Book review: Sindiwe Magona’s devastating, uplifting story of South African women


CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images

Lizzy Attree, Richmond American International University

Reading South African author Sindiwe Magona’s latest novel When the Village Sleeps reminded me of my time researching and teaching in the country’s Eastern Cape province a decade ago. While involved in community engagement for Rhodes University I heard stories of young people who would deliberately contract HIV in order to receive government disability grants.

When the Village Sleeps spans three generations of women in one family and the central role of ancestral belief and ancient custom – or a lack of it – in their lives. It initially focuses on Busi, a promising young student who benefits from an education at a good school due to the hard work and friendship of her grandmother with her former white employer.

It reveals the devastating motivation behind Busi’s teenage pregnancy orchestrated to produce a financial reward in the form of a child support grant from the state.

The shocking story at the centre of Magona’s latest novel is as heartbreaking as it is cruel – and yet the character of Busi’s daughter Mandlakazi (or Mandla) completely overturns the notion that her birth is a tragedy. She becomes the heroine who unites her family.

A book cover showing the title 'When the Village Sleeps' inside an illustration of a giant moon, trees and lands in the foreground and the name of the author, Sindiwe Magona.

Pan Macmillan/Picador Africa

Magona is a pioneering writer who, with this new novel, continues to feature challenging contemporary issues in her work, with incisive commentaries on power, masculinity and the role of women.

The old and the new

Mandla’s great grandmother, Khulu, who takes baby Mandla to the rural Eastern Cape to recuperate from birth disabilities and strengthen her, is central to the story and it is her unending devotion that seems to bring about such a significant change in the “broken bundle” she brings home to Sidwadweni.

Referencing the poetry and teachings of celebrated isiXhosa-language author and historian S.E.K. Mqhayi, the narration frequently shifts into poetry to enable the voice of Mandla to articulate her nascent consciousness which seems fused with her ancestors, “the Old”. From her earliest moments she would:

fall asleep to the ministrations

of her hands infused with care

and into that sleep

the lyrics of songs pouring from an ancient throat

sink deep into my mind

into my brain, my heart, my limbs.

No wonder Mandla is so transformed by the years she spends under Khulu’s care. She returns to Kwanele township in Cape Town with a divine gift that enables her to access the ancestral realm, and predict the future.

Central to the novel is abenzakalise (those who have harmed) and the consequences of their actions. On a personal level this relates to Busi’s strained relationship with her mother Phyllis and her estranged father, and then, as a teenager, the alcohol and the street drug tik she imbibes in order to deform her baby and receive the state’s disability allowance.

However, all of these characters are shown to be capable of redemption and change, as long as they adhere to Khulu’s wisdom – which is by no means a fixed regurgitation of “tradition” but a practical, living faith. So the resilience and strength of all the female characters shines through, as it does in Magona’s celebrated 2008 novel Beauty’s Gift.

A devastating critique

On a wider allegorical level the novel reads as a critique of South Africa itself, the impact of colonialism and the ruling African National Congress (ANC), who have harmed the people through corruption and a failure to tackle inequality, stunting the growth of a healthy, prosperous nation.

Explicit critique of the government and particularly government handouts which do nothing to really alleviate poverty, but just entrench feelings of helplessness, is evident throughout the novel.

Magona makes incisive judgements, through her characters – especially the elder Khulu and young Mandla – and offers possible solutions, which include honouring the earth and returning to self-sufficiency. This idealism can feel naïve at times but there’s something very seductive and straightforward about the self-care, and self-respect that comes from citizens helping themselves and transforming their communities from within.




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Learning from the story of pioneering South African writer Sindiwe Magona


Towards the end, the book tips into a kind of disabled girls’ manifesto or set of instructions for how to set up community-based support for disabled and marginalised young people. However Magona expertly shifts the narrative at that point back to a dialogue with the ancestors and manages to transform the didactic elements of the tale into wisdom that reaches up to the present day and the threat of COVID-19.

Very recent commentary on the difficulties of enforcing social distancing in communities which rely on food parcels during the pandemic, forcing locals to gather together to collect much needed help, is painful to read. The mistakes are so preventable and obvious and yet are made time and again.

The prophecy

Most interesting to me is the way in which the novel manages to balance the re-introduction of neglected female initiation rites alongside the magic realism of Mandla’s prediction of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the 15-year-old Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse’s 19th century prophecy – which led to a millennial movement that culminated in the cattle-killing and famine of 1856-7 – Mandla’s foretelling that “the world will die”, comes true, although perhaps not on the scale the “voices” decreed:

The ground will not be able to swallow all the dead!

O-oh! The multitudinous dead!

There will be none left to bury the dead.

In many respects this prediction blurs, in my mind, with the scale of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that killed more than 2 million South Africans, with 7.7 million currently infected with HIV. Magona has written searingly on this topic before.

Once again excoriating the corruption and failures of government, the Fields of Hope project, which young Mandla initiates to grow food for the township, shines like a beacon when “what government help does for the poor is cement them in poverty… Here comes help that is real!”

Ending on a shockingly blunt and abrupt note, Magona leaves us, as always, with a lot to think about.The Conversation

Lizzy Attree, Adjunct Professor, Richmond American International University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Indigenous children’s book ‘Little Louis’ aims to curb COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy with a culturally relevant story


The children’s book, Little Louis, tells the story of a young boy preparing for his COVID-19 vaccination.
(Morning Star Lodge), Author provided

Patrick Sullivan, University of Saskatchewan and Heather O’Watch, University of Saskatchewan

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone. But communities are different, and so are their pandemic experiences. After more than a year of uncertainty and frustration, vaccines have brought many a sense that a return to normal is on the horizon. However, health and research communities now face a new challenge: vaccine hesitancy.


Click here for more articles in our series about vaccine confidence.

While there are countless reasons to be vaccine hesitant, we must acknowledge the numerous legitimate reasons for hesitancy.

For example, if a community has experienced an exhausting history of medical experimentation, forced or coerced sterilization and breaches of trust by the very institutions presenting the vaccine, their hesitancy is based on cultural or historical factors and entirely distinct from the “anti-vaxx” movement.




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This is the daunting reality for many Indigenous communities across the country. As a result, there is an urgent need to repair trust and promote vaccine confidence through evidence-based knowledge.

At Morning Star Lodge, we are part of a partnership between the community research advisory committee at Star Blanket Cree Nation and Solutions for Kids in Pain (SKIP). Together we have collaborated to promote vaccine confidence while demonstrating the importance of community-led research.

Reflecting culture

We entered into this partnership to promote vaccine uptake under the direction of Indigenous communities. Through our discussions, we came to solutions about ways we could promote COVID-19 vaccination information — like booklets for Indigenous children and adults. After coming up with several solutions, Star Blanket Cree Nation’s research advisory committee members pointed towards an additional need: A children’s book, and in came Little Louis.

Many Indigenous Peoples grew up without medical information that respected or reflected their culture, the CRAC recognized the need to reverse this trend. A children’s book that reflects the identities of Indigenous children is important for making information accessible to all.

SKIP, Morning Star Lodge and Indigenous community members began to prepare a children’s book that is engaging, educational and relevant for Indigenous children experiencing needle fear or vaccine hesitancy — seeing their culture reflected in a children’s book can make all the difference when it comes to getting the jab. Needle fear or hesitation is a common feeling and there is minimal children’s literature on the topic, especially literature that is culturally relevant.

The Star Blanket Cree Nation’s cultural, community and storytelling expertise far exceeds that of SKIP or Morning Star Lodge. The community research advisory committee members live in, and are from, the communities we serve, their Indigenous Knowledge adds depth and relevance to all of our projects. Their guidance and leadership ensures that developments, like Little Louis, directly reflect community needs.

Indigenous Peoples expertise, guidance and leadership

Little Louis talks about how to prepare for getting a vaccine, what vaccines feel like and what parents and children can do in order to be supported. The intention is that Little Louis will evolve into several different stories that will target different audiences and address different issues as time goes on and different issues arise. This sort of flexibility is a requisite to working with dynamic communities.

Inflexible research was and is often the norm. “Helicopter” research (where researchers enter communities, collect data and leave, never to be heard from again) was and is still practised. This entirely one-sided interaction always benefits researchers but rarely, if ever, benefits communities. It frequently misrepresents realities for Indigenous communities and actively creates negative stereotypes that have been used to justify systemic racism.

Historically, research with Indigenous Peoples was not conducted “in a good way.” Today, researchers can be guided to correct the errors of the past through principles like OCAP (ownership, control, access and possession) and the CARE and FAIR principles for Indigenous data governance. Further, researchers can learn about ethical engagement and cultural safety to ensure their research is truly ethical and upholds community perspectives.

In practice, this means Indigenous Peoples should be at the helm of any research that may impact them or is about them. Doing so can prevent harmful misrepresentations, promote self-determination and contribute to solutions Indigenous communities actually need — like a children’s book that addresses vaccine hesitancy.

The following is a synopsis of “Little Louis.” Check the Morning Star Lodge blog for updates on publication.

Meet Little Louis

Little Louis tells the story of Louis, a young boy preparing for his COVID-19 vaccination. Louis starts by sharing his fears and frustrations with safety restrictions and the vaccine. His family listens and tells him how brave he is for making the decision to keep himself and the community safe.

Still nervous and hesitant about the vaccine, Louis’ family has an idea to create a “little” Louis, out of paper, which he can bring to the vaccination clinic during his appointment. Louis’ family also shares the story of a brave Métis leader named Gabriel Dumont and his rifle, le petit (little one).

The night before the vaccination appointment, Louis dreams of going on a fishing adventure with Little Louis where they reel in what they think is a fish but it turns out to be a big needle! Louis and Little Louis both bravely face the needle, reeling it in until it turns into the big catch they hoped for. The next morning Louis shares his dream with his family. They tell him that he was brave for facing his fears.

Finally, Louis goes to his vaccine appointment with Little Louis by his side. The doctor asks to see Little Louis to give him the vaccine first. Observing that Little Louis was brave and didn’t get scared, Louis is ready and the doctor gives Louis his vaccine. Both Louis and Little Louis are now protected from COVID-19!

Do you have a question about COVID-19 vaccines? Email us at ca‑vaccination@theconversation.com and vaccine experts will answer questions in upcoming articles.The Conversation

Patrick Sullivan, Sr. Research Assistant, Morning Star Lodge, University of Saskatchewan and Heather O’Watch, Research Assistant, Morning Star Lodge, University of Saskatchewan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.