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.

Read more:
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.

The story of an African children’s book that explains the science of skin colour


Nina G. Jablonski, Penn State

Skin We Are In is a landmark South African book for children (and grown-ups) on the subject of skin colour. Published in 2018, it was co-authored by an artist and a scientist, both South African luminaries – the author Sindiwe Magona and the anthropologist and palaeobiologist Nina Jablonski. Here they talk about how – and why – the book came about.

Nina Jablonski: As someone who studies the human biological past, I had been writing about skin colour and race for academic journals and for adult readers for years. The idea of doing a children’s book was planted back in 2010 when a friend impressed on me the importance of writing up my research on skin colour and race as an illustrated book for young readers. Like many South Africans, he realised that skin colour had been transformed through the country’s colonial history from a simple bodily trait – something that covers our bodies – to something that determines human worth and destiny.

I had found, in the course of my work, that people knew its social significance, but they didn’t understand it. Many were convinced that there was a genetic connection between skin colour and other physical and intellectual traits, including intelligence. This information – about how skin colour had evolved and how it didn’t determine any other human traits – really needed to be conveyed to the people who counted most: young people.

But I had no experience in writing for kids and no idea where the story would come from. I had the big challenge of finding a storyteller. I turned to the writer Njabulo Ndebele for advice. He suggested you, Sindiwe, saying “she has the spirit and spine needed”.

Sindiwe Magona: The project scared me for I had never worked with a scientist. But the subject matter is one of the most important aspects of my life as it has been the bane of black life in this country and, indeed, the world. This was a book that could enable parents to broach the subject of skin colour with their children. All parents need help to deal with race and racism; many did not get good grounding as children. Skin colour is often a difficult subject and dealing with it through storytelling is a great aid.

Nina Jablonski: One of the things that most impressed me, once we were talking, was your ability to express the everyday wear-and-tear of skin colour and colour-based racism.

Sindiwe Magona: Racism in South Africa was a way of life as it was sanctioned. Social stratification, according to skin, was reinforced by apartheid laws that in turn embedded and entrenched poverty and lack of mobility for the oppressed. The darker the skin colour, the less legal protection accorded, to the extent of denial of citizenship. Just as skin colour is inescapable, so was poverty inescapable. This created and reinforced a deep-seated sense of inferiority in most black people while most white people suffered the reverse and felt superior.

A book cover with the words 'Skin we are in' on an illustration of five young people, each a different skin tone.
The cover of the book written by two South African luminaries.
New Africa Books

Nina Jablonski: You found the hook to start writing the book quite by chance…

Sindiwe Magona: Coming back from our first meeting, Nina, I walked through the gate and reached behind the post for mail. Right there, on the small bush whose leaves I often have to brush aside to look into the mailbox, sat a chameleon. I watched as it slowly made its way from the stalk onto a leaf … changing colour as it did. At once, I morphed into a child, a boy, and I envied the chameleon’s ability. If only I could do that. Strange thing is – never before and never since have I spied another in my garden.

Read more:
Learning from the story of pioneering South African writer Sindiwe Magona

Nina Jablonski: When you told me about Njabulo, who longed to change his colour, I knew we had a great story. From there, we worked step by step, fitting the science alongside the developing text. We began working with Lynn Fellman, the illustrator, to create the look of the characters and their setting…

Sindiwe Magona: Enter Uncle Joshua and a group of children – Njabulo, Aisha, Tim, Chris and Roshni. Given a recycling project, Njabulo offers his Uncle Joshua’s junkyard, where the group from a multiracial school should meet. Njabulo, waiting for his group, is suddenly assailed by misgivings. Will his “friends” find him wanting? Are they, indeed, his friends? That is when he comes across the chameleon and wishes they were all the same colour … or if one could change colour like the chameleon. Uncle Joshua is stricken by the realisation of the self-doubt that is the lot of the black child. Later, he gets the group talking about skin colour; and here Nina’s science comes in very handy. With understanding grows self acceptance and appreciation. The result is the song that the group presents with the instruments they make using bits and pieces from the scrap yard.

An elder woman smiles lightly as she looks into the camera, eyes warm and dressed in black, beaded traditional Xhosa attire, a zebra skin on the wall behind her.
Sindiwe Magona has written over 130 children’s books.
© Bjorn Rudner/Sindiwe Magona

Nina Jablonski: Uncle Joshua was a believable and trusted wise uncle, who talked to the kids about things like the effects of sunlight on the body and how people got it wrong when they equated skin colour with intellectual potential. The science content boxes on each page provided basic facts backing up what Uncle Joshua was saying. The characters are very true, I don’t know how you do it.

Sindiwe Magona: I am fortunate that I never discarded my childhood, or perhaps it never left me. This enables me to go into that world of the child, imagine its delights, its fears, its doubts, and the absolute thrill of discovery, of mastery.

Nina Jablonski: We can’t force books into the hands of children, parents and teachers. But we made the book available in all of the official languages of South Africa, and made free copies readily available to schools in the Western Cape through Biblionef South Africa. We are incredibly fortunate that we had support from the businessman Koos Bekker through the Babylonstoren Foundation to make these things possible.

Read more:
We need to unpack the word ‘race’ and find new language

Sindiwe Magona: All parents are challenged by the issue of race and racism. White parents often feel “accused” of racism and black parents, by and large, feel since they are at the receiving end of racism, it is the other side that should learn. If white people would just stop being racist then the problem would be no more. Were it that simple.

We all need to forgive ourselves and one another … so we can go on and own our past and what it dealt us and then rid ourselves of beliefs we have come to know or recognise as unfounded. From there, we might be able to hand over a cleaner, wiser belief system to our children.

You can order a copy of Skin We Are In over here.The Conversation

Nina G. Jablonski, Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology, Penn State

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