I have another new favorite South African novel. This one blew me away. Zakes Mda’s novel Ways of Dying is set in the early 1990s–if I had to guess, it would be 1990-1991: between the time Nelson Mandela was released from prison and when he was elected president (1994) and apartheid officially became illegal. The struggle existing in the Townships, Settlements, and Villages in that stage between full-fledged apartheid and real freedom for African people is conveyed with such power I feel as if I’ve lived it.
(First printing–Oxford University Press Southern Africa, 1991; Copyright 1995 would support my theory).
I wish I’d found this book earlier. I could have included it as required reading in my South Africa class spring semester. I think I’ll recommend it as supplementary reading, for sure. If I get to teach the class again, it will be on the syllabus!
This book feels almost too tragic to bear at the beginning. It’s so sad and keeps getting sadder that a reader can be tempted to set the book down. However, the character Toloki rivets us as and we can’t “look away.” We must keep reading to see what happens to him! Toloki has named himself a “professional mourner” because he’s lost his home and his business and needs work. He’s seen that one rich man makes his living from coffins; there is money to be made in death because there is so much of it, all around, and every day. So the homeless Toloki procures himself a Mourning Costume (the procurement itself a delightful story that I won’t spoil here) and starts attending every funeral he can for people in the Townships and Settlements (wealthier people have no need for such services).
As the story unfolds, the tragedy is not lessened: we see first hand the horrific “necklacing” of a five-year-old, destruction of settlement homes, and senseless murder in other ways. Still, our characters have hope and have life. They are survivors and they find joy and satisfaction and hope in everyday happenings. This is what survival is all about. This is what the human spirit can do. This is the truest meaning of life, perhaps.
The first time I took a group into a township–Khayelitsha in Cape Town–our guide said, “Do NOT feel sorry for the people who live here. Do NOT act like you are benevolent visitors. These people have pride. This is what they’re used to, and you are visiting their community. Respect them; respect their lives.” This book slams that lesson hope full-force. That’s why I want my students to read it. And that’s why it ends up not being a story of tragedy. It’s a realistic look at lives woven with a beautiful spirit of survival and love. I’ll read this book many times, I’m sure.
Another interesting note: I walked into the Coffee Hag (my favorite morning hang-out in Mankato besides my own house) to meet my friend Tracy Murphy who is also on sabbatical this semester. I was carrying Ways of Dying mostly because it was what I was reading, and I rarely go anywhere without a book, just in case there will be a few minutes of reading time available. She looked up, saw the book, and said, “I just read that! Isn’t it wonderful? I love the character Toloki!” We had a great talk about the book. Small world, and yet, stories like this are what make the world smaller. The world with all of its aches and injustices truly belongs to all of us. That means all of us must do our part to make it a better place. And stories unite us.
One last item: I looked up Zakes Mda. He’s written MANY books, and he’s won MANY well-deserved awards. If the bio I found is current, he teaches, or at least did teach, at Ohio University in Athens, OH, where my friends Gwen and Roger Hart lived and taught for awhile. I am checking to see if they know each other!
Mda, Zakes. Ways of Dying. South Africa: Oxford University Press Southern Africa,