African Writer Profile: 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.
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