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Miriam's Song: A Memoir

Miriam's Song: A Memoir

4.5 2
by Mark Mathabane

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Mark Mathabane first came to prominence with the publication of Kaffir Boy, which became a New York Times bestseller. His story of growing up in South Africa was one of the most riveting accounts of life under apartheid. Mathabane's newest book, Miriam's Song, is the story of Mark's sister, who was left behind in South Africa. It is the gripping


Mark Mathabane first came to prominence with the publication of Kaffir Boy, which became a New York Times bestseller. His story of growing up in South Africa was one of the most riveting accounts of life under apartheid. Mathabane's newest book, Miriam's Song, is the story of Mark's sister, who was left behind in South Africa. It is the gripping tale of a woman -- representative of an entire generation -- who came of age amid the violence and rebellion of the 1980s and finally saw the destruction of apartheid and the birth of a new, democratic South Africa.
Mathabane writes in Miriam's voice based on stories she told him, but he has re-created her unforgettable experience as only someone who also lived through it could. The immediacy of the hardships that brother and sister endured -- from daily school beatings to overwhelming poverty -- is balanced by the beauty of their childhood observations and the true affection that they have for each other.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Ken Otterbourg The Winston-Salem Journal Inspirational and often affecting...there is an important message to this story.

Glamour This memoir of growing up in South Africa during apartheid is alternately evocative and wrenching, but always inspiring....[It] captures both the brutality and beauty of their childhood.


This memoir of growing up in South Africa during apartheid is alternately evocative and wrenching, but always inspiring....[It] captures both the brutality and beauty of their childhood.

Library Journal
Mark Mathabane, the author of Kaffir Boy, helps recount the life of his sister, who remained behind in South Africa after he left and witnessed its struggle to throw off apartheid. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Mary Ellen Sullivan
[Mathabane's] searingly honest account of this period when the townships were under siege by both their residents and the government brings a critical chapter of South African history to life. Now studying in the United States, Mathabane told her stories to her brother, who perfectly captures her guileless wisdom.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
From the South African-born Mathabane (Kaffir Boy, 1986; African Women, 1994, etc.) comes this unsparingly graphic account of his sister's growing up in the last days of apartheid—when violence turned black townships into killing fields and schooling ceased as young Comrades insisted on liberation before education. The story told by Miriam, now studying in the US, is a searing indictment of the violence to women engendered both by apartheid and by traditional African attitudes. Both quashed human potential and aspirations, and good daughters and students like Miriam were as penalized as their more recalcitrant sisters. Born in 1969 and raised in Alexandria, a sprawling black township to the north of Johannesburg, Miriam offers vivid details of township life: the food eaten (a whole chicken was an undreamed-of luxury), the small houses (spotless despite the number of people living in them), and the ubiquitous scrawny dogs picking over the uncollected trash. She describes growing up as the middle daughter in a family made dysfunctional by circumstance. Her illiterate father, unable to find better-paying jobs, is often unemployed, drinks, gambles away their food money, and beats the children; her mother, a devout Christian, lacks the proper documentation and also has employment problems; and her elder brother steals Miriam's savings. The black schools are poorly equipped, the teachers are sadistic, and Miriam (who wants to become a nurse) soon finds her ambition thwarted by the times and by custom. A teenager in the 1980s, when anti-government violence made life in townships dangerous, she has to stay home when the schools are forced to close. Then, in a society where blackmentraditionally are free to do as they please (to take 13-year-old girls for wives, for example, as one of her uncle does), she is raped by her boyfriend and finds herself pregnant. But brother Mark, who has used his tennis talents as a passport to the US and success, will change Miriam's life. A moving story of a survivor, but Miriam herself often seems more a reporter recalling an eventful past than a reflective memoirist.

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.44(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

It is toward the end of January, the middle of summer in South Africa. It's very hot and stuffy inside the small classroom, which has few windows and no air-conditioning, and is packed with over one hundred six- and seven-year-olds. Many are bawling and sniffling after being whipped. Others are screaming and want to go home to their mothers. Still others are chanting at the top of their small lungs a song about fingernails.

My heart is thumping against my ribs and my tongue is stuck to the roof of my dry mouth. Tears prick the corners of my bulging eyes as I stare at my Sub-A instructor. She's a tall, lean woman with a harried look on her dark face. We are required to address her as Mistress. Male instructors are addressed as Teacher. The mistress is wielding a thick ruler and giving us a tongue-lashing about the importance of trimming our fingernails. It's about eight-thirty. We've just entered the classroom following morning assembly.

I long to flee the classroom, but my bare feet are stuck to the corner where I'm cowering with my friends -- Cynthia, Janice, Margaret, Becky, and Dlayani. They too are terrified. Everyone in the classroom is terrified of the mistress when she's armed with the thick ruler. There's a larger group of pupils cowering in the opposite corner. We are like cattle afraid of being branded.

I anxiously watch the mistress when she barks each frightened pupil's name, and that pupil has to come forward and have his or her fingernails inspected to see if they are too long or have any dirt under them.

I pray that the mistress not call my name. Mama forgot to borrow a fingernail clipper from our neighbor last night to trim my long and dirty fingernails because she and Papa were fighting again, over money. Watching the mistress I can already feel the pain felt by the pupils I hear howling and shrieking about me, as in a madhouse, after being whipped.

After nearly half an hour the mistress finally calls my name. I'm one of the handful of pupils left to be inspected. I start to cry.

"Stop crying!" she barks. "Let me see your fingernails."

I gingerly step forward. I never take my eyes off the thick ruler in the mistress's right hand. I stop about two feet from the mistress and thrust my small hands tentatively forward. My fingers are bunched together with the fingertips facing up. I'm trembling in anticipation of the sting of the thick ruler. The mistress stoops, takes one look at my fingernails, and says sternly, "They're long and dirty. Now stop whining and sing the song."

I sing-sob the fingernails song. The mistress slowly raises the thick ruler -- which seems the size of a club -- high up in the air and prepares to rap my fingertips.
Nitsema minwala yikoma.

I should trim my fingernails short.


I didn't listen.

Before I even finish singing "I didn't listen," the mistress whacks my fingertips hard with the edge of the thick ruler. I howl with pain. I wish Mama would come and take me away from this horrible place called school. I wish she'd come and explain to the mistress that it's not my fault that she and Papa fought and that he drove her away from the house before she could borrow the nail clipper from the neighbor to trim my fingernails.

"Didn't I tell you last week to trim your fingernails?" the mistress says sternly.

"You did, Mistress," I sob. Marimila, mucus, streams down my flaring nostrils and mingles with the warm tears. I'm recovering from a cold. Without a handkerchief, I use my long shirtsleeve to wipe the tears and mucus.

The mistress is furious and whacks me, on the forehead. This time the blow raises a welt and I cry even harder.

"Your shirtsleeve is not a handkerchief!" she bellows. "Where's your handkerchief?"

"I don't have one, Mistress."

Tears are soaking my raggedy black gym dress. I wish the mistress would understand that Mama can't afford to buy me a handkerchief, just as she can't afford to buy me a uniform and primers and pay my school fees on time. Papa says his hard-earned money shouldn't be wasted on school things when it's needed to keep us alive.

I wish Mama had remembered to rip a piece from her old dress as she'd promised and made me a handkerchief. But she forgot because she and Papa fought and she had to flee to Granny's place. I wish I could tell the mistress this but I don't. I'm ashamed to tell people that my parents are always fighting.

The mistress barks Cynthia's name. Cynthia is already crying as she approaches the mistress. She gets whacked for having long, dirty fingernails. Dlayani, whose Shangaan name means "Kill me," is lucky; her fingernails are neatly trimmed. So are Janice's and Becky's.

Next the mistress inspects our hair to see if it's clean and neatly combed. A lot of children have lice and dandruff. For the hair inspection the class sings the hair song:

Hikama misisi,

We should comb our hair,


so it can look beautiful.


We didn't listen.

Fortunately my nappy hair is washed and neatly combed. I escape the dual punishment of being whacked on the head with the thick ruler and then having my hair combed by the mistress, using a steel comb, which feels as though your hair is being plucked by the roots.

It is evening. I'm sitting on the kitchen floor in front of a cozy fire from a red-hot mbawula, a brazier, watching Mama cook dinner. I have no toys to play with, so I often watch Mama do chores. Our house, which overlooks a donga (gully) and a dusty street called Hofmeyer, is in yard number 47 on Thirteenth Avenue. It has two small rooms, three small windows with several broken panes, and no running water, electricity, or indoor toilet.

At night the kitchen is used as a bedroom, and I and my three sisters and two brothers sleep there. My brothers sleep on a single bed in one corner, and my sisters and I sleep on pieces of cardboard on the bare cement floor.

"Miriam," Mama turns to me and says, "take this food to your father."

She hands me a big plate to give to Papa, who is sitting impatiently at the kitchen table. As head of the household Papa gets served first, and during meals he sits alone at the table. Mama and we children sit on the bare cement floor. As I set the plate heaped with vuswa, our staple of porridge made from ground cornmeal, and marumbu, cooked chicken intestines, Papa looks at me. Something catches his eye.

"Khade hafa" -- come here -- he says in Venda. There is gentleness in his usually authoritarian voice, which reassures me that I've done nothing wrong and will not be chastised.

I obey.

"Let me take a look at your forehead." I lower my head and he pulls the flickering candle closer.

par"What happened?" he asks as his fingers gently feel the welt on my forehead. I wince.

"The mistress beat me at school," I say in a contrite voice.

"Beat you -- what for?"

"For not trimming my fingernails."

Papa glares at Mama. "Didn't I tell you not to send my children to that bloody Shangaan school?" Papa bellows. "Look at what they've done to the poor child."

"There's no school for Vendas in Alexandra to send her to," Mama says, almost apologetically. She knows that Papa is opposed to our attending a school where the medium of instruction is Shangaan, my mother's language, and not Venda, his language.

"And what kind of school is it that punishes children for not trimming their fingernails?" Papa demands.

Mama doesn't answer. When I showed her the welt on my forehead and told her what had happened, she had tears in her eyes, even as she said, "Don't worry, child. As long as you're learning something it's worth it." There was nothing Mama could do, short of withdrawing me from school. Black schools had to abide by the strict discipline rules set by the Department of Bantu Education, and corporal punishment was high on the list of those rules.

But Papa doesn't care a damn about the rules. He turns to me and says, "Tomorrow I'll accompany you to school and teach that bloody mistress a lesson. I'll donder her" -- whip her good.

Papa must have spoken impulsively, for Mama smiles and says, "You forget that tomorrow is Friday. You can't miss work or you'll be fired. And what good will beating up the mistress do if the children can't eat and we are evicted?"

Papa scowls. He digs deep into the right pocket of his faded trousers and fishes out a two-cent coin. "Here, buy yourself some sweets."

"Ndi ya livuha" -- thank you -- I say gratefully, curtsying.

Papa pats me on the back of the head and tells me that I'm a good girl. I know that part of the reason he's pleased is that I always speak Venda in his presence, unlike my older siblings, who often speak Shangaan.

As Linah, Diana, and I crowd around a common plate heaped with vuswa and another one with marumbu, eating with the right hand because it is taboo to use the left to eat, I'm already dreaming of what I'm going to do with my two cents. I'm going to buy hebelungu, a subsidized lunch offered to schoolchildren by the Catholic church. It consists of two slices of brown bread smeared with peanut butter, and a mug of skim (powdered) milk. Next to fish and chips, there's nothing I find more delicious. And with food scarce at home because Papa only makes ten rand a week as a menial laborer, it helps to have at least one filling meal a day.

Copyright © 2000 by Mark Mathabane

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Ken Otterbourg The Winston-Salem Journal Inspirational and often affecting...there is an important message to this story.

Glamour This memoir of growing up in South Africa during apartheid is alternately evocative and wrenching, but always inspiring....[It] captures both the brutality and beauty of their childhood.

Meet the Author

Mark Mathabane is the author of Kaffir Boy in America, Love in Black and White, and African Women: Three Generations.

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Miriam's Song 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Miriam’s Song by Mark Mathabane is an inspirational story unlike any other I have read. It thoroughly describes the heart-breaking living conditions in South Africa and the oppressive life under apartheid. This story is told from Miriam Mathabane’s point of view and it takes you through the remarkable journey of Miriam’s poor, insufferable life that ends with her succeeding and coming to America to study nursing despite all the tragedies she faced. Not only is the biography of Miriam Mathabane motivational, but also after finishing the book you realize you have actually learned a lot about the time period and African culture. Throughout the novel you learn a great deal about Bantu Education and how unfair it is to the future generations of South Africa. Its main focus is to wreak incalculable damage on generations of black children in order to ensure their servitude. Miriam came in direct contact with its unfairness when she had hoped to get classes such as chemistry, biology, and physics to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse, but instead she was given classes such as accounting and business economics. Although whites made up only 14 percent of the population, and blacks made up 74 percent of the population, whites still insisted upon domination of blacks. Even the police of Alexandra will stop any given African-American and beat them or kill them without cause, Miriam herself was beaten by the white police when innocently walking home one day after school. A major theme that I recognized throughout the novel was that love can accomplish anything. I found this to be a major theme because Miriam faced so many hardships during her life in South Africa yet somehow managed to overcome them and fulfill her dream. Through every tragedy her love for others and her love for God never died. Her endless prayers worked miracles in her life and the lives of her family. I had many likes about the book Miriam’s Song. One of my likes about it was that it was inspirational. You truly believe that if Miriam accomplished her dreams in the worst possible conditions that we could never imagine, than surely I could accomplish my own. Another thing I enjoyed was that I learned a lot from it. I learned what the time period of the 1980’s in South Africa was like, I learned about African culture, I learned about Bantu Education, and I learned about the terrible system of apartheid. Some of my dislikes about the book was that it was very sad and depressing at times, but yet it made you very greatful for what you have. Also at times I believe it got into too much depth about the horrifying living conditions in Alexandra. It’s important to know about how extremely poor life is there but sometimes it was disgusting to read about how unsanitary things were. Someone should most definatley read this book because it is very inspirational and humbling.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Miriam's Song by Mark Mathabane chronicles his younger sister's life as she struggles to rise above the violence and rebellion during apartheid in South Africa in the eighties. It gives a very personal view into what it was like to be a person who strived to do something better with her life by continuing her education and to not succumb to the many gangs in her hometown. As Miriam strives to continue her schooling despite the adversity she must conquer and eventually reach her goal of becoming a nurse and going to America, Miriam quickly becomes a very admirable character. The main message throughout the story is that if you are able to keep your dreams in sight, you can reach them despite all the things that get in your way. In other words, if you really want something and are willing to work incredibly hard for it, it will come eventually. I liked that this story is extremely personal because it makes it seem as if you are right there watching Miriam grow up. You are able to become attached to the characters especially since you know that they are real people, not just something that an author conjured in their mind. It is such an inspiring story that makes it clear how fortunate many of us are, especially in comparison to what millions of people went through during apartheid. The only thing that I disliked about Miriam's Song was that even with the glossary in the beginning of the book, it is slightly difficult to remember what some of the words in Zulu and others mean. Also, at times the story was a bit slow, but that is understandable since it is non-fiction and embellishing it too much would make the story less credible in my opinion. If you are looking for an inspiring, eye-opening, story with a bit of a history lesson you should definitely read this book. I began reading the book with very little knowledge of apartheid and I learned a more by reading this book. I would recommend Kaffir Boy, also by Mark Mathabane, because it would expand on the lives already depicted in Miriam's Song. Overall, I would rate this book highly due to the personal experience illustrated through a bit of a history lesson and would recommend it to anyone looking for a quality story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book was hard to put down. I was taken back the way blacks are treated in their own country and annoyed me when it was referred to 'white Africa' This is a book that everyone should read. I am now getting ready to read Kaffir Boy.