Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: The Ink Bird

Maretha Maartens is an Afrikaans children’s author writing about the plight of Adam in The Ink Bird. It is always difficult to cross gender, color, and generational lines when writing. Maartens has done a believable job and created a character who, upon the death of his father is suddenly saddled with the support of his younger siblings and pregnant mother who births twins (Jacob and Esau) in the course of the story.

Maarten’s attempts to describe township life concentrate more on the inner fears and turmoils of a young boy, of being harassed by bullies and not being able to keep his job selling newspapers, rather than the more embittering issues of discrimination. Ink Bird, sometimes translated Paper Bird, was published in Afrikaans in 1989, during the death throes of apartheid. The English translation is adequate and the level is well suited for 9-12 year olds. She describes poverty issues very well, but lacks emphasis on the significance of the colour divide in contributing to it. Adam does not noticeably struggle with colour-based questions: but other books with children that age are wrestling with “why?” and “why us blacks?”

Life as a newspaper boy, standing at intersections to sell papers to drivers stopped for traffic  lights is chaotic and chancy. This is still part of the South African scene, but now most of the vendors are adults. The narrow economic survival margin is a good example of the extreme effort one must put out for minimal payback. Maartens does a good job illustrating the uncertainties of this tenuous existence.

The title is a metaphor using the ubiquitous newspapers which sometimes seem to take wings and fly across the road--sometimes landing on windscreens. It has powerful possibilities as an image. But Adam does not dream with it, nor imaging flying free of his township. It is a stillborn metaphor.

As a starting point to explain apartheid, this book is useful for children, but it does not go far enough. At a crucial moment in time, Adam falls ill and is taken care of by an elderly coloured vendor, who sells his papers for him and saves the money for him. This is a feel-good, “God’s in his heaven” element, almost unbelievable. Maartens does clearly speak out against the degradation of poverty, but without reminding her child readers what the ugly, invisible backdrop is. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Down Second Avenue

Ezekiel Mphahlele (1919-2008), writer, philosopher, educator, activist, and exile is considered the Father of African Humanism. In 1977 he changed his name to Es’kia Mphahlele, so you many encounter his books with either name. His earlier autobiography (he wrote two), Down Second Avenue, is this post’s focus. But we will return to his short stories at other opportunities. His writings are especially noted as a bridge between African and Western literature.

Down Second Avenue was published in 1959, ten years after Cry, the Beloved Country, and thirty years before Kaffir Boy. His early memories of a father who beat his mother, long hours of work (he hauled laundry from white sectors for his granny to wash), and the constant fear of thugs and witchcraft corroborates the horrors which Mathabane recounts, but without the intense anger and bitterness. This may be because Mathabane was writing in his twenties and Mphahlele in his forties. His book is the more powerful for its restraint and the choice to reflect on fact rather than rely on raw emotion to communicate.

Second Avenue was where his mother took her children to live when she fled her abusive husband. Es’kia was twelve and recalls the transition from rural to slum in vivid detail, but as a learner, not a victim. He did not begin studying regularly until he was 15, but his love of learning drove him to an eventual PhD and many international awards.

His early accounts are sprinkled with humor, which balance the suffering of his life:
In the country it spelt heavy rains. And goats are impossible creatures to manage when it rains. The goats panicked and dashed about madly as if a huge flea had come among them. How often I cried aloud chasing the goats. If I caught one I belaboured the creature with a stick so that it yelled to the heavens for help. (p 27)

One of Mphahlele’s recurring themes is maintaining African culture while integrating positive elements of the West.  He advocated that we “know our Africa intimately, even while we turn into the world at large.” (His position on this is different from Mathabane’s, who was outspoken in his rejection of any form of superstition.)

What I do know is that about eight out of every ten Africans, most of whom are also professed Christians, still believe firmly in the spirits of their ancestors. We don’t speak to one another about it among the educated. But when we seek moral guidance and inspiration and hope, somewhere in the recesses of our being, we grope around for some link with those spirits. (p 64)

Mphahlele recognized the inadequacy of the Christian veneer as he gradually awoke to the underlying, unBiblical injustice of the very people who claim to teach it. While he discovered ways to grow personally and spiritually, the many stories of black people disadvantaged by a system that had no interest in justice and used the Bible to defend injustice, he had an epiphany:

For years I have been told by white and Black preachers to love my neighbour; love him when there’s a bunch of whites who reckon they are Israelites come out of Egypt in obedience to God’s order to come and civilize heathens; a bunch of whites who feed on the symbolism of God’s race venturing into the desert of the ungodly. For years now I have been thinking it was all right for me to feel spiritually strong after a church service. And now I find it is not the kind of strength that answers the demand of suffering humanity around me. It doesn’t even seem to answer the longings of my own heart.” (p 178)

Without rancor, he peels away the fa├žade covering the sad fact that the church and many missionaries colluded with a perverted world view which held a government in thrall. He gives recognition to Trevor Huddleston, a lone Anglican who stood aloof from the “white man’s total disregard of justice and other human values.” 

A product of Bantu Education, Mphahlele identified it as a tool of oppression and acknowledged the significance of the Johannesburg Anglican Diocese which did the honourable and courageous thing: close down its schools rather than perpetrate a travesty.

Mphahlele also turned internally to the deep and emotional issues of living under apartheid. He verbalizes the futility of bitterness in this succinct metaphor:

I knew then what I had been looking for: a fatally beautiful lady called bitterness. I knew that I wanted to love her, caress her, kiss her; but not, in Swinburnian fashion, to be bitten to death by her. Only if I chased after her and loved her, could I strangle her. I could hang her up to dry and show her up to the mockery of the elements. (p 186)

Es’kia Mphahlele is a wealth of thoughtful, provoking challenges. He lived before apartheid was enacted, throughout its course, and lived to see it abolished after returning from exile to his beloved South Africa. He lived to encourage understanding and humanism, Ubuntu, among South Africans. We are the richer for his heritage.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Every stone shall cry: Kaffir Boy

Published in 1986, four years before apartheid was officially abolished and eight years before the first truly democratic elections, Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane is a voice from the township of Alexandra. This is not fiction, but autobiography, subtitled, “The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa.”

So, how did a young man, growing up in the worst of township conditions, with parents living there illegally, manage to learn to write at all--much less an articulate, vibrant, and passionate account of his life and family? His description of the Bantu Education system, under which he was schooled, marks it as a travesty. The constant beatings he received from the people mandated to educate him on the grounds that he did not have the proper uniform would have defeated a less determined person, and probably did drive many children out of schools that could at least have granted them literacy.

Not surprisingly, Mathabane’s inner strength came through his mother and grandmother. Both illiterate menial servants, they cajoled, inspired, threatened and encouraged him to choose the path of learning over the “tsotsi” (gangster) path. Mark’s vivid description of a gang of tsotsis murdering a father on the evening of payday is just one of the raw episodes that separates this book from sanitized accounts. This very close encounter with death also clarified the choice in Mark’s mind. However, it was the comics brought home from the place his granny gardened and the back-breaking labour his mother performed to pay his school fees that taught him to value a life committed to learning.

A critical element in Mathabane’s story is his father’s tenacious hold on all things tribal and African. Sadly, his father could not see the possible “best of both worlds” acceptance of some elements of education. As his father fought his mother’s championing of school, Mark was caught between them:

That night, at seven and a half years of my life, the battle lines in the family were drawn. My mother on the one side, illiterate but determined to have me drink, for better or for worse, from the well of knowledge. On the other side, my father, he too was illiterate, yet determined to have me drink from the well of ignorance. Scarcely aware of the magnitude of the decision I was making, or rather, the decision which was being emotionally thrust upon me, I chose to fight on my mother’s side, and thus my destiny was forever altered. (p. 134)

 So Mark continued the dichotomy, abandoning vast segments of his culture to seek a better life: this he found through avid reading and, unlikely enough--playing tennis. This may be a source of disappointment to many who would prefer a balanced acceptance of both cultures and what they offer. But Mark was forced to choose one or the other and sadly felt obliged to turn his back on his culture.

Although the book reads like the memoirs of a young person, it is against a background of understanding of the price his people paid for being born black in South Africa: 

There is a death far worse than physical death, and that is the death of the mind and soul, when, despite toiling night and day, under sweltering heat, torrential rain, blistering winds, you still cannot make enough to clothe, shelter and feed your loved ones, suffering miles away, forcibly separated from you. (p. 181)

The perception Mathabane brings, despite the polarized position of his parents gives great insight into more of the stresses and conflicts of township life, besides the standard weight of poverty, constant strain of police raids and degradation from the laws of apartheid.

This book is not for the faint-hearted, but it is an authentic voice of one who grew within the dehumanizing township and was able to escape through friendly white friends on a tennis scholarship. Mathabane went to an American university and now lives in the US, modeling a rainbow family. He is a speaker and writer on these important issues.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Every stone shall cry: Cry, the Beloved Country

Alan Paton is our first Voice to consider in the anti-apartheid genre; his sensitive, poetic rhythms contrast the gentle Zulu syllables against the harsher Afrikaans and English words. The disparity of languages is his setting to explain the inexplicable: how people came to hurt one another over the colour of their skin. Paton’s writing is beautifully repetitious, catching phrases that resonate throughout the book, literally translating passages of Zulu for the non-speaker, and imparting the languid feel of those living far from the city rush. Interestingly, many foreign reviewers compare Paton’s prose to Biblical English, not recognizing the correlation to the bantu roots. (Paton was fluent in Zulu and worked for thirteen years as principal of a reformatory for delinquent “African” boys.)

“Cry, the Beloved Country” came out in September 1948, before apartheid was official law in South Africa. It did not take long for authorities to detect the fire and beauty in the work, for Truth is Beauty, and it was banned. Many of us growing up outside South Africa read it in school, but with little enough explanation, for our teachers themselves did not understand the depth of the problem or pain Paton was describing. He may have been trying to alert the world to the coming crisis, but he wrote for South Africans.

Read these first three sentences of the book aloud, and you will feel the call of the bush veld and a lonely sense of something precious that is coming to an end:

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa.

These sentences launch two paragraphs which preface parts one and two. “Cry, the Beloved Country” is written in three parts, the first two telling almost parallel stories of two fathers (one black and one white) and their two sons. Both fathers’s hearts are broken, both sons’ lives are destroyed. The final part is an elongated epilogue which is Paton’s attempt to offer a solution for individuals because he can not see a way clear for a national solution. 

Part One is the story of the Anglican priest, Stephen Kumalo, going to Johannesburg to seek out his wayward sister, Gertrude, and his prodigal son, Absalom. It reads slowly and gently, for Kumalo is old and tired. Despite his weakness, Kumalo is able to contact those who help him in his quest. Although we readers push at the pace, the book cannot be rushed. Words must be said in certain ways and we are restrained by Paton:

They come out of the Court, the white on one side, the black on the other, according to the custom. But the young white man breaks the custom, and he and Msimangu help the old and broken man, one on each side of him. It is not often that such a custom is broken. It is only when there is a deep experience that such a custom is broken. The young man’s brow is set, and he looks fiercely before him. That is partly because it is a deep experience, and partly because of the custom that is being broken. For such a think is not lightly done. (p 186)

Part Two is the story of James Jarvis, Esquire of High Place farm, which stands high above Ndosheni, the parish of Kumalo. The language and pace pick up considerably, as he, too, finds himself reluctantly going to Johannesburg.

The Homeric quality of this story, two fathers and sons, playing out their roles, unaware of one another, holds everything together. And there are Shakespearean near-misses that frustrate us, just as they do in his plays. No, it is not hyperbole to compare these elements in Paton to Homer and Shakespeare because his tragedy is rooted in the pain and suffering of his beloved country. Paton’s love for and agony over his country is palpable. He uses the writings of Jarvis’ son to send his own message to South Africans. A message they could not read, because his book was banned:

We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog when the fine fierce bitch next door has pups, and hold on to our handbags more tenaciously; and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forgo. We shall forgo the coming home drunken through the midnight streets, and the evening walk over the star-lit veld. We shall be careful, and knock this off our lives, and knock that off our lives and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution. And our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings; and we shall live with fear but at least it will not be a fear of the unknown. And the conscience shall be thrust down; the light of life shall not be extinguished, but be put under a bushel, to be preserved for a generation that will live by it again, in some day not yet come; and how it will come, and when it will come, we shall not think about at all. (p 77)

Paton’s prophecy proved all too true. Lives shrank and people lived in fear: black and white. Half a century of brutal oppression followed these words. His metaphor of the light which shall not be extinguished, but put under a bushel, is the familiar Biblical parable. But it also refers to the word Afrikaans speakers used to describe themselves: “Doppers, after the little metal caps with which they snuffed out candles. They called themselves Doppers because they were deliberately and consciously extinguishing the light . . .so that they could do what they had to do in darkness.” (Rian Malan, My Traitor’s Heart)

Paton was a devout man and this work is is trumpet call to remind his countrymen that their faith could not be reconciled to what they were doing to their fellow human beings:

Thus even our God becomes a confused and inconsistent creature, giving gifts and denying them employment. Is it strange then that our civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma? The truth is that our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of high assurance and desperate anxiety, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions. (p 145)

Paton tells us what we need to hear, gently, attempting to give two points of view: the Black country dweller and the British city dweller. He does not try to communicate the Afrikaans perspective or the Black township culture. He limits himself to what he knows well; his sensitive, lyrical writing is easy to read and enigmatic at the same time:

The Judge does not make the Law. It is the People that make the Law. Therefore if a Law is unjust, and if the Judge judges according to the Law, that is justice, even if it is not just. (p 147)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry

This year a special group of people will turn 20. Here in South Africa, they are known as the “Born Free” generation. They were born the year apartheid died. At that time universities geared up in anticipation of their arrival in 18 years. And the country has changed at a creditable rate.

The Born Frees are weighted with the responsibility of Freedom without personal knowledge of what it cost those who fought for it. While they may acknowledge cerebrally that Freedom is not Free, the cost was not theirs. They have heard the names: Govan Mbeki, Oliver Thambo, Ruth First, Steve BIko, Robert Sobukwe. . . many streets and highways are named after these revolutionary heroes. But they have not listened for their voices.

Born Frees (of all colours) have grown up in the compost of decaying apartheid: the ones raising them could not have totally eradicated its vestiges from their hearts or lifestyles. But this privileged crew leads the generation of Free South Africans. Without having experienced apartheid, they are striking out without a compass. They have a vague idea of the miasma their fathers lived through and finally pierced; but it is not enough to give a sense of direction. Which way to Justice?

I shudder to think that maybe apartheid will be denied and claimed a historical fiction, just as the Holocaust is being undermined by groups whose interest lies in its discrediting. But lest we forget, we have libraries of their memoirs, memorials in most major cities, and II have personally seen tattooed numbers on concentration camp survivors’ arms.

Dear fellow travelers on this planet, there are books by those who struggled living under apartheid, too. Books by the oppressed and by those whose colour identified themselves with the oppressors. The inhumanity of apartheid struck both ways--the brutalizers and brutalized. These are important books, but as time moves on other books are being published, and these landmarks--touchstones of history--are being neglected for more palatable stories.

This year I hope to use Soli Deo Gloria to remind us of where South Africa has been. To listen again to the Voices of Experience. To help us regain a moral compass so that South Africa, as a model for other nations, can show us how to learn from our mistakes and become nations of justice.

Each entry describing a book and noting its contribution will have “Every Stone Shall Cry” in its title. These will not be book reviews, per se. The goal is to encourage us to read these writers who have something still to say, particularly in the New South Africa. If we do not remind ourselves where we have been, we are in danger of going in circles and returning to where we were. 

The goals are:
  1. That we never forget the inhumanity of discrimination.
  2. That we be inspired to read again that which sustains us.
  3. That we begin to think and wrestle with important ideas.
  4. That we grow in ubuntu, our humanity one with another.

If you have any books you would like to see considered, or are interested in making a guest contribution, please send me an email at:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Seven Things Mom Left Me

Eleven days ago my Mom left this world for another she didn’t know but steadfastly believed in. It’s still hard to imagine that she is no longer here, yet she hasn’t been here in her heart for a very long time. As thoughts of her have returned in flood, I started thinking about her legacy to me as her only daughter. Then I read that “legacy” is one of the overused words of the 21st century. Hence the simplicity of the title.

I could have written these a while ago. Truth be told, I wish I had, so I could have shared them with her. Perhaps they’d have made her smile and remember . . .

Here is the last picture I have of her smiling, before she spiraled down into depression:

My brother tells me they’ve saved her hymnbook for me. That is my solid, physical inheritance. I look forward to holding it again. She and I sang many of her favorites during my sporadic visits from Africa. She loved Blessed Assurance and Great is Thy Faithfulness.

I have a myriad of other things inherited from her from the shape of my hands to my reflection as I pass windows on the street. But here are seven intangibles that have become part of me because she was my mom.

  1. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9. I had this verse memorized before I knew what on earth a peacemaker was. I had no idea there were eight other beatitudes. I was sure, however, that being a peacemaker was the most important work on earth. My conclusion is that my brothers and I must have had many disagreements which brought this wisdom to our immature minds. It is now embedded in how I approach life. (And I am still learning what a peacemaker is.)
  2. A love of words. Mom had an amazing vocabulary. She graduated valedictorian of her class in Providence Bible Institute, but I never knew until Dad told me after they retired. She knew a plethora of words and modeled using them to say what she meant. She was also a stickler for spelling them properly. She was the spelling dictionary of our house. This bequest of hers makes me aware of typos in every book I read. Thanks, Mom.
  3. Ready to enjoy a mean game of scrabble at a moment’s notice. Not sure when we took up this innocuous past time, but we indulged whenever we got together. She was a formidable foe and when she started improvising on the spelling of some words, I realized it was time to throw a game or two. Here I could paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s London saying: “The woman who is tired of scrabble is tired of life.”
  4. Laughter. From my earliest days I remember laughing giddily with Mom. Sometimes Dad, armed with his own incredible sense of humor, would just stare at us in amazement that we could find something so funny. My firm abs I attribute to a lifelong practice of laughing until my stomach hurts. (Her depression is still a mystery to me.)
  5. Life is too short to keep an immaculate house. Dust never killed anyone, even though Dad was allergic to it. There are always more important things to do than clean a house, like playing scrabble. Hence, one should try to keep ahead of the clutter and live for the important things; and we all know that they are people.
  6. Wear second hand clothes without batting an eye. Mom knew thrift stores wherever she went. Wise Penny and Twice is Nice were two of her favorites. She bought bargains just because they were bargains. The concept of planning a wardrobe and focusing on colors was foreign to her, and hence, to me. Once a friend at Trinity College asked me why I dressed like a refugee. I was nonplussed. Is there another way to dress?
  7. Any time is a great time to light a candle. Mom always had candles around. She lit them for breakfast, for BIble reading, for lunch, for mid afternoon snacks, in the living room, in the bathroom, in the bedroom. You get the idea. Candles have atmosphere. So now, when I light my candles, I thank the Lord for such a great mom.