Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist: Nkosinathi Sithole discusses the genesis of Hunger Eats a Man (Plus: Excerpt)
Published in the Sunday Times
Hunger Eats a Man
Nkosinathi Sithole (Penguin Books)
The novel is about poverty and people’s struggle to overcome it, or survive in spite of its prevalence. The idea came from the fact that I had experienced poverty growing up. So when apartheid ended everybody thought their lives were going to change for the better. It did not happen for many people. In fact, most people are worse off than they had been during apartheid. I hoped to write a book that would alert the people in power about the danger that we face in South Africa if the gap between the rich and the poor is not bridged. Indeed, in dealing with poverty, the question of corruption could not be ignored. The idea was to try tell the story of a suffering people in a way that is not so depressing, that people can enjoy in spite of everything.
“The only thing that moves here in Ndlalidlindoda is time. Everything else is stagnant,” Priest says to himself as he contemplates the land which has been his home for more than twenty years. It is now winter, and Priest hates winter. Gxumani, of which Ndlalidlindoda (Hunger-Eats-a-Man) is part, is situated near the Drakensberg Mountains, so it gets very cold in winter. He has heard many people say that the City of Gold is cold, but he knows that no place can be colder than Gxumani, not in winter.
Yet Priest is now inured to the discomforts of cold. His only concern regarding winter is that the land loses its beauty. To him the only thing that thrives in winter is the wind, and the wind makes him feel uncomfortable. Everything else is ugly and hungry. He focuses his gaze far away in the land owned by Wild Life and notices that the grass is dry and reddish white. Even the grass in his homestead seems to be crying for food. This prompts a thought in him that interests him so much that he wishes to share it with his wife. He goes inside and seats himself on the sofa.
MaDuma is fixated on the beadwork she is crafting to sell to the tourists at Zenzele (Do-It-Yourself). Priest spends a full minute studying the features of his wife. She is not really beautiful, but she is also far from ugly. MaDuma has lost almost all her back teeth and her cheeks are now sunken. However, this does not interfere with the fairness of her features. Priest thinks that her eye-glasses make her look more beautiful than she actually is and decides that this is unfair. But what is fair in this world anymore?
Priest clears his throat and says, “I think here in Ndlalidlindoda it has been winter for many years now.” He sounds excited by his observation.
MaDuma does not honour his introspection by raising her head as she answers, “You are hungry.”
“Exactly! We all have been hungry for many years and that is winter.”
MaDuma is greatly annoyed by her husband’s asinine talk. She removes her eye-glasses and confronts him. “Get out!” she roars. “Don’t bring your hunger to me. I’ve got my own problems!”
But later she calls him from where he is sitting outside and leaves a tray with his food on the coffee-table. The food is served on a green and white plate and another identical one is used to cover it. Next to the covered plate his wife has placed a glass of water. Priest does not have to open the covering plate to know that his food is pap and potatoes. For a long time now he has eaten pap and potatoes with his family. The taste of the food, or the absence of it, does not matter. It is better to have pap and potatoes than to have nothing.
As Priest is chewing his disagreeable food, he hears a soft voice speaking to him, “Father, the principal said we should bring R50 to school.”
The voice is Sandile’s, Priest’s son of fifteen. He is, according to his father, a cute young boy who took after him in being smart. Priest loves his son very much. But right now, just when he is hungry but cannot eat what is supposed to be his food, just when he is depressed, this boy tells him that he should miraculously have R50 to send to school. No! This is not his son!
He glances at the boy and sees a ghost or devil who has come to tempt him. Priest is angered by this devil in front of him. But his anger is contained when he recalls a day when, as a young boy, he was crying for food and his mother asked him if he thought that by giving birth to him, she could give birth to the food as well.
“He said they need the money to pay the privately-paid teachers and the security guards,” Sandile continues.
This makes Priest even angrier. The principal is now at the receiving end of his anger. The idiot! He will go to him right now! He looks at the ticking clock on the wall and decides that it is late, the principal will have gone home already. He seems ready to spit or swear, but then changes his mind when he sees the picture of Jesus hanging next to the clock, looking directly at him. For a moment he closes his eyes and says a short prayer. But his rage is too much for him, so he explodes, “This principal of yours is crazy! Where does he expect us to get the money from? Doesn’t he know that there is no work? Even if we did have work, does he think that we could give our money away to be wasted?”
Sandile looks at his father and thanks God that he does not have his black complexion. “But, Father …”
“No, my son. They will not eat my money. Let them do that to the fools.”
As Priest finishes speaking, Sandile waits, confused. He is hoping that despite what his father has just said, he will tell him something meaningful to say to the teachers at school tomorrow.
Realising that his son is not satisfied, Priest can only pledge to go himself to school first thing in the morning. This will be a chance for him to spit out his anger. “Don’t worry, son. I will tell the truth as I know it. They have to know that we know the truth.”
Sandile becomes frightened.
“It took a brave man, son, to confront Shaka the king when he ruined his kingdom just because his mother had died. Sometimes the truth heals.”
“Yes father, I understand.” Sandile sounds as if he is going to cry.