Book: African Delights
Author: Siphiwo Mahala
Paperback: 200 pages
Publisher: Jacana Media (January 1, 2012)
Aslak Myre, who taught us creative non-fiction at the Farafina Trust creative writing workshop I was opportune to attend this year, stressed that literature is the peephole through which societies can be viewed and accessed. Only he did not say it in these exact words. This interpretation, inferred from what he said, is mine.
Literature, when it carries fact, is a veritable way of meeting, experiencing and altogether understanding the society it portrays. It is for this reason that Aslak and the other tutors at the workshop mentioned earlier stressed the place of truth in literature, whether fiction or non-fiction.
This importance, this place of truth in literature, was again brought to bear on my mind, not by another teacher, or another instance of formal learning, but by a work of fiction: Siphiwo Mahala’s short story collection, “African Delights”.
Though I have longed to, I am yet to visit South Africa. In truth, I am yet to cross Nigeria’s regional borders. However, South Africa, gleaned first through the written word, and later through TV screens, is alive in my mind. Before I ever heard about, or read, Siphiwo Mahala’s African Delights, I had read Peter Abraham’s Mine Boy and other South African literature of the apartheid days. I already knew South Africa, I thought. Secure in my ignorance, I pranced about. Mouthing Amandla with a conviction that I felt sure matched Black South Africa’s.
Don’t misjudge me. While working as the online editor of Business in Africa magazine for a year, I had cause to trawl South African websites in search of news, and learnt about modern South Africa—through the eyes of the media.
Perhaps I had forgotten the depth that Mine Boy conveyed (My teen, when I read that book, is more than a decade behind me) but African Delights brought it all back, only with a fresher, clearer perspective.
That this country (South Africa) has had a chequered history is not something anyone would want to argue about, but that this history, as it is with the history of any people who have suffered oppression, is very personal to the blacks of South Africa is something African Delights shows in more ways than one. The writer does not attempt to mask the fact that the stories are from the black experience, neither did he try to excuse the telling.
African Delights captures the world of Black South Africa in a way that only a gifted storyteller could manage. Divided into four sections of stories related in subject and theme, this collection effortlessly awes and humours at the same time.
Part One covers “The Suit Stories”, which the sub-title indicates is a tribute to Can Themba, who, I gleaned, wrote a widely popular story about a man who made his wife set a place at the dining table and dish food to the suit her lover left behind while fleeing after he caught them in the act. Can Themba, a chronicler of South African life in the glory days of Drum, also happens to be one of the authors literary influences—as the foreword indicates. The author shows, by giving life to the work of Can Themba, the best way to celebrate a mentor.
In effect, the suit stories answers the questions that would come to the mind of anyone who reads an article about a man running half-nude through the streets: what happened to him? What excuse(s) did he give his wife as to the cause of his state of undress? What happened to the woman, his lover? Was he ever able to get his clothes, a suit, back?
Using three connected stories—The Suit Continued, The Dress that feed the Suit-Zukuswa Wanner and The Lost Suit—Siphiwo Mahala answered these questions and more. Now, these are not bland storytelling, for the author, aside from infusing humour into the telling, gives you a picture of what life was like in Black South Africa at the height of apartheid. The prose, wielded powerfully, is emotive and evocative in its beauty.
The second part was a departure, not from telling stories from the black point of view, but from using humour. Reading the first of the three stories in White Encounters—this too is the title story, the other two are The Other Truth and Hunger—you can tell from the beginning that this is different from the book’s first part, that you’d begin seeing the people that the blacks shared this country with up-close-and-personal. Yes, the title could be said to encourage some of this feeling but the stories justify themselves worthy of the theme. In White Encounters, the title story, we see White South Africa through the eyes of a child, Sipho. We see the different versions of whites from the kindly dentist to the innocent white child, yet to understand racial stereotypes and tensions, to the adult white woman who embodies the disdain for blacks that is at the heart of the apartheid policy, a disdain that is at the same time ironical. Sipho, at an age when many should be more concerned about food and play, is forced to confront racial relationships and tensions. Sipho, like many black kids in his time, had to share his mother’s love, her milk and her time—things that should be his alone by right—with a white kid whose mother treated him with disdain and sacked his mother for daring to bring him to work, for daring to let him play with her child. I recall smiling at the irony of the white woman’s anger and remembering that in the days of slavery in the United States, many black children had to give up the right to suckle their mother’s breast as it became the preserve of the white landowner’s children, seems South Africa was not spared that barbarity.
The other stories in this section continued with this theme of blacks looking at whites, though Bhontsi’s Toe did more to highlight the feeling of the majority of the blacks towards the police, many of who were blacks too, the enforcement arm of apartheid South Africa. Bhontsi, an orphan who had to survive the best way he can, was killed for associating with the police. Jungle Justice, or Mob Justice, becomes the outlet as people sought to get their own back, if not at the oppressors, than at those who enforce their will. Here again, a child’s eye, an older Sipho, provided the point of view and it was not a non-critical point of view. It would be of some import to further look at the significance of the cold-blooded way the black kids in the story dispatched helpless ducklings with catapults, perhaps their actions is an indication of how some blacks under apartheid became—cold hearted.
The third story in this segment, Hunger, went a different route. The story remained true to the theme of Sipho’s white encounters, but this time adult eyes provided the POV. Hunger is almost a shock. To move into an adult world after seeing through the eyes, even if adult like eyes, of children was a surprise, a very pleasant one. Perhaps it would have been disappointing if the relationships that produced South Africa’s “other” race, the coloureds, were not explored in a collection of such thematic leaning, but Hunger does satisfy that yearning. White and Black romantic relationships was something that even slave owning America frowned upon, something whites in South Africa frowned upon and, like their American forerunners, tried to control with legislation that banned inter racial marriages. I think there was a conflict of that nature in Mine Boy, but I’d have to read that book again to be sure. Hunger is not about any conflict, external that is, surrounding inter racial relationships. On one level, it is the story of Sipho’s struggle to get the Dean of the Students of the University of Forth Hare to approve his request for a scholarship to complete his studies, on another level it is the story of Sipho and Kate, black and white, in love/lust in a post apartheid South Africa. Kate is European, with liberal views about sex and race, but this does not make the relationship less complex. For Sipho, going out with a white girl was a score, a plus mark on his chart, a way to earn respect among his fellow villagers for “eating white bread”. He clearly had no plan to keep the white woman permanently, as even in the throes of passion; his mind remained with the other woman, a black woman, waiting for him in his village. It is also instructive that he could only get the erection needed to bed Kate after coming face to face with a naked black woman. Humour again became part of the narrative and here we have clear example of the writer’s powerful word weaving—as the following lines show.
“what if I say I like you too?” she said, looking straight into my eyes. That warranted no verbal response. I kissed her pink lips. Her mouth smelled like ashtray. Our tongues wrestled each other. My south pole pointed north. Only the mountain, the trees and the horse were witness to this unfolding miracle. Page 104
Sparse and imaginative, that is how I class Siphiwo Mahala’s writing. And it was a style that I found very powerful even in the myriad of ways he used it.
Part Three is titled The Truth. This time the theme is truth and the scene has again moved back to the black South Africa, only this is present day South Africa where apartheid is a distant memory and political power firmly in the grasp of the erstwhile oppressed blacks. Three stories—The Truth, The Other Truth and So Many Truths—try to answer the question about Truth and perspectives. These stories, told in the pov of three different individuals, dealing with the same allegation, resonated with me. I said to friends not so long ago that truth, as we know it, is relative to our experiences. The Truth stories agree with me as the opening shows:
TRUTH IS FOREVER ELUSIVE
The quest to find the real truth about the truth is eternal. Truth is abstract. One man’s truth is not always the same as the other’s. It is dynamic, constantly changing like a chameleon changing colours. Page 117
And that is the meat of it. In the first story, Zakes, now a pastor, claims his cousin’s wife used to be his girl, one of many, and that he gave her up so that a brother could have a woman. He further claims the woman’s first daughter is actually his. Zakes is annoyed that the cousin, Themba, who just wrote a bestseller, did wrong by revealing that he slept with Zakes mother, his aunty. So Zakes is mad and is telling “all” to get back at him. but, is his story “The Truth”?
In The Other Truth, Thuli, Themba’s wife, explains why she decided to stay with her man even after it was revealed that he slept with the fruit his union with his aunty produced. She went ahead to call Zakes a braggart who is being very economical with the truth.
Then we get Themba’s side of the story in So Many Truths. If by now you are yet to see the why Siphiwo Mahala is reckoned with in his native South Africa, the skill with which he handled each telling of The Truth should be enough reason. Each of these related stories is told in a voice distinct to the character. with Zakes’ telling you get the feel of a successful, but proud, narrator. You hear the tinge of anger and justification in Thule’s. With Themba, it is the thoughtful voice you’d expect from a writer and while the others were direct, straight forward even, he seems to do it in a roundaboutish fashion, very writerly.
It is almost a year since I was accuse of having molest an HIV-positive schoolgirl—Nosipho. She died, poor Nosipho. She died of an Aids-related sickness. I never knew that she was a carrier of the virus when i slept with her. I never knew that she was my daughter either. It was only when she was dying that I became aware of all this. This was good enough reason for my wife to leave our matrimonial home. She took our two girls with her. All of this is weighing down on me. Page 146
It takes great skill to wield characters and voices so succinctly.
For African Delights, the title stories and fouth and last part of this beautiful book I have very little to say. I know this may sound strange, especially since a said a lot about the other part, but the stories—The Queen of the Highlanders, African Delights and The Best of African Delights—rank among those stories I rather leave the reader to discover themselves. I will say one thing however, with Zodwa, Simba and the Down People, Siphiwo Mahala succeeded in creating characters for Africa’s future. In them we have an example of how using our traditions, we can create worlds and situations that are as endearing as any fantasy world anyone one can think of, only it would not read like fantasy to us.
Now I can say Amandla with the passion expressed by the natives.
African Delights is available on Amazon
Mazi Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu