Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Sindiwe Magona’s powerful and resonant new novel When the Village Sleeps
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Treat yourself to a cup of hot chocolate this evening and this excerpt from When the Village Sleeps by Sindiwe Magona!
When the Village Sleeps is both an ode to the complex strengths of South African women, and a powerful call to respect the earth that nurtures human life, and to live in self-sufficiency and harmony with the environment and each other.
‘Timely and truthful, this novel is vintage Sindiwe Magona, one of our wisest voices. Few capture the contemporary black South African female experience with such power and resonance. The voices of her protagonists linger in one’s mind long after the reading of this book.’ – Elinor Sisulu
About the book
When the Village Sleeps is a visionary novel about what the loss of identity and dignity do to a people afflicted by decades of brokenness.
Told through the lives and spirits of four generations of amaTolo women, including The Old, who speak wisdom with ever-increasing urgency, it moves between the bustling township setting of Kwanele and the different rhythms of rural village life.
The novel recalls the sweeping sagas of the great AC Jordan and the Dhlomo brothers and invokes the poetry of SEK Mqhayi, while boldly exploring urgent and contemporary issues.
Read the excerpt:
Khulu loved Sidwadweni, her home village not far from Mthatha and near Tsolo in the Eastern Cape. The name Mthatha spoke of grandeur, glamour, splendid living. Tsolo also had much of which to be proud, including great chiefs, but Sidwadweni was the village Khulu chose to retire to after working for the same family in the manicured white suburb of Bishopscourt for decades.
At the time that her knees began to ache after years of polishing floors, Khulu tore herself away from the clinging vines of family – and her employer, Mrs Bird, who over the years had also become friend and benefactress, fondly called MaNtaka (a take on her surname) by Khulu and her family.
‘Now that I am retiring, I want to go back to the place my beloved Hlombe and I planned for our old age,’ Khulu told everyone.
She and her husband Hlombe were newly married when she first got that job; Mr and Mrs Bird also a newly married couple. Both women thought it a good omen that they shared the date of their weddings. Both were blessed with two, and two children only. Girls for both; no boys – much to the secret lamentation of the husbands. As much as both men professed to love their daughters, each harboured a sorrow in his heart; for each, the girls were not true heirs. Perhaps this private sorrow accounted for their early demises.
While the two women both lost their husbands much too early, they did not lose each other. When Khulu lost Hlombe, Mrs Bird was a huge support to her; and Khulu returned the favour hardly a year and a half later.
The two remained together until Khulu’s bones refused to go on co-operating with housework. ‘Not my fault you don’t want to move with the times,’ said Mrs Bird. ‘I bought the Hoover for you, you know?’ She patted Khulu on the shoulder as she always did. ‘Make yourself a cuppa Milo!’
The separation was far from unkind. Khulu received a golden handshake, plus so many extras even she was surprised. Even more surprising, Mrs Bird suggested that the famously unreliable Phyllis, take over housekeeping duties from Khulu: ‘I’ve known Phyllis since she was born! Let her come here to char for me.’
She went on, ‘Your room here with me will always be available. Leave your stuff here and take the key with you. I have a spare, but doubt I will ever need to use it. There’s nothing of mine in there.’
And so Khulu was free to return to the house she and Hlombe had built eSidwadweni. They had planned to retire there; the place of their growing years. Now she would go to that place where his bones rested. That was her home now. She said only very soft words to her God. She said very soft words to her ancestors, the Old, the long line without end of which she was just a tiny dot, insignificant. Yet her God and her Old saw to all her needs, protected her from harm, forefended evil from her path so that her foot never on ungodly thorn did tread.
In serene Sidwadweni, placid land of rolling hills and soft valleys, here and there a silent stream gleamed past, only to return and do the same over and over and over. All around, broad-leafed lazy cabbage trees dotted the veld; aloes stabbed the hill flanks with their bloody spears; here and there, cattle dozed in the midday sun among sweet thorn and kei apple.
Human habitation appeared scant, sightings of hut, house or rondavel cluster were rare. And those visible appeared uninhabited or deserted, except for a few trading stations where white shopkeepers had called the shots until the political tide had turned, and one and all had fled to the cities. A few rare souls – ministers or doctors – stayed behind, as did the farmers. Not an easy thing to do, pack up a farm and cart it off to the city; so a lot of the farmers stayed on.
Here Khulu lived alone in Ekuphumleni, the homestead of Hlombe’s and her dreams. Their little castle on the plain, where, if one stood quite still amidst the warbles of finches and starlings, one could hear whispers of the rushing waters of ages long gone. And here Khulu could live out her dream of gardening. She grew all her own vegetables – onions, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbages, beans and maize. She even had a few fruit trees: apricot, peach and pear. ‘I only grow what I like!’ she would say.
Her eyes softened and a smile parted her lips to show the gap between the front upper teeth, big enough to pass a mealiepap through, as she thought back to planting those trees in her youth. Way back when Sidwadweni boasted lush bushes, pinned by impressive trees – thick forests alongside the streams and wide fields of maize on the plains, heavy-laden stalks swaying in the breeze as autumn winds breathed to ripen them. Some planted swathes of broad bean, squash on the vine, plump carrots in deep dark fertile soil. Buffalo grass, red grass boosted the rich milk of ewes, and the thickets rustled with the midday cooing of doves, the melodious boubou and raw crackling sounds of ravens – and starlings so black that the black hurt the eye, the black so black it was blue-tinged. So black it called out for praise in poem and song:
Pitch black is the starling;
Songbird of the thickets.
Isomi limnyama thsu;
Ngumlonji, imyoli ingoma yalo—
Melodious is the song of starling.
Khulu also kept chickens. So when the shadows grew long, the chickens stopped scratching and sauntered toward the coop. Khulu would get up from where she was shelling beans or stamping maize on a stool in the sun, and head for the end rondavel. Here, from under the table against the far wall, she would haul out the chickenfeed. The hens flapped about her feet, clucking like there was no tomorrow. Khulu smiled and shook her head at their reflex anticipation.
And that set her thinking about the morning’s call from Phyllis, one that always came at this time of the month. It was more than two weeks since the child grant had been in her pocket. She found it easier to ask for money when her mother was in the Eastern Cape. Phyllis would rather not see her mother’s face screwed up, eyes slit like a cat’s, mouth agape at the spectre of a daughter begging for money from a pensioner.
That SASSA pension! It added lines of care to her face. And lines of sorrow to her prayer: ‘Uyaziwa umntu onemali yaye ehlala yedwa; ukukutya okuvuthiweyo.’ There was no rest or freedom in her old age. Cooked food was she. After battling long unruly lines and the ever-present risk of on-site robbery for her pension, next she faced the ever-outstretching beggarly hands of her elder daughter. And the two add-ons, the babies born after Busi, whose fathers Phyllis did not even know, were red coals in Khulu’s heart. They were sure signs her daughter was lost.
It will kill me, the way my daughter lives, thought Khulu, as she watched the satisfied chickens jostle and trip over one another as they hustled towards their coop. It will send me to my grave. Long before the ancestors would have wished to see me, they surely will. I have fled here to avoid that early grave, but the phone, that most astute detective, bites into the innermost ear of my heart, lacerating my very spirit.
Her daughter’s pitiful voice as she said the same words Khulu heard each month: ‘Apologies for waking you at so early an hour, Mama.’
Like she wasn’t aware of this before she went to bed the night before.
‘Siyashota, Mama – we are running short!’
The grant money did not seem to help Phyllis one bit. It never did. It made no difference at all, at least not as far as her children were concerned.
Khulu shook her head as she heard Phyllis wheedle and beg yet again. ‘I know, Mama, it is not I who, in utter inconvenience and danger, have to travel solo kilometres to town. It is not I who have to wait the whole day in long, long queues! It is not I who have to cross wide fields to the tarred road, walking all alone while being observed by young men and boys who would like to help one travel lighter … I know, I know. Why are these tellers always so resentful? Really! The reluctance of people in jobs supposed to offer service is a national scandal. Prisoners hired out to farmers show more enthusiasm digging and tilling and heaving and shoving heaps of rock-hard turf.’
The phone conversation stayed with Khulu well into the night. My elder daughter brays. Will she ever grow up? Will she ever sober up? Will she ever take responsibility? God help us if she foals again! Lily will kick her out. Lamb-like husband might also baulk.
Fat chance of ever escaping her children! Phyllis was a heavy load on her shoulders; Khulu had thought that if she left Cape Town, maybe that would help. That her older daughter would learn to stand on her two feet at last. Yhoo, ndikhe ndizibhanxe kanene! Golly, I do sometimes fool myself. Must talk to Phyllis one more time. Must do that. Next time I’m in Cape Town …
And it wasn’t just her. When she was still living at Mrs Bird’s, at least once a month the phone would ring, and: ‘That will be Marvin! Wonder what he wants,’ her employer would say as she shuffled off to answer. Marvin was her most spoiled nephew and godchild. Khulu knew what Marvin wanted. What Marvin always wanted towards the end of the month – money!
Khulu shook her head. She and this woman she worked for were old, getting older, but the younger people seemed to believe they did not need the money they had: ‘But where mine think I get the money they want from me beats me!’
We, the Old, heard the cry of our daughter;
Looked at the long years of her living … Awu!
What shall we say about earthly matters?
The blue cranes stacked in heaps lying dead at Hoho;
The black vulture and its dogs ate, at Hoho;
Our hearts are grieved
For we see no relief for her from her drainage;
Only growing sorrow; growing hardship;
All sprung from the death of ubuntu;
Even that grant to the poor:
What did it really grant the poor
Except more poor; more poverty?