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Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist: Zakes Mda discusses the origins of his novel Little Suns

Published in the Sunday Times

Little SunsLittle Suns
Zakes Mda (Umuzi)

My grandfather, Charles Mda, had a horse named Gobongwane. I remember my grandfather in his brown riding boots and breeches coming in from a tour of his orchard at his estate that covered a large part of Dyarhom Mountain on the Eastern Cape side of the border of Lesotho with South Africa. He loved his horse and I can still hear in my mind’s ear his weather-beaten tenor singing in praise of his horse: “Nanko ke, nanko k’uGobondwane.”
He told us the melody was based on a song that his grandfather, Mhlontlo, sang to his own horse called Gcazimbane. Then the stories would flow from him about Mhlontlo, the king of amaMpondomise, who was a great medicine man that could turn the white man’s bullets into water. My imagination would run wild at this magic and I would imagine crystal clear water flowing from the barrel of the guns of the Red Coats, as the British soldiers were called.
My uncle, Robert Mda, would sometimes visit and add to these stories. He would tell us how Mhlontlo was accused of assassinating Hamilton Hope, a British magistrate assigned to his district in Qumbu, Eastern Cape, and how he (Mhlontlo) and a group of his followers were exiled to Lesotho. Though he was recaptured after 20 years, many of his followers remained in Lesotho as they had then established themselves in that country with their families. That is why to this day there are all those Mdas who are sheep farmers in Lesotho’s Mantsonyane Mountains and horsemen in Taung.
Years later I came across praise poetry that mentioned Mhlontlo in a book by Lesotho historian, Mosebi Damane, and years after that, I stumbled into a book on Mhlontlo by Clifton Crais, an Ohio historian. Suddenly Mhlontlo was no longer just a creature of magic, myth and legend. He was a historical man of flesh and blood. I searched for primary sources, court records, newspaper articles, and the oral tradition to recreate his life and times. And because I love love, I decided to place the historical events in a fictional love story. That’s how Little Suns was born. Though I am a staunch republican and do not believe in the anachronistic institution of royalty which in my view is a relic of feudalism, the fact remains that it exists in parts of South Africa and people love and support it.
It is therefore untenable to me that amaMpondomise lost their own kingship solely because they stood firm and fought against colonialism, while neighbouring national groups (as they were at the time) continue to have their kings only because they supported the colonial war machine against amaMpondomise during the War of Hope. A free South Africa reinforced this injustice through its Nhlapho Commission which continued to deny amaMpondomise their rights. It was important for me then to bring the history of amaMpondomise to light.

Like all the peoples of the eastern region, amaMpondomise were known for their hospitality. But these particular iindwendwe were not the most welcome guests in the history of kwaMpondomise. Everyone had been dreading their arrival from the time spies reported that they had left Qumbu with a caravan made up of one wagon loaded with five hundred Martini-Henry rifles for the thousand men that Mhlontlo had promised Hamilton Hope, a Scotch cart loaded with ammunition comprising 18 000 ball cartridges, two other wagons loaded with mealies and potatoes, another Scotch cart loaded with the things of the white people, and a slew of black servants – mostly amaMpondomise and amaMpondo converts and a few amaQheya or Khoikhoi. The caravan was led by the four white men on their horses, Hope, Warren, Henman and Davis.
Qumbu was only 18 miles from Sulenkama so they had arrived the same afternoon, and had set up camp on a hill about a mile from the village. Even before they could send a messenger to Mhlontlo’s Great Place the king sent his own messenger to them, a man called Faya. The king was reiterating what he had said before; he would not lead the army to war. His army was waiting for the orders, all ready to go, and his uncle Gxumisa was ready to lead them anytime he was called upon to do so. He, Mhlontlo, King of amaMpondomise, was in mourning because his senior wife, daughter of the most revered monarch in the region, King Sarhili of amaGcaleka, also known as amaXhosa, had passed away, and according to the customs of his people he had to stay in seclusion and observe certain rituals. He could not touch weapons of war during mourning.
Of course Hamilton Hope had heard all this nonsense before. He sent Faya back to his master with a stern message: the British Empire could not be kept waiting on account of heathen customs. The war would be fought and the Pondomise warriors would be led by none other than Umhlonhlo. He, Hamilton Hope, Resident Magistrate of the District of Qumbu in the Cape Colony Government of Her Glorious Majesty Queen Victoria, was summoning the Pondomise paramount chief Umhlonhlo to come and meet him in person forthwith and take orders to march to war against the rebel Basotho chief Magwayi, failing which he would be stripped of all vestiges of chieftainship and his Pondomise tribe would be placed under chiefs of those tribes that were willing to cooperate with Her Majesty’s Government.
As Faya galloped away with the dire message, Hope fired a few shots after him to illustrate that he was serious, to the laughter of his entourage. Faya hollered all the way to the Great Place that someone should save him; the men whose ears reflected the rays of the sun – ooNdlebezikhanyilanga – were trying to kill him.
For two days Mhlontlo kept Hamilton Hope waiting. That was the stand-off that had excited the young men. At last the elders were fighting back. Finally the king was refusing to be treated like an uncircumcised boy by a couple of white people whose own penises were undoubtedly still enveloped in foreskins. In the evening they cast their eyes on the hill and saw the fires at Hamilton Hope’s camp and went on with their lives as if all was normal and the world was at peace with itself. Of course Hope was not amused.

Follow Zakes Mda @ZakesMda

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