When the Village Sleeps by Sindiwe Magona

The cover to When the Village Sleeps by Sindiwe MagonaJohannesburg. Picador Africa. 2021. 310 pages.

THE VILLAGE THAT sleeps is South Africa in the afterlives of apartheid, thought-provokingly awoken by Sindiwe Magona’s unflinching indictment of graft and government-created dependency, and by her (re)capture of ubuntu (humanity) and of the sustenance and well-being that the elders’ traditions hold. In step with her award-winning feminist and eco-ethical novelistic writing in Mother to Mother (1998), Beauty’s Gift (2008), and Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle (2015), When the Village Sleeps historicizes the quarter-century of inequities, injustices, and consequential social ills that led up to the calamitous 2020 state response to the Covid-19 pandemic for the precariously dependent. As one of South Africa’s honored amaXhosa living legends, Magona’s clear-sightedness and well-tuned ear expose the wounds of colonialism and apartheid that continue to scar the land and abet the collateral damage of self-perpetuating poverty. Offering in their stead the rich rewards born of a shared understanding and transmission of the practices and maxims embedded in the ancestral homeland’s cultural heritage, she situates black South African women at the nation’s hearths where generations of mothers and daughters strive to sow a life of respect for self and other, for one and all.

Multilingual, weaving isiXhosa in with English in what Mamphela Ramphele terms Magona’s “unique isiXhosinglish,” textured and plurivocal, When the Village Sleeps unfolds dexterously with intersecting dialogue and insight-filled interior monologues, citing and intertextually borrowing from such timeless South African literary figures as A. C. Jordan and S. E. K. Mqhayi. Memories and teachings in songs, legends, and folktales merge with poems in the lyrical voice of the “Old” of the unfleshed world and through Mandlakazi—the child of strength—their chosen flesh-born who speak in dreams, nightmares, and trances of what has passed and what is to come with harbingers of ever-increasing urgency and premonitory doom-saying. A veritable pharmakon, fastening social and political commentary to didactic analogies and revelatory storytelling, the novel offers remedies to mend and restore body and soul, ones drawn from nature’s medicinal plants and well-tended husbandry that safekeep the environment and support human life, as well as reinterpreted ancestral proverbs that underscore the oneness of all humanity and rites of passage serving as new bridges to contemporary life.

When the Village Sleeps sets in motion the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,” moving from the township to the city and to the village and back and advancing a national narrative highlighting the plight of adolescent children, orphaned or left alone to care for themselves and their siblings while their mothers are away eking out a living with low-paying jobs and child grants. Encompassing four generations of women, the novel first focuses on the grandchild, Busisiwe—honey-graced—on the eve of her thirteenth birthday as she negotiates the bus ride and the pretenses and masks she must wear to pass back and forth from her home life to the world of privilege she encounters at her Capetonian primary school, whose fees Mrs. Bird, her grandmother’s former white employer, pays. Staying at her aunt Lily’s house, she is the caregiver to her half-brothers in the absence of a father and a dependable mother, and her academic success is seen by her family as their way out of poverty. Her flawed decision to beget a child, to harm the fetus with alcohol and drugs in the womb to access a higher-paying child grant, and to build with the sixteen-year-old orphaned Brian “a family where . . . no one will ever be hungry or beg for things they want—a loving family” is an adolescent’s tragic response to the pressures of fitting in and wanting to be loved.

Only when Busisiwe visits her beloved maternal grandmother, Khulu, in her village in the Eastern Cape does she discover another way of life, one grounded in the rewards of participatory communal life, the dignity of self-sufficiency, and her ancestors’ observance of nature’s ways. Nevertheless, it is her differently abled child Mandlakazi who will in turn implant life lessons about self-respect, belonging, and serving others in all the diverse people she encounters upon returning to the township after spending her formative childhood years in the village, being lovingly ministered to by Khulu.

Poetically evocative, didactically provocative, and wisely invocative, When the Village Sleeps translates for safekeeping the sagacity of the ancestors into a novel for the present times between whose fertile pages lie the seeds to plant Mandlakazi’s “Fields of Hope” as providential gardens wherein to cultivate ubuntu anew.

Sarah Davies Cordova
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

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