claudia hauter

Around the World in Words: South Africa

My exams are over and it’s time to get serious about this challenge, including the post that should accompany each book and country after I complete it. The natural starting point for my challenge of reading a book from every country in the world was my place of birth: South Africa.

During nine years of schooling in South Africa (no, I am not a genius – three years were spent elsewhere) my English classes never prescribed a single African or South African book. I attended three different schools across two different cities over nine years, so it was a trend, not a backward anomaly. A long history of colonisation and Apartheid buried its roots in our education – which meant knowledge sprouted from the seeds of dead old white guys.

This trend continued during university, where I studied Drama and English. With the exception of one Nigerian novel and a few South African plays and movies, over five years I was not exposed to a single piece of local content. Instead, the works of Dickens, Hardy, and Shakespeare were bestowed on us. These men were all masters of the written word, and I do believe there is value and joy to be derived from their work…but not exclusively.

The light bulb finally flickered on and I realised I could uproot the tree myself. I sampled a bit of Nadine Gordimer here, a bit of Lauren Beukes there, but it was not until I picked up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that new seeds were planted. I was enthralled, enraptured, and enamoured by Adichie’s power with words. But she is Nigerian. I was making headway, but not quite at home.

When I started this challenge, I was determined to begin with South Africa. I also decided to start with my own bookshelves to see how far-reaching they actually are (and because books cost money and paper, and I still have about 192 books to go). When I purchased Bongani Madondo’s Sigh the Beloved Country, it was the title that drew me, because I’m a sucker for a play on words and titles; start a “replace a word in a movie title with chocolate” type hashtag on Twitter and I’m there.

Sigh the Beloved Country (which in case you didn’t know is a play on the title of South African writer Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country) is a collection of “essays, memoirs…travelogues, political epistles and excursions into fantasy and fiction”. It made for an interesting start to my challenge, because these aren’t forms and styles I’ve really explored, and part of my challenge is to change up the forms and styles of the books I read.

Madondo covers all these while exploring race, politics and, above all, music. I Googled so much music while reading, my phone froze and had to be taken in for repairs. It was actually just a virus, but I prefer to believe that rock blew my phone. I particularly enjoyed the profile pieces in which Madondo speaks directly to the artist.

I revelled in the familiarity of places, faces, and names only an Azanian would know, and marvelled at how much there is to learn about my country. And as much as I enjoyed sampling new forms and styles, I also really enjoyed the sci-fi pieces at the end. Hopefully there’s more in this vein, coming from Madondo. But most of all, I enjoyed a reading experience that encouraged me to think wider, listen closer, and write more.

Now’s the time to beat despair (always). – Bongani Madondo

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