Wed Oct 26 09:43:26 SAST 2016

Mphahlele's literary genius reincarnated

By unknown | Feb 13, 2009 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Es'kia Mphahlele

Es'kia Mphahlele

There was a chattering noise and the laughter of young women near the river.

Now, one could hear their shrieks distinctly, then they would be drowned by the almost deafening sound of river water falling down a steep mass of rock wedged between two hills; now, one could hear the currents of water wrestling in the whirlpool below.

The listener might vividly imagine the scene here: the whirlpool is like water boiling in a pot while more comes crashing down, forcing other currents up; then foam gathers and bubbles float buoyantly, some breaking, others scattering as though uncertain of their course.

Still, the human noise continued, punctuated by the thudding sound of implements digging irregularly into the ground.

Here it is that women, old and young, obtaining good, soft soil to mix with water and cow-dung, the resultant product being used for plastering the walls and floors of their homesteads.

The walls of each home are decorated with beautiful designs peculiar to the taste of the artist, and it is evident that there is keen competition among the women of the township in producing the best designs.

The effect, however, is rather a mixture of European and indigenous settings - the walls of the houses being, in some cases, of mud-brick and, in others, of corrugated iron, the roofing being either of the latter or grass thatching. The flooring is, in all cases, of mud.

Asiatic stores trade inside and around the township, with the nearest town five miles away, so there's no wonder that even the economic and social patterns of the inhabitants' lives savour of this mixture of urban and rural habits.

To come to our story; the shrieks of the young women digging with hoes and picks suggested, to any listener, that they were having some fun in a carefree manner.

However, one of them heard a cry from a neighbouring bush.

Her first time of hearing it told her it was a baby's cry. She hushed the others to silence. They all stood, starring at one another, listening. The second cry told them it was from the nearby bush.

The woman who heard the cry first, Annah Seripe, threw down her pick without a moment's hesitation and ran towards the bush. Her companions tried to dissuade her; she was always rash; it was just like Annah - unreasonably curious; it might be a bait, she would be murdered or raped or kidnapped by river witches; they did not want to be held responsible if any harm befell her owing to wilful disobedience ...

By this time, Annah Seripe had entered the cluster of trees, so they decided, unanimously, that it would serve her right if any ill came upon her as, after all, a cat was once a victim of curiosity.

The young women were about to resume their digging when Annah emerged from the bush, carrying an object in her arms. She called them to see. To their seemingly great joy and excitement, they found it was a baby, 12 to 18 months old.

Then, suddenly, their instinct of self-preservation seemed to grip their feminine minds. They did everything but encourage Annah to keep the child. To their horror and annoyance, Annah gazed lovingly at the barely-clothed creature and heard her muttering, pitying phrases.

They could not move her; she had decided to bring up the baby boy as her own.

lThis excerpt from Out, Brief Candle, a short story by the late South African literary icon Es'kia Mphahlele, is carried in the rare literary compilation, Band of Troubadours. It was launched by Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan in December 2008. Mphahlele is among several emerging and established writers who were honoured through the South African Literary Awards, whose nation-building partners are Sowetan, Nutrend Publishers, the national arts and culture department and wRite Associates.


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