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'It is the nature of tradition to evolve' - Jennifer Malec reviews Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

First published in the Sunday Times

Chinelo OkparantaUnder the Udala TreesUnder the Udala Trees
Chinelo Okparanta
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A month after Chinelo Okparanta completed Under the Udala Trees, a novel that deals delicately but boldly with lesbian love, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan criminalised same-sex relationships, making them punishable by up to 14 years in prison or, in the northern states, death by stoning.

Okparanta addresses the subject in an author’s note, to contextualise the story for readers who may not be familiar with the country. “With or without the bill, Nigeria is a very homophobic country,” she says. “With or without the bill, I had already written the novel. Under the Udala Trees is ultimately a story about people struggling to live out their lives the best way possible, even in the face of societal pressures, discrimination and abuse.”

Okparanta moved to the US with her family when she was 10, but her debut novel does not betray her physical distance from her home country. It is animated with Nigerian Pidgin and Igbo dialogue, as well as enigmatic folktales and proverbs understated in their insight: “If God dishes you rice in a basket, do not wish for soup.”

“I’m lucky to have a family that upholds traditions, but also one that allows room for change,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t feel that I ever left Nigeria, and sometimes I do. We continued to speak Igbo at home, we continued to eat fufu and soup, beans and yam, we continued to sing and dance to Nigerian music. I also go home as often as I can.”

Under the Udala Trees begins in 1968, a year into the Biafran War, when 11-year-old Ijeoma’s father is killed during a bombing raid. After his death, Ijeoma’s mother, Adaora, begins to suffer terrible nightmares. She stops eating, and alternates between blank silence and rage. The child begins to sense that she is a burden, something to be rid of, “Like an animal casting off old hair or skin”. Adaora concocts a story about the need to send Ijeoma away while she scouts out the safety of her parents’ old house in another town, and the betrayal is keenly felt.

In the midst of this, Okparanta startles us with a glimpse of the old Adaora, the caring mother who used to rouse her daughter from a sulk by taking her hands and joking, “Dance your sadness away.” In the context of a growing dislike of an unkind, neglectful parent, the vignette is almost unbearably touching.

This depth of character is Okparanta’s great strength, and she says: “It seems to me that the best books are often those in which the dignity of the characters are upheld. Also, those in which the characters are nuanced. I tried to keep this in mind while writing the novel.”

Ijeoma is sent away to work as a house-girl. One day she is followed home by Amina, another displaced girl. A childhood romance begins, which develops into a tender physical relationship. In the years that follow, Ijeoma attempts to reconcile her sexuality with her religious beliefs. But societal pressures intensify and when a childhood friend – now a handsome and successful man – proposes, she accepts, both out of loyalty to her mother’s wishes and out of longing for a life lived without fear of being “found out”. Sensing something unsound in his marriage, Chibundu is by turns caring and cruel, suffering as much from the disjunct between society’s expectations and his own actions as Ijeoma does.

“Chibundu is as much to be pitied as he is to be rebuked,” says Okparanta. “We would have a hard time completely condemning him. How does one balance out hope with unrequited love? Chibundu certainly tries.”

After a series of disturbing dreams, Ijeoma realises she has to leave Chibundu, describing the revelation as like hearing a murmur of sound in the distance, unnoticeable at first, but getting stronger, “and finally you look up and see a skein, a flock of geese, a perfect V up above in the sky”.

Ijeoma does not reject her heritage. Rather she proves that it is possible to discard some aspects of tradition without threatening the whole. “Tradition has its place,” Okparanta says. “But it is also the nature of tradition to evolve.”

Follow Jennifer Malec on Twitter @projectjennifer

 
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Book details

Read a chilling excerpt from The Abduction and Trial of Jestina Mukoko: The Fight for Human Rights in Zimbabwe

The Abduction and Trial of Jestina MukokoKMM Review Publishing has shared an excerpt from the newly released book The Abduction and Trial of Jestina Mukoko: The Fight for Human Rights in Zimbabwe by Jestina Mukoko.

Mukoko is a former broadcast journalist and human rights activist who was abducted and tortured because of her work with the Zimbabwe Peace Project.

While she was imprisoned, Mukoko’s family were desperate to find her, visiting government offices for assistance and getting none, searching hospitals and morgues and feeling hope and despair whenever the body of a woman was found – even visiting the much-feared Goromonzi prison.

Mukoko’s recollections provide a gripping and chilling account of one of the most turbulent and repressive periods marred by a wave of massive human rights abuses in Zimbabwe’s history.

Mukoko has received many local and international accolades for her work as an activist, among them the United States Secretary of State Women of Courage Award. She is based in Harare, and is currently the National Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project.

Jestina Mukoko receiving the United States Secretary of State Women of Courage Award from Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama

 
Read an excerpt:

* * * * *

I had heard a number of people come in and dreaded the turning of the key, which meant continuing where my interrogators had left off the previous night. I heard voices and realised that the boss was there.

I could hear my heart thudding away at such a pace that it threatened to break out of the covering of my chest, which was heaving and out of control. My brow collected strings of sweat and I was uncomfortable in my own skin. The room had suddenly become very hot. December is the height of summer and the small window was closed. I was not called immediately and the waiting gnawed at me slowly. I had decided not to put on the wet panties, but used them as a fan in an attempt to dry them and slipped them on as soon as I sensed the big woman dragging her feet towards the room.

‘Now that you have had some sleep and know what we want, do you remember the name of the police officer?’ I did not. The interrogation shifted. ‘How do you get the information in your reports and how do you identify the people that you assist?’ I tried to explain, but they were not interested in my answers, it seemed they wanted particular answers but I did not have them.

The short man questioned me about how the ZPP gets its information. ‘Some of the incidents you report happen in the middle of the night and you get the information correct?’ I responded that the people who provide information are concerned Zimbabweans who want to see the rights of citizens respected. He then handed me a piece of paper and demanded that I list the names of these concerned Zimbabweans.

I said there were many of them and I would not know where to begin. His body language told me he was not impressed by my response and I thought I might be punished for refusing to write names as instructed.

The subject of the interrogation turned again to Botswana. ‘When you travelled to Botswana who did you meet and how many staff members did you leave there?’ asked Mararike. Tired of responding to the same question I held back a while then explained again that I had not met and did not even know the people that they thought I had met – if they existed at all.

The short man was unarmed, perhaps he was not angry enough to collect his weapons. However, he embarked on a strange ranting sparked by the perception that I was an MDC-T stalwart and that while I was detained others in the party would scramble for positions in the new government. ‘While you are here, your colleagues in the MDC-T are going to be appointing a director of information because you have decided not to reveal the names of the big fish,’ the man raged.

Mararike sat on a chair facing me, while the boss seemed to be expecting someone or something. He stood close to the window, his attention divided between the interrogation and what was happening outside. My chest continued to heave and I struggled, dismally, to control it. I suspected the reason was that I feared more beatings.

The boss moved a few steps towards me, pointing a finger at me as if addressing a child. ‘I am not governed by the 48-hour or even the 96-hour rule. You simply have to follow what we want here or you go extinct. There are several others buried around here,’ he added, gesturing at the surrounds of the building.

According to the old Constitution anyone taken into detention must appear in court within 48 hours or the detaining authority must seek a 96-hour extension for further detention of the suspect. ‘No one will find you here even if they try, so you might as well behave and tell us what we want. There are two options – either become a state witness or go extinct. It is your choice,’ raged the boss. I was very afraid. I knew that people had been killed in similar circumstances and the thought of that happening to me lingered. On one of the days after this interrogation I realised that there were people digging behind the interrogation room and my mind resolved that it was my grave being dug.

At that moment I made an undertaking to myself that I would try to fend off sleep so that if I was to be killed I would have the opportunity to look into the eyes of my killer.

The boss left the room several times and, although it took a long time for the truncheons to be brought in, the short man punched the desk more than once. The loud music and the banging on the desk were frightening.

As if trying to curry favour with me, Mararike, who was fidgeting in his chair, said, ‘there is no hurting of the flesh today. All that is required is for you to give us all the information we are looking for.’ But I was not the right person to help them.

As the day wore on it became clear that someone had been after me for a long time. They knew about the places I frequented, the car I drove, where I had worked and lived and the campaigns I had been involved in. They questioned me about the distribution of T-shirts and caps in my home town of Gweru when I was still with Radio Voice of the People. We had run a campaign to publicise the frequency of the station so people could tune in.

With most radio and television stations controlled by the state, Radio Voice of the People offered an alternative voice.

In the afternoon, well after lunch, there were still no truncheons, but the short man continued to bang on the furniture and each time he did so I feared he might leave to fetch the weapons of his trade.

After supper Mararike announced that because I had failed to give them what they wanted they had no choice but to ‘take you to our bosses, whose faces you will not see as yours will be tied in a sack. We have no control over what they decide to do.’ He signalled that I must put on the blindfold. Before I did so I noticed that one of the men who had sat next to me in the car from home was waiting in the next room.

I groped in the induced darkness, trying to be sure where I was stepping and the door of a van – the type known in Zimbabwe as a kombi and used for public transportation – slid open. I was instructed to lie on a seat that was more like a bench than a car seat. There were a number of people in the vehicle and I could identify ‘Guns’ and Mararike by their voices. After I was asked a few similar questions to those I had been asked in the afternoon relating to my distribution of T-shirts I sensed that they preferred to talk about other things among themselves.

The drive lasted for what seemed close to two hours on a winding road. After a while the kombi stopped and there was some shuffling between it and some place. For a while I sensed that I might be alone in the vehicle and strange thoughts troubled me. Perhaps they were going to blow it up, or maybe they were making a huge fire outside to throw me in. I dared not get up for fear that someone might be close to the vehicle, and, besides, I was blindfolded. After a good 40 to 50 minutes the door opened, the ignition was turned on and the car moved off again.

This part of the drive was equally long and I was sure I was back in the same place because the radio was blaring. I was led into the interrogation room, where Alice was fast asleep. She asked, ‘Where are you people coming from at this time? It is one in the morning.’ I was not best placed to answer her, it seemed she was not happy being woken up at such a late hour.

As I sat on the mat that she had left free for me something hot gushed out of my body and I felt a sharp pain in my lower back. I asked to be led to the bathroom and, just as I suspected, I had my periods. When I was growing up my mother had taught me that monthly periods are a private affair that are not announced to strangers, so what should I do? This being the first flow I knew I could manage through the night and I did not think Alice would be pleased to be burdened with searching for sanitary pads at this ungodly hour.

The next morning Alice asked what my totem is. A totem is a form of traditional identity in Zimbabwe. Totems are drawn from animals or birds that families identify with. The tradition is so strong that a man and a woman with the same totem cannot marry as they are considered relatives. If, for some reason, they have to marry, a ceremony is held to untie the relationship. Remembering that I had heard that people could be killed by using their totem, I made one up. The logic is that if your ancestors are approached using a totem they can identify with they can open floodgates for tragedy to strike.

My totem is the zebra – mbizi in ichiShona, dube in isiNdebele, but I told Alice that it is a lion. ‘That is the same totem as my mother,’ she said, and began to call me ‘moms’, the street lingo for mother. The zebra is a majestic animal that walks with a certain gaiety in its step. The stripes, which are like fingerprints – no two zebras have the same stripes – look extremely beautiful in the blazing Zimbabwean sun. The zebra adapts to difficult situations, for instance, never losing weight even in times of drought. There are praise songs for different totems and most Zimbabweans love to hear their own. When I have done something good for my mother or the family she takes time to sing ‘Maita Mbizi, maita varihowera, varikumasumbureru, gwara’, interspersing the words with ululation and clapping with cupped hands.

There was no interrogation on the third day and in the morning I told Alice about the need for sanitary pads, hoping that she would deal with it herself. During the day I had to use toilet paper and frequented the bathroom more than usual because it was only towards early evening that a man brought in the pads and two new pairs of panties. The items were in a shopping bag from the upmarket store, Bon Marché. The next day the boss wanted to know, ‘Did you get your parcel?’ Anyone listening would have been forgiven for thinking that he had bought me a Christmas present.

My periods had not been due for another two weeks and I was experiencing a lot of pain, anxiety and the fear of not knowing what would happen next. Supper came early and I was told I was going on another drive.

This time I was taken in a saloon car with two men flanking me, my head on the lap of the one to the right. The drive did not take long and when we arrived at our destination the driver blew the horn and waited for the gate to open. One of the two men who were sitting in front went out and, after ten or so minutes the rear left door opened. ‘Come with me,’ came the instruction as the man sitting next to the door got out to make way for me.

As I walked, forcing my sore legs along, I thought that perhaps the ‘bosses’ had been unavailable the day before and had made time today.

I went up one step and there was a change of hands on my arm – someone else was now leading me. The room I entered was carpeted and, after a few steps, an order was given. ‘Sit down!’ I prepared to go all the way to the floor but something caught me. I was on a chair. I was uneasy in this chair, just occupying a small space of its base, not trying to sit back. I thought about the threat of extinction. All my strength transferred to my mouth and, between gritted teeth, I prayed quietly. My torso was constrained between a table and the back of the chair.

The furniture in this new interrogation was expensive and the room was well curtained and more opulent than the first. Later I was to wonder whether a particular house on Enterprise Road in Harare, between Arcturus and Glenara roads might have been the place. Whenever I drive past it I get goose bumps and I always want to look in when the double black gate is open. There are always unmarked vehicles parked there, some of their windows tinted.

A new male voice instructed, ‘Remove the blindfold.’ There were ten people in the room, five on either side of a huge pine boardroom table. Nine of them were men and the one woman there was drowned by the mound of lever arch files beside her. She was close to me and, as she perused one, I tried to see whether I could read what she was reading.

‘Be careful with that file, Jestina is trying to read,’ said a light-skinned burly man, the only one who had spoken so far. She shifted the files out of my sight. I could only make out the frames of those at the end of the table, it was difficult to see them clearly because I was still without my glasses.

They did not tell me their names, but the light-skinned man, in an authoritative voice, broke the silence, bellowing ‘We are from the law and we are here to talk to you.’ Four years later I found out the man’s name when I travelled with him on a flight from Cape Town to Harare. In the arrivals hall our eyes met and he knew and I knew that we were not meeting for the first time. I asked a colleague I was travelling with if he knew the man, who had moved to the other end of the hall while we waited to claim our bags from the carousel. He was an assistant commissioner in the Criminal Investigations Department.

My hosts were given refreshments – tea, served in a beautiful tea set and a jug of water for the Mazoe orange cordial drink. A burly man wearing a loose white lace African caftan offered me refreshment, but I declined. On my immediate left were two fairly young men, one wearing spectacles. They were all smartly dressed and the one without glasses was wearing a black lace shirt. The woman’s hair was pulled up into a bun, with a hairpiece that dropped to her shoulders. She was wearing a black top and slightly faded jeans that defined her curves. She stood up once or twice to search for a file.

The interrogation followed the same lines as the previous ones. ‘We want to know the people you are working with in the MDC-T and we also want to know about the police officer who came to your office,’ demanded the assistant commissioner. I still did not remember the name of the police officer and I made it clear that I did not work with the MDC-T.

The assistant commissioner continued, ‘We know you met the police officer in your office and he came ready with your stated requirements of an identity card and a photograph in police uniform.’ This is not how it happened. I had met the officer in Broderick’s office and I was already holding my handbag and my notebook because I was in a hurry to get to a meeting outside the office.

The police identity card had been on the desk when I entered Broderick’s office. As if to chide me, the assistant commissioner said, as though to his colleagues, ‘Do you remember Jestina asking the officer, “Wazvipira here kufira nyika yako [Are you committed to die for your country]?”’ The name of the police officer might have slipped my mind but I am sure I never asked that question.

Visibly angry in response to my denial that I had made the statement or that I had met the officer in my office, the assistant commissioner charged towards me, going around the table to approach me from the left. By the time he reached me I was shaking and I think I now know why people soil themselves in the face of a threat. He stood very close to me and I could swear he could hear my heart thud. ‘She thinks she is still talking to the people where she is coming from who are not doing their job properly. Bring my stick and I will teach her a lesson.’

‘It is unfortunate the people holding you are using kid gloves with you,’ said the assistant commissioner. It seemed that I was expected to confirm all the accusations they had put on the table. The pain in my feet was no kid glove show. I could hardly sleep or walk after the beatings and I was tempted to lift my feet to show what had been done to me.

‘Don’t look at me,’ he raved. It was difficult to ignore a threat that was so close and was hovering over my head, but I looked down, though from time to time I raised my head. A short, dark man brought in a one-metre long bamboo stick, but the burly man in white advised him, shaking his head from side to side and looking him in the eye, ‘Don’t do it’. He slowly moved away.

‘I feel sorry for you because you are wasting your time and ours – soon we will catch them all,’ swore the assistant commissioner. Although he did not physically leave a mark with the bamboo stick, what he put me through left a deep scar that swelled and took a long time to heal.

A huge, dark man sitting towards the end of the table stood to address me. He banged on the table and the vibrations reached my end of the table.

‘Uchamama [You will defecate], Jestina, when we are done with you.’

I could not believe that these words had come from a grown man. What I know is that as a child if I had said something like that and my mother or any other adult had found out I would have been severely punished.

During my court appearance I would hesitate to repeat the words but Beatrice, my attorney, insisted that I do so.
‘Where did you leave your child?’ the man asked arrogantly. I confirmed that I had left Takudzwa at home. ‘Is your son still at home?’ the man wanted to know. My heart sank. Since I had been taken from my home Takudzwa had occupied my thoughts – I was, after all, his only surviving parent.

Distracted from the goings-on in the room, I wondered just what had happened to my son. The woman forced a thick needle into my heart: ‘By not giving us the information that we require from you, what you have done in the process is to sign away an opportunity to unite with your son. Only an irresponsible mother does what you are doing.’

One of the young men to the left confronted me: ‘There are figures that you presented at a meeting on 2 December, where did you get them?’ I told him the information had come from the community-based monitors the ZPP deployed.

Later that night, back in the first interrogation room, which was now my bedroom, I knew I was in deep trouble. Would I survive two interrogation centres? I began to hum my mother’s favourite hymn – number 106 in the Anglican hymn book.

Mubatsiri wedu Mwari,
Tariro yeduzve,
Mudziviriri munhamo,
Chivimbo narini

(The Lord our helper,
our hope and strength,
the one who deters trouble our eternal hope)

I managed just one stanza because I did not know the others well without a hymn book. However, when I did get my hymn book, when I was in Chikurubi, I learned the words and now I do not need to look up the hymn.

Humming the hymn ignited emotions I failed to deal with. I cried myself to sleep. But also, somehow, the hymn brought me closer to my family.

I could almost touch them. In good and in bad times my mother sings and dances to this hymn and I knew that since 3 December it had echoed many times both in Gweru and in Norton.

This feeling would later be confirmed by my brother, Cosmas. ‘At times I felt sorry for mbuya Mukoko and gogo Dizha because they would wake everyone up with either hymn 130 or 106, leading them in prayer. One time I looked at my watch and it was 3am.’

I would return to the second interrogation office on three occasions. The second time I was interrogated by a smaller group, without the assistant commissioner. I was told that I had to write a statement when I was returned to what had become my ‘home’. As it turned out, I would have to write three statements before one was accepted. In the third statement I was instructed to say that I had referred the police officer, Hwasheni, to my friend Fidelis Mudimu, who had handed him the money. It was all fiction, no money had changed hands. I also had to include in the statement the names of my late father and my mother as well as my mother’s residential address. On the third occasion that I returned to the second interrogation office a video was recorded in which I was asked to repeat what I had said in the statement.

The burly man informed me that I was being recorded in order to establish whether I would qualify to be a state witness. I wanted to know what that would mean, as the ‘boss’ at the detention centre had told me that if I became a state witness he could improve my living conditions.

The burly man giggled. ‘It does not mean going home but rather into protective custody because in your case your friends will think you have sold out. Hwasheni [the police officer to whom the ZPP was alleged to have given money] is in protective custody. Harrison [Nkomo, a lawyer who would be a member of my defence team] and other lawyers have the opportunity to visit him.’ When I later asked Harrison about the visit he told me that Hwasheni had been ‘wearing a suit, holding a television remote control and wanted us to believe that he was comfortable, but his body language told a different story’.

That day, taking advantage of the burly man’s good mood, I asked to use the telephone. My request was followed by a prolonged silence and the burly man, who seemed to be the only one talking to me, asked who I wanted to call. Looking him in the eye I told him it was nearly the festive season and I wanted to speak to my son. In fact, what I wanted to do was establish Takudzwa’s whereabouts and whether he was in any trouble. The man’s response surprised me. ‘I hope you do not think we could be that cruel.’

On the fifth day of my incarceration I was in the bathroom looking out through the mesh wire window when I saw a Mazda 626 pull up on the gravel driveway and watched as Broderick was led into the detention centre.

Later that afternoon during my interrogation Mararike was not his usual self. He banged on the desk and shouted, ‘You think we are children, but today I will show you we are not because all along you have been lying to us since day one.’ I insisted I had not lied. ‘You deserve to be punished and that is all I can say about your behaviour. For your information, the record has been set straight and from now on think hard about your answers because we know everything,’ he said.

In his rage, Mararike stormed out, and my mind focused on just one thing, the truncheons. When he came back he was holding something in his fists. He came to where I was sitting, emptied his hands and made two mounds of gravel. ‘I want you to kneel,’ he instructed, pointing to where my knees should be placed. The mounds reminded me of my childhood. When friends wanted to challenge each other we would make two sets of such mounds, which we called a mother’s breasts. The kicking of the opponent’s mother’s breasts resulted in retaliation and the start of a fistfight.

As someone who is socialised to kneel, I thought it would be a piece of cake. I was so wrong. The pain was intense, numbing. I drifted out of my own body and watched this woman from the ceiling.

Despite the pain I still could not name people from the MDC-T. I had not worked with them on any project. I did not meet with anyone in Botswana to discuss the training of youths. I still did not remember the name of the police officer and I did not give him money to go to Botswana. The interrogation went on for about two hours and the pain was unbearable, the small stones kept pushing up bruising the hard skin of my knees.

The interrogation team was thinning out by the day and, on that day, there were only three of them. I was saved when all three filed out to respond to a phone call. I remained on my knees for more than 10 minutes, not knowing whether they would be coming back, then I heard a vehicle leave and the ‘watering can man’ came in to relieve me. The gravel had left marks on my knees and I had a cramp. I spent the next few minutes massaging my knees. I cannot believe that people leave home to go to work where their business is to inflict pain on others.

Broderick, I was to learn when I finally managed to speak to him, had been interrogated in the same room in the morning and was punished for being conservative with the truth. After he was beaten the soles of his feet turned black – a discolouration he carried for several months afterwards.

After more than 14 days in this detention place the ‘watering can man’ brought me my meal one evening and left me shell shocked when he said, ‘My name is Cosmas’. When he returned to collect the plates and have me wash my hands he spoke softly, ‘But I am a better Cosmas because I know where you are, unlike the other Cosmas, who is getting desperate and appealing to anyone who might know where you could be.

‘I hear the other Cosmas regularly making passionate pleas on Studio 7,’ he continued before disappearing again. I was shocked that someone from the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), which, I had established when I overheard a telephone conversation, was responsible for my incarceration, listened to those stations that had been declared to be ‘pirate’. They included shortwave Radio Africa broadcasts from the United Kingdom, Studio 7 of the Voice of America from Washington, DC and Radio Voice of the People, broadcast from Cape Town, South Africa.

I am still not sure if Cosmas was his real name and I am torn between believing he was deployed to be pleasant as a bait to fish for information and considering that he did what he did out of the goodness of his heart and hoping that the Lord blesses him. Once he gave me an old magazine, Fair Lady, which helped distract me from the nightmare that continued to unfold and without which I might have lost my mind.

On another occasion he brought me a Mills and Boon novel, whose title I never got to know because its covers were torn. As someone within the system he knew the effect of solitary confinement. One night, while on night shift, Cosmas said I could sit between the two desks in my room to watch the television in the next room. It was always on so loudly when there was power that it hurt my ears. It was during a brief loss of power, when the music and the television were silent, that I had overheard the telephone conversation that suggested I was in a CIO detention centre.

I declined the offer to watch. Being short sighted I have trouble seeing things from a distance so I avoided straining my eyes, but my ears heard every word. Thus I learned about the death of the then Zanu-PF political commissar, Elliot Manyika, who was killed in a car accident on 6 December and was interred in the National Heroes Acre on 11 December. I listened to the address by the president at the burial, thinking I might hear him mention a woman who had disappeared. There was no mention, instead he scoffed at the idea of intervening in response to the cholera epidemic.

On one occasion I asked Cosmas about the digging outside the interrogation room. He explained that the workers were digging for ants the ‘boss’ liked that came out during the rainy season. The explanation came as a relief and I did not reveal my fears to Cosmas.

‘Sisi (sister), I hear you wear glasses and I have been told that carrots improve eyesight,’ said Cosmas during one of his meal duties. ‘I have carrots in my garden and if you like mealie cobs I can bring those for you.’ He brought the goodies, telling me to put them in a drawer until the coast was clear, meaning when all the vehicles had left the facility at the end of the day.

One night, during another power cut, I overheard the operative known as ‘Guns’ educating Cosmas about the movie The Transporter.

… there is a driver who is supposed to take commodities and people between point A and point B without opening the goods or speaking to the people. He does this well several times but one time when he transports a woman he makes a mistake. The woman, who is gagged, requests to relieve herself and he allows her and the woman flees.

As I listened I got the sense that Cosmas was being warned about getting too close to me.

Late one night, long after activity in the detention centre had died down, I experienced real terror when I saw the glass door that separated my room from the television room being covered with a curtain by the short operative, who had to stand on a chair to reach for the curtain hooks. I wondered why it had suddenly become necessary for the door to be curtained. Sweating and sensing danger I sat up, watching intently. I thought the worst was about to happen and I wanted to see the person who was going to do it. He did not see my movement because the room was dark, as it had been during my entire time as a ‘guest’. I said a prayer quietly and started humming an Anglican hymn – number 130:

Mukristu usanete
Inzwa ingirosi yako
Uripedyo pemhandu
Namata urinde

(Christian! seek not yet repose,
Hear thy guardian angel say;
Thou art in the midst of foes -
Watch and pray.)

Singing hymns always brought me closer to the family during the dark days and nights and somehow after singing I gained a bit of courage to face my tormentors.

For a long time, perhaps an hour, I heard people talking in the next room but the voices were low and difficult to catch. My mind went wild as I speculated about the reason for the curtain.

Book details

Presenting Fiona Moolla's Natures of Africa: Ecocriticism and Animal Studies in Contemporary Cultural Forms

Natures of AfricaComing soon from Wits University Press, Natures of Africa: Ecocriticism and Animal Studies in Contemporary Cultural Forms edited by Fiona Moolla:

Foreword by Byron Caminero-Santangelo:

Environmental and animal studies are rapidly growing areas of interest across a number of disciplines. Natures of Africa is one of the first edited volumes which encompasses transdisciplinary approaches to a number of cultural forms, including fiction, non-fiction, oral expression and digital media. The volume features new research from East Africa and Zimbabwe, as well as the ecocritical and eco-activist “powerhouses” of Nigeria and South Africa.
The chapters engage one another conceptually and epistemologically without an enforced consensus of approach. In their conversation with dominant ideas about nature and animals, they reveal unexpected insights into forms of cultural expression of local communities in Africa. The analyses explore different apprehensions of the connections between humans, animals and the environment, and suggest alternative ways of addressing the challenges facing the continent. These include the problems of global warming, desertification, floods, animal extinctions and environmental destruction attendant upon fossil fuel extraction.

There are few books that show how nature in Africa is represented, celebrated, mourned or commoditised. Natures of Africa weaves together studies of narratives – from folklore, travel writing, novels and popular songs – with the insights of poetry and contemporary reflections of Africa on the worldwide web. The chapters test disciplinary and conceptual boundaries, highlighting the ways in which the environmental concerns of African communities cannot be disentangled from social, cultural and political questions.

This volume draws on and will appeal to scholars and teachers of oral tradition and indigenous cultures, literature, religion, sociology and anthropology, environmental and animal studies, as well as media and digital cultures in an African context.

About the editor

Fiona Moolla teaches African Literature at the University of the Western Cape. Her work focuses on the nexus between oral, print and digital cultures, highlighting human, animal, environmental and cosmic relationships.She is the author of Reading Nuruddin Farah: The Individual, the Novel and the Idea of Home.

Foreword Byron Caminero-Santangelo

Chapter 1: “Here is some baobab leaf!”: Sunjata, foodways and biopiracy Jonathan Bishop Highfield

Chapter 2: Shona as a land-based nature-culture: A study of the (re)construction of Shona land mythology in popular songs Mickias Musiyiwa

Chapter 3: The environment as signifi cant Other: The green nature of Shona indigenous religion Jacob Mapara

Chapter 4: Animal praise poetry and the Samburu desire to survive James Maina Wachira

Chapter 5: Voluntourism paradoxes: Strategic visual tropes of the natural on South African voluntourism websites Reinier JM Vriend

Chapter 6: Toward ecocriticism in Africa: Literary aesthetics in African environmental literature Chengyi Coral Wu

Chapter 7: Critical intersections: Ecocriticism, globalised cities and African narrative, with a focus on K Sello Duiker’s Thirteen Cents Antony Vital

Chapter 8: Navigating Gariep country: Writing nature and culture in Borderline by William Dicey Mathilda Slabbert

Chapter 9: Negotiating identity in a vanishing geography: Home, environment and displacement in Helon Habila’s Oil on Water Ogaga Okuyade

Chapter 10: Animal narrators in Patrice Nganang’s Dog Days: An Animal Chronicle and Alain Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine Wendy Woodward

Chapter 11: Nature, animism and humanity in Anglophone Nigerian poetry Sule Egya

Chapter 12: Animals, nostalgia, and Zimbabwe’s rural landscape in the poetry of Chenjerai Hove and Musaemura Zimunya Syned Mthatiwa

About the authors
Acknowledgements
Notes

Book details

Benedict Wallet Vilakazi - the 'Father of Nguni Literature' - honoured with Order of Ikhamanga

The late Zulu poet, novelist and linguist Benedict Wallet Vilakazi will be honoured with the Order of Ikhamanga today.

The National Orders Awards are awarded annually to those who have “played a momentous role towards building a free democratic South Africa and who also have made a significant impact on improving the lives of South Africans in various ways”.

Vilakazi and Marguerite Poland are the two writers who will be receiving the Order of Ikhamanga this year, an award that recognises South African citizens who have excelled in the fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sport.

Wits University Press published Vilakazi’s first book of poems, Inkondlo kaZulu (Zulu Horizons) – the poetry ever published in isiZulu – and a subsequent volume Amal’eZulu, as well as the first Zulu-English Dictionary, which Vilakazi compiled in collaboration with CM Doke.

Find out more, from Wits Press:

Benedict Wallet Vilakazi has been called the “Father of Nguni Literature”. He was born on 6 January, 1906 at Groutville Mission Station near Stanger in KwaZulu-Natal. The poet grew up in the neighbourhood of the mission station and in 1912 entered the primary school at Groutville, remaining there until he reached Standard 4. He continued his schooling at Marianhill, the Roman Catholic Monastery outside Durban, and after reaching standard 6, took a teacher’s training course.

Vilakazi’s gifts and ambitions came to the fore when he attended the Catholic Seminary at Ixopo in KwaZulu-Natal, where he devoted much of his spare time to distance education. He succeeded in matriculating, after which he taught at the Ohlange Institute in Phoenix near Durban. In 1934 he attained a Bachelor of Arts degree in African Studies. At the time, Vilakazi was already known to academics at the University of the Witwatersrand, which was in the process of publishing his first book of poems, Inkondlo kaZulu (tr: Zulu Horizons). This was the first book of poems ever published in isiZulu; it also marked the launch of the newly established Bantu (later: African) Treasury Series (published by Wits University Press), a collection of 20 classic works written between 1935 and the 1987 in African indigenous languages.

Coincidentally, the University was looking for an assistant in its Bantu Studies Department (now the Department of African Languages). At the insistence of CM Doke, at the time Head of Department, Vilakazi was appointed as Language Assistant in 1935. This appointment made him the first black African in the then Union of South Africa to teach at a white university, and it sparked a controversy: treated with suspicion by conservative whites, it was also seen as a “collaborationist appointment” (1) by some in the black political elite.

Vilakazi continued his own studies and, in 1938, was awarded a Master of Arts degree. In 1946 he reached another milestone by becoming the first black African in South Africa to receive a Doctorate in Literature (D Litt.) from Wits for his thesis The Oral and Written Literature in Nguni.

When Vilakazi entered the literary field, there were no published books of plays or poems written in isiZulu, and from 1930 onwards for 10 years, Vilakazi, HIE and RRR Dhlomo dominated the literary scene. Amal’eZulu (Wits University Press), published in 1945, was later recognized as one the best 100 African books of the twentieth century. Vilakazi also published three novels, Noma Nini! (Marianhill Mission Press), Udingiswayo KaJobe (Sheldon Press) and Nje Nempela (Marianhill Mission Press). In collaboration with Doke, he compiled the first Zulu-English Dictionary (Wits University Press). Writing in 1995, Dumisani Ntshangase asserted that Vilakazi and Doke:

produced the first major lexicographical work in an African language and this dictionary even today stands as the most successful and comprehensive project in African Languages lexicography in South Africa. (2)

In his writings, Vilakazi thought of himself as a spokesperson for his people and he identified with the struggles, fears, sacrifices and aspirations of his people. However, because of the bias towards African literature written in English – a bias that dominated academic discourse as well as debates within the resistance movement of the time – “his works have always been put in the periphery of the African intellectual history.” (3)

Vilakazi died suddenly of meningitis at Coronation Hospital at the age of 41 on 26 October, 1947, survived by five children. He was undoubtedly the most outstanding figure in Zulu literature of his time, and his funeral in Marianhill was attended by thousands of people.

References:

1. Dumisani Kruschchev Ntshangase, Between the Lion and the Devil: The Life and Works of BW Vilakazi, 1906-1947. Paper presented for the Institute for Advanced Social Research, University of Witwatersrand 1995. Page 3.
2. Ntshangase 1995, page 2.
3. Ntshangase 1995, page 1.

Chigozie Obioma reviews And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile

And After Many DaysVerdict: carrot, with criticism

There is a recurring motif of someone switching on a light bulb in Jowhor Ile’s laudable first novel, “And After Many Days.” The book begins in Nigeria in 1995, when the country was shrouded in literal and metaphorical darkness — plagued by war, corruption, and frequent and annoying power cuts. But this idea of a light that has gone out also applies to the family at the center of the book, a family whose own light is to be snuffed out by tragedy.

Book Details

Presidency to honour Marguerite Poland and Benedict Wallet Vilakazi with Orders of Ikhamanga

Presidency to honour Marguerite Poland and Benedict Wallet Vilakazi with Orders of Ikhamanga

 
President Jacob Zuma will bestow the 2016 National Orders Awards on a group of distinguished local citizens and foreign nationals this week.

The orders are awarded to those who have “played a momentous role towards building a free democratic South Africa and who also have made a significant impact on improving the lives of South Africans in various ways”.

Author Marguerite Poland and the late poet and novelist Benedict Wallet Vilakazi will be honoured with the Order of Ikhamanga, which recognises South African citizens who have excelled in the fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sport.

Benedict VilakaziBenedict Wallet Vilakazi (6 January 1906 – 26 October 1947) was a distinguished Zulu poet, novelist, and linguist. He wrote the first book of Zulu poems to be published, and in 1946 became the first black South African to receive a PhD. He was also the first African senior lecturer at a “white university”, joining the Department of Bantu Studies at the University of Witwatersrand as a lecturer in 1935. Vilakazi was a prolific writer, publishing his first novel, Nje nempela, in 1933, and his first book of poems, Inkondlo kaZulu, in 1935. He is credited with the establishment of a unique poetic genre, combining traditional Zulu praise-poetry with blank verse. Vilakazi also contributed many articles to scholarly publications and co-authored a Zulu-English Dictionary. Vilakazi Street in Soweto – famous as the place where two Nobel Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, once lived – is named after him.

Vilakazi reflected on his impressions of Wits in the poem “Wo, Ngitshele Mntanomlungu” (Tell, White Man’s Son):

Such massive and majestic columns,
Drawing my gaze where, high above me,
Doves are perched whose noisy cooing
Is like the bellowing of bulls.

Thus, as I gaze around in wonder,
I realise beyond all doubt
That I am lost! Yet well I know I came
To serve my own beloved people –
Aware of them always, I hear them cry:
‘”Take up your burden and be our voice!”

Translated by Lulu Friedman, from Clive Chipkin’s Johannesburg Style, architecture and society 1880s-1960s.

The KeeperMarguerite Poland grew up and was educated in the Eastern Cape, and is fluent in Xhosa and isiZulu. She is a graduate of Rhodes and Stellenbosch Universities and the University of KwaZulu-Natal and has a BA in Xhosa and Social Anthropology, an Honours degree in Comparative African Languages and an MA in Zulu Literature. Poland writes for both children and adults, and her landmark 1979 book The Mantis And The Moon is credited with establishing a market for indigenous children’s books in English in South Africa. Her adult novels have won several prestigious awards, and she has also written a number of academic papers and reports. Her most recent novel is The Keeper.

Other notable recipients of National Orders this year include the late journalist and editor Zwelakhe Sisulu (Order of Mapungubwe, gold, Posthumous), the late entrepreneur Marina Nompinti Maponya (Order of the Baobab, gold, Posthumous), Winifred “Winnie” Madikizela-Mandela and Sathyandranath Ragunanan “Mac” Maharaj (both Order of Luthuli, silver).

The ceremony will take place on Thursday, 28 April, at Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guesthouse in Pretoria.

Full list of 2016 Order of Ikhamanga recipients:

The Order will be bestowed in Bronze on:

  • Laurika Rauch: For her outstanding contribution in the field of music and raising awareness on political injustices through music. She bravely deployed her artistic talents to highlight the injustices and tyranny of the apartheid rule.

The Order will be bestowed in Silver on:

  • Thomas Hasani Chauke: For his excellent contribution to the development and promotion of Xitsonga traditional music in the country. His prolific song-writing and performances have put Xitsonga music in the forefront.

  • Sylvia “Magogo” Glasser: For her excellent contribution to the field of dance and transference of skills to the young people from all racial backgrounds, fostering social cohesion in the time of apartheid. 

  • Marguerite Poland: For her excellent contribution to the field of indigenous languages, literature and anthropology. Her literary works are taught widely in South African schools.


The order will be bestowed in Gold on:

  • Benedict Wallet Vilakazi (Posthumous): For his exceptional contribution to the field of literature in indigenous languages and the preservation of isiZulu culture. A world famous street in Soweto, where two noble prize winners once resided, bears his name.

  • Professor Rosina Mamokgethi Phakeng: For her excellent contribution in the field of science and representing South Africa on the international stage through her outstanding research work.

 
Click here for the full list of 2016 National Orders Awards

Book details

Benedict Wallet Vilakazi image courtesy of Ulwazi