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Niq Mhlongo

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Niq Mhlongo on Way Back Home

In the early 1980’s when I was growing up in Soweto, there was a popular urban legend called Vera the Ghost. It is believed that Vera was a very beautiful lady who was killed in one of the Soweto roads in the 1950’s. It is not clear how she died, yet I don’t know which one of the three versions is true. Some people believe that she was killed in a hit and run car accident. Others say that she was gang-raped and later killed. Most people seem to believe that Vera was killed by her jealous lover who went on to throw her body into a stream. The truth is that she had died a very terrible death, and her spirits had not rested as she terrorized Sowetans after that. It is said that Vera would stalk handsome Soweto hunks at the parties and they would be the envy of every party goers. She would then use her beauty to charm the lucky hunk into buying her alcohol, and after the party she would lure them to her home. The following day the hunk would be found dead and naked on top of a grave at the Avalon Cemetery.

This is where the idea of my third novel, Way Back Home, which was published in April this year by Kwela Books comes from- Vera the Ghost urban legend as well as African cultural beliefs and myths around the concept of death. In most if not all African cultures and traditions, the dead are not gone forever. When we bury a person, it means that we are sending the deceased off to the afterlife where they join our ancestors. The ancestors play a major role in everyday people’s lives as they oversee everything we do. If we don’t do things according to the customs and beliefs, bad luck is more likely to befall upon. So when a person dies, all traditional rituals must be observed so that the deceased joins the ancestors in good spirits, so that they say all the good things about us. Being in good books with the ancestors simply means good luck and success in everything we do. For example, in case of death, the deceased has to be mourned properly so that their spirits join those of the ancestors. If a husband dies for instance, the wife has to wear black, abstain from any sexual activity until the mourning period (usually a year) is observed. If the wife has an intercourse before the mourning period lapses, she would bring bad luck of death within the family. Death has to be complete, and that is why we slaughter a beast and brew traditional beer and do some rituals with the traditional healers to inform our ancestors of our progress in matters of life and death.

Way Back Home is about these binaries between tradition and modernity; African way of healing and western ways of healing, the past and the present, the living and the dead, the rich and the poor, corruption and righteousness, white and black, love and hate, apartheid era and post-apartheid era, as well as the inxiles and the exiles. The narrative is centered around a female freedom fighter named Senami, who is killed by her own comrades in exile in Angola during the apartheid era. Like Vera The Ghost, she was not buried properly, so her angry spirit comes back in the form of a ghost to haunt her killers in the present day post-apartheid South Africa. This results in some deaths. In order to appease her spirits, her killers and relatives have to go back to Angola where she was killed to do the rituals of taking her body and spirit back home to South Africa where she is reunited with her ancestors. Only by doing this will Senami’s spirit rest in peace; and her death will be complete. In a nutshell, Way Back Home seeks to show the importance of our culture and belief which are rated below the Western way of life. It does this by putting more emphasis on African way of healing, African medicine, and African oral tradition of story-telling. For example, in African tradition of oral story-telling, every tale ends with a lesson or some kind of education. Thus, the story of Vera The Ghost had a huge impact on me in shaping my childhood. It taught me not to go out at night, lest I might be the victim of a ghost. So I was always indoors at sunset, and this helped me to avoid wrong crowd. Way Back Home is also about our past history of struggle against apartheid as it tells that sad part of the struggle that the politicians are trying to sweep under the carpet. It is about the truth, and the reflection into the past, the present and the future of South Africa.


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