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Sindiwe Magona: Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle

Miseka is pregnant for the tenth time. Although she has never had a miscarriage, all of the previous children died very young. She is naturally very worried, not least because her husband, like the husbands of most of the women in the village, is away in Johannesburg, working in the gold mines. She knows that the general feeling in the village is that a woman can only really be considered to be married when she has a child. She is advised to consult a witchdoctor and not the doctors of the skinless (i.e. white) people.

The village is divided between the red women, i.e. those who paint themselves red, have no education, are illiterate and are pagan, and the pierced ones, i.e. the educated, Christian women. It is the red women who come and see her first and bring what they can, namely firewood. The pierced women come next and are somewhat patronising. The pregnancy, like all her other pregnancies, seems to go well and her mother has come to help her. Jojo, her husband, comes back for the birth. The birth is difficult and, sadly, while the child survives, Miseka does not.

Miseka had wanted to call the child Shumikazi (meaning tenth child), if it was a girl, which turns out to be the case. However, her mother, Manala, who is a red woman and not a Christian like her daughter and son-in-law, wants to call the child Nokufa, which means passed through death in Xhosa. However, the priest who baptises the child refuses to accept this name, and she is called Shumikazi. However, Jojo and the people of his village call her Shumi while Manala persists in calling her Nokufa. When Jojo has to return to the mines, there is some dispute as to who will bring her up but, in the end, Manala takes her.

Manala and her family realise that she is different, when she is very young. Manala’s daughter-in-law sees a snake crawling on Shumikazi. However, despite the fears of the adults, Shumikazi is happy to play with the snake and the snake causes no problems. She seems to know when her father is coming, as, the night before, she cries (which she never normally does) and is restless.

Meanwhile, Jojo is concerned about his daughter’s upbringing. He reduces the amount of time he works at the mine to six months a year, and develops his own crop growing and animal breeding. He even learns about alpacas from the local nuns and starts breeding them. However, he remains concerned about how she is brought up the other six months. He sees her playing with her dolls and some of the dolls are fed, while one doll only has a bit of food smeared on her mouth to make it look as though she as been fed. We learn that this is what, in fact, happens. Shumi’s aunts feed their own children well but only smear a bit of food on Shumi’s mouth so that Manala thinks she has been fed.

Shumi is full of bravado and often accompanies the older children and tries to do what they do. They tend to go swimming by the dam, which is dangerous, but pretend to their parents that they are merely out playing football, even the young ones and the girls. One day, an older girl drowns. The other children are severely punished, They tell their parents that she swam in a dangerous area and drowned on her own. Manala later learns that she drowned saving Shumi who had gone to a dangerous part and almost drowned. Manala is mortified, as this could bring shame on the family.

On learning this, Jojo decides that it is time to give up the lucrative mine-working job, even though he would be the only man in the village to do so, and spend the whole time with his daughter, and looking after the crops and animals. He returns home and works hard at growing his crops and tending his animals, aided by Shumi. He learns of the Kinross mining disaster. He is glad he is no longer a miner and glad all of his relatives escape, though his best friend dies. Jojo later contracts phthisis from his time in the mine.

However this is a feminist novel, and we see examples of this. Shumi wants to continue her education and her father supports her. The rest of the family, however, cannot see the point of a girl being educated. Her father does something even more outrageous. He essentially makes a will, leaving his estate to his daughter. This goes against all tradition, which states that the next of kin should be the nearest male relative. Jojo also rescues his sister from her husband, who brutally beats her, and then defends her position in the court of the local chief. As Shumi grows older, there is also a concern about ukuthwalwa, a Xhosa tradition where girls of marriageable age are seized for marriage, with the abductor only having to pay a small bridal price to the father of the abductee. Indeed, Shumi sees a friend abducted in this way.

Magona tells a good story of changing mores in a South African village and the awakening of a feminist consciousness, though there is clearly a long way to go. Ukuthwalwa, for example, is still practised. She makes no pretence about her view that women are badly treated and improvements are needed, from the brutality of men towards their wives, often done with impunity, to the importance of education for girls. I am assuming that this story is at least partially autobiographical, though Shumi is presumably based on Magona’s mother, with the the daughter only appearing right at the end of the book. Whether it is autobiographical or not, it is certainly an interesting view of a changing culture.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Seriti sa Sechaba