From the Publisher
“[A] marvelous picaresque . . . Mda's purpose comes through clearly: to show how many ways of dying there are in the transition to a new South Africa, whether through the brutality of white overseers and policemen or that of black gangsters . . . Reflecting the startling contrasts in such a world, tender humor and brutal violence vie with each other in Mda's pages, as do vibrant life and sudden death. The struggle between them creates an energetic and refreshing literature for a country still coming to terms with both the new and the old.” Tony Eprile, The New York Times Book Review
“Mda possesses the lyricism of a storyteller . . . He draws his readers into an Africa where racial hatred and its accompanying violence are commonplace. As a result, the act of mourning is almost a constant state.” Seth Taylor, San Diego State University, The San Diego Union-Tribune
“In two quiet, subtle and powerful novels [Ways of Dying and Heart of Redness], we are taken from the brutal, nearly unbearable horror of life during the revolution against white minority rule to the daily, nearly unbearable hopelessness of life under the cronyism, corruption and injustice of the post-apartheid government. That this universe is not just depressing but also enlightening is due to the enormous talent behind Mda's vision.” Neil Gordon, The Washington Post Book World
“A rollicking, at times whimsical tour through the dying days of apartheid as witnessed by the Professional Mourner Toloki, who wanders from township funeral to township funeral with the hapless wonder of a Chaplinesque loner.” Anderson Tepper, The Village Voice
“Ultimately, this emotionally rich novel dares to seek redemption amid desolation. In these devastated lives, Mda finds grace, tenderness, even the kind of world-weary humor that is born of hardship.” Rene E. Graham, The Boston Globe
“A strange and terrifying account of the realities of the new South Africa told with irony, humor, and originality.” Sheila Kohler, author of Children of Pithiviers
“Once you have finished Ways of Dying, you won't know whether you read the novel or dreamt it. Zakes Mda has gathered up all the human waste and political detritus of South African life and distilled it into a magic realist text of great beauty, humor, pathos.” The Sunday Independent (South Africa)
“A flawless, intricate, seamless weave, with magic and mystery . . . Mda is a master storyteller.” Sindiwe Magona
“The future is not far when Mda could come to be recognized as South Africa's leading literary figure . . . Ways of Dying can be read as an allegory for the contemporary life of Africans. Yet despite its depressing title . . . the book ends up not being being about many ways of dying but many ways of living.” Sowetan (South African)
“An excellent novel.” Tim Couzens
“Creates a vivid, bustling image of contemporary Africa in transition.” Kirkus Reviews
“A moving and startlingly original novel.” Mail & Guardian (South Africa)
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
One need only read a few pages of Zakes Mda's exquisite first novel to recognize the talents of a master storyteller. Everything about this short work of fiction screams "literary classic." Mda's depiction of post-apartheid South Africa reveals that despite the opportunities for economic advancement, the newfound freedoms have yet to produce an absence of suffering. In the notorious black townships and squatter camps within large cities, crime and poverty continue unabated, as does the likelihood of meeting a violent death.
Toloki, raised in a small rural village, has come to the city to make his fortune as a "professional mourner," wailing for the dead at the endless succession of funerals. But as he hears of the short lives and grim deaths of those for whom he mourns, Toloki learns some surprising lessons. At a funeral on Christmas Day, he finds himself reunited with a childhood playmate from his village, a woman whose beauty and voice aroused both adoration and resentment among her fellow villagers. Noria has experienced anguish so extreme it might have destroyed one with less patience and fortitude, but these qualities, combined with her ability to find joy in the smallest of gifts, help Toloki face his own demons and heal the past.
Abandoning his quest for wealth in the city, Toloki returns to his village. Living in a nation going through the slow, often brutal process of facing the injustices of the past meant his peoples' ways of dying became his way of living. Toloki's salvation comes from realizing that the opposite can also be true.
(Fall 2002 Selection)
Novelist and playwright Zakes Mda's Ways of Dying was a big hit in his native South Africa, where it was even adapted into a jazz opera. Toloki is a Professional Mourner, making a meager living by attending funerals in the violent city where he lives. In his ratty suit he adds "an aura of sorrow and dignity," often serving as peacemaker when fights break out. He encounters Noria, a childhood acquaintance whose son has just died, and the two renew their friendship, finding comfort in reminiscing over the harrowing events of their lives. There are shades of the absurd in Mda's darkly humorous descriptions of the crime, poverty, violence and ethnic unrest that plague the characters in this oddly affecting novel.
Read an Excerpt
‘There are many ways of dying!’ the Nurse shouts at us. Pain is etched in his voice, and rage has mapped his face. We listen in silence. ‘This our brother’s way is a way that has left us without words in our mouths. This little brother was our own child, and his death is more painful because it is of our own creation. It is not the first time that we bury little children. We bury them every day. But they are killed by the enemy . . . those we are fighting against. This our little brother was killed by those who are fighting to free us!’
We mumble. It is not for the Nurse to make such statements. His duty is to tell how this child saw his death, not to give ammunition to the enemy. Is he perhaps trying to push his own political agenda? But others feel that there is no way the Nurse can explain to the funeral crowd how we killed the little brother without parading our shame to the world. That the enemy will seize hold of this, and use it against us, is certainly not the Nurse’s fault. Like all good Nurses, he is going to be faithful to the facts.
Toloki belongs to the section of the crowd that believes strongly in the freedom of the Nurse to say it as he sees it. He has been to many funerals, and has developed admiration for those who are designated the Nurse at these rituals. They are the fortunate ones, those who were the last to see the deceased alive. Usually they are a fountain of fascinating information about ways of dying.
He moves forward a bit, for he wants to hear every word. The muttering about the Nurse’s indiscretion has become so loud that it is beginning to swallow his words of anger. Toloki thought he would need to elbow his way through the crowd, but people willingly move away from him. Why do people give way? he wonders. Is it perhaps out of respect for his black costume and top hat, which he wears at every funeral as a hallmark of his profession? But then why do they cover their noses and mouths with their hands as they retreat in blind panic, pushing those behind them? Maybe it is the beans he ate for breakfast. They say it helps if you put some sugar in them, and he had no sugar. Or maybe it is the fact that he has not bathed for a whole week, and the December sun has not been gentle. He has been too busy attending funerals to go to the beach to use the open showers that the swimmers use to rinse salt water from their bodies.
‘Merrie kressie, ou toppie,’ whispers a drunk, the only one who is not intimidated by whatever it is that people seem to fear from his presence. Merry Christmas, old man. Old man? He is only thirty-eight years old. He might even be younger than the drunk. ‘It is the perfume, ou toppie. It is too strong.’ He hears a woman snigger. Why would anyone hate his sacred fragrance? It is the perfume that he splashes all over his body as part of the ritual of his profession before he goes to a funeral. On this fiery Christmas day, its strong smell is exacerbated by the stench of sweat, not only from his body, but from those in the crowd as well.
Toloki is now very close to the makeshift podium where the Nurse defiantly stands, but he still cannot hear a word he is trying to say. Some of us are heckling the Nurse. Some are heckling the hecklers. So, we do not hear one another. Toloki never thought he would live to see the day when a Nurse would be heckled. This is a sacrilege that has never been heard of before. And at the funeral of an innocent little boy, on a Christmas Day too.
Then he sees her, the mother of the boy. She is a convulsion of sobs, and is surrounded by women who try to comfort her. She lifts her eyes appealingly to the feuding crowd, and Toloki thinks he has seen those eyes before. But how can it be? He must approach and speak with her. Only then can he be sure. But people close around her and stop him.
‘I just want to speak with her.’
‘We know who you are. You are Toloki the Professional Mourner. We do not need your services here. We have enough of our own mourners.’
‘It is not on a professional basis that I want to see her. Please let me speak with her.’
‘Ha! You think you are going to convince her behind our backs to engage your services? I can tell you we have no fees to pay a Professional Mourner. We can mourn just as well.’
Who are these people, anyway, who won’t let him see the woman he strongly suspects is from his home village? He learns that they are members of her street committee. They are determined to protect her from all those who want to harass her with questions about the death of her son. Newspaper reporters have been particularly keen to get close to her, to ask her silly questions such as what her views are on the sorry fact that her son was killed by his own people. They are keen to trap her into saying something damaging, so that they can have blazing headlines the next day. The street committee is always vigilant.
The Nurse cannot go on to tell us the story of the death of the deceased, this our little brother. The din is too loud. The church minister says a quick prayer. Spades and shovels eat into the mound of earth next to the grave, and soon the hole that will be the resting place of this our little brother forever more amen is filled up. Those nearest the grave sing a hymn, while a man with a shovel delicately shapes the smaller mound that has risen where the hole used to be. Wreaths are laid. Someone wants to know if the messages on the wreaths will not be read for the public as is customary, and in any case where are the relatives of this bereaved mother? She has no relatives, someone else shouts back. The street committee are her relatives. Then a procession led by the van that had brought the coffin to the graveyard is formed, in preparation for the solemn march back to the home of the mother of the deceased in the squatter camp, where we will wash our hands and feast on the food that has been prepared by the street committee.
Toloki decides that he will rush to the home of the deceased, wash his hands and disappear from the scene. He will have nothing to do with people who have treated him with so much disrespect. Hungry as he is, he will not partake of their food either. If he did not have so much reverence for funeral rituals, he would go home right away, without even washing his hands. People give way as he works his way to the head of the procession, which is already outside the gates of the cemetery. By the time he gets to the street, the procession has come to a standstill, and people are impatiently complaining about the heat. Others attempt to sing hymns, but their voices have gone hoarse from the graveyard feud. Those who can still come up with a feeble note or two are overwhelmed by blaring hooters in the street.
These come from a wedding procession of many cars and buses, all embellished with colourful ribbons and balloons. They are going in the opposite direction, and will not give way to the funeral procession. The funeral procession will not give way either, since out of respect for the dead, it is customary for funeral processions to have the right of way. The wedding party is enjoying the stalemate, and they sing at the top of their voices. Their heads, and sometimes half their colourfully clad bodies, appear from the windows of the cars and buses, and they beat the sides of these vehicles with their hands, creating a tumultuous rhythm. The driver of the convertible car in front, which carries the bride and the bridegroom, argues with the driver of the van which carries the mother of the dead child.
‘You must give way!’
‘But we are a funeral procession.’
‘We are a procession of beautiful people, and many posh cars and buses, while yours is an old skorokoro of a van, and hundreds of ragged souls on foot.’
‘It is not my fault that these people are poor.’
No one will budge. There might be a violent confrontation here, since the driver of the convertible, who is a huge fellow, is beginning to call certain parts of the van driver’s mother that the slight van driver never even knew she had. Toloki walks to the convertible. He greets the bridal couple, and is about to give them a stern lecture on funeral etiquette, when the ill-humoured driver of the convertible suddenly decides that he will give way after all. He signals to the other drivers in the wedding procession to park on the side of the road so that the funeral procession can pass peacefully. Toloki smiles. He has this effect on people sometimes. Perhaps it is his fragrance. And the black costume and top hat of his profession. It cannot be that the driver of the convertible is intimidated by his size. He is quite short, in fact. But what he lacks in height he makes up for in breadth. He is quite stockily built, and his shoulders are wide enough to comfortably bear all the woes of bereavement. His yellow face is broad and almost flat, his pointed nose hovers over and dwarfs his small child-like mouth. His eyes are small, and have a permanently sorrowful look that is most effective when he musters up his famous graveside manner. Above his eyes rest thick eyebrows, like the hairy thithiboya caterpillar.
The driver of the van approaches him. ‘The mother of the child we have just buried wants to thank you for what you have done.’
So he goes to the van, and his suspicion is confirmed. He has no doubt that this is Noria, the beautiful stuck-up bitch from his village. She has grown old now, and has become a little haggard. But she is still beautiful. And she too recognises him.
‘Toloki! You are Toloki from the village!’
‘Yes, Noria, it is me. I wanted to see you at the graveyard, but they wouldn’t let me get near you.’
‘You can’t blame them, Toloki. Ever since my son died, all sorts of people have been pestering us.’
Then she invites him to come and see her at the squatter camp when the sad business of the funeral is over. Toloki walks away with a happy bounce in his feet. He will wash his hands and leave quickly. He will see Noria tomorrow, or maybe the day after. My God! Noria! He has not seen her for almost twenty years! How old would she be now? She must be thirty-five. He remembers that he was three years older. A hard life has taken its toll since she left the village. But her beauty still remains.
It is not different, really, here in the city. Just like back in the village, we live our lives together as one. We know everything about everybody. We even know things that happen when we are not there; things that happen behind people’s closed doors deep in the middle of the night. We are the all-seeing eye of the village gossip. When in our orature the storyteller begins the story, ‘They say it once happened . . .’, we are the ‘they’. No individual owns any story. The community is the owner of the story, and it can tell it the way it deems it fit. We would not be needing to justify the communal voice that tells this story if you had not wondered how we became so omniscient in the affairs of Toloki and Noria.
Both Toloki and Noria left the village at different times, and were bent on losing themselves in the city. They had no desire to find one another, and as a result forgot about the existence of each other. But we never stopped following their disparate and meagre lives. We were happy when they were happy. And felt the pain when they were hurt. In the beginning, there were times when we tried to get them together, like homeboys and homegirls sometimes get together and talk about home, and celebrate events of common interest such as births, marriages, ancestral feasts, and deaths. But our efforts disappeared like sweat in the hair of a dog. Indeed, even in his capacity as a Professional Mourner, Toloki avoided funerals that involved homeboys and homegirls. Since his bad experience with Nefolovhodwe, the furniture-maker who made it good in the city, and now pretends that he does not know the people from the village anymore, Toloki has never wanted to have anything to do with any of the people of his village who have settled in the city. He is not the type who forgives and forgets, even though his trouble with Nefolovhodwe happened many years ago, during his very early days in the city. Noria, on the other hand, has always lived in communion with her fellow-villagers, and with other people from all parts of the country who have settled in the squatter camp. So, we put the idea of getting Noria and Toloki together out of our minds until today, at the funeral of this our little brother.
The distant bells of the cathedral toll ‘Silent Night’, as Toloki prepares to sleep for the night. The strikes are slow and painful, not like the cheery carol that the angel-faced choirboys sang that very morning on the steps of the church. He was on his way to the funeral, and he stopped and listened. Christmas Day has no real significance for him. Nor has the church. But he enjoys carols, and always sings along whenever he hears them. He could not stop for long, since he did not know what time the funeral would be. He was not involved in this funeral in his professional capacity. In fact, until that morning he was not aware that there was going to be a funeral on this day. It is not usual to hold funerals on Christmas Day. He thought he was doomed to sit in utter boredom at his quayside resting place for the entire day, sewing his costume and putting his things in readiness for the busy coming days in the cemeteries. Then he heard two dockworkers talk of the strange things that were happening these days, of this woman whose child was killed, and who insisted that he must be buried on Christmas Day or not at all. Toloki there and then decided to seize the opportunity, and spend a fulfilling day at the graveside. He did not have an inkling that a homegirl was involved in this funeral, otherwise we know that he would not have gone. But after all, he was happy to see Noria.
At regular intervals of one hour the bell tolls ‘Silent Night’. At the window of the tower, perhaps in the belfry, Toloki can see a Christmas tree with twinkling lights of red, green, blue, yellow, and white. The cathedral is a few streets away from his headquarters, as he calls the quayside shelter and waiting-room where he spends his nights. But since it is on a hill, he can enjoy the beauty of the lights, and tonight the bells will lull him to a blissful sleep with carols. But first he must prepare some food for himself. From the shopping trolley where he keeps all his worldly possessions, he takes out a packet containing his favourite food, a delicacy of Swiss cake relished with green onions. He pushes the trolley into one corner, where he knows it is always safe. Though his headquarters are a public place, no one ever touches his things, even when he has gone to funerals and left them unattended for the whole day. Everyone knows that the trolley belongs to Toloki who sleeps at the quayside, come rain or shine. No one ever bothers him and his property. Not the cleaners, nor the police. Not even the rowdy sailors from cargo ships and the prostitutes who come to entertain them.
He takes a bite first of the cake, and then of the green onions. His eyes roll in a dance of pleasure. He chews slowly, taking his time to savour each mouthful. Quite a tingling taste, this delicacy has. It is as though the food is singing in his mouth. Quite unlike the beans that he ate this morning. Those who have seen him eat this food have commented that it is an unusual combination. All the more reason to like it. Although it is of his own composition, it gives him an aura of austerity that he associates with monks of eastern religions that he has heard sailors talk about.
Sometimes he transports himself through the pages of a pamphlet that he got from a pink-robed devotee who disembarked from a boat from the east two summers ago, and walks the same ground that these holy men walk. He has a singularly searing fascination with the lives of these oriental monks. It is the thirst of a man for a concoction that he has never tasted, that he has only heard wise men describe. He sees himself in the dazzling light of the aghori sadhu, held in the same awesome veneration that the devout Hindus show the votaries. He spends his sparse existence on the cremation ground, cooks his food on the fires of a funeral pyre, and feeds on human waste and human corpses. He drinks his own urine to quench his thirst. The only detail missing is a mendicant’s bowl made from a human skull, for he shuns the collection of alms. Votary or no votary, he will not collect alms. It is one tradition of the sacred order that he will break, in spite of the recognition of the shamanistic elements of almstaking. When he comes back to a life that is far from the glamour of the aghori sadhu in those distant lands, he is glad that even in his dreams he is strong enough not to take a cent he has not worked for. In his profession, people are paid for an essential service that they render the community. His service is to mourn for the dead.