Monday, February 26, 2007

Book Review: The Heart of Redness

The Heart of Redness
by Zakes Mda

This novel is set in a modern-day Xhosa community in South Africa and brilliantly weaves a contemporary, fictional narrative into a facinating historical event that divided the Xhosa people and drove them to near self-annihilation in the mid 19th century.

In April or May 1856, a young girl, Nongqawuse, and her friend were sent to shoo the birds from the fields. When she returned, Nongqawuse told her uncle and guardian Mhlakaza, a Xhosa spiritualist, that she had met three spirits or "strangers" who told her that the people should destroy their crops and kill their cattle, the source of their wealth as well as food.

In return, the ancestors would arise from the sea and chase away the european settlers; they would also replenish the granaries and fill the kraals with healthy cattle. At the time, many Xhosa herds were plagued with "lung sickness," possibly introduced by European cattle, and many cattle were dying.

Mda illustrates how the Prophetess' message divided the people into those who believed her message (those who killed their cattle and destroyed their crops) and those who did not. As more and more Xhosa killed their cattle and destroyed their livlihood, and the people grew anxious for the arrival of the ancestors, the Prophetesses (three by this point) insisted that the ancestors would not arrive until all the Xhosa complied with their requests.

As a result, the "believers" turned on the "unbelievers," raiding their farms, killing their cattle and creating enduring division within the Xhosa community until the present day. This is presented in the novel as a feud between families, decendents of a pair of twins--one, a believer, the other an unbeliever. However, in the modern-day context, the lines are drawn between those who welcome modernity and "civilization" and those who prefer their traditional culture. The "believer" family is on the side of tradition, while the "unbeliever" family welcomes modernity.

Nongqawuse, Prophetess of the Xhosa, left
Mda presents the debate over the development of their ocean-side village by outsiders as the modern day "prophesy" that claims it will bring prosperity to the village. There are those who believe this prophesy, and those who believe that it will only bring more hardship on the people.

I really enjoyed this book. It provides (from what I can tell) an accurate depiction of modern village life in South Africa, and also recreates for the reader the complexity and multiple layers of conflict, both inter- and intra-cultural, facing the modern Xhosa person.

For more on Zakes Mda, see here.

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