Sewing Circles and war – a review of Christina Lamb’s Afghanistan memoir

War isn’t beautiful

“War wasn’t beautiful at all. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen and it made me do the ugliest thing I had ever done. The real story of war wasn’t about the firing and the fighting, some Boy’s Own adventure of goodies and baddies. It wasn’t about sitting around in bars making up songs about the mujaheddin we called ‘The Gucci Muj’ with their designer camouflage and pens made from AK47 bullets. It was about the people, the Naems and Lelas, the sons and daughters, the mothers and fathers.” – from Christina Lamb’s The Sewing Circles of Herat (HarperCollins, 2002).

“Dizzy with Kipling and diesel fumes.”

The Sewing Circles of Herat is about the human cost of the “great game” that has been played in and about Afghanistan by the three major powers of imperial Britain, Soviet Russia and the United States, each of them playing the game by the rules of their own particular perceptions of realpolitik , their own interests in the stony and impoverished land made, according to Pashtun legend, from a pile of rocks left over when Allah had finished making the rest of the world.

Lamb’s book, quite different from David Loyn’s Butcher and Bolt , is the story of a foreign correspondent’s personal experiences in the roiling cauldron of violence that has been Afghanistan for the past 30 years, since the December 1979 invasion by the Soviet army, violence that has only increased in intensity since the horror of 9/11.

It is also the story of a young woman, Marri, who wrote a series of letters and a diary during the dark days of the Taliban oppression “On my desk is a handful of letters from a woman of about my own age in Kabul. She risked her life to get them to me and this is also her story.”

The two intersecting stories make for a very moving and at times horrifying read, starting from Lamb’s arrival in Afghanistan, “…stumbling out of a battered mini-bus in the Old City of the frontier town of Peshawar, dizzy with Kipling and diesel fumes.”

“If ever there was a country whose fate was determined by geography,” writes Lamb, “it was the land of the Afghans.”

Christina Lamb re-entering Afghanistan in November 2001.

While Afghanistan was never a colony, it has “always been a natural crossroads – the meeting place of the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and the Far East – and thus frequently the battlefield and graveyard of great powers. Afghans spoke of Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, and Tamerlane, as well as various Moghul, Sikh and Persian rulers as if they had just passed through.”

Christina gets a ride in the only convertable in Afghanistan

Into this complex land Lamb came as a “gawky English girl”, a “graduate of philosophy at university and of adolescence in British suburbia”, to witness at first hand the struggle of the mujaheddin against the Soviet occupiers and then again, 12 years later, the effects of the “war on terror” that followed the 9/11 attacks in New York.

The torturer

The Taliban torturer, Mullah Khalil Ahmed Hassani

One of Lamb’s early encounters after the fall of the Taliban was with 30-year-old Mullah Khalil Ahmed Hassani, a business studies graduate from Peshawar University. He was forced to leave his job as an accountant for a trading company in Quetta to join the Taliban who had arrested Hassani’s 85-year-old grandfather in Kandahar and would only release him if a male member of the family joined up.

Hassani was drafted into the secret police and at first patrolled the streets looking for anyone disobeying the many intricate and often absurd regulations such as: women not allowed to buy from male shopkeepers; any woman showing her ankles to be whipped; a ban on shoes with heels or that make any noise as no stranger should hear a woman’s footsteps; a ban on cosmetics, meaning that any woman with painted nails should have her fingers cut off.

A later assignment for the “Taliban torturer” was to guard some shipping containers full of Hazara women and children. Hazaras had been declared, by the governor of Mazar-i-Sharif, Mullah Manon Niazi, non-Muslim “Kofr” and thus “legitimate” targets for the worst possible treatment.

In the 40 plus degree Centigrade heat the 450 or so prisoners were kept in the containers without water, food, or toilet facilities, in what Hassani called “among the worst of many bad things” he and his men had been forced to do. “I can still hear the noise, the desperate banging on the metal and the muffled cries that gradually grew softer,” Hassani told Lamb.

Marri’s story – a bird singing in the tree

“…I hope this will help you outside understand the feelings of an educated Afghan female who must now live under a burqa.” – Marri’s first letter to Christina Lamb, dated 24 September 2001.


Marri and Christina did not know each other when Marri first wrote to Christina. The process of learning about each other, the discovery of the humanity behind the rhetoric of Afghanistan symbolised by their search for each other, is the focus of this book, which makes it indeed as much Marri’s as Christina’s story.

On 13 November 2001 Marri wrote to Christina: “Kabul is free, can you believe it!” The Northern Alliance had advanced on the city and the Taliban had left, as Marri wrote, “like thieves in the night.”

After the Taliban rule ended Marri wrote of the return of simple, everyday things that had been banished by the religious fanaticism: “Our new neighbours have small children and they are laughing – their father has brought them a pink and green paper kite and it is flying high in the sky. How long it is since we heard laughter – now imagine, that was banned too.”

Boy flying kite in Kabul in February 2002

Marri ends this letter: “This is a sweet night.”

In a diary entry in February 2002 Marri wrote, “Soon it will be spring, there will be cherry blossoms, maybe we will hang up our burqas for good and even start to love again.”

During the Eid holiday in 2001 Christina began to search for Marri in the crowded part of Kabul called Microrayon, having only Marri’s letters to guide her. The search lasted two months, two months of meeting and questioning many, many people, following false leads and getting discouraged.

Izatullah, one of Kabul’s leading kite makers, was jailed by the Taliban and all his kites burned.

It was only on the day before Christina was due to leave Afghanistan that she got word that her helper Tawfiq Massood had found Marri, not in Microrayon but on the other side of Kabul, where she and her family had fled to escape the noise and the bombs.

“Since the Taliban left I cannot stop smiling,” Marri told Christina. “The snows have come back to the city and today there was a bird singing in the tree. And now you have come.”

Christina pointed out that Marri had taken a huge risk in writing and smuggling the letters out of Afghanistan, and asked why she had done it.

“We thought we were the forgotten people,” Marri said. “…it gave us hope that someone somewhere wanted to know…”

When they parted Marri gave Christina a parcel wrapped in a cloth – when Christina opened it she found it was Marri’s diary.

“We must never forget”

The entrance to the “Golden Needle” sewing circle of Herat.

Women in Herat window-shopping for white shoes.

One of the enduring themes of this book is the survival of human values, human activities, in spite of the dreadful effects of the inhumanity of war and religious fanaticism, ideology and economics.

One symbol of that was the Sewing Circles of Herat, which give the book its title. Under the Taliban, literature, especially Western literature, was a forbidden subject, especially for women, who were not allowed education of any sort.

In an alley in Herat was a doorway with the sign: “Golden Needle, Ladies’ Sewing Classes, Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays”.

“Three times a week for the previous five years, young women, faces and bodies disguised by their Taliban-enforced uniforms of washed-out blue burqas and flat shoes, would knock at the yellow wrought-iron door. In their handbags, concealed under scissors, cottons, sequins and pieces of material, were notebooks and pens.”

This was the home of Mohammed Nasir Rahiyab, professor of literature at the Herat University, where he gave the women lessons on literary criticism, aesthetics and poetry, including western classics. All subjects forbidden by the Taliban, more especially to women.

Why run this “Sewing Circle”?

Refugee children in Maslakh camp, Herat, forced from their homes by the 23 years of war.

The professor explained: “If the authorities had known that we were not only teaching women, but teaching them high levels of literature we would have been killed. But a lot of fighters sacrificed their lives over the years for the freedom of this city. Shouldn’t a person of letters make that sacrifice too?”

Zena and Leyla risked imprisonment and beatings to study literature

The professor added: “A society without literature is a society that is not rich and does not have a strong core. If there wasn’t so much illiteracy and lack of culture in Afghanistan then terrorism would never have found its cradle here.”

Words of amazing optimism in a land in which, in a few years, one-and-a-half million people had been killed, and millions more horribly injured and displaced. And typical of the incredible power of the human spirit to endure and to choose life, if not to flourish, even in the most unconducive conditions.

As Christina’s friend Hamid Gilani put it in the final words of this fascinating and important book, “… we lost so many people. One and a half million. That’s too big a number. Every one of them had their story and we must never forget.”

Copyright Note

The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, is by Tony McGregor. The illustrations are taken from the book The Sewing Circles of Herat by Christina Lamb (HarperCollins, 2002) and are copyright by the author.

Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

Of miscegenation, race and redemption – two South African novels

“Miscegenation – n. The inter-breeding of people of different races. – Origin C19: formed irregularly from L. miscere ‘to mix’ + genus ‘race’ + -ation (Concise Oxford English Dictionary)”

“Unrestrained sexual intercourse between the black and the white races is … a crime of great magnitude, for it is the self-murder of a white nation whose mission it should be to maintain a supremacy of highest civilisation throughout the world.” – from Of European Descent by Mary Frances Whalley and A. Eames Perkins (Juta, 1909)

“Race has no basic biological reality, the human species simply does not come packaged that way.” – Professor Jonathan Marx of Yale University.

“I know perfectly well … that in a scientific sense there is no such thing as race, but I as a politician need a concept which enables the order which has hitherto existed on historic bases to be abolished and an entirely new and antihistoric order enforced and given an intellectual basis …” – Adolf Hitler

The fictional concept of race has overshadowed South Africa for centuries, and the shadow fell heaviest during the 20th Century, when the policy of crude segregation pursued by the white colonists since the founding of the first white settlement at the Cape in the mid-17th Century became “intellectualised” in the ideology of apartheid almost exactly 300 years later.

Much has been written, both fictional and journalistic, about the place of race in South African society and politics – some justificatory and some condemnatory.

Modern South African literature can be said to have started with Olive Schreiner’s great novel The Story of an African Farm (published in 1883 under the pseudonym ‘Ralph Iron’) from which the race question was almost entirely absent.

Turbott Wolfe – mirror held to a dirty face

Race took stage front and centre with the publication in 1926 of William Plomer’s Turbott Wolfe which rudely and roughly tore down the curtains of evasion and etiquette which had hitherto hidden the realities of racial injustice from the vast majority of white South Africans.

These whites were not at all pleased at having their comfort disturbed, at having their role in the injustices based on the fiction of race so vividly brought to their attention. Indeed the book caused an uproar unlike anything literary had caused in the country before.

One letter writer to a local newspaper even complained that the novel was “not cricket”! It wasn’t meant to be.

As Plomer’s friend and fellow-South African writer Roy Campbell wrote in his satirical poem The Wayzgoose:

Plomer, ’twas you who, though a boy in age,

Awoke a sleepy continent to rage,

Who dared alone to thrash a craven race

And hold a mirror to its dirty face.

William Plomer

Plomer was 22 when he wrote the novel which was to bring him such notoriety in his then home country and such fame in the rest of the world. Plomer was born in 1903 in the city of Polokwane (then called Pietersburg) in the province of Limpopo (though it was then still in the Northern Transvaal) and spent his early years moving between South Africa and the United Kingdom, though he lived fully in South Africa from 1918 to 1926.

Plomer wrote Turbott Wolfe while living at Entumeni in Zululand, disguised as “Ovuzane” and “Lembuland” in the novel. In his autobiography Double Lives (Jonathan Cape, 1943) Plower described the writing of the novel as “an outburst of poetic frenzy”. An outburst it certainly was.

The novel opens in a dingy room in an unnamed English town where Turbott Wolfe lies dying and tells his story to the author, a school friend from the not too distant past. The “ridiculous room” is a figure of the racist mind: “The room itself was so tawdry as to be grotesque.”

The room is decorated with a sort of faded gentility, with “Patterns of flowers, sewn or painted or printed in smudgy colours…” to the extent that the author feels “obscured by all these scentless bouquets” though Turbott Wolfe himself “seemed so little obscured that he might have purposely designed those enormous bistre-and-green roses that were tousled and garlanded up and down the coverlet on the bed; and the wall behind his head, with its bouquets of brown marguerites, its pomegranates and bows of ribbon and forget-me-nots, …”

Wolfe tells his story to the author, how he was ill after leaving school and went to Africa, like so many others, to attempt a cure for his unnamed illness. He goes to Lembuland to run a trading store there in a “native” reserve.

He is licensed to run the store Ovuzane where he passes his time “between trace and flok-lore and painting and writing and music, between sculpture and religion and handicrafts.”

Very soon, though, Wolfe begins to learn “the hard lesson that in Lembuland it is considered a crime to regard the native as anything even so high as a made wild animal.” Appalled by this attitude on the part of the whites in the area Wolfe sets himself to “seek with keenness for information about the relations between blacks and whites in those parts.”

Wolfe’s neighbours are portrayed in most unflattering ways, and he sees them as “unclean” people with whom he would not choose to “breathe the same air”.

Then one day a young black woman came into the store and “took my breath away.”

“An aboriginal, perfectly clean and perfectly beautiful. I have never seen such consummate dignity.”

The young woman, Nhliziyombi, was in complete contrast to the meanness of Wolfe’s white neighbours, “She was an ambassadress of all that beauty (it might be called holiness), that intensity of the old wonderful unknown primitive African life – outside history, outside time, outside science.”

This was Plomer’s first crime in the eyes of white South Africa – to find beauty, indeed to be attracted by the beauty, in a black person, and particularly a black woman.

As Laurens van der Post wrote in the introduction to the 1985 Oxford edition of Turbott Wolfe, “That, of course, roused an even angrier reaction from the white South Africans. One of the cardinal principles of the popular attitude was that it was impossible for a decent, civilised white man to be attracted by black women.”

But the novel went even further – some of the characters in it were openly and actively in favour of that horror of horrors, miscegenation.

The newly-arrived missionary Rupert Friston says, “I do not assert yet that miscegenation should be actually encouraged, but I believe that it is the missionary’s work now, and the work of any white man in Africa worth his salt, to prepare the way for the ultimate end.”

Another character, Mabel van der Horst, who herself marries a black man in the story, says to Wolfe, “What the hell is the native question? You take away the black man’s country, and, shirking the future consequences of your action, you blindly affix a label to what you know (and fear) the black man is thinking of you – ‘the native question.’ Native question, indeed! My good man, there is no native question. It isn’t a question. It’s an answer.”

This was written a mere 16 years after South Africa had been unified with a blatantly and explicitly racist constitution, a country which was ruled by a minority who believed totally that the country was a “white man’s country”.

It was written a mere 13 years since the passage of the Land Act of which Solomon Tshekeisho Plaatje wrote in his Native Life in South Africa: “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

Van der Post in his introduction writes: “Art, to me, is a magic mirror wherein are made visible aspects of reality hitherto invisible, and thus Turbott Wolfe was for me and some of my generation in South Africa.”

No wonder the whites did not like having its “dirty face” reflected in the mirror of this fine novel.

The forlorn crying of the titihoya

Another novel of race which came out of the pre-apartheid era in South Africa opens in way deeply different from the beginning of Turbott Wolfe: where Turbott Wolfe is lying dying in a dingy room in England, author Alan Paton opens Cry the Beloved Country (first published by Jonathan Cape in 1948) with an elegiac, beautiful paragraph about the wide open landscape of southern kwaZulu-Natal, in what is in my view the most beautiful passage in South African literature:

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the tithoya, one of the birds of the veld.”

The contrast with the opening of Turbott Wolfe is indeed dramatic and is indicative of the wide differences between the two books. Plomer is, in spite of clear preference for a liberal point of view, a realist, while Paton is a romantic.

Indeed, despite the fact that Paton’s book has been hugely popular in many parts of the world, and has been the source of much of the world’s popular knowledge about South Africa, Plomer’s novel is perhaps a better, though far less well-known, work of art.

Both of these books are passionate works of art; Plomer’s work is passionate about art and literature and the issue of race is dealt with in that context. Paton’s work, on the other hand, is passionate about justice, about morality, and the issue of race is dealt with in that context.

Indeed Geoffrey Hutchings, writing in the excellent compendium Perspectives on South African English Literature (Ad Donker, 1992) could call Paton a “Puritan”: “He can be seen within a tradition of English Puritanism whose great figures include Sir Thomas More, John Milton, John Bunyan, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Florence Nightingale, W.E. Gladstone, D.H. Lawrence and F.R. Leavis – not, in other respects, a group with very much in common.” (Interestingly, Geoffrey Haresnape, writing on Plomer in Perspectives on South African English Literature, lists Turgenev, Conrad and E.M. Forster among Plomer’s literary forebears.)

Alan Paton

Yet he could write a few sentences earlier, “My story, begun in Norway and Sweden, was becoming a cry of protest against the injustices of my own country.”

(I find it interesting that these two novels also had such different births – Turbott Wolfe was conceived and born on a lonely trading station in rural kwaZulu-Natal of a 22-year-old; while Cry the Beloved was conceived and born in Europe and the United States of a 40-year-old on a study tour of penal institutions for juveniles. Both were also first novels for their respective authors.)

Cry the Beloved, in contrast to the almost exclusively white perspective of Turbott Wolfe, is written almost entirely from the perspective of a black Anglican parson, Steven Kumalo. However, the polemical nature of the writing does not encourage any depth of psychological insight, though such insight is not entirely lacking.

As Hutchings notes, “South Africa recognised itself reluctantly in his (Paton’s) portrait, and within a few years other writers had followed Paton, often in more horrifying detail.”

The “magic mirror” was held up to South Africans again, and again they did not like it too much.

Paton tells of sitting next to Mrs Malan, wife of the Nationalist Party Prime Minister Dr D.F. Malan, at the screening of the first movie made of the book. She said to him, “Surely, Mr Paton, you don’t really think things are like that.” To which he replied, “Madam, I lived in that world for thirteen years.” He writes that he did not add, “and you, madam, have never seen anything of it at all.”

Towards the Mountain

Both books end with images of mountains and valleys. Turbott Wolfe is on the train heading to the coast and back to England and death, and from the train window sees “the moonlight on the deserted barren mountains. They are turning and turning like roundabouts as the train turns round and about.”

And then he quotes a stanza of a poem:

Into the night, into the blanket of night,

Into the night rain gods, the night luck gods,

Overland goes the overland passenger train.”

Paton’s book ends with the priest looking out over the mountains and valleys where the story had started, and watching the sunrise, the sunrise which would be the last day of his son’s life, as the son was to be executed for murder that morning. And Steven Kumalo reflects on the experiences of the last weeks. At the moment when he thinks his son will die, he stands, removes his hat, and prays. As he does so the dawn finally breaks over the rim of the valley.

But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”

The Magic Mirror

In his introduction to Turbott Wolfe Laurens van der Post tells of how as children he and his friends would put a mirror in front of baboons they had caught. The baboons would be convinced that the image in the mirror was another baboon and they would search frantically for the other baboon, never accepting that the image in the mirror was their own.

In their highly neurotic and intelligent way they were convinced that a dirty trick was being played on them, and the exercise would end with them picking up the mirror and smashing it to pieces.”

Van der Post concluded, “This has always seemed to me a precise rendering of South Africa’s reaction to Turbott Wolfe.” One might add, to Cry the Beloved Country too.

Works cited

Chapman, Michael; Gardiner, Colin; and Mphahlele, Es’kia (eds) (1992): Perspectives on South African English Literature. Johannesburg: Ad Donker.

Paton, Alan (1948): Cry the Beloved Country. London: Jonathan Cape

Paton, Alan (1986): Towards the Mountain. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Plomer, William (1985): Turbott Wolfe. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Van der Post, Laurens (1985): The “Turbott Wolfe” Affair. Introduction to Plomer, William: Turbott Wolfe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



Philosophy and life—an inescapable connection

The Thinker by Rodin

Philosophy is often regarded as impractical, something separate from “real life”—whatever that might be!

Actually, as author Edward Craig writes in the interesting book Philosophy – a very short introduction (Oxford, 2002): “In fact philosophy is extremely hard to avoid, even with conscious effort.”

Craig makes this claim because, as he writes, we are all to some extent philosophers. Anyone who asks questions about values, about who or what we as humans are, about life and what it means or even if it means anything, is actually doing philosophy. And most of us ask such questions.

When a child asks us “Why?” we are being challenged to answer a philosophical question. And we all know that children are incessant askers of that question.
The relevance of philosophy to our world, to the harried, hurried world of business, of getting on or getting by, is that it helps us to think critically, consciously, about decisions and choices we make.

Without doubt the pace of modern life requires of us to make decisions very rapidly, sometimes we are even encouraged not to think too much, just to act.
Even when we have to do that, when we have to just go on and do without much prior thought, we can begin to improve our decision making skills by some thought after the event—how did that go? What are the outcomes of those actions? How can I do it differently next time to achieve a better outcome?
As soon as we do this kind of thinking we are practicing philosophy. And our decision making is improved by that practice.

While the formal study of philosophy, although it could be helpful, is not necessary, some reading that is challenging beyond simple “escapist” stuff is definitely beneficial. The brain, after all, is like a muscle—it becomes better with use.

Engaging with people is also helpful—and the more the engagement becomes interesting and useful the more we have exercised the grey matter. Like any skill, the skill of philosophy is improved with practice.

So, while sitting aloof in our own space thoughtfully stroking our beards might be for some an attractive escape from the pressures of life, the real philosophy is an engagement with life, with the people and activities around us.

Books on philosophy

Here are some suggestions of books that might help us in such engagement—and these are just some suggestions of books that I have found helpful myself:

Firstly an enjoyable read that tackles questions of values and quality is the classic from 1974 by Robert M. Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Don’t be put off by the title – as Pirsig himself noted, it’s not about Zen and not much about motorcycle maintenance either!

The Oxford Very Short Introduction I mentioned at the start by Edward Craig is another fun, yet deep, read. Absolutely worth buying if you can find a copy.

Then there are the books by Christopher Phillips, The Socrates Cafe and Six Questions of Socrates. These are excellent books showing the practical relevance of philosophy to modern life in interesting, non-academic ways. Outstanding reads, both of them.

Finally any books by A.C. Grayling are worth looking at, though as a start I would suggest the non-academic works like The Meaning of Things and The Reason of Things (these were published in the US under the titles Meditations for the Humanist and Life, Sex and Ideas respectively).

And, if one wanted to go further, books by Albert Camus, Erich Fromm, Stephen R. Covey, and others can provide further mental stimulation and encouragement.

Philosophy is about life, and about living it to the full with conscious involvement and commitment.

From Apartheid to Zaamheid – a book review

In the midst of the furore of the Limpopo textbook crisis and the gloom of the world’s economic failures a book arrived serendipitously on my desk and helped to keep my spirits positive.
From Apartheid to Zaamheid is a readable and practical book about making a difference, being a positive force for change in South Africa, rather than a perpetual whinger about all that is wrong in the country.
My only complaint really is, why did the book take so long to arrive on my desk? It was published by Aardvark Press in 2004 and yet I only came to see it this week. Well, maybe I’m not as awake as I like to think I am!
The author is Advocate Neville Melville who played a significant role in the transition from the apartheid regime to the non-racial democracy we live in today. He has also been the Banking Ombudsman as well as being appointed by former president Nelson Mandela as the Police Ombudsman.
The book is 130 pages long and presents, in very readable ways, the problems facing South Africa and a number of possible ways that individuals can make contributions to solving these problems – not in grand, sweeping ways, but in small ways that touch people’s lives.
The word “Zaamheid”, Melville explains, he coined from the international symbol for South Africa, namely “ZA”, and the initial letters of the words “alle mense (all people)” to form the “Zaam”, which sounds a lot like the Afrikaans word “saam” which means “together”. The suffix “-heid” means roughly “-ness” as in “apart-ness”.
Melville defines his new word as meaning “everyone working together” and he writes, “The choice of an Afrikaans-sounding word would, in itself, be an act of bridge building.”
That introduces the major theme of the book, which is also its sub-title: “Breaking down walls and building bridges in South African society.”
Some of the chapter titles give an idea of how this theme is explored by Melville: “The crack in the wall”; “The great wall”; “Behind high walls”; “A peek over the wall”; “Up against a brick wall”; and “Bringing down walls”.
In his analysis of the problems facing South Africa Melville makes it clear that the walls, both real and metaphorical, which continue to keep South Africans apart from each other are the source of the ills besetting the country: “The affluent continue to barricade themselves from the rest of the world in security villages with checkpoint controls. The workplace is increasingly becoming a no-go zone for whites, particularly if they are males.”
In the final chapter of the book, “The way ahead”, Melville makes some pertinent points, like “We are, as a country, spending too much of our energies in trading blame and squabbling amongst ourselves. Instead we should be focussing all our efforts into the challenges that face us. Until every last person has a stake in the country’s wealth, none of our individual wealth is secure.”
The book as a whole is a challenge to all South Africans to become bridge builders rather than wall builders.

The search for our intrinsic nature – in search of the San

“…the evident longing of our times to understand through these delightful people the intrinsic nature of our species and of human alternatives.” – from Frontiers, by Noël Mostert.

When whites first settled at the bottom end of Africa they encountered a group of people they did not understand, a group so different from themselves they could hardly see them as human, and as a result they began to treat them quite literally as vermin.

This group of people were known by the Dutch settlers as “Bosjesmans” or “Bushmen” – people who lived in the “bush”, people who “could appear and vanish as though materializing from or dissolving into sand or grass.” (Mostert, Frontiers, p31).

From the 17th to the late 18th Century Bushmen, or San, as they were called by the Khoikhoi, were hunted as vermin by the settlers, and, to some extent, by the Bantu-speaking people who came into contact with them from the eastern regions of Southern Africa.

Only in the second half of the 20th Century were their real significance acknowledged and a beginning was made in an unbiased assessment of their importance in human history.

Sir Laurens van der Post, famous South African writer, published the first popular studies of Bushmen in his books The Lost World of the Kalahari (1958) and The Heart of the Hunter (1961). These books promoted a kind of “noble savage” image of the San, a highly-romanticised vision of them.

A very different view is that taken by photographer Paul Weinberg in his wonderful book In Search of the San (The Porcupine Press, 1997), a collection of Weinberg’s highly evocative photos linked by his commentary on his trips to Bushmen settlements in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana spanning the years 1984 to 1996.

In an introduction written by Riaan de Villiers the gut-wrenching reality of Bushman life in the late 20th Century is put into the context of the conflict between development and conservation.

Early morning - perhaps the most appealing of the photos in the book (at least I love it!)

The Bushmen suffered displacement on a large scale by the development of nature reserves and the destruction of the conditions which made their lifestyles viable. Some Non-Governmental Organisations are helping the Bushmen adapt to a market economy and to develop the skills needed for survival in the 21st Century, including the development of art schools and retail outlets for their arts and craft.

But, as De Villiers notes, “…these trends do not mitigate the dispossession of the Bushmen, and should not serve to obscure it. The vast majority continue to drift further and further away from their culture as they struggle to survive.”

Weinberg noted in his entry for Tjum!kui in Namibia: “At the weekend, social dislocation reaches a crescendo. Ghetto blaster rule: men and women alternate between traditional rhythm,s and township jive. Alcohol takes its toll; some people pass out, others fight. The modern world and a stone-age culture have met – with dire results, it seems.”

One of those dire results is the continuing exploitation of Bushmen and their culture as tourist attractions. Weinberg relates how a group of Bushmen in Kagga Kamma reserve near Ceres in the Western Cape are used to provide the illusion of Bushman culture: the advertising brochure reads “Enjoy a trip with the small people. Participate in an informal experience with a Stone Age culture.”

Admittedly, for all the inauthenticity of the experience, the Bushmen themselves are better off in this set up – Weinberg notes that the clan’s “standard of living has improved dramatically,” because they are able to keep the proceeds of sales of their crafts and have land on which to farm with chickens and turkeys.

Perhaps the saddest photo in the collection - buying liquor

The book is full of such interesting and insightful reading, mercifully free of the kind of sentimentalising that so often comes into writing about the San.

The main impact of the book is made by the superb photos which, in documentary style, show the contemporary lives of Bushmen in all their many facets – from typical hunting to drunken fights, from cute children to army recruits.

There is a richness in the images which helps the observer to get a strong sense of the impact of the collision of the modern world on the culture of what was a hunter-gatherer culture, and the impact is not always pleasant.

Another aspect brought out by the book is the fact that the Bushmen are not a homogeneous group – there are many different clans or groups which speak different languages and have different cultures.

Dusk - a hunter

The book is not a “coffee table” book and neither is it an anthropological text – though it has aspects of both. It comes across mainly as one person’s response to a continuing unfolding of a changing culture – a culture which in many ways provides a link between the reader’s time and a time in the almost unimaginable past.

As Weinberg notes in a sort of foreword: “I join a long line of outsiders who have studied, filmed or photographed Bushmen over the past 100 years or more. With these image, I hope to depict a once harmonious culture in a state of flux and struggle. I hope they bring the reader closer to the real San of southern Africa.”

The book, and espcially the photos,  is a constant reminder that people, however we might classify them, remain people with their own sense of dignity and worth. The Bushmen are not tourist attractions but real people with the needs and wants of all people for respect, understanding and involvement. In that Weinberg has achieved what he set out to do.

A book for all South Africans now

“We were on a coast of centuries of sea tragedies, and of millennia of prehistoric habitation. A great deal of the strange and incomprehensible surrounded one there, and one was credulous of many things that one would not believe elsewhere. Such belief is a form of affirmation of that sense of wholeness that is so distinctively African, and upon which I have several times remarked, a purity of bond with the unfathomable, the unknowable and the long reach back that reduces the human immediate to a great littleness. It was what I chose to remember throughout the writing of this book.”

These final sentences of Noël Mostert’s great, wonderful book Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (Pimlico, 1992) are really a summing up of the experience of reading this long and absorbing book. There is so much in this book of the unknowable, of the “long reach back”, and the final littleness of our human existence.

On one level the book is a chronicle of the incredible arrogance of white encroachment on black existence, the piecemeal and yet dogged conquest and appropriation of the land which the Xhosa-speaking peoples of the Eastern Cape regarded as their ancestral birthright.

At another level the book is an exploration of humanity, of what makes us human, what leads us to forget our common humanity, and so the book rises above mere history to become a philosophical meditation on the human condition, and especially on that condition in the South Africa in which we find ourselves in the early years of the 21st Century.

On this level the Frontiers of the title are not only the moving borders on the colonial map but also the interface between two civilisations – the white European and the black African. On this “frontier” the missionaries who came to “civilise” the black people in South Africa were key, and highly controversial, players.

The missionaries mostly brought a high Victorian sensibility to their work among the Xhosa-speaking peoples, which caused misunderstanding and conflict. The attempts at “civilising” the blacks meant that the missionaries became associated with the colonising forces in the eyes of the Xhosa-speaking people, and their message of salvation was treated respectfully but critically. This “frontier” remained largely intact even as the lines on the map shifted and changed.

In a sense, if we want to understand South Africa now, this book is essential reading. If we want to understand our fellow-citizens in this strange land, black and white, this book will deliver deep insights.

Mostert, Cape Town born and of a long line of ancestors stretching back to the early white settlement of the Cape in the mid-17th Century, is a masterful writer who manages to hold attention while delivering masses of information; drawing on a wide variety of sources his narrative has a weighty authority.

Chief Maqoma

From the background of the broad sweep of the historical events colourful characters abound who stand out and command attention. There is the frontier giant at almost seven feet tall Coenraad de Buys who married many women (none of them white) and fathered a people, the Buysvolk of the northern parts of South Africa; there is the very human and yet very interesting James Read (Snr) who came to South Africa fired with enthusiasm to uplift the “Hottentot” (Khoikhoi) people and lived as one of them, marrying a Khoikhoi woman and championing their cause against the white settlers; there is the brave and ultimately tragic chief Maqoma who in the end wanted nothing but to live like a white farmer; the little braggadocio governor Sir Harry Smith who, understanding almost nothing of Xhosa culture, claimed himself to be their “Paramount Chief”; there is the sad chief Sarili who had a deformed leg and was regarded by many as a weakling, but who was the “last great independent chief of the Xhosas” and whose final tragedy was to be the chief over the great cattle killing of 1856 which brought about the end of the Xhosa-speaking people’s independence.

Sir Harry Smith

As Mostert notes, in spite of the way the British had treated his father and his people, “…there had never been anything in Sarili’s demeanour that suggested a hatred or a longing for vengeance. He appeared in every respect to be a larger man than that.”

Sarili, as he comes through in this great book, epitomises the tragedy of the Xhosa-speaking peoples. The various groups of Xhosa-speaking people seem to have gone out of their ways to accommodate and appease the colonists in hopes of being left in peace to continue their lives in the way they most wished to, and at every turn, they were frustrated by the demands of Britain and the colonists. They saw their land and cattle taken from them and even when they were innocent were accused of cattle rustling.

The cruelties visited on the Xhosa-speaking people were unbelievable. And yet they tried to maintain their dignity, to maintain as much of their customs and beliefs as they could in the face of the colonial and missionary onslaught. Their land they lost. As they said, “ilizwe lifile (the land is dead)” – “You kill our country by taking away our customs.”

Paramount Chief of all the Xhosa-speaking peoples, Sarili

So, as Mostert says, South Africa was born in a great tragedy, symbolised by the death of Sarili, who died in hiding at the age of 83, in 1893.

With the defeat of the amaZulu in neighbouring Natal the British had “achieved the military conquest of the two great black groups which had offered the main resistance to the white domination of South Africa.

In a final ironic twist of history, though, as Mostert noted, “It was through the Xhosa-speaking peoples, however, that African political leadership in South Africa mainly continued to express itself.” The list of 20th Century leaders who came from among the Xhosa-speaking peoples and have shaped the new democratic South Africa is impressive, among them Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Raymond Mhlaba, Wilton Mkwayi, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Steven Bantu Biko, Chris Hani, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, to name but a few.

Frontiers is an essential and absorbing read for anyone wishing to understand South Africa today, and an enjoyable trip through history, thanks to the skill of the author.

© Text copyright by Tony McGregor. All illustrations from the book Frontiers: the Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People by Noël Mostert (London, Pimlico, 1992).