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Horns and Dilemmas: Jacqui L’Ange Reviews Sindiwe Magona’s Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle

Magona’s tale of a daughter’s inheritance cuts to the heart of rural patriarchy, writes Jacqui L’Ange for the Sunday Times

Chasing The Tails of My Father’s CattleChasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle
Sindiwe Magona (Seriti sa Sechaba)

Cattle: symbol of health and prosperity. Used for ceremony, celebration, atonement, sustenance – they are at the very heart of traditional village life. The cattle in the title of this book also symbolise frail and fractured communal bonds, principles that should bind people together, but too often rend them apart. This is a small story, about a small village, and a small family. It is also a huge story, about the power of love and the strength of the human spirit.

The Eastern Cape village of Zenzele is one of many left “bereft of the vitality of men” when the goldmines take what they need and leave the rest behind to carry on as best they can.

Not many have the courage to follow their heart, if it means challenging convention. But this is what Jojo does, when the death of his beloved wife Miseka leaves him to care for his newborn daughter, Shumikazi. (It’s the name her mother gave her, but she will also be known as Nokufa, and later No-orenji, depending on which family member regards her.)

From the outset, Shumi is singularly herself: strong, smart, and gifted with seeing beyond her years. She survives where her mother and nine siblings before her didn’t. This, and the fact that she is suckled at her grandmother Manala’s breast, gives the villagers plenty to talk about. Her two jealous makotis, Maxolo and Mamkwazi, are less than kind to the young Shumi. They whisper and connive along with their gossipy neighbours. They cluck-cluck-CLUCK even more when Jojo quits the mines and returns to Zenzele to raise his daughter and “live the way our grandparents lived”, from the soil and the kraal.

Jojo is exceptionally hardworking, and also gifted in herbs and animal husbandry. His kraal grows and prospers. “Nature is bountiful,” he says, “and rewards those who care for it.” But not everyone is pleased. When the mine dust rattling in his lungs signals that his end is approaching, Jojo intuits that his selfish brothers are unlikely to take care of his daughter, or continue to support her formal education. “Who determined that [women] … through no sin, misdeed or lack of character, indeed through nothing anyone had defined – were less than men?” he laments.

Jojo takes the unprecedented step of transferring ownership of his land and his considerable herd to his daughter. He didn’t count on this break with tradition being a burden. At Jojo’s death, the grieving Shumi does what she thinks is right, and returns the assets to the protection of her uncles, her “other fathers”. It’s a tragic mistake, for which she will pay dearly.

Magona’s new novel is not a story in a hurry; it is one to be savoured. There are moments of intense lyricism and playful idiom – and in the end, Shumi will return to chase the tails of her father’s cattle. Her story is both a testament to the inherent capacity for goodness in people and a warning: “What you tolerate, you perpetuate.” The choice is ours.

Jacqui L’Ange is the author of The Seed Thief (Umuzi). Follow her on Twitter @jaxangel

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