing work online, and subsequently tried to include more than one way to access the work.”

And this is what I find particularly fascinating. Often at festivals, we don’t have an abundance of time to go through the different galleries and I find myself limited in the viewing experience because I haven’t done enough of homework.

KKNK Jenna Burchell, Sound portrait - Wayne Matthews in F Minor, Exhibition - A Land I Name Yesterday, Barnard Gallery
Jenna Burchell, Sound portrait – Wayne Matthews in F Minor, Exhibition – A Land I Name Yesterday, Barnard Gallery

Van der Walt has gone out of her way to make sure the exhibitions become alive with a fount of information to dip into.

She has also included a visitor’s book in an attempt to help put faces (“or rather names”) to the visitors, as a way to allow exhibitors and artists a form of interaction with their viewing audience.

“I enjoyed confronting my preconceived ideas of what curatorial strategies should and could be and considering what form presenting exhibitions might take when it solely exists digitally.

“It’s been a wonderful learning curve for me, especially working on creative ways to attract visitors and create a new exhibition experience. Because I don’t believe virtual exhibitions should merely try to imitate brick and mortar exhibitions, it can be a unique curatorial method.”

KKNK Ronél de Jager In a quiet corner of the room Exhibition Vanishing Act Curator Suen Muller (002)
Ronél de Jager: In a quiet corner of the room; Exhibition: Vanishing Act; Curator Suen Muller

This is hugely exciting. The live experience can never be replaced by the digital world. It is important to play with the different strengths – not try to imitate, which is exactly what Van der Walt did.

She also pointed out that this had to happen after the fact. With this experience and (perhaps) in future doing both, the digital is simply going to go from strength to strength and enlarge rather than diminish future audiences.

“This initiative creates an important platform to visual artists to sell their work and generate an income from works that were created for the KKNK this year,” Theart says.

He adds that this will be the first of many exhibitions. “We believe this will become another KKNK institution which will add more value to our supporters and add more opportunities for visual artists in future.”

The first ever full scale KKNK Virtual Gallery is open at www.kknk.co.za  and can be viewed until 22 July 2020.

It’s truly a spectacular experience.

Anglo-Nigerian Author Bernardine Evaristo Soars With Girl, Woman,Other and Lands the 2019 Booker Prize

When reading and writing this review, the current #BlackLivesMatter had not yet started. But this time hopefully it will mean real change for people excluded from living real lives in their countries. Authors like Bernardine Evaristo will be celebrated for her writing alone and not for becoming the first black woman to win the celebrated Booker Prize. DIANE DE BEER tells more:

Book Girl, Woman, Other

 

When you find yourself in a world where much of what you write is seen as the general experience of a whole group that people feel you represent, telling stories could become difficult.

When you discover that while sharing the 2019 Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood, author Bernardine Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin) her eighth novel is also the first black woman to win this prestigious prize, the burden of finding an audience in a world that still operates according to labels becomes clear – especially in a world where books and reading are not everyone’s priority.

It’s a shame and hopefully in this time of lockdown across the world, many will discover how important and, more than anything, exciting it is to escape into a world that someone else has created for you. And while exhaling, also find that our similarities are as many as our differences and that’s what makes the world such a fascinating place.

As an introduction, her book sleeve states that the author is an Anglo-Nigerian writer of seven other books of fiction and verse fiction that explore aspects of the African diaspora: past, present, real, imagined. Her writing, it further embroiders, also spans short fiction, reviews, essays, drama and writing for BBC Radio. She is furthermore a professor of creative writing at Brunel University, London and vice chair of the Royal Society of Literature. She was made an MBE in 2009.

But probably in the world we live in, not winning the Booker Prize per se, but sharing it with Margaret Atwood has put her on the radar of many in the reading world. And reading this book as well as running through her credentials, it’s about time.

Small wonder she is also  listed as a literary activist for inclusion, has founded several successful initiatives, including Spread the Word, a writer development agency; The Complete Works, a mentoring scheme for poets of colour (between 2007 and 2017); and the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What is it that they say about women having to work so much harder? And then add to that women of colour…

That’s an exhausting CV, just reading it. But back to the winning novel. It’s densely populated with 12 different women of colour. This time they take central stage – and they are as varied as there are people. Young, old, cheeky, subservient (but not for too long), upstanding, rocking-the-equilibrium even further, wealthy, but most struggling as we would in real life, they fall in and out of love, some with the right folk, others not so much but all of them have dreams and are trying to reach them any way they can.

It all begins at the opening of a theatre production at London’s National Theatre (something Evaristo dabbled in) and their touch point is that in some way all of the featured characters have a link with this particular night.

Their stories are introduced in different chapters and some have crossovers while others not, yet the storytelling rambles on in a way that living a life or many different lives is wont to do. The interest is, of course, in the writing as much as the different tales that unfold, even though these are intriguing and engrossing.

As her CV suggests, Evaristo is no ordinary writer.  She uses no full stops and there’s a poetic flow to the writing and the way it has been printed which all make a strong statement in this exhilarating rich story.

More than anything it has to do with the stories being told. Again it is the cover sleeve that suggests that she is presenting a “gloriously new kind of history, for this old country: ever-dynamic, ever-expanding and utterly irresistible.” No wonder some boisterous characters powerful only in the world of politics are running scared and looking as hard as they can for laws that will prevent all this diversity.

Instead of embracing the energy and exuberance of multi-cultural worlds, they want to put a stop to it by shutting it down. How utterly sad.

Either way, for those of us – and in this country with all its richness in diversity, you can hardly ignore it – who embrace it, the colourful world that emerges and dominates is wonderfully challenging, constantly changing and usually a hub of creativity as different cultures cross-pollinate and stretch one another.

To give you a sense of what you may be stepping into:

At some point it’s Newcastle in 1905. A 10-year-old in an orphanage is dreaming of an African father she will never meet.

Cornwall 1953 and a young bride recently from Barbados realises that the man she is about to marry might not be the one.

In London 1980, Amma reigns supreme in her squat while setting out to demolish patriarchy with a new kind of feminist theatre.

Oxford 2008 finds Carole rejecting her background (Nigeria originally) to fit in at her new university.

Morgan who used to be Megan is visiting the 90-year-old Hattie in Northumberland in 2017. She is still fighting to retain her independence and missing her man every day.

And so the story goes. But it is about much more than just the lives of these women, even though their stories are what has to tell the story the author is intent on getting out there.

With writers like these being given prominence in whatever way, at some point we will stop paying attention to who is writing what and simply fall in love with the writing, the telling of stories and the easiest way to enrich and broaden what might otherwise be a very small world.

 

 

Author Jonny Steinberg writes Brilliantly about People that Matter in the Award-Winning One Day In Bethlehem

This is another of those books that could be titled #blacklivesmatter and it makes perfect sense that it was awarded the 2020 Recht Malan Prize for non-fiction. As is his nature, Jonny Steinberg perfectly captures this moment in time with his latest illuminating investigative writing. DIANE DE BEER reviews:

 

bk one dayOne Day In Bethlehem by Jonny Steinberg  (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

From the Harold Pinter inscription (A thing is not necessarily true or false; it can be both true and false) to the first sentence which states that the author, Jonny Steinberg, could have sworn that he had read the newspaper report that triggered this book in his office, he is at pains to make a point about memory and how people remember things.

Apart from the horrific life circumstances of most of the men featured in this book (they’re all black and tragically, that is the only explanation we still need in 2020), especially Fusi Mofokeng, who is the one focussed on in most detail and depth, he also searches for the truth and how this can be distorted through constant lifelong trauma.

For Fusi, a resident of Bethlehem, life has been tough. And even though he had a rough childhood, nothing could prepare him for what was going to happen to him on the eve of our new democracy – what should have been a time of freedom became a loss of life as he understood it.

The summary on the back page of the book captures it thus: A bakkie full of men armed with AK47s is stopped by two policemen on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the Free State. The men open fire on the policemen and, from that moment their lives are irrevocably changed. So too for Fusi Mofokeng, a resident of Bethlehem, who was not in the bakkie but happened to be the brother-in-law of one of the perpetrators. He and his drinking buddy, Tshokolo Mokoena, are accused of being accomplices and are tried, sentenced and jailed.

Jonny Steinberg_One Day In BethlehemAnd then begins Steinberg’s story in his exact, detailed style as he unravels the lives of those involved to get to the nub of the story but also to put you in the shoes of the people whose story is being told.

For most of the white privileged world, this is important because you still today have people saying in total ignorance that the playing field is level, for example. When you follow these lives, you quickly understand that for many people, in fact the majority in the world, this is simply not true and can never be.

When starting to interview especially the two men wrongfully accused and imprisoned for life (they served 19 years), Steinberg found that he struggled to connect with Tshokolo during the first evening and the notes he made were filled almost entirely with Fusi’s words. This is where he focused and why he persisted.

“During his years in prison, the world outside, he said,  slowly emptied of the people he loved.” Already you have a lump in your throat, and this is page 8. It is not an easy read yet as all Steinberg’s work, it is compelling. No one was more reluctant to read The Number, one of his earlier books dealing with prison gangs. It completely overwhelmed me and I have been a Steinberg disciple ever since.

And he does it again. He takes you into the lives of others and teaches you about a world, perhaps unknown and unfamiliar, and brings understanding and much more empathy than you might have had before for your fellow (sometimes world) citizens.

The detail he exacts from his subjects makes sense at the end as he gives you a particular life with specific circumstances, whether it is someone who is reluctant to be treated for Aids, dealing with the harshness of prison life or trying to come to terms with life imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit. That must be one of life’s most difficult battles and in a world where black men are viewed through the harshest of prisms, Steinberg is at pains to show how Fusi met some Samaritans along the way which gave him courage and confidence to fight for freedom at any cost.

One of those was a social worker in Kroonstad who spotted Fusi’s anger and helped him to understand that eventually it would kill him.

“It’s amazing to me that you are not angrier,” writes Steinberg about an early conversation with Fusi.

“’I was very angry,’ he replied. ‘I realised if I didn’t stop being angry, I was going to die…’

‘I was shown the connection by a warder, a very good man, a white man. His name was Steyn.’”

He took Steyn’s advice to heart and realised it was his only way out.

He wrote to everyone he could think of; officials in government, the ANC, the TRC (which rejected him for amnesty because he didn’t commit the crime) and the list went on. Finally he made contact with Jacques Pauw (or so he thought) and this hard-hitting journalist who uncovered so much of what has gone wrong in this country, decided to check the story of the two innocent life-long prisoners. At the time he headed the Wits Justice Project.

On his way to interview Jacques, Jonny reminisces: “Fusi’s is a tale one resists. One listens intently and thinks one has taken in the depth of it, but it is not so. For one does not want to walk in his shoes.”

And again he encapsulates in that one sentence the thing that gnaws at you throughout reading the book. How and why does this happen to people? And so often the very people who don’t have the means (and here I don’t even mean money) to do anything about their momentous dilemma.

As the book winds down, the author allows himself to speculate, to capture some emotional moments in prose that’s breath-taking. But he also wonders and philosophises about especially Fusi’s life and what would have become of him if this bakkie full of freedom fighters hadn’t stopped over for that dreadful day in Bethlehem.

 

It’s a fascinating and rewarding read. He has always had the power to tell stories – especially those set locally – that fling the doors wide open and allow us into a problem(s) while bringing understanding and depth to a news headline. Locally but also worldwide, we so easily accuse without empathy or understanding. This is a time to stand still and take stock and Steinberg’s insightful book is a powerful way to do that.

And it seems the time is right. Finally everyone seems to listen and hear that black lives matter.

Author Jeanne Goosen – a Woman of Wise and Wonderful Words – a Force of Nature

DIANE DE BEER

When author/poet/playwright Jeanne Goosen died at the beginning of June, a unique voice was silenced.

But fortunately with writers, they do leave their voices behind and while Jeanne’s mother tongue was Afrikaans, one of her most acclaimed works, Ons Is Nie Almal So Nie, was translated into English by André P Brink who, in a twist of irony, had a few decades  before slated her first poetry book. This, in turn, had paused the publishing of any new anthologies for quite some time according to her biography.

So crushed was the young poet that, while still writing, she didn’t want the humiliating results on any further public display of her poetry.

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Author Jeanne Goosen

That’s who Jeanne Goosen was. She was one of the journalists at the interestingly staffed Oggendblad in Pretoria where I started my journalistic career in the ’70s and I was hooked. She was a storyteller and someone about whom stories were told – and still are.

Coincidentally, at the time of her death I had just started the Petrovna Metelerkamp biography Jeanne Goosen; ‘n Lewe Vol Sinne (Hemel en See Boeke) which I found absolutely fascinating. I knew enough about her to find an easy way in, but even though this book has been described as “skoongeskrop”, for those of us who didn’t  know Jeanne that well, there’s enough to form a very vivid picture of someone who lived her truth – even though most of her friends would agree that the going was tough.

bk elders

Having read a few of her works recently while also listening to a tribute production on RSG of Elders aan Diens with Luna Paige, Nicole Holm and a name I only recently encountered, Frieda van den Heever (who directed the most fantastic production at the recent Woordfees, Die Poet, Wie’s Hy?), it’s evident, while very funny and no holds barred, there’s always a tragic underpinning.

This is emphasised in an in memoriam former publisher Hettie Scholtz wrote for litnet of the gloriously wild and wonderful Jeanne (and with her kind permission I repeat):

In response to one of Jeanne’s short stories Hulle noem my Jean, she asked the author where she found the courage and she surprises her with the following lengthy quotation from Ania Brookner’s Look at me;

“When I feel swamped by my solitude and hidden by it, physically obscured by it, rendered invisible, in fact, writing is a way of piping up. Of reminding people I am here. And when I have ordered my characters, plundered my store of images, removed from them all the sadness that I might see in myself, then I can switch on the current that allows me to write so easily once I get started, and to make people laugh. That, it seems, is what they like to do. And if I manage this well enough and beguile all the dons and the critics, they will fail to register my real message, which is a simple one.

“If my looks and my manners were of greater assistance to me I could deliver this message in person. Look at me, I would say. Look at me. But since I am alone in this matter, I must use subterfuge and guile, and with a little bit of luck and good management this particular message will never be deciphered, and my reasons for delivering it in this manner will remain obscure.”

And now you begin understanding the melancholy, the willfulness and the discomfort in her own skin – always the outsider. But when you start reading Jeanne (in Afrikaans), it’s her understanding of the life she views from the sidelines, her determined and not unexpected iconoclastic view of the world in general, the frustration of even close friends because of an unpredictability that all come rushing through.

Hers was not an easy life to view but more than anything, a tough one to live when you read the biography.

And then she dies, a voice suddenly gone and the words are all around and they are magnificent. They always were, we just forget.

Apart from the biography which is a portrait of a true artist, an illuminating recent anthology Het Jy Geweet Ek Kan Toor (Hemel en See Boeke) as well as a book of stray sayings which the biographer couldn’t resist compiling titled Los Gedagtes (Hemel en See Boeke), a true gem and just for those non-Afrikaans speaking readers, I loosely translate a few that capture some of her truths. Metelerkamp notes that these were random phrases written down, the grammar unfixed, not filed according to topic, that highlight the amazing thought processes of a thinking artist:

Who wants a constructive relationship?

Stubborn women rule.

A postcard is an orgy in sepia.

All suffering is man-made.

Posthumously rehabilitated.

One eye is always completely open. It considers, watches, and sees the silliness of everything.

Food spiced with the blood of killers.

The cold and poverty of this winter was gruelling and humiliating.

To write is like dreaming while being awake. It’s like being a magician.

Writing is like having a love affair with death.

Life is energy and a head filled with facts.

Materialism is a kind of psychological ideology and a lifestyle.

Dead: If you are dead, you are dead and that is that. If you are alive, you are dead most of the time anyway.

Don’t overestimate people’s intelligence.

Death is life’s healing drug.

Perhaps I was Tchaikovsky in a previous life. But what did I do wrong that fate dumped me in Parow amongst these people who don’t understand anything?

Total independence. Total freedom.

I will eventually reach the truth if I keep on making notes.

His beard starts in his nose.

I fail in the human world. I should have become a nature conservationist.

And she goes on…gloriously so, sometimes so sad and sometimes hysterically funny.

As a young journalist, to watch her in action was spectacular. She was larger than life and even years later when I had to review Trudie Taljaard in Kombuis-blues, I could still hear Jeanne’s unique gravelly voice in my head. If she happened to cross your path, you remembered her.

Similarly with her writing and there’s so much more. If at all possible, try to read as much of her published works as well as the biography. Who she is and what she wrote is extraordinary.

And there’s so much more than can be captured here…. her passionate love for dogs and other animals; her love of music,  and ability to play piano and perform … and on and on.

If I could wish upon her star, cherish her words and honour the author. She deserved so much more.

Undercover with Mandela’s Spies Captures the Devastation but tells of Reclaiming a Life, Making a Difference

With the current tensions and peaceful resistance in the US (and now worldwide) following yet another police killing of an innocent black man, the insensitivity amidst all of this for example of a white sportsman trying to tell his black teammate why he should not dishonour the flag or his country by taking the knee, Bradley Steyn’s own battle with his privileged whiteness could not be more relevant

Bk Bradley Steyn

Bradley Steyn was still a teenager when he crossed Strijdom Square (at the time) to visit his mom at the State Theatre. His life exploded into the sharpest of tiny shards as he found himself centre of the horrific Barend Strydom massacre (with 8 black victims murdered and 16 injured) yet wasn’t targeted because of the colour of his skin. He tells DIANE DE BEER about the decades of trying to recover his splintered life:

Two journalists capture much of why Bradley Steyn’s book Undercover With Mandela Spies – The Story of the Boy Who Crossed The Square (Jacana) is such a mesmerising read if like me, you aren’t immediately drawn to yet another story about our past as told by a white man.

The first is Daily Maverick’s Marianne Thamm who writes about Bradley Steyn and his book: “Bradley Steyn’s book is not just a rollicking read full of testosterone-driven skop, skiet and donner, treachery and treason, it is also about a young white man’s gradual attainment of wisdom, of understanding how psychologically, emotionally and spiritually corrosive the idea of unreconstructed whiteness is.” (And I implore you to find this article at Daily Maverick and read it, as further proof that this is an illuminating read, as she does a wonderful piece, putting it all into its political context of the time – 1988).

And this concluding paragraph in journalist Ranjeni Munusamy’s column in a past Sunday Times:

“Ours is an impossible story: It began 25 years ago with the triumph over a system that forced us to hate ourselves and each other.We are and will always be a deeply damaged people. On our journey we lost our humanity and our values were eroded. We lost our national pride.Now begins a new era. Broken or conquered, we must find our way.”

These, in different ways, encapsulate Bradley Steyn’s story Undercover with Mandela’s Spies: The Story of the Boy who crossed the Square and the title is perhaps so much more vivid if you live in Pretoria where it all began.

And then, to further intrigue, there’s yet another catch phrase on the cover: Four sworn enemies. The MK ANC Spy team that infiltrated the heart of the apartheid regime.

And the preface begins with: “It’s been 30 years. It’s time I got over it.”

He is, of course, talking about that horrific day that impacted the rest of his life. “There was a court case,” he writes. “A killer got the gallows and was sent to Death Row. I saw what he did, saw him murder those people, but I survived. I got a job. I married. I had a child.” Survivor’s guilt is often what really survives – in these kinds of situations.

Bradley Steyn, who was only 17 years old at the time, was no different. In fact, nothing in his personal circumstances helped either – not because people are bad, but because they don’t know how to react, how best to help. That includes everyone from parents, to teachers, to friends.

He explains his own circumstances best: “But then like a cassette tape unraveling, everything suddenly snarled into a noise I didn’t recognise, and that life I had before just screeched to a halt. “The story of his world following the shooting on the square is how his life took on a life of its own.

“I had escaped physically unscathed, but the real damage lay within. I have never recovered emotionally.” He acknowledges that the post-trauma he suffered was hard on his parents, as his stress disorder intensified in the weeks that followed the slaughter.

“The desolation of not having the school principal or my teachers or the other children – except a couple of close friends – even acknowledge what had happened has remained with me to this day.” It’s a chilling sentence which captures the terror this young boy must have felt following the killing spree he was witness to – allowed to escape simply because of the whiteness of his skin.

That has been his battle and what propelled him into a life dictated mostly by the use of force as he found his life spinning into a routine of violence, seemingly the only thing he understood at the time.

“A child today would be given a time to heal, to be filled with fury, and then to dip and rise – whatever was needed,” he notes.

But there was nothing like that, not for any of the victims. His mind was left to rage with bedtime becoming hellish. It’s so typical of how white people in this country reacted to horror at the time, they turned away, brushed it aside and those directly affected, just had to cope. No one did.

And as he explains, the devastating after-shocks didn’t stop there. That was just the beginning. In desperation, his parents decided that the military might help to bring order to his chaotic life and it did, on the surface – but also honed all his skills for a way of life that led to him announcing the following resumé: Thug for hire. Highly qualified.

As he passed from being a bouncer at nightclubs to a life much darker and dangerous, he writes: “I was just a humble thug, a 19-year-old taken in by the lure of an undercover life where I could blow off the terrors inside my head without having to answer to anyone…the people I came across were often brutish, unafraid of blood and even death. That was the criminal underworld, and I guess I had been shifting more and more into that zone of absolute indifference because it fulfilled a need in me to shut off all emotion.”

From there he followed a short route into doing dirty work for the apartheid regime and at some point, was flipped to the other side, eventually fronting as a far-right fanatic to infiltrate an even scarier world which eventually led to him fleeing the country for his life.

 And finally my first reservations when handed the book, and I will again explain this courtesy of Marianne Thamm and journalist/author Janet Smith who was instrumental in the writing of this book:

Smith wrote about her first impressions: “If I was wary of supremacists – who didn’t hesitate to DM me with threats of slitting me open from top to bottom and rejoicing if I was gang-raped – I was cautious of Bradley at the get-go. I was affected by his experience as the boy who crossed the square, but I was immediately suspicious of everything else, especially the depth of his relationship with the ANC.”

She explained that while she was “moved by his having witnessed Strydom’s massacre, I felt he had to be that white male stereotype of a special kind that my generation of South Africans knows only too well. He would want to be ‘protected’ and treated as special in some way because he had always been told he was.”

Thamm in turn writes: “Smith’s sentiments echoed my own when I first picked up this remarkable book. Do we really need another damaged white person who finds redemption through black suffering and pain?”

And when reading the book, these are issues the author battles with himself and which makes this such an intriguing read. He had to come to terms with his demons. And the serious position he takes is underlined by the space of time elapsed since his life was turned on its head.

I love the way Steyn ended the book by giving the details of all the victims of that horrific Strydom Square nightmare, fortunately now with a powerful new name and that of a woman, Lilian Ngoyi; but also the details of the people who played a large part in his life.

It is a book that captures the devastation on so many levels of people living in this country during apartheid, but it also tells a story of reclaiming a life and making a difference, something which this country is also renowned for.

 

Pretoria Boys High’s Education Warrior Bill Schroder Tells A Headmaster’s Story

bk a headmaster's story

 

It’s a time to dip into books that you might not always get time for as one of the few good things of lockdown has been the gift of time. DIANE DE BEER reviews one such example:

 

 

 

 

 

As I don’t have children, schools have never loomed large in my adult life and, having had my own dose of prestigious same-sex schools in my youth, the traditions etc. don’t factor into my thinking.

But (full disclosure), as Bill Schroder is a family friend and I had listened to him speaking in general and more specifically about schools – also being a Pretoria inhabitant for the past 40 plus years – I was tempted to see what he had to say following his retirement (not that he has ever given up fundraising for his final alma mater).

And thus when starting with A Headmaster’s Story: My Life in Education by Bill Schroder (Jonathan Ball Publishers), it took a few chapters for me to fully engage. But once he grabbed hold of me, it was a fascinating read.

With the current pandemic, most people will have realised how vital frontline or essential workers are to all of our lives. These are the people who are taken for granted, held in little regard and paid extremely badly. With money being power in the world we live in, no wonder the teaching profession is not taken seriously.

And yet all of us go to school and we all know the impact those special teachers in our lives have on our future. They are the people who speak truth to power, who are intent on showing their pupils the things that count and who often steer us in a direction that we never thought was possible.

What we should never forget with these essential workers (and this is exactly what teachers and educators are) is that they are often driven by an overwhelming desire to do the best they can. It is a calling rather than a career and that’s why the good ones always rise to the top.

Once the young Schroder realises that what he wants to do is be a headmaster, to lead, and to do it his way, there’s no stopping him. He paid his dues and proved his mettle at schools that were write-offs in the community but he also learnt valuable lessons right through his teaching career from the day he started.

He is someone who knows and acknowledges when he could possibly have done better (a rare trait) in the competitive world of top schools where it is dog eats dog (as in any of these mini societies that are understood only by those who are part of them). To survive all the in-fighting and the struggle of getting it right is a feat in itself, especially if you are an outsider,  which in many instances is what he was.

But this is not where this headmaster lingers. He is much more intent on dealing with the way he did things and why he believes they work.

For the reader, it is clear that he had some blessings – his wife Cherry the most important one. Both of them are their own people but Schroder is very clear on why he could deliver his ideals – his wife supported him in everything he did as a headmaster. When they had to move even in the worst of circumstances, she simply got packing. And often his teaching duties included that of serving as house master at one of the boarding homes, which included the co-operation of the whole family. Irt was never an issue And allows you to focus where it’s necessary.

There are many stories and lessons he imparts but often it is best just to hear what he has to say.

As the book progresses, in his own words, he offers the perfect example of his leadership with this example:

“…I feel strongly that when a principal is involved in major (and not so major) disciplinary and behavioural issues, he or she can frequently defuse them and prevent long, drawn-out disciplinary issues that then end up in the hands of people who are not necessarily skilled or experienced enough to deal with the problem. It is vital their parents to know that the head finds these issues important enough to get involved.

“I know there are procedures that are prescribed for dealing with various disciplinary issues, but in my opinion, these should be a last resort. I am sure that when serious disciplinary issues arise in schools, there has not been visible leadership, getting to the source of the problem immediately and decisively.

“…this underlines the need to surround yourself with good and trustworthy people, and to let them pick up the issues at which you as leader might not be competent, and in so doing also to acknowledge your weaknesses.

“No matter how small or inconsequential a problem that a pupil brings to you may seem, if it is important to him or her, then as a leader you need to respect that importance. Theories of leadership and leadership styles abound; arguments about whether leaders are born or can be made have gone on for centuries; and of course your leadership style is a reflection of many things, and in particular your personality….

The next priority for me was support for my staff. …”

It is this kind of insight that makes this such a fascinating read. For those of us living in Pretoria, many stories swirl around about loved headmasters. There’s a reason for that; they make a difference to lives – more importantly young lives.

And Schroder didn’t only make a difference to the lives directly under his care. As the former headmaster of one of the country’s top schools, a few years after retirement he was approached to consider mentoring a secondary school in Soshanguwe.

He was persuaded by a former member of the governing body of Boys High to assist them. His brief was specifically to mentor the principal and his staff at this particular school. He describes it as a “most interesting, challenging and at times a depressing relationship,” but more importantly he goes on to say, “from which I have learned as much, if not more, than they have.”

Like much of his advice throughout the book, it is often relevant to ordinary lives. He was blessed with a great partner who stood by his side throughout his career and brought her own special magic as the headmaster’s wife. That allowed him to walk and talk his own truth which he imparts in this smart book.

And even for those who don’t have kids at school, it’s good to know that we still have these educators who are in it for all the right reasons. It has always been one of the noblest and most precious professions, but it gets tougher and tougher to make it a choice.

It’s time that we honour these noble warriors who still stand up to be counted. It’s a calling and they can’t help themselves.

We need to salute them.

Tremendous Mantel Trilogy On Thomas Cromwell Comes to an End with Third Man Booker Deservedly in her Sights

The library is inhabited by spirits that come out of the pages at night.

– Isabel Allende

 

Diane de Beer

bk mirror_and_the_light

 

 

 

 

 

The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate):

 

 

When the third in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy landed at home (thanks to the publishers), Covid19 had already surfaced across the world, I had an arts festival to attend and I thought it would be the perfect read for my husband who was staying at home, alone, for 10 days.

On my return, the lockdown hadn’t yet been announced, the book was waiting – and lockdown happened.

Unintentionally, I had in my hands what I think might just be the perfect lockdown read. It’s not every day that you’re excited about starting an 875-page book. For one thing they’re heavy to hold in bed, but Mantel being the writer she is, the topic – an extraordinary one and this third in the trilogy – as had been proven with the first two Booker-winning books, will take you to another world completely.

One which also has plagues it must be said, but then it’s reassuring to know that the world made it through those too – and they don’t play a large role in the story while adding to the overwhelmingly precarious circumstances of everyone except those serving the king – and they have the threat of possible death hanging over their heads all the time.

“But now there are rumours of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces.” Sound familiar?

Hilary Mantel is in a league of her own when it comes to historical writing. The layers of every sentence are mind-boggling, her language pure poetry and her storytelling abilities backed by research that  is painstaking.

It is difficult to explain the full magnitude of her storytelling without it sounding tough to read, too much hard work or simply too much of a drag to even tackle. And I won’t lie, it isn’t easy reading in the sense of just picking up the book and diving into the story. Dealing with Henry VIII and his constantly changing court, depending mostly on his whims, you have to keep your wits about you to know who is who.

But Mantel knows that and she reaches out a helping hand with a very strong listing at the start of the book including all the main players. To give an indication what we’re dealing with, it starts with the heading The Recently Dead with the main topic of the previous book, Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, first on the list.

If you have read the previous two, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, you will know that the trilogy while dealing with the reign of Henry VIII, centres on the machinations of Thomas Cromwell, later Lord Cromwell, Secretary to the king, Lord Privy Seal and Vicegerent in Spirituals; that is, the king’s deputy in the English church.

What his job(s) is really about is being constantly on call and responding to the king’s every whim. This is about a ruler and a time when his word and every wish was what everything was about. “Once Henry says, ‘This is my wish,’ it becomes so dear and familiar a wish that he thinks he has always had it. He names his need, and he wants it supplied.” And “He (Cromwell) thinks, I want to be able to locate the knave at a moment’s notice. The king spits at the name of Becket, but give him a year or two and he may change his mind, and make him a saint again. Sad, but those are the times.”

The complete disparity between the king and his immediate circle and the rest of the people reminds strongly of the world we live in today, so glaringly visible during Covid19 where the treatment in so many instances is dependent on good health services. Obamacare is beginning to make sense and when you see the statistics in the US of the disparity in communities worst hit by Covid19 nothing more has to be said. Similarly, the squalid circumstances of our squatter camps. Many people don’t even consider space a luxury.

More than anything though, because you have to pay attention when reading the dense writing of Mantel, it transports you into another world far removed from the one we live in because it is so far back in time (1536 – 1540). In a recent interview with Mantel when the interviewer wanted to know something about the world we find ourselves in now (this was before Covid19), her response was quick as she reminded her audience that she had been living in the 1500s for quite some time. With research, the book took 7 years to write and is described by the author as the “greatest challenge of her writing life”.

But just breathe in some of her writing:

BK Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel

“After supper, as a hush falls and the long midsummer day folds itself and disposes to dusk…”

When talking about the latest choice of wife for the king: “Which one will he take? They say the one has brown hair and the one blonde.

“Go for the blonde, is my advice.” …

“His tastes may have changed.” She looks at him as if he is simple. “I do not think blondes go out of style.”

That could be part of any contemporary story.

And this extraordinary thinking by Cromwell on plums: “He used to think that the plums in this country weren’t good enough, and so he has reformed them, grafting scion to rootstock. Now his houses have plums ripening from July to late October, fruits the size of a walnut or a baby’s heart, plums mottled and streaked, stippled and flecked, marbled and rayed, their skins lemon to mustard, russet to scarlet, azure to black, some smooth and some furred like little animals with lilac or white ash; round amber fruits like crimson eggs in a silver net, their flesh firm or melting, honeyed or vinous; his favoured kind the perdrigon and it black , the palest having a yellow skin dotted white, sprinkled red where the sun touches it, its perfumed flesh ripe in late August; then the perdrigon violet and its black sister, favouring east-facing walls, yielding September fruits solid in the hand, their flesh yellow-green and rich, separating easily from the stone…” and it goes on.

The richness of the description says as much about Cromwell’s need to have diversions as about his attention to detail, whether it is the king’s needs or his longing for the riches he was starved of in his rotten and abusive childhood.

And that’s what is so extraordinary about her writing. Mantel tells a story of the time as much about the people as the way they lived. One dithers constantly between caring deeply for or discarding Cromwell for his dastardly deeds. He was doing the kind of dance someone like Dr Fauchi or Governor Cuomo has to do around Donald Trump. It’s not that they want his favour, they need it to serve the nation.

For Cromwell it was about survival. While he accumulated much wealth and an enviable lifestyle at the time, his family savoured his successes after his death rather than him ever having the time. He was simply treading water and even though the reader knows the end of the story and the death of Cromwell from the beginning, it’s with huge sadness that you follow his downfall in the final chapters of a book that masterfully concludes a long sojourn with Thomas Cromwell and the king he served with everything he had.

Perhaps too well, but he never had any choice. And even the outcome was destined. If you have read the first two, this isn’t even an option. And if you haven’t, this is the perfect time to tackle all three. You won’t be sorry – almost guaranteed.

I can’t wait to see where Mantel goes next. Wherever it may be, I will follow.

 

 

It’s Time to Catch up with Some Extraordinary Performances both Local and International – all of them Universal

Kev Mike on beach
Cody Mountain as Kev and Joel Rosenblatt as Mike in Cut-Out Girls

These are tough times and yet for those of us privileged enough to stream and have other entertainment options like DStv, the options of how to pass the time with reading, movies, theatre, documentaries in-between work, are endless.

DIANE DE BEER reviews three of her current favourites:

We have to start with local and I was thrilled to see when Nicola Hanekom’s debut movie Cut-Out Girls appeared on Box-Office (currently at a mere R25 a movie).

Hanekom is one of our most exciting theatre director/writers who has recently also moved into television and now film, with this, her first feature film. In interviews she explains that she first wrote it as a play, specifically for young actors she was working with at the time.

The audience reaction  was so unexpected (it’s a story about date rape), that she decided it needed a wider audience, and in this instance a film. These are debut film roles for all the youngsters. That’s amazing! And they had to do crowdfunding to make it all happen.

Rape is such a scourge in this country that we are all duty bound to talk about it. Even with this pandemic, around the world, abuse is a huge problem because so many people cannot deal with this kind of pressure and violence is their own release.

And with the young, the world we live in now, it’s not that everyone has to live scared, but they have to live smart. We have to know the dangers out there and how to keep ourselves safe – women and especially young women, who don’t yet have their cynicism radars working fulltime, have to be vigilant.

I remember Redi Thlabi in her book Endings and Beginnings writing about being scared when walking to school at the age of 11, highlighting the parallel universes we live in. Nevertheless, we’re all vulnerable and what Hanekom’s exposé uncovers so smartly, are the monsters within.

It is sometimes the boy next door, the tennis star, the popular personality at school who feels entitled. Because danger is something we live with in this world, we sometimes forget when we have to be on our guard. And this is the aspect Hanekom spotlights.

Being both writer and director and informed by an intimate knowledge of the cast, she could work smartly with a small budget. You certainly don’t feel short-changed and the performances are beautifully balanced.

It’s a film of our time, speaks to both young and old and extends the reach of one of our most innovative artists.

Harriet starring Cynthia Erivo
Harriet starring a powerful Cynthia Erivo

Another film I was keen to see, is also part of the Box-Office collection. Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in Harriet, the woman who not only escapes from slavery herself, but also freed many slaves as part of the underground railroad, a perilous freedom endeavour of that time.

At some point, Harriet says people should not be owned by other people, a sentence that is so obvious yet so ignored – even today – still. That’s why these stories are so important. This is also the time when the people affected (still today) by these abominations are the ones telling the stories. That makes a huge difference in both tone and authenticity.

And for this one specifically, Cynthia Erivo’s performance is epic. She was rewarded with the ONLY Oscar nomination for an actor of colour and also for the best original song, which she both co-wrote and performed. She’s a remarkable talent both as actor and singer. She has a strength of character and a powerful presence, which served the character well and her voice has a quality that stops you in your tracks.

Her rewards have been well deserved and this following huge controversy because she was a British actor playing an American character – but she proved them wrong and hopefully people were big enough to concede and witness her prowess.

The story is a great one but there are problems with the way the story was told – just clumsy and sometimes with too little subtlety and sensitivity. One would think it is a story that almost tells itself especially with Erivo as your talisman.

But it remains a story worthy of your time and money.

NT Doon Mackichan (Feste) Tamsin Greig (Malvolia). Picture Marc Brenner
Doon Mackichan (Feste) and Tamsin Greig (Malvolia). Picture Marc Brenner

Last on the list is the latest NT Live streaming of 12th Night with Tamsin Greig as the main attraction. But she says herself, this is an ensemble cast as anyone familiar with this Shakespeare comedy will recognise. And while this is a matter of confusingly mistaken and hidden identity throughout, with director Simon Godwin’s gender-fluid production, you really have to keep your wits about you.

Greig is cast as Malvolio (or in this case Malvolia) and hers is the performance on which the play hangs. Not only is the gender switch in these times fun to watch and navigate but with a play that is a dialogue between order and disorder, puritanism and revelry, and finally, control and fear with terror the driver of control, another contemporary evil.

That is how the director viewed it says Greig in an interview which is useful to watch (even with a few spoilers) before getting into the play itself. It’s also part of the NT Live stable on YouTube and easy to find.

We have had our own innovative 12th Night (a Clare Stopford production in 1998 with amongst others Langley Kirkwood, Isadora Verwey, David Dennis and Bo Peterson) and it is a play that lends itself to interpretation as you heighten both the comic and tragic effects at will.

NT Phoebe Fox as Olivia second from the right. Picture Marc Brenner
Phoebe Fox as Olivia second from the right with her entourage. Picture Marc Brenner

This being a first class British cast with some exceptional performances, a set that enhances the fast flow of the story, some excellent songs with a brilliant burlesque interlude stuck in between, Shakespeare can hardly be more contemporary. Just check a striking ensemble stepping out in their 21st Century ubiquitous veils.

It’s sassy and smart with as much laughter as there’s food for thought in a time when gender fluidity and identity could not be more centre stage. It’s exactly where we are now as Shakespeare in his constantly shows us: the more it changes, the more it stays the same.

Catch it on NT Live on YouTube until Thursday at 8pm when Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch follows. Don’t miss that either.

 

 

Authors Fred Khumalo and Petina Gappah Give Voice to Silenced Perspectives in their Latest Novels

Book The Longest MarchDIANE DE BEER

It’s a peculiar thing, synchronicity, but when  it happens, it feels as if it was meant to be. Like reading two books, Fred Khumalo’s The Longest March (Umuzi) and Petina Gappah’s Out of the Darkness, Shining Light (Faber&Faber) in close succession.

Both of these are novels that focus on marches in the past, both retell the stories from another point of view, and both are based on fact with a fictionalised retelling which reimagines what might have happened in much more detail.

It is a time for many to relook at their histories which have always been told from the conqueror’s point of view, and on this continent that means told from a white perspective, often downplaying or more often disregarding any other point of view even when it was their story to tell or there was participation which shouldn’t have been avoided.

Like so many of these stories from our past, depending on the colour of your skin, they come as a complete surprise.

Book Khumalo-pic-resized
Fred Khumalo

I start with Khumalo, because his story is closer to home. The facts weren’t familiar to me, giving the novel a fascinating backdrop. Approximately 120 years ago, 7 000 Zulu mineworkers walked from the gold mines in Jozi to Natal, covering a distance of 500 km over 10 days.

It wasn’t as if these men had a choice. When war is declared between the South African Republic and the British Empire, the mines are shut down and migrant workers are ordered to leave. But, there’s a problem. There are no trains running so the only way to get back home and away from danger is on foot.

Khumalo decides to tell a story with this as a backdrop as one of the miners, Nduku, decides to take his woman back home with him. Again, there’s a problem – she’s white. The only way to achieve this is to make her a mineworker’s wife and all this in spite of the couple having broken off their engagement.

There’s more than enough drama to go around – the physical and emotional journey for both Nduku and Philippa – who have to survive many mostly physical obstacles but also a handful of unseen and unexpected dangers.

It won’t be a South African story if someone doesn’t take advantage of those already in trouble. On the sidelines yet part of the journey is a group who are hoping to cash in on the salaries of these migrant workers on the long march home.

It’s gripping stuff and Khumalo is a supreme storyteller, but more than anything it was the march that really intrigued me. Of course it’s not something that was part of our school history during the apartheid years, and I would be joyous and surprised if it has become part of the curriculum even now.

But to discover and learn about this extraordinary sidebar during one of our many wars at the turn of the century is exhilarating. This is what is supposed to happen in a more enlightened time in a country.

Histories should be re-written and retold to reflect the role of everyone who was part of the story. For far too long the world has listened to too few voices simply because they weren’t there or drowned out by those who held the power.

Book out-of-darkness-shining-light

In similar vein, Zimbabwean author Pettina Gappa tells the story of a very different march but with many similarities. Most importantly it is about bringing the main players in this drama from the shadows into the sunlight as the title implies.

Most of us will be familiar with the name Dr David Livingstone but unless you are a history buff, few people will know the story of the body of “Bwana Daudi – the Doctor”.

This is the story of the 69 men and women who carried his remains over 1 500 miles (imagine that!), so that he could be taken back to his homeland across the sea and thus buried in his own country. The heroics of even contemplating that deed make it extraordinary that this wasn’t part of our history.

But of course, never during apartheid and I again, I’m sure it still isn’t taught at schools or university as a general historical lesson. I’m not holding my breath that someone proves me wrong either – perhaps in some specialised field…even that would be good.

Bk Petina Gappah

Gappah is a fascinating writer, not only in the way she tells stories but also in the stories she decides to tell. This one, as you can imagine, is above everything else set in a time of slavery, which brings yet another dimension to the tale. The fact that Dr Livingstone gave his slaves their freedom didn’t mean automatically that that would happen. Sometimes it was also a better life to keep toiling as if you were still in the same circumstances as before.

But also the people’s dedication, that they would even want to carry a white man’s bones so that they could be sent for burial in  his homeland – at that time, is astonishing. In her acknowledgements the author notes that she spent 10 years on historical research. “But,” she writes, “I am under no illusion that this work is in any sense historically accurate. While rooted in historical fact, this novel is above all imaginative fiction.”

She points to a few historians but above all Thomas Pakenham, whose first chapter of The Scramble for Africa sparked the idea for this book as long ago as 1999. She adds that he was also both generous and kind when she consulted him on the project.

She believes she also had the privilege of consulting original letters, photographs, and other documents related to David Livingstone that are collected in all kinds of institutions, including the National Library of Scotland; the Peace Memorial Museum, Zanzibar; the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre; and the National Archives of Zimbabwe in Harare.

“I especially want to mention the youngest Livingstone enthusiast of them all, dear Tayani Mhizha, who wrote a brilliant International Baccalaureate analytical essay on him at the age of seventeen,” she adds.

She also consulted many different letters and documents that are collected by different institutions around the world and pays homage to Livingstone Online, a programme initiated by all the institutions that are repositories for documents related to his life and travels.

Thanks goodness for technology – again! She concludes by saying: “The historians gave me facts, and my imagination supplied the rest.”

She also illuminates her writing with an introductory quote from The Last Journals of David Livingstone:

I trust in Providence still to help me. I know the four rivers Zambesi, Kafué, Luapula, and Lomamé, their fountains must exist in one region … I pray the good Lord of all to favor me so as to allow me to discover the ancient fountains of Herodotus, and if there is anything in the underground excavations to confirm the precious old documents, the Scriptures of truth, may He permit me to bring it to light, and give me wisdom to make proper use of it.

And then follows a most intriguing tale beginning with the death of Livingstone and those around him, how they made the decision to carry the body and everything else that happened during that final journey to the coast.

It illuminates much about the continent, the people, the period, how certain parts of history have simply been ignored as part of any narrative and the dangers waiting along the way for these intrepid warriors who were determined to do right by a man they felt deserved a final resting place in peace.

If only we would take the time to listen to Africa and its people more closely. It’s one of the reasons I love living on the continent – that people don’t speak with one voice but give us the chance to look at things from different perspectives. And then we can start living with some wisdom.

Giving voice to silenced perspectives has given a whole new way of experiencing the world.