It was the title, Chasing the Tails of my Father’s Cattle, that first drew me, that and the compelling cover picture. And once I realised the author had written the haunting Mother to Mother, telling the stories of the mother of Amy Biehl and that of one of her attackers, I was hooked.
“I wrote that because I was a coward,” says Sindiwe Magona. She discovered she knew one of the mothers intimately and couldn’t bear to bring the two together.
She wrote about them instead, and produced a book which touched many people.
Magona goes about things quietly, and yet her touch has an impact.
This new novel celebrates women, especially rural women, living lives that appear to be controlled by everyone else but themselves.
Magona has strong views: whether on the lives of traditional African women who have not yet recognised the modern world, or on poverty, which she describes as a war we should all be fighting.
Having spent 22 years in New York, working at the UN, she returned in 1994 because she wanted to be part of the social transformation.
She says she’s shocked that, while it did happen politically, there was little social change; most South Africans have not yet benefited from this new democracy. As a young woman, she could not sign a contract in her own name, so that when her father died, she had to rent his home.
She is still fighting to get the house transferred into her name, because the past restrictions on women still play a part today. “And these things are put in place to ‘protect’ us,” she says sarcastically.
But Magona fights in the best way she knows: she tells stories. And her writing is effective because it comes from the heart, and the telling means different things to different people, as is so often the case in this country.
If you’re living that life, or come from that tradition, this story will resonate differently with you than the way it does with me, unaware of all the restrictions which were and in many cases still are part of rural women’s lives.
The hero of the story is the awesome dad.
“I wanted to make him gorgeous,” she says, and he is – the father every child wants, particularly a child who had no one else.
The mother dies in childbirth, but instead of resenting the baby, the father sees the infant girl as a special gift. For Magona, it was about showing how a father-daughter relationship could be.
In real life they were often abusive: “Emotionally you are regarded as inferior,” she says. “With all the power handed to men.”
The beauty of this special man is what Magona uses in this tale of a daughter whose life changes beyond recognition when her only parent dies. Her studies had been going well and she was set to conquer the world, but after losing her father there are people who have power over her, people who envy her and feel threatened by her.
“Fatherhood has disappeared,” says Magona, speaking of a world where social transformation seems to have gone wrong. “Becoming part of a Western world isn’t a good or bad thing, but you still have to make choices and not discard or accept everything in one fell swoop.”
Some of the old traditions are good, she says, even when much of this particular tale says differently. “But many of the values are no longer underpinned.”
She advocates a coming together so that we can learn from one another how to become 21st century citizens. “What, for example, prepares you for pregnancy and raising children? We’re raising armies of skollies and skelms!”
She has strong views about a better society and how people should lead their lives, but she also believes everyone should feel they have a life worth living.
A pattern of life she finds most disturbing is the dependence of families on welfare. People who accept child support for 18 years are cemented into poverty, and they’re never going to get out, she argues. Instead, they should be helped for between three and five years, but also shown the way out of this dependency. “We don’t help poor people when we’re aiding them to stay poor.”
She knows what she is talking about. In her early 20s, Magogo found herself destitute, a single mother with three children. But she was supported and found a way out. “You have to find help that will change the situation and move you out of this nightmare. It’s all about a strong support system.”
She believes in using the energy to build, not to tear down. “What did that statue do?” she asks of the toppled Rhodes statue at UCT. “It’s already dead, why not move forward? That’s where we can change the future. If you want change, use your vote.”
But while she has a lot to say, her books are different. She tells stories, doesn’t preach. She opens a window on a country of such diversity which adds richly to the cultural colour of our lives.
She has many stories to be told, but also spends time nurturing other writers. While she talks, her examples to illustrate a point always come from other books by different writers.
She’s lived the hard and the good life, and she knows which one she prefers.
But she also believes a good life is possible for everyone and that we should all be fighting for that. “It takes a village to raise a child, and it is time for the South African village to wake up.”
When she talks to young people about their future, she is brutally honest. “Education isn’t easy, but poverty is a hundred times harder.”
Sindiwe Magona is one of life’s wise elders, and she uses her gift of writing to pass on her wisdom in a glorious fashion.
* Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle by Sindiwe Magona is published by Seriti sa Sechaba Publishers