Sarah Mkhonza: Weeding the Flowerbeds
This is a (not very fictionalised) memoir, focussing on the time that the narrator spent at school in her teens in Swaziland. She is given various names throughout the book (though neither Sarah nor Mkhonza), though they tend to be nicknames she and her friends give one another. The two schools she attends are boarding schools and are run by religious groups so the focus is on religion though she does not make a great deal of that aspect. While much of the story is of a fairly conventional schooling, there are a few aspects which are worthy of attention. The story is set in the 1970s and the narrator and her friends are very much aware of other events in Africa, particularly apartheid in South Africa and UDI in Rhodesia. Naturally, they very much condemn the treatment of the African population in South Africa and the way they are treated as inferior beings. There is no doubt that what is happening in South Africa helps to politicise the narrator and her friends.
They are very much influenced by British and US culture. Their education is based on the British system, though, during the course of the book, the school and the narrator make a very conscious attempt to study African literature – Cyprian Ekwensi and Cry, the Beloved Country are mentioned more than once, though they read the latter in a Zulu translation. The one white teacher they have, Mr Field, is very good at introducing African literature into the school. Mr. Field is to play another role. Boys, of course, do play something of a role though our narrator tends to keep away from them, as it is forbidden. Other girls do have contact with them and the sad story of girls leaving the school because they are pregnant happens more than once. Many of the girls, including our narrator, receive letters from boys, promising undying love and more though they naturally do not mean it. Our narrator ignores her letter but she is more than happy to enjoy listening to her friends read theirs and help them concoct a reply. Though she does not have a boyfriend, the other girls tease her for having a crush on Mr. Field, which she denies, though they do seem relatively close. Lesbian sex does not seem to take place, though girls are punished for sharing beds. They claim that this is a hangover from when they were children and several children had to share a bed. The narrator admits that she was completely unaware of Lesbianism at this time.
Inevitably pop music – British and US – is important to them but, though listening to Elvis and the like is enjoyable, their greatest treat is the visit to Swaziland of Percy Sledge, the first African-American they have even seen. This is another fact that helps politicises them. The narrator is something of a rebel – she and two friends nickname each other Rebel 1, Rebel 2 and Rebel 3 – and this does occasionally get her into trouble when she stands up for what she thinks are her rights or when she thinks she has been treated unfairly. Not only is she in favour of greater rights for Africans, she also is something of a feminist, complaining that history lessons seem to focus on men and ignore women.
Overall, it is clear than Mkhonza can write well, even if there is nothing Earth-shattering in this account. It is still interesting to see how girls were growing up in Swaziland during a period when the country had only recently obtained its independence and the people were struggling to find their identity.
First published 2009 by XLibris