To My Children’s Children by Sindiwe Magona (1990)

“Until the lioness can tell its own story the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” African Proverb

This first of two autobiographies by South African author Sindiwe Magona was initially published in 1990, and the second volume in 1997.

A Lioness Shares Her Story

Frustrated like many, at seeing her country and people portrayed as backward and uncivilised by colonisers, she decided to rectify the balance, a literary scholar, sharing her life and experience first hand, an important and insightful narrative for a wider audience, dedicated to her own children and grandchildren, and perhaps especially for girls, on their path to womanhood.

In a conversation with anthropologist and activist Elaine Salo, Magona said:

I experienced incredible anger about others writing about us, I asked myself, ‘How dare they write about you?’ I told myself that shouldn’t stop me from writing about myself … There is value in those like me writing about our experiences, who did not study apartheid but lived it.

It is authentic experiences like this, that offer a richness in understanding other cultures from the inside, reading the personal experience of one women in her struggle to raise and support her children, understanding how her childhood and upbringing shaped and supported her, enabling her to cope when other societal support structures let her down.

Review

Autobiography South Africa WomenThe slim autobiography shares stories from her childhood up to the age of 23, all of it taking place in South Africa. In her early years, as was customary among amaXhosa people, she lived with her grandparents. It was often the case while parents were trying to earn a living in starting a new life, that the extended family and home community was the safest, most caring environment for young children to be. There was always someone to look after children, they had food, shelter, company and they thrived.

As she explains, looking back it may have been poverty, but that wasn’t something they were aware of; they belonged, were loved and felt secure. There was no awareness of the link between the colour of one’s skin and a difference in lifestyle, until much later, their paths never crossed, outsiders had no impact on their very young lives.

In such a people-world, filled with a real, immediate, and tangible sense of belongingness, did I spend the earliest years of my life. I was not only wanted, I was loved. I was cherished.
The adults in my world, no doubt, had their cares and their sorrows. But childhood, by its very nature, is a magic-filled world, egocentric, wonderfully carefree, and innocent. Mine was all these things and more.

Generations of Storytellers

Not only did they learn and grow from being socialised in these large families, they listened to stories, passed down the generations. There was always one or two in the family, renowned for their storytelling ability, masters in this art and the children revelled in those evenings when they became the audience to them.

Central to the stories in which people featured, was the bond of love with the concomitants: duty, obedience, responsibility, honour, and orderliness; always orderliness. Like the seasons of the year, life was depicted full of cause and effect, predictability and order; connectedness and oneness.

grayscale photo of woman kissing child

Photo TUBARONES on Pexels.com

In this warm, human environment she spent her first five years, immersed in a group where her place was defined, accepted, giving her all she required and more.

Far from the distant world where white people lived and ruled, busy formulating policies that would soon impact them all, policies that invited in certain immigrants, offering them privileged rights, while denying them of the local black population, restricting their ability to move from one area to another, fracturing families, keeping them in poverty.

Everything changed when her mother left to join her father due to illness, to be near medical support and soon after, her grandmother died, requiring them all to leave and join their parents.

A New Era, Fractured Families and Apartheid

It would be fortuitous timing as a year later, in 1948, the Boers came into power and laws were formulated restricting the movement of Africans. Had her grandmother died later, they may not have legally been able to rejoin them.

The move to live with their parents introduced them to a less harmonious world, one where police raids occurred and crime existed. Within the law or outside the law, there was reason to be more careful and fearful. The importance of attaining an education was the focus, to rise above.

The year I left primary school was the year that education became racially segregated. Hitherto, white pupils, African pupils coloured pupils, and Indian pupils could, theoretically, attend the same school. After 1955, the law forbade that practice. There would be different Departments of Education for the different race groups.

Her years of education were dependent on her attitude, some years she did well, others she lapsed, eventually her focus concentrated on becoming a teacher, though in her initial attempts to secure a position, she would initially be thwarted. Her real life lessons were only just beginning.

Lessons from the Real World

Father began hinting at what might at the root of my problem: I had omitted to offer the Secretary of the School Board “something” and people were telling him it would be donkey’s years before I would get a post if we did not oil  this gentleman’s palm.

Though she had done well in her classes, they were inadequate and wholly misleading as to how to prepare to teach children from poor homes, without textbooks, without exercise books, without materials. Trained to teach children from homes where there was a father and a mother, most of her pupils came from women-headed homes. And those women stayed in at their places of employment: busy being smiling servants minding white babies.

Not having books is one of the misdemeanors punishable by corporal punishment. The beatings and probably the sheer embarrassment that must surely accompany the daily proclamation of one’s poverty, prompted a lot of the pupils to pilfer. The very young do not always understand that poverty is supposed to ennobling…

The first class she would teach would have 72 pupils and had all been well, they should have been aged 11 or 12. All was not well however, the children ranged in age from 9 to 19 and the variation in skills just as wide.

Due to her principled stance, that first job would take a while in coming. Unemployed, but desperate to work, she accepted a job at the local fisheries.

Eventually she is offered a teaching job, experiencing the few joys and many disappointments inherent in an unfair, overstretched, oppressive system.

All along, I had known the agony for which some were destined. Such is the design of the government. And such is the abetting by even those of us who regard ourselves as oppressed.  Which we are. But we are also called upon to help in that oppression and unwittingly become instruments of it.

A Woman’s Lot

And then comes the intersection of youth with a newly developing career and as a woman, the added risk of pregnancy. Magona’s challenges are only just beginning and her teaching jobs will become continuously thwarted by how society expects women to behave. The arrival of her own children will force her from her role and into domestic service herself, and really open her eyes to how the other live.

What I had not known was that their perception of people like us did not quite coincide with our perception of who we were and what we were about.

More than anything, however, being a domestic servant did more to me than it did for me. It introduced me to the fundamentals of racism.

The different families she would work for, each provide key insights that broaden her understanding and perception of the other groups living within the country and how the system aimed to maintain and strengthen the situation in favour of white people.

As this volume comes to an end, Sindiwe’s situation seems dire, however, she delivers some of the most inspiring passages of the book, in the low place she has arrived at, she suddenly sees all that she is grateful for, all that she has, even the abandonment of a husband who had never supported them, she recognises as a freedom and a significant contribution to her own growth.

It is a wonderful and frank autobiography and introduction to an inspiring woman. I’m looking forward to the sequel, Forced to Grow, the same title as the last chapter in this volume, in which she shares how determination and resourcefulness lead her through and out of those challenges we end with here.

Sindiwe Magona

My Childrens Children Memoir Autobiography South AfricaMagona was born in 1943 in the small town of Gungululu near Mthatha, in what was then known as the homeland of Transkei, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

She was born five years before colonial Britain handed over power to the Afrikaners. Apartheid was officially introduced in 1948 and with it a series of oppressive and racist laws such as separate living areas and the Bantu education system. It was within this context that Magona grew up.

She is an accomplished poet, dramatist, storyteller, actress and motivational speaker. She spent two decades working for the UN in New York retiring in 2003. Her previously published works include thirty children’s books (in all eleven South African languages), two autobiographies, short story collections and novels.

My writing, on the whole, is my response to current social ills, injustice, misrepresentation, deception – the whole catastrophe that is the human existence. Sindiwe Magona

Further Reading

The Conversation Article: Learning From the Story of Pioneering South African Writer Sindiwe Magona, 5 March, 2021

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk tr. Michiel Heyns

Marlene Van Niekerk was one of the ten nominees for the Man Booker International Prize 2015, before this prize joined forces with the IFFP (International Foreign Fiction Prize). The newly created prize will retain the name Man Booker International Prize, but will follow the format of the IFFP, which was to nominate a book published in the year of the prize, not an author’s oeuvre of work.

Finalists

I have been reading the work of Maryse Condé, one of the ten nominees and I chose Marlene Van Niekerk’s Agaat after reading Rough Ghosts excellent and enticing review, linked below.

Agaat is the name of the adopted daughter/maidservant, taken into Milla’s home at 4-years-old, in a state of neglect, her arm disabled, rescued from an abusive, dysfunctional existence that might fill the vacuum inside a barren woman allowing her to create a useful child/companion, trained in all aspects of family and farming life.

Milla is the only child of a farming family and set to inherit and work her own farm, she is poised to marry Jak as the book opens. The novel explores the growing tension in their relationship through Milla’s diaries and the effect of Milla bringing Agaat into their (at the time) childless marriage. Twelve years into that bereft marriage she gives birth to a son.

AgaatThe chapters alternate between life as it was on the farm and the present, when Agaat, now a mature woman is caring for dying 67-year-old Milla, as her body shuts down, paralysed, infirm, communicating only through her eyes with this character she “tamed” whom she is now dependent on for everything.

Agaat is set on a the farm Milla inherited from her mother in South Africa, from the early years of apartheid until its dying days, just as Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress come into power. Milla takes over the farm when she marries Jak, the couple seem well-suited on the surface, though cracks and resentments appear early in the marriage, deepening to suggest otherwise.

Agaat is witness to, victim of and in many ways, moulded by this relationship, the family and the farm itself. She will learn everything from Milla, all that is required to run the home, the farm ; she will  help raise the son and establish a unique bond with him, passing to him her own knowledge, a consciousness more rooted in the land and its culture than any colonising people are ever capable of embracing. Rarely rebellious, it is in small but important ways that Agaat subverts the intentions of her masters, she who will ultimately inherit all.

The novel is narrated from Milla’s shifting point of view, the present tense, first person (I) view, a stream of consciousness narrative, in the latter weeks of her life when she lies bedridden, almost paralysed, in advanced stage motor neurone disease; the past tense, second person (you) view as she remembers episodes from the past, no doubt prompted by Agaat’s reading to her from the bundle of diaries she has kept over the years, both the original entries and annotations written in at a later time. The novel is bookended by a prologue and epilogue that give voice to the estranged son, something of a mystery and strangely absent from much of the narrative.

Agaat has become Milla’s specialist nurse and caregiver, tending to her needs with a detached, precision-like efficiency, communicating through the eyes, blinking an intuitive, telepathic like conversation, the result of a lifelong, if at times acerbic intimacy, command and control. The roles are now reversed, the landscape has changed and we are uncertain whether these actions are driven by love, hate, a sense of duty, a learned, stalwart independence, revenge or the imagined interpretations of a dying, guilt-ridden patroness.

French Version Cover

French Version Cover

We never enter into Agaat’s perspective, we view her through her mistress’s interpretation and the more we come to know about their relationship, the less sure we are of Agaat’s motives and feelings, unsettled by all that has come before, as we become aware that Milla’s present day view has to a certain extent rewritten the past into a more easily digested form.

There is something that Milla wants from Agaat and it is this minor battle of wills that provides a dramatic thread throughout Milla’s dying days. Agaat avoids fulfilling the request, bringing her mistress everything but the things she wants, a set of maps of the farm, like her body, the thing she is losing control of and the maps represent her last effort at retaining some form of control.

For a long time after finishing Agaat, I was not able to adequately express what I thought of it, I found it very disturbing. It is a story that stays with the reader a long time and reviewing it required a lengthy incubation period.

I read reviews in the New York Times and Rumpus (see links below) where critics referred to it as an allegory, convinced that these characters represented an abstract idea, that of apartheid, that it was there to teach or explain some kind of moral lesson. Sarah Pett, in her academic article refers to it as an ‘unruly text’, something that upends and disturbs the reader and here I find more resonance, along with these words proffered by the author herself, suggesting that these characters and this story should invite questions:

“…novels are texts of structured ambiguity that enable many readings. My reading of the text is no more valid than yours at this or any other point.  What I am mainly interested in as an author is to complicate matters…in such a densely patterned way that the text will not stop eliciting questions and that it will refuse to provide any definite answers to questions such as the ones you (and I) might ask.” Marlene Van Niekerk

In my reading of the story, the focus isn’t as much an indictment of apartheid, as a portrayal of that aspect of humanity, in which people attempt to enslave, train and/or control the other for a selfish purpose, as with slavery, as we know of the past and now of the present, often disguised as something else, it can be what an employer asks of an employee, a parent of a child, a human trafficker of its victims, a husband of a wife and it can occur in the reverse, the victim becomes the oppressor.

UK Cover Version of Agaat

UK Cover Version of Agaat

What is portrayed between Milla and Agaat seems to me something other than South Africa’s political policy of the 1940-1980’s, for that would be to limit it, it is born of it for sure, it shows what we are all capable of, depending on what we are born into, what we are influenced by and how we respond to those things. It is about how we think things through, with whom we share, discuss and listen, igniting and strengthening those neural parts of the brain whose inflammation will solidify that thinking, strengthening the belief and justification in our resultant behaviours.

I disliked being witness to it, to the playing along with the way things were for Milla on the farm, fulfilling her familial and societal expectations, flaunting them by taking in Agaat and exploiting her, with ignorant, self-righteous justification. However I couldn’t help wondering if Agaat was equally capable of the same. Disturbing and difficult to write about.

The allegory, if it is so, lacks any moral message, true the victim may eventually inherit the earth, however she too seems as likely to become the oppressor, for it is not the colour of one’s skin that dictates moral or good, all are capable of the same, we are weights on the end of the pendulum and depending on which way it is currently swinging, and where we are positioned, we could all too easily become either victim or oppressor.

Do read Rough Ghosts’ review, his will convince you to read it.

Further Reading:

Rough GhostsAnd Her Name Was Good

Liesl Schillinger, New York Times: Truth and Reconciliation

Luke Gerwe, Rumpus: Agaat

Sarah Pett, University of YorkThe via dolorosa in the Southern hemisphere: Reading illness and dying in Marlene van Nieker’s Agaat (2006)