The Divided Self in the African South

Reviewed by Stephen Ney

These novels about contemporary southern Africa aren’t much concerned with politics, but they do a lot of thinking about post/colonial binaries. At the centre of both novels is an individual wrestling with the tensions between rural, communal African traditions and urban, individualistic, Western/globalized modernity. The novels prefer to examine not the political but the psychological side of these divisions, finding the most crucial dividing line not between village and city, or Africa and the West, but between distinct parts of one troubled individual—the first-person narrator. In both novels a reconciliation is found that restores hope and integrity. As Kabelo, the protagonist in Such a Lonely, Lovely Road, acknowledges at the novel’s resolution, “all parts of a person’s life need to come together and make sense for one to feel grounded.”

Such a Lonely, Lovely Road traces a hopeful narrative of the first thirty years of Kabelo’s life because it shows a slow and steady progress towards that coming together. As he reviews his childhood in a Setswana-speaking township through adult eyes, he sees that it was dominated by the desire to satisfy his parents, which mostly meant repressing his gay sexuality and steering towards a medical career. The novel is great at capturing how the forces of family and communal expectations converge agonizingly in the heart of an outwardly successful and unimpeachable youth.

Whereas heading off to Cape Town for medical school seemed to promise Kabelo freedom, and whereas it did indeed give him plenty of opportunity for sexual experimentation, his secluded, studious self, his racially and sexually uninhibited partying self, and his pleasing-the-home-community self didn’t begin to converge. (The novel shows with great clarity how being gay, even in notionally post-Apartheid South Africa, was in many ways more difficult for Black than for white South Africans.) Exhausted by inner divergences, he transfers to Durban. The new start doesn’t look promising until he runs into a childhood friend, Sediba, who has always been the object of his longing and therefore the trigger for his inner torment. Kagiso Lesego Molope’s novel hopefully, but perhaps also unrealistically, suggests that love, though it might require taking great risks, can bring convergence to an individual and for that very reason is the best thing for the society in which the individual is located.

My Totem Came Calling, by Blessing Musariri and Thorsten Nesch, is a lighthearted young-adult novel that adolescent Canadian readers would probably have an easy time relating to. Through the mental-health journey of its teenaged protagonist, Chanda, the novel deconstructs common assumptions about urban modernity’s superior understanding of health and superior opportunities for living a full life. Repeated hallucinations of a zebra send the desperate Chanda, with three male friends, on a bumpy road trip towards her father’s ancestral village, which is almost as foreign to Chanda as it would be to an average Canadian reader. She reflects: “[t]wenty-four hours ago, I was back home lying on my bed, watching Netflix on a plasma screen in the middle of Harare.” Now, feet rubbed raw by the elasticated pumps that she should never have worn, stomach turned inside out by the mopane worm her cousins served her, she gives her verdict: “this whole scene is just not working for me.” Though she and her tradition-contemptuous parents could never have known it, Chanda’s zebra visions are completely explicable. They aren’t symptoms of psychiatric illness but a merciful reminder of who she is: an inescapably Shona woman whose totem, affirmed at birth, is the zebra. The visions called her towards inner integration. The alluring, globalized city actually impeded that integration whereas the village—where Chanda’s apparently “traditional” relatives are in fact proficient with mobile technology and with high-tech sustainable irrigation technologies—catalyzes it.

This review “The Divided Self in the African South” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 12 Feb. 2020. Web.

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