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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

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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.’