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.