The Woyingi Blog

Johnny Cash at Cinnamon Hill

Posted in Countries: Jamaica by the woyingi blogger on July 31, 2010

I’m currently reading Cash: The Autobiography by the late Johnny Cash, the legendary American country music icon whose life the film Walk The Line is based on.

The first chapter of the book is entitled Cinnamon Hill, after the home Cash had in Jamaica. I didn’t know that Johnny Cash lived in Jamaica at any time in his life. In 1982, Cash and his family experienced a traumatic home invasion. Yet, Cash decided to keep his Jamaican home.

Johnny Cash bought the house from his friend, businessman John Rollins, in the mid-seventies. Cinnamon Hill was built in 1747. It was originally owned by the Barretts of Wimpole Street, the family of 19th Century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The house had survived the 1831 slave revolt that had destroyed many of the other great houses on the island. This same slave revolt is credited with having brought to the attention of the British public the horrors of slavery, helping to lead to its abolition.

Cash writes about Cinnamon Hill:

The past is palpably present in and around Cinnamon Hill, the reminders of other times and other generations everywhere, some obvious, some not. For more than a century this was a sugar plantation worked by thousands of slaves who lived in clusters of shacks all over the property. All that remains of those people now, the metal hinges from their doors and nails from their walls, lies hidden in the undergrowth on the hillsides or in the soil just below the manicured sod of the golf course that loops around my house. I doubt that the vacationers playing those beautiful links have any idea, any concept, of the kind of life that once teemed where they walk—though perhaps some do, you never know. (page 34)

Johnny describes living with ghosts, who he and his family considered harmless. The family’s real experience of terror was when their home was invaded by three young men, who took 11 year old John Carter hostage, holding a gun to his head. Cash cooperated with the thieves who he realized were not cold-blooded killers but rather poor desperate addicts (Johnny could recognize this because of his own experiences with addiction). The thieves even early on got water for Cash’s cook who thought she was having a heart attack and after locking up Johnny’s family and guests in the cellar, the thieves gave them some of their turkey dinner because they did not want to completely ruin Christmas for them.

In the aftermath of the invasion, the Jamaican prime minister, Edward Seaga, got involved and had members of the Jamaican Defense Force dispatched to guard Johnny’s home. There was fear that if such a public figure decided to leave Jamaica because of its crime it might affect the entire tourist industry. The thieves were soon caught and all of them ended up dying while in custody. Johnny was troubled by these deaths. He writes:

How do I feel about it? What’s my emotional response to the fact (or at least the distinct possibility) that the desperate junkie boys who threatened and traumatized my family and might easily have killed us all (perhaps never intending any such thing) were executed for their act—or murdered, or shot down like dogs, have it how you will?

I’m out of answers. My only certainties are that I grieve for desperate young men and the societies that produce and suffer so many of them, and I felt that I knew those boys. We had a kinship, they and I: I knew how they thought, I knew how they needed. They were like me. (page 41)

This is the Johnny Cash who recorded an album at the notorious Folsom Prison. He could sympathize with criminals because of his own background of desperate poverty picking cotton in Arkansas and his battles with addiction. Johnny decided to stay in Jamaica; he just hired a private security firm to guard his house.  In conclusion, he writes:

Today I can look back and see that some good came from it all. When I take my walks and golf-cart rides down to the sea, I’m often stopped by local people who greet me warmly—“Respects, Mr. Cash, respects”—and I can’t count how many times I’ve heard gratitude for my decision to stay in Jamaica. And since the robbery I’ve been more involved in Jamaican life in various ways that have been very good for me. Today I feel truly at home in this beautiful country, and I love and admire its proud and kindly people. (page 43)

The Jamaican Prime Minister at the time of Cash’s death, P. J. Patterson, sent a representative to Cash’s funeral.

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Being Black, Being Muslim: Intersections and Contradictions

Posted in Being Black Being Muslim, Blacks and Islam, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on July 21, 2010

Being Black and Being Muslim is a double-bind. You have to face the Islamophobia of the general public, but particularly other Blacks, who seem to perceive Islam as an inauthentically Black religious option. Some of this comes from Islamophobia that is deeply rooted in the various forms of Christianity Blacks adhere to, but some of it comes from a dislike of Islam because of its associations with the Trans Atlantic, Trans Saharan, and Indian Ocean slave trades. As understanding of the history of slavery in Africa by both Black Muslims and Black non-Muslims is sadly biased, inadequate and ill-informed, it is hard to engage Black people on this topic constructively.

You then have to face the anti-Black racism of Muslims themselves. I have to admit that since becoming a Muslim there are times when I have felt that I have been transported to the America of the 1950s and accidently crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. All this said the reality of how all these communities interact with each other in a city like Ottawa cannot be understood by simply saying there is racism. Black Muslims and other Muslim communities attend mosques together, study together, and intermarry at a striking rate, particularly among the younger generations (although it is more common to see Arab and South Asian Muslim women marry Black Muslim men than Black Muslim women marrying into Arab and South Asian Muslim communities. But this is true for all communities; women always seem to have more courage in crossing the colour line than men do.) I myself am very close to Arab, Afghan, Iranian, and various South Asian and South East Asian Muslim community members. I don’t face racism from these people although I am often told and warned about the racism that does exist in their respective communities.

Here in Ottawa, there are various groups that members of the Muslim communities are involved in whose intent is interreligious dialogue. Unfortunately, most of the Christian denominations involved are Anglophone and “Mainline”, meaning that there are not many Black Christians involved as Black Christians often are involved in non-Mainline denominations or, if Roman Catholic are Francophones. So, much of the interreligious dialogue that I feel needs to be happening between Black Christians and Muslims isn’t happening. Blacks belong to probably almost every incarnation of Christianity from Ethiopian Orthodox, to Roman Catholic, to Baptist, to Reformed Calvinist, to Seventh Day Adventist, to Jehovah’s Witness, as well as an amazing array of Pentecostal, Evangelical and independent Churches. Unfortunately, this poses a serious problem for interreligious dialogue, as there is as much need to encourage dialogue and understanding across these Christian denominations as there is to encourage dialogue and understanding between these Christian denominations and other religious communities. I believe that the situation is probably better in the US, at least between Black Muslims and Black Christians but I am not sure and need to explore this more.

There is also the added challenge of recognizing and respecting indigenous African religious traditions. This is something that both Black Muslims and Black Christians need to work on. I consider myself lucky to actually know something about the indigenous religious traditions of my father’s ethnic group, the Ijaw, including their pantheon of deities, such as the Supreme Creative Being, Woyingi, after whom this blog is named. Again, having a blog focused on my Black and African identity as opposed to simply my Muslim identity opens up the possibility of exploring all the religious traditions of Black peoples, including those that do not fall under the Abrahamic Tradition (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

Black communities in Ottawa strike me as incredibly insular, sometimes not even taking the time to explore the culture, history, and challenges of other Christian Black communities. An advantage of being of mixed race and not raised in one particular Black community (ie Jamaican, Somali, Haitian, Congolese, Nigerian-Yoruba, etc..) is that I feel free to learn about them all and see all of their experiences as part and parcel of my own experience as a Black Canadian.

There are Muslim communities all over the world and one of the few benefits of being a minority religion in North America is that Muslims emigrating from such diverse parts of the world are forced, so to speak, to worship together. If I wasn’t a Muslim, I probably would not be able to move so easily through such a variety of ethno-culturally diverse communities as I do in Ottawa. Again, I feel that being a convert Muslim is what helps me, as I was not raised with any preconceived notions about Muslims from particular countries, ethnicities, religious sects or class backgrounds as many born Muslims are.

I feel grateful for being both Black and Muslim because both identities connect me to such diverse communities whose histories are often inaccessible, even to their own community members, and are understudied and deeply misunderstood. There is so much wisdom to be gained from exploring the Black experience in the world as there is in exploring the Muslim experience; however, the bigotry that exists in both communities limits our ability to truly harness this wisdom for our benefit.

Further Reading:

Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas by Michael Gomez

Black Canadian Profile: d’bi young

d’bi young is a Jamaican Canadian poet, playwright, and actor. Raised in the working class district of Whitfield, Jamaica, she is the daughter of Jamaican dub poet Anita Stewart, who gave birth to d’bi young when she was only 15. In her teens, d’bi young studied at the Jamaica School of Drama. In 1993, she immigrated to Canada, studied at McGill University in Montreal, where she got involved in the local spoken word scene. She settled in Toronto, Ontario in 2001. d’bi young self identifies as queer and has had some of her plays presented at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which is dedicated to the promotion of queer artistic expression. Now in her early thirties and a mother of two, d’bi young is an internationally recognized performance artist. She defines herself first and foremost as a storyteller.

d’bi young, who was named Debbie Young at birth, doesn’t like to use capitals for her own name and the titles of her plays, citing the influence of fellow Jamaican Canadian poet and director ahdri zhina mandiela.

d’bi.young runs her own dub theatre mentorship program, anitAFRIKA! dub theatre. In an interview with AfroToronto.com in 2009, young described her work at anitAFRIKA as follows: 

I’m working with 13 people whose ages range from 19 to 60 and basically I teach them how to write dub solo shows using these principles that I’m developing right now, and been developing for the last 3 years, called ORPLUSI princlpes of storytelling. Which are orality, rhythm, personal is political, political is personal, language, urgency, sacredness and integrity. [These are] guiding principles towards the creative process. That’s the most exciting thing for me because I’m at Guelph as well doing my Masters developing theory around oral storytelling and traditions that come out of the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora.

d'bi young, photo by Paula Wilson

d’bi.young’s style of poetry is best described as dub poetry. Dup poetry developed out of the artistic renaissance in the Jamaica of the 1970s. The term was first used to describe Jamaican disc jockeys who would sing or spout their own lyrics over “the dub versions” -instrumental remixes on the B-Sides-of reggae records. It is deeply influenced by the intonations and speech patterns of Jamaican Creole (Patwa). The dub poetry movement in Jamaica is exemplified by the work of Jamaican dub poet Oku Onuora, born Orlando Wong. Dub poetry is essentially an oral form of performance, however, it became acceptable for it to be written as well. In 1974, Onuora, who was used to performing his poems in front of crowds as opposed to writing them down, was doing time in a Jamaican prison for armed robberies (crimes he said he committed in order to finance community projects for youth in Kingston’s ghettos). His poetry and plays began to be disseminated from prison in written form. In 1979, Onuora defined dub poetry as:…a poet that has a build-in reggae rhythm -hence when the poem is read with out an reggae rhythm (so to speak) backing […] one can distinctly hear the reggae rhythm coming out of the poem.” Emerging out of the context of Black activism and Jamaican independence, Dub poetry is also a form of poetry that is to be used a tool of political activism. Dub poetry spread throughout the Jamaican diaspora, to Britain, producing celebrated poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, and to Canada, most notably Toronto, producing such poets as Lillian Allen.

d’bi young’s work is suffused with her Jamaican heritage and African sensibility. Her performances are woman-centred and focus on the lives of Black women as they survive the traumas of magic, migration, sexual violence, childbirth, motherhood, death and rebirth. d’bi.young’s artistic influences included her mother, dub poet Anita Stewart aka Anilia Soyinka, who was a member of the pioneer dub poetry collective Poets in Unity and Mikey Smith, a famous Jamaican poet on whose life d’bi young has developed a play.

Her accomplishments as an actor:

At 13, d’bi.young was cast as Odale in a production of Kamau Braithwaite’s Odale’s Choice, an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone. In 2001, d’bi.young performed in South African playwright Zakes Mda’s play And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses. d’bi young performed in the 2005 production of Trey Anthony’s Da Kink in My Hair, a play that follows the lives of the hairstylists and patrons of a Caribbean Hair Salon in downtown Toronto (The play has since been developed into a TV Series on Global, in which young appeared as a spoken word artist). In ‘Da Kink, young powerfully portrays a young incest survivor. young was nominated in 2003 for two Gemini Awards for Best Individual Performance in a Comedy Series and Viewers Choice Award for Favorite Comedian for her performance as the teenaged Crystal in Lord Have Mercy!, Canada’s first Caribbean-Canadian TV sitcom. young, who helped to develop Crystal’s character, described her as follows:

Crystal has hair under her arm-pits, none on her head. She wears gender neutral clothing, and she also wears tight-up, tight-up mini…whatever. She speaks English and Jamaica’s national language fluently. She goes in and out…she’s a dub-poet. She’s extremely intelligent, selfish, and self-absorbed. She thinks she knows everything and is searching desperately for her grandmother to love her. She’s searching for herself within in the context of the church. Her granny is old-school and she’s new school. They’re actually not very different. They’re both strong-headed women.

Her accomplishments as a playwright:

d’bi young, in collaboration with fellow Black Caribbean Canadian poet Naila Belvett, co-wrote and performed in Yagayah, a two-woman play following the childhood friendship of two Jamaican girls who are separated when one immigrates to Canada. This play was published in Djanet Sears’ Testifyin’: Contemporary African Canadian Drama II. d’bi young often writes plays for solo performances. She has developed what she calls “biomyth-monodrama”. According to d’bi young, bio-myth is “a form of creation where the artist uses biographical information as a starting point and then applies poetic license to broaden or deepen it.” ‘Monodrama’ combines d’bi young’s roots in dub poetry and theatre. d’bi young has written a one-woman play entitled blood.claat, the first in the Sankofa trilogy following three generations of Jamaican women. Dramaturged and Directed by Ethiopian Canadian Weyni Mengesha, d’bi.young’s long-time collaborator and friend, the play has been performed across Canada and internationally. In blood.claat, young performs over 8 different characters. blood.claat has been published by Playwrights’ Canada Press. In 2006, the play won two Dora Mavor Moore Awards. She was artist in residence at the Soulpepper Theatre Academy. young’s most recent work is a play called She, which explores a young woman’s obsession with a pop icon, and is inspired by young’s interest in Rihanna and how her life is portrayed in the media. young often holds talk-back sessions at the end of her performances. According to young:

I’ve learned that I can’t present controversial subject matter and expect my audience to go home and be okay. There has to be a process where we can dialogue about the work. A storyteller is there first and foremost for the transformation of the community, and they must be responsible to the people who will allow them to be on stage.

Her accomplishments as a poet:

In 2003, young was voted “Best dup poet and storytelling actor” by Toronto’s NOW Magazine. She won CBC’s Poetry Face-Off 2004 Poetry Slam competition for the City of Toronto. young has produced several CDs of dub poetry. Her debut, “When the Love is Not Enough”, came out in 2000. Her second album xperimentin dub was a live jam album made in collaboration with musicians Beau Dixon and Gregory Roy’s dub trinity. Her subsequent albums include xperimentin dub Havana cuba and dubbin.revolushun: blood demo. She has collaborated with Cuba’s Paso Firme reggae band, Cuban hip hop producer Pablo Herrera, and exiled African American activist Assata Shakur. She has also appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.

d’bi.young on storytelling:

I really do believe that we’re all storytellers. I mean not everybody could do it professionally but I think that we all have a responsibility to acknowledge that we’re storytelling in whatever it is that we choose to do. The minute we acknowledge that then we can make choices around how we actually communicate with people.

d’bi.young on dub poetry:

dub is rooted in oral storytelling tradishuns that enslaved afrikan peoples brought to the Americas. the main elements of dub are 1. language 2. political content (simply meaning ‘of the people’) 3. musicality 4. orality. when I write for theatre, these are the elements that make up my foundation, therefore my work is rooted in issues that concern the many communities that I belong to as a womban, as an afrikan, a mother, as an artist, as a queer-identified person, as a working person, an able-bodied person, etc. engaging the audience is essential in communicating the story with them so it permeates the head and eventually rests in the heart, music and rhythm and humour and honesty are good for that. the elements that I use to engage the audience as a dub poet are the same elements I use to engage the audience as a playwright.

d’bi.young on Da Kink in My Hair:

During ‘Da Kink, we were reminded by older women in the community that the wheel was not being re-invented …there was a herstory long pre-dating ‘Da Kink of  black woman theatre. Because of the racism and because of the systemic discrimination and alienation in choosing what kind of herstory is preserved and presented, it seemed like we were re-inventing the wheel with ‘Da Kink. But in fact we were just building on a tradition that was already there. 

d’bi.young on her play benu:

…benu is the second of a trilogy that began with blood.claat. It looks at the daughter born at the end of the show-she’s grown up, and it starts with her having a baby of her own. I’m trying to look at three generations of women because I’m obsessed with lineage and passing on the bloodline-and what happens with each generation. It’s about death and rebirth, physically and metaphorically. The benu is the predessor of the phoenix bird, its Egyptian ancestor.

d’bi.young on what Canadian Theatre can learn from Ghanaian artists:

one of the adinkra symbols from Ghana is called sankofa, which translates to ‘return and get it’ or ‘learn from the past’. for us as Canadian theatre makers, to move into the future we must learn from the past. there are some dialogues we need to have about canada’s past that we are unwilling to have. but if we don’t have them how can we hope to do different, do better for our children’s future and the seven generashuns to come?

Personal Reflections:

I was lucky to be able to attend a performance of d’bi.young’s play blood.claat when it was staged at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in early 2010. (See The Woyingi Blogger’s Play Review of blood.claat) I attended the play with Somali-Canadian poet and playwright Habiba Ali. At the end of the performance, d’bi.young hosted a talk-back with the audience. d’bi.young’s vibrancy as well as her commitment to theatre as a form of personal exploration and healing, I found truly inspiring, and her influence has led to my own creative exploration of my identity as a Black Canadian of mixed heritage. d’bi.young’s work reminds me that our lives are stories which we are constantly telling to ourselves, our families, and our friends. d’bi.young’s work has helped me to better understand the complexities of the experiences of Jamaican Canadian women, who, as a driving force in the artistic, activist, and academic institutions of Black Canada, have played a pivotal role in the development of my identity as a Black Canadian woman.

 Further Reading:

d’bi young’s website

anitAFRIKA dub theatre’s website

Literature Alive Profile of d’bi young available online

blood.claat, a play by d’bi young available to order from Playwrights’ Canada Press

Interview (2010) with The Montreal Mirror available online

Interview (2010) with Capital Xtra available online

Interview (2009) with AfroToronto.com available online

Textualizing Dub Poetry: A Literature Review of Jamaican English from Jamaica to Toronto, an academic essay by Katherine McLeod available online

African Writer Profile: Neshani Andreas

Neshani Andreas was born in 1964 in Walvis Bay, Namibia’s most important port city. At this time in Namibia’s history, it was a colony of South Africa, subject to discriminatory aparteid laws. Neshani’s parents worked in a fish factory and raised eight children. Neshani trained as a teacher at Ongwediva Training College and taught English, history, and business economics from 1988 to 1992 in a school in rural northern Namibia, where her first novel The Purple Violet of Oshaantu is set. Neshani completed this novel soon after her move to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, where she went to take a post-graduate degree in education at the newly established University of Namibia While working part-time with the American Peace Corps, Neshani met a Peace Corps volunteer, Reed Dickson, who read her early writing and encouraged her to continue. Neshani said: “This was one of the most treasured moments in my life. I had met the first person in my life who showed interest and understanding in my writing.’

The Purple Violet of Oshaantu was a direct result of Reed Dickson’s encouragement. The novel is inspired by Neshani’s work in the rural communities of Namibia’s north, where women are often left on there own to run small farms as their husbands work far away in mines or in the cities. The story is narrated by Mee Ali, who tells us about her friendship with Mee Kauna. Mee Ali is happily married to Michael but Mee Kauna faces constantly physical abuse from her husband Shange, who also cheats on her. Unlike most other Namibian novels which focus on Namibia’s resistance movement to South African occuptation and aparteid, Neshani’s novel focuses on issues related to women’s rights, domestic violence, friendship, marriage, romantic love, AIDS, crop growing, African Christianity, and traditional customs as they relate to widowhood.

Neshani Andreas

Neshani completed the manuscript for the novel in 1999 and presented it to Namibian publisher, Jane Katjavivi, who presented it to the African Writers Series. The novel was published in 2001 in the Heinemann African Writers Series. Neshani is the first Namibian to be included in this series and this novel is the only Namibian novel that is widely available internationally. The novel has been included in the English Literature curriculum for secondary schools in Zimbabwe.

Neshani currently works as a programme officer for the Forum of African Women Educationalists in Namibia (FAWENA), an organization that creates educational opportunities for girls and women. Neshani continues to write, despite the obstacles faced by Namibian writers, writing in a country where the literary culture is still in its infancy. She has recently finished her second novel.

Neshani on writing:

Writing is a lonely business. You write alone, and you never know if anybody will ever read what you write. I could never stop writing. It is with me every day, I never forget it. I edit in my mind whatever I hear or read. I pick up what people say, how they say it, I pick up words, expressions …

Neshani on writing in Namibia:

Namibia was a new country, people were still talking about the struggle, about exile and returning home. Writers were expected to write about great events, to glorify the past and the present, to glorify people. My struggle was different. I was not involved in high-profile political activities. I had to write about other things: travelling in overcrowded minibuses, selling and buying at markets, about sickness, witchcraft and church, about ordinary things.

Writing is still not encouraged by Namibian society, it is not regarded as a respectable job, as something that has any benefit.

Excerpt from The Purple Violet of Oshaantu:

Men who beat women are the ones who cannot stand up against other men,’ Mukwankala concluded. She made us think. Shange was feared in the village, but he had never beaten anybody except his wife. His brothers beat people all the time, but Shange, no. Why was he feared if he had never beaten anybody? Any man? The curious customers stood there, holding their breaths in anticipation of the unthinkable. Her age must have saved her. Shange could have humiliated her there and then in front of everybody. But this time Shange was humiliated. He wished the earth would part below him so he could disappear. Nobody made any attempt to stop Mukwankala from insulting him. Some were even quietly happy that he had been told to stop abusing his wife.

When I heard that Mukwankala had confronted Shange at the cuca shop, in public, I was scared to death. Although I admired her act of bravery, I thought it might cause more trouble than good. I thought that once Kauna came home, Shange would kill her.

Further Reading:

Neshani Andreas: A Passion for Writing, Interview 2004 available online

As Honest and Realistic as Possible: The Namibian Writer, Neshani Andreas by Helen Fallon available online

African Writer Profile: Sarah Mkhonza

Sarah Mkhonza

Swazi Writer Sarah Mkhonza was forced to leave her country of Swaziland and seek asylum in the United States.

Swaziland is a small, landlocked country located within the borders of South Africa. It was colonized by the British and assembles ethnic groups of Nguni origin that in the 19th Century pledged their allegiance to a chieftain of the Dlamini clan, whose descendents are now the royal family of Swaziland.

Sarah earned her PhD in English from Michigan State University in 1996. She returned to Swaziland and became a professor of English and linguistics as the University of Swaziland. She also wrote columns in the newspapers The Swazi Sun and The Observer. Her articles were often written in the style of “journalistic fiction”, short stories based on real life situations. In this way, Mkhonza hoped to highlight the plight of the oppressed, particularly women, by engaging a wider readership. As some of her writings were critical of Swaziland’s absolute monarchy, Sarah was told to stop writing and as she refused she was subject to harassment, threats, assault and the robbery and vandalism of her university office, that resulted the destruction of some of her manuscripts.

In 2003, Dr. Mkhonza arrived in the United States on a fellowship from the Scholar’s Rescue Fund and began teaching at the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership at St. Mary’s College. She received political asylum in the US in 2005.

In 2006, Sarah lived in Ithaca with one of her two sons and as a resident of Ithaca’s City of Asylum Writers in residence program, which is part of the North American Network of Cities of Asylum. This residency included a stint as a visiting professor of African Studies and English at Cornell University, where she taught a course in Introductory Zulu.

She has founded the Association of African Woman and the African Book Fund Group at Michigan State University that sends books to the University of Swaziland and other African education institutions.

In a 2006 interview, Sarah states “I didn’t attach writing to politics; I just thought it was important to inform Swazis about certain simple things that can be harmful.”

Mkhonza is the daughter of a domestic worker and her novels and stories focus on the lives of Swaziland’s poor working class.

She has written many poems, short stories and three novels: Pains of a Maid, What the Future Holds, and most recently Weeding the Flowerbeds.

On writing about Swaziland:

I want to help people understand Swaziland. It’s different from South Africa. You could say “apartheid in South Africa” and everybody jumps. There is gold there; there is no gold in Swaziland. It’s like an outback. Nobody cares because, after all, there are only one million people there. There are many reasons why the world can ignore that situation.

Sarah Mkhonza on the subject of “journalistic fiction”:

To me, it means fiction that addresses a particular issue at a particular time – that informs people about things that are happening that they may not be paying attention to. You focus people’s attention, the way you would focus a camera, and say, Let’s think about this. It is fiction because you use a genre that allows you to create characters that [readers] can relate to and who are going to speak about what is happening in the society. There’s a lot of domestic violence in Swaziland. That’s a story of something that happened to a real woman – my niece. She went to her family; she talked about the fact that she was being abused. This was a young woman who didn’t even know she had the option to walk away. In the end, she dies. People die and they are not accounted for. With fiction, you are able to make society see that we have created structures that do not serve people. In her case, the newspaper article was small. What abusers sometimes do is go and bribe [a legal clerk] to steal the docket and throw it away so that when the information is needed, it’s not there. She suffered one of those cases.  If I write for a newspaper, it’s different from writing a short story and putting it in a drawer at the office. It gets used. And it gets into the records of the country because newspapers are not destroyed; somebody has an archive. One day somebody will pay attention to that.

In an interview with Ithaca Times in 2006, Sarah Mkhonza discussed why women should write:

IT: For one of your columns, you approached women at work and on the street and asked them to contribute to a fictional story about a man who abandons his responsibilities at home and keeps a second wife across the river. When the women in his family confront him, he storms out, and so the story becomes a public way of addressing him.

SM: I carried a sample of writing – an introduction to the character – and asked women to respond to it. About 25 women [returned the assignment]. I realized that I didn’t know all the issues that affected women; I was just writing from the perspective of one woman.
Women play into being censored sometimes. I was observing how women react when they are asked to write. They don’t think they are writers. They think that being a writer is a big thing that is up there in the clouds. [After reading the column] a high school student wrote a very long letter saying that she now understood why women should write, and then she wrote about the situation that was happening in her own family.

In this same interview, Sarah Mkhonza discusses the tradition of the Reed Dance in Swazliland:

IT: Earlier this month, Swaziland held its annual Reed Dance, in which young unmarried women, carrying freshly cut reeds, perform before the royal family. King Mswati has 13 wives, some of whom were selected during this event, which has been strongly criticized by rights activists. Can you put this custom in perspective?

SM: The way the monarchy has used Swazi culture is working against the people. Initially, the Reed Dance was supposed to be the celebration of puberty. But that has changed. It has lost its meaning in today’s age, in my opinion. All the trivial things about who you are as a woman are the ones that are being hyped. If it wasn’t about show but about grooming the inside, then we wouldn’t have a problem.
As a Swazi, I can’t say do away with it because I know you can never have another activity that brings young people together so they can have national pride, they can have the pride to be women. Walking together for a day to pick the reeds creates the feeling that you belong to a group. African culture makes you want to be in a group. Individuality is not supported as it is here.

IT: It is estimated that about a third of Swazi adults aged 15 to 49 are infected with HIV, one of the highest rates in the world. I read an article in which an AIDS counselor said that the Reed Dance, because it celebrates chastity, is an especially important tool in the age of AIDS.
SM: If I am saying, Please, try to stick to one partner whom you know and who is faithful to you, and then a big festival is on television and the king comes with 13 wives, how am I able to send my message? Some people have the power to erase everything you’ve talked about.
If Swaziland is #1 on the AIDS list, and we are calling people to come and be beautiful, which of the two are we serving: supporting HIV or doing away with HIV? Because we cannot be doing both with this, we cannot. You want to [ask the girls]: Do you know yourself away from this crowd; do you know who you are? Do you know where you are going if you get involved with a man who is not wearing a condom? Things like that are never addressed at these functions. We cannot now say that it does the function we want it to do – to make the woman strong inside.

Further Reading:

The Hands that Hold the Urn Now (Short Story available online)

Excerpt from her story “Eyes are moving” available online

My story is on the leaves (Poem available online)

The Sunday Emergency (Poem available online)

Interview (2006) available online

Audio Interview (2008) available online

The Woyingi Blogger’s Review: What the Future Holds by Sarah Mkhonza

Sarah Mkhona’s Blog

Book Review: What The Future Holds by Sarah Mkhonza

The novel What the Future Holds by Sarah Mkhonza was originally published in 1989 by Macmillian Education Publishers as part of their Pacesetters Series. All the novels in this series deal with contemporary issues and problems in a way that is particularly designed to interest African young adults.

Writer Sarah Mkhonza was born in 1957 in Swaziland. She was a lecturer in English at the University of Swaziland until she was forced into  exile in the United States (See: The Woyingi Blogger’s African Writer Profile: Sarah Mkhonza).

What the Future Holds follows the life of Lobenguni “Kiki” Mkhatshwa, a young Swazi woman of Nguni descent who, at the beginning of the novel, has brought her baby into town to confront the child’s father, Menzi Dlamini (Dlamini is a common Swazi clan name), at his place of work, in order to ensure that he pays child support.

We then flash back to 1961, before Kiki was born, and meet her mother, LaMsibi, and father, Gezani, who struggle to make a life for themselves as farmers in a small village in the Maphakane valley. Gezani is determined to ensure that his child has a better life than he has so he decides to have her educated. Gezani is a traditional Nguni who does not approve of Christianity and the foreign missionaries who bring it. However, he does appreciate the need for Swazi children to be able to read and write, and only missionary schools provide this education. Despite having convinced his father to disown her twenty years earlier when she converted to Christianity, Gezani seeks out his sister, Saraphina, a teacher at a missionary school, and asks that she takes in Kiki and sends her to school. Gezani then decides to leave his homestead and go back to working in the mines of Johannesburg in order to pay for Kiki’s education.

Kiki’s grows up deprived of the love and attention of her parents. Her aunt is cold and abusive as are the teachers at school. Kiki’s need for love and attention makes her an easy target for Menzi’s advances.

The novel reminded me of other novels and memoirs from Southern Africa I have read that depict the struggle of women who, due to the lack of work in their own regions, have to survive while the men in their families travel far away for work. These novels usually also depict the contraints that traditional African culture places on women, particularly widows who are often left destitute as they have few inheritance rights and are sometimes themselves “inherited” by their husbands’ brothers. Kiki’s mother, LaMsibi, who according to custom should be taken as a wife by one of her husbands’ brothers when Gezani is reported to have died in a mining accident, is rejected because she is a Christian (Gezani’s family is very traditional).

What I found really interesting was the writer’s depiction of Gezani’s visits to a sangoma. Sangomas are traditional Southern African spiritual leaders who are believed to have the power to interpret the will of an individual’s ancestors. Many Southern Africans, and many people who still follow their indigeneous spiritual traditions, believe that their ancestors are still involved in their lives and can influence their forturne, for better or for worse.

I was happy to be able to get a hold of this novel as there is very little literature available in North America from Swaziland. I look forward to reading other works by Sarah Mkhonza, who has written other novels, short stories, and poems.

Excerpts from the novel:

On the plight of African Women (pp 6-7)

Kiki arrived at the river, fetched the water and was soon on her way home. She walked, the sunset behind her, a silhouette of an upright young woman with a clay pot on her head-the typical image of an African woman. For the first time the weight of the clay pot pressing down on her became a conscious reality, a force that she had to sustain against the laws of gravity. Just then it struck her vividly that African women are heavily loaded. On their heads they carry the heavy burdens of firewood and clay pots; in their hands they carry bags; on their backs they carry babies; and their front carries the load of man in procreation. Their hearts are heavily loaded with burdens of sorrow. All this is because their worth is measured in terms of the number of burdens they can carry. Even beasts have an easier task.

Gezani’s reflections on Christianity and education (p. 31)

He felt like an unwanted symbol of the old world in this land of the educated and holy. Although he resented the new religion, he had to accept that the education it had brought was a necessity. He had seen black people in Johannesburg working in offices doing jobs he could never dream of doing. Even in the government offices in Mbabane, only educated Swazis worked with the white people and he had seen black nurses in the hospitals. Yes, he had to admit that education was a force with which every Swazi had to reckon if they were to achieve in life; without it, they were losers. This is what their chief had said, and so had the King.

Gezani consults a South African sangoma to find the cause of his misfortunes (pp 82-83)

The sangoma’s interpretation was that his ancestors would defend Gezani in all hardships which lay ahead. He pointed to a bone and said, ‘I can see anger in the bone, an ancestor’s sharp spear is pointing towards the bone of death.’

Gezani racked his mind trying to think who it could be. Suddenly he remembered, ‘Msingetse! Oh, yes! It was Msingetse! He was tall and could get as angry as a lion. But why is he angry?’ he asked, his forehead puckering as he looked at the sangoma for an answer.

‘Let us find out,’ he replied, picking up the bones and then throwing them down in the same manner as before. ‘You see, not only your great, great grandfather is angry, even your neighbour is very angry.’…..

‘But what can I do to avert his anger?’ Gezani asked, desperate for a solution.

‘There is very little I can help you with. If you can find someone to pray for you it would help. The best thing of course would be to go to his grave and talk to him after slaughtering a beast to appease him. Propitiation always helps in such cases.’