Title: Nwelezelanga: The Star Child
Author: Unathi Magubeni
Publisher: BlackBird Books (2016)
ISBN: 978 1 928337 24 9
Reviewer: Tumelo Motaung
I was walking, on the morning after I read Unathi Magubeni’s Nwelezelanga, when a young lady carrying a child on her back met my way. She was playfully asking the little girl if she had eaten, and the baby would reply, “No, no.”, and again the mother would tease, “Ojele?” and the baby would laugh. This amused me; and as I was taking it all in, she complimented me on my own bulging tummy and went on her way. So surprised was I that all I could utter in response was a thank you entwined with a chuckle before she passed me. I had just enough time to notice that the beautiful little girl on her back, pink head band and all, was an albino child. “Nwelezelanga!” I thought aloud, bringing a very wide smile to my face.
I started reading Nwelezelanga as an escape from Ellen Kuzwayo’s Call Me Woman, which I found a little heavy for the space I was in. The book, which was noted by Tshepo Masuku of the Book Club Society as one of the best they’ve so far read, was on my bedside table, and so I jumped right in. Evading sleep on those two nights was not a very hard thing to do. I excitedly hung on to every word of the text.
The first chapter in the book is complete draw-in, hooking and slowly reeling you in with enchantments of a spirit world. Even after Niq Mhlongo, at a reading of his short-story collection, Affluenza, warned me of the dangers of comparing literature, I couldn’t help think back to Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, which had a similar effect of my senses. Very early on you realise that this too is about those of us Okri describes as “the strange ones, with half our beings always in the spirit world.”
Nwelezelanga, is about the journey of a little girl who, because of her mystical powers, finds herself tangled in web of good and evil. Again separated from her spirit companions, she is born into “the world of the walking dead”, this time at the hands of a midwife who manages to convince her mother that an albino child is a curse. She is then, at her mother’s dismay, discarded into the mighty Umfolozi River before villager ears are blessed by the din of her neonate cries.
I’ve experienced the cycle of birth and death many more times that I care to count. I’ve donned and shredded many skin colours in my lifetime. I’ve lived the lives of many; the lives of the poor and the healers of Bantu and served the divine purpose in countless ways.
I was interested to see how Magubeni would go into issues of the spirit world without crossing sacred boundaries such as those said to have bestowed the crown of “outcast” upon Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa’s head when he published the marvelous Indaba, My Children. Magubeni, in what is described as “rich and poetic, yet uncluttered, vocabulary”, finds ways to slither into the deepest parts of one’s self-hood; forcing up thoughts of existence and purpose, without harrowing too deep into forbidden waters; just enough to hold one’s interest without losing them to the complexities of worlds unknown to the naked eye.
The best thing about this book, for me, is how Magubeni treats the subject of differently-abled children. While society still strives for normality, Magubeni, reminds all of us who are born normal, that there is nothing extraordinary about us; that it is those we are tend to discard as misfits who are the rulers of the cosmos. He also reminds those of us born of the moon of who we truly are; urging us to make space for dreams gone unexplained, the visions that often blind our sanity, and the voices of our spirit companions calling to us from a world beyond this one. The book, in a subtle way, calls us to embrace our god-self.
Over a period of time, the midwife noticed that there were special souls being born across the land; babies that had old souls and an incredible awareness of what is. These children were in some way handicapped for reasons she couldn’t comprehend. Some couldn’t speak properly and had difficulty in communicating verbally. Others were deaf and some were blind; they were born as outcasts but had the uncanny ability to see things that others couldn’t see.
It was also interesting to note that he pays attention to the pressures placed on women to bear children. This is something I recently came across in Taiye Selasie’s The Sex Lives of African Girls, which bears the recurring line “In the peculiar hierarchy of African households the only rung lower than motherless child is childless mother”; and again in Sol Plaatji’s Mhudi, where Queen Mnandi is forced to flee her land because of the ridicule from her fellow wife. In Nwelezelanga it is Nokwakha who loses her husband because she is not able to bear him children. “Bless me with a child, my lord, and I will be forever grateful,” she cried. “What is the use of a wife if she can’t bear children?”
Magubeni also brings us face to face with the ying and yang of African spirituality, giving life once more to the darkness that lived in the stories of our childhoods. Stories such as Belerutwane, the imp who, at the darkest of night would steal away the naughty children and transport them to the kingdom of Lord Bubi, ruler of the underworld, he who “robs souls of their divinity and true magnificence”. He brings back the dark high priest and priestess, Mpundulu and Mthakathi, who tirelessly carryout his evil plans by sowing self-doubt in the minds of the children of light.
In this splendor that is riddled with proverbs, Magubeni – who is a sangoma and trainee herbalist based in the Eastern Cape, makes an effort to end some chapters with a short prayer, reminding the reader that he too, in his role as author is only a messenger; that an all-knowing God exists.
A fantastic read, which adds value to the almost uninhibited library of African traditional writing. This is one you’ll want to read to your children, and them to their children many years on. Camagu.
Find more quotes from Unathi Magubeni’s Nwelezelanga: The Star Child on our GoodReads account.