Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets

History. People either love it or hate it. Most likely to those who hate it, it was fed as tasteless gruel in some school somewhere focusing more on grades than education. Probably a teacher who thought dates and names of wars were more important than the people who fought and what was going on in their minds.

History was written by the victors. Another reason why "who" won seems so important. But history is much more than wars and intrigues. It is stories of real people, leading their own lives, certainly not anticipating inclusion in a dry, school text.

But Max du Preez (see blogposts 7-1-14 and 7-15-14) has turned history on its head in this delightful book of stories. Real stories about real people with foibles more interesting than a schoolbook ever was. Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets is the type of book we should have been given to read, which would have encouraged all of us to be students of ourselves and our ancestors. The subtitle, “unusual stories from South Africa’s past” is understatement.

Du Preez, in his characteristic iconoclasm, insists on seeing the people in his stories as human beings first, before being ethnic or cultural creatures. He has selected some wild and hair-raising tales as well as those which bring us back to the humanity of each of us: ubuntu is his theme.

The stories span South Africa’s past from the 15th century to nearly the present. He begins in “Death on the Beach” with the culturally inappropriate gestures of Dias, da Gama, and Almeida. These ill-fated overtures set the tone for 484 years of miscommunication and bloodshed. When reading this book, be prepared for well-researched, documented tales of sound and sometimes fury.

In “Pacts with Lions” du Preez gives us glimpses of the Bushmen's naturalism which kept them safe from being lions’ prey. While the Leghoya went to the lengths of building stone huts with entrances too small for lions, Bushmen slept and hunted in the open veld without fear. In “A Fatal Attraction” he uncovers a multitude of slave stories and womanising men whose exploits populated the early Cape, broke hearts, and sometimes mutilated bodies.

“The African Socrates” is a sensitive portrayal of Mohlomi, famous seer, herbalist, king, and the mentor of the greatest of all Bantu kings, Moshoeshoe. Cannibalism, did it happen in Africa?, is the subject of “The Graves are Alive.” And Africa’s most infamous chief, Shaka of the Zulus, is treated with perceptive psychological awareness in “Shaka’s Women.”

Due to the vast influence of Afrikaners on the pages of Southern African history, a number of the stories are about them: some known and details buried, others not well known but should be. Coenrad de Buys (the ancestor of several towns full of people) of “Scoundrel Pioneer” sounds like a modern day Goliath. While “The Case of the Pink Slips” reveals a little known cover-up of the small pox epidemic by none other than Rhodes and Jameson. “Broedertwis” means a quarrel between brothers and tells the hero vs. traitor story of Piet and Christiaan deWet.

Prophets such as the "Boer Nostradamus", Siener (Seer) van Rensburg and that "Bloody Coolie", Mahatma Gandhi remind us that non-violent resistance and the understanding of human nature can be more powerful than physical force. Most intriguing was a story that seemed fantastic in the extreme, but can now be proved by modern day genetics,  “The Black Jews of Africa”.

Including the struggle against apartheid, du Preez has stories of Winnie Mandela (her softer side), the betrayal at Lilliesleaf, and the “Breastfeeding Warrior” Phila Portia Ndwandwe and her exoneration during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

These are just some of the rare gems from the past in which du Preez urges us to know the past and allow that knowledge to unite us. He says: 

. . .  history is not about forgetting.
We cannot properly understand who we are
and why we are where we are today
if we don’t fully know how our ancestors interacted
and what they did to and for each other over time.

History is not about forgetting. With such compelling, readable books, we will be encouraged to remember, and maybe even do a little research ourselves.

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