It is the beginning of a new month. Ladysmith, a small town in Northern KwaZulu Natal is normally abuzz.
Pensioners adorned in intricately printed pinafores and muddied brown suits animate long queues as they wait to collect their SASSA cheques. Children, who should be at school, pepper the credit lines snaking in and out of department stores with parents flush with cash, to temper the chokehold of unending debt. Pamphleteers holding the answers to erectile dysfunction and dubiously named love potions jut their arms out with flimsy papers of these untold mysteries at every street corner and passageway.
But on this day, the mood is not quite the same — it is mournful and despondent. The town is uncharacteristically almost half full.
News of a worsening taxi war has frozen the town’s raucous laughter and replaced it with hushed and worried whispers about the assassination of a prominent taxi boss the previous day before and four school teachers who also lost their lives in the crossfire.
A woman cries out “Kodwa uJesu uzosi thethela nini?” as I hurriedly make my way down into one of the hair-salons in the town’s centre.
“Sawubona sisi” says one of the hairstylists with a half-hearted smile. I greet back, equally half-hearted and preoccupied by the harrowing news I have just heard about my hometown, the bizarre bigotry of white farmer protests that were shown in a loop in morning news bulletins and, perhaps less importantly but far more urgent, what style of braids I can afford.
“Are you here to do your hair or to ask?” the hairstylist says as she interrupts my disparate thoughts.
“My hair” I respond and show her a picture on my phone of the style I want. I’ve quickly resolved what it is that I can afford as I have become somewhat of a regular in this hair-salon. The all Zambian staff of hairstylists are used to me scribbling on a notepad while asking questions about their lives and experiences of xenophobia in Ladysmith for a postgraduate dissertation that is severely overdue.
“You’re here for your hair?” says another woman who I have developed a casual friendliness with – potentially because we are of similar age and are always prodding and preening over ourselves in the same mirror every chance we get.
I smile, now more deliberate, and nod.
“I like your lipstick,” she says, “it matches your book.”
I look down and realise that the cover of Sisonke Msimang’s first book does in fact match my fuchsia-stained lips. As of that moment, I hadn’t read a single word from the book. I had taken it to the salon in the hopes that it would keep me company in the long wait before someone attended to my hair. Having seen images of Msimang’s book on various feeds and timelines across my social media platforms in the weeks prior, I had been almost desperate to tuck into, and immerse myself in the words that seemed to narrate the social consciousness of all my carefully curated social media platforms.
“Okay, sisi hlala phansi… we’ll be with you in a moment.” I heed the instruction and as I page through the text am delighted by how serendipitous the first chapter seems to be. An exposition set in Burley Court, a set of flats just off Church Road near the centre of Lusaka. A story of a young migrant family etching out an intricate and tenuous existence for themselves. Floored by the parallels, I cannot help but grin to myself as I think about all the Zambian women who I have come to admire in this hair salon. Women who speak frankly and often curtly about their nebulous relationship with migrancy in South Africa and, more precisely, in Ladysmith.
As Msimang forges ahead in her delicate and masterful prose, I think about the kinds of conversations she might have had with these women who, like her, are interspersed in between and across different locales and temporalities. Perhaps held together by conversations on home, homelessness and fluctuating in and out of the flimsy borders of belonging. As I dream up this imaginary meeting I think about Christine Sylvester’s work on African and Western Feminisms, and how for her, “feminists parade [through and in between] the geospaces”.
This moment, of encountering a woman traversing different locales in Africa and in the United States in the confines of a literary document coalescing with the Zambian hairstylists knotting and twisting their livelihood in kinky hair extensions, seem to embody Sylvester’s notion of feminist world travelling. Sylvester writes:
“World travelling can also be a methodology that all of us can employ for studying ‘the other’ as a familiar resonance, an echo of oneself. The Cuban-American anthropologist Ruth Behar [writes] that we cross borders but we don’t erase them; we take our borders with us”
Later, as I prepare to write this review, I think of the borders that Msimang carries us through in the book. I think of how she as woman, thinker and exceptionally erudite writer is peppered across the interstices of a Zambian, Kenyan, Canadian, American, South African and Mozambican existence. It is as if each new locale requires an ever so different articulation of self with some contexts calling for a doting, dutiful daughter enamoured by revolutionary praxis while others call for a young woman deep in the throes of manic romantic relationship that is at its core debilitating and fragmented. Msimang animates each locale with the kind of deft precision that make the cities, towns and countries characters unto themselves. The boundaries which Msimang and her family ebb and flow come to colour the story a young girl whose lack of rootedness sprawls into a formulation of diasporic womanhood.
While the book is not long it is certainly well considered. The poetry that defines the style of the book is not simply an aesthetic endeavour. Msimang seems to use the poetry in her book to refresh and renew tired political tropes in South African commentary. It is the kind of poetry that displays a vulnerability about self and circumstance without the reckless exposition of the most intimate details of one’s life. It is prose that politicises the banal and humanises the unjust. Her pen carries a cadence that is kind and generous to the many overlapping characters that fill her memoir, while also revealing how fragmented and horrifyingly evil some characters can choose to be.
I am particularly moved by the fourth chapter of the book titled ‘The Odour of Teeth’. There Msimang discusses her rape as young girl by a man who she knew and trusted, Praisegod. The man Msimang introduces us to in this chapter is ordinary, perhaps even humane. He does not seem conspiratorial, misogynistic or even unkind. He is just an ordinary gardener.
“On the day in question,” Msimang writes, “Praisegod whistles a joyful tune.As he works, clipping the hedges and sweeping the ground underneath the mulberry tree, he hums and chirps as though there is an assortment of birds in his voice box. He sounds like he is hiding an exotic and dying species in his throat. Maybe he is mimicking birds he kept in his youth”.
This man seems familiar to me. It is a version of a man that sometimes works in our garden at home or drinks cold Amstels with my uncle. The characterisation of this man is also familiar to me because it reminds me of the ordinariness of the protagonist, Basi, in Kagiso Lesego Molope’s book This Book Betrays My Brother or how ordinary Ugwu in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun had been before he participated in the gang rape of a young woman in the Biafran War. Praisegod, Basi and Ugwu all operate in a continuum of violent sexual perpetrators, yet have been made whole by black woman writers who know how to colour the greying viciousness that is inherent in the systems of patriarchy that coalesce to make rape survivors out of them.
Later Msimang writes in the same chapter that
“Even in my frightened silence I believe in the strength of my own bones. I believe in the tough sinew that keeps my legs moving. I have faith in the muscles of my arms that pull me up and swing me over. I trust in my pumping heart and in the sturdiness of my ribcage. Through those weeks that turn into months that become years of what you might call silence, I speak to myself. I tell myself the truth, which is that he is wrong and everything about me is right. I believe in my bones because I have others who believe in them too…I said yes so that I could live”
While the contents of the story are harrowing, I cannot but be in awe of the delicacy and dignity with which Msimang has written about this moment in her life. To me this is an important act of recollection and resistance – it defies the idea that perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence are nameless monsters in the shadows which inevitably enables rape culture(s) to persist. Recalling this moment is one of the multiple ways in which Msimang transposes that all too familiar feminist dictum that the personal is in fact political.
Msimang is able to mobilise the genre of memoir in this way to think through deeper political, philosophical and existential questions about how race, class and gender can configure with one’s sense of belonging, especially if, as in her instance, one has never quite known a definitive home.
While almost every single detail of the book is specific to Msimang and her immediate relationships across the African diaspora, she is able to reconcile her set of particularities with a set of circumstances that have characterised the experiences of various post-colonial societies.
“Sisi, so what is your book about?” says the lady who will segment my growing, yet frustratingly wispy, Afro into a long, beaded, straight-up style. Having read only a few pages, I am reluctant to share the little I know, which is a story of ‘becoming’ outside the parameters of South Africa. Knowing that my hairstylist is Zambian, I feel strangely under-qualified to speak of the Lusaka depicted in the opening pages of the book. “Err” I respond awkwardly, sheepishly, “about experiences in exile and the author’s attempt to come and find home”.
“Ohho,” she responds.
The answer doesn’t titillate my hairstylist and she lathers my scalp with hair food. I feel like I should elaborate but am unsure of how when I know so little. In the days that come, I realise my answer is not completely inaccurate. The quest for home is one of the more central themes in the book. Home for Msimang is ostensibly South Africa but she does seem to find variations of it in the people and places she is met with along the way.
In the initial pages of the book, Msimang defines home as an ephemeral place in the structures and the ideologies of the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC seems to be the home of some of Msimang’s most valuable political heroes. It is the emblematic promise of a new and better South Africa – one free of the political and ethical mismanagement that oppressed and impoverished Black South Africans during apartheid.
I am empathetic to the deep sense of loss and betrayal Msimang felt as the ANC started to unravel in the supposedly new South Africa. Marikana was in fact a turning point for South Africa, both old and young/ born free or struggle veteran. She writes
“This time, the ANC doesn’t only have the blood of the sick and the dying on its hands, but also of the healthy and the strong. There were the bullets and bodies, beamed across the world. There was the devastating vulnerability of the black bodies for all to see. They lay strewn – arms and legs akimbo in heart breaking stillness – and if you didn’t see them it was because you chose to look away. The bond of trust between citizen and leader – what was left of it, anyway, after the brutalising Mbeki years – is broken. In the wake of Marikana, living in South Africa is like living in a haunted house. There are ghosts everywhere and they seem to be gathering force. They are no longer mournful either. No this time the dead are angry and their spirits are shrieking. It is as though they are preparing to send a war party to those who authored their destruction’.
The ghosts that Msimang speaks about do seem to loom everywhere. They are in every crevice of South African life. They swirl around enraged at the ruse of a nonviolent, just society.
The “new” South Africa has new ghosts. There are ghosts of the four teachers who were killed in the crossfire of the assassination of a taxi boss in Ladysmith at the end of October. How new ghosts find themselves entering the realm of the dead as the war intensifies and the state does little to nothing because Ladysmith is deemed some back-water town in the middle of nowhere. Local officials, overwhelmed by the violence are equally silent and have become equally inert. Some of them are culpable in the horror. Some look on in wilful ignorance. Others stand vigilant, worried that another assassination is on the horizon.
I think of the ghosts that entered the zone of non-being in Life Esidimeni. How those who have survived them are tormented by the state’s ineptitude and inability to be remorseful. I think of the millions of ghosts that must have flooded the underworld as former president Thabo Mbeki’s administration continued to deny the urgency of HIV/ AIDS epidemic in this country.
In the concluding chapters of the book, Msimang tells us why she writes
I write for myself because women seldom have space for themselves and writing is space; it takes up space, it creates space , it gives me space. I write because writing is solitary and women are seldom alone with just their own thoughts – their responsibilities intrude. There is this to be done and that to be paid for and those moments when it is just you and your words are rare and all the more beautiful. I write because South Africa was liberated and she is not yet free. I write because I have been let down and sometimes I write because I do not know the answer and hoping someone might search with me
I am somewhat emotional as I read this passage because, I too, although deeply under-qualified, write for similar reasons. Msimang’s debut memoir is triumphant mostly because it is beautiful and honest. The book is a pink coloured ode to a life unfolding in literary splendour. Msimang’s Always Another Country is in fact always another extraordinarily crafted sentence, paragraph and story.
* Always Another Country is published by Jonathan Ball and available in all good bookshops. Sisonke Msimang appears at the Abantu Book Festival in Soweto (http://www.abantubookfestival.co.za) on December 8 at 2.30pm and December 10 at 11.30am
Main Photo: The cover of Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country. Picture courtesy of Jonathan Ball Publishers