Life under Apartheid has created a secure future for Robin Conrad, a nine-year-old white girl living with her parents in 1970s Johannesburg. In the same nation, but worlds apart, Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman in a rural village in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei, struggles to raise her children alone after her husband's death. Their meeting should never have occurred...until The Soweto Uprising, in which a protest by black students ignites racial conflict, alters the fault lines on which their society is built, leaving Robin's parents dead and Beauty's daughter missing.
In the aftermath, Beauty is hired to care for Robin, and the two forge an inextricable bond through their deep personal losses. But Robin knows that if Beauty reunites with her daughter, Robin could lose her new caretaker forever, so she makes a desperate decision with devastating consequences.
Told through Beauty and Robin's alternating perspectives, the two narratives interweave to create a rich and complex tapestry of the emotions and tensions at the heart of Apartheid South Africa. Hum If You Don't Know the Words is a beautifully rendered look at loss, racism, and the creation of family.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Bianca Marais
13 June 1976
Boksburg, Johannesburg, South Africa
I joined up the last two lines of the hopscotch grid and wrote a big ‘10’ in the top square. It gave me a thrill writing the age I’d be on my next birthday because everyone knew that once you hit double digits, you weren’t a child anymore. The green chalk, borrowed from the scoreboard of my father’s dartboard without his knowledge, was so stubby that my fingers scraped against the concrete of the driveway as I put the final touches to my creation.
“There, it’s done.” I stood back and studied my handiwork. As usual, I was disappointed that something I’d made hadn’t turned out quite as good as I’d imagined.
“It’s perfect,” Cat declared, reading my mind as she always did, and trying to reassure me before I washed the grid off in a fit of self doubt. I smiled even though her opinion shouldn’t have counted for much; my identical twin sister was easily impressed by everything I did. “You go first,” Cat said.
I pulled the bronze half-cent coin from my pocket, and rubbed it for luck before launching it into the air from my thumbnail. It arced and spun, glinting in the sunlight, and when it finally landed in the first square, I launched myself forward, eager to finish the grid in record time.
I finished three circuits before the coin skittered out of the square marked ‘4’. It should have ended my turn, but I shot a quick look at Cat who was distracted by a hadeda bird making a racket on the neighbour’s roof. Before she could notice my mistake, I nudged the coin back in place with the tip of my canvas shoe and carried on jumping.
“You’re doing so well,” Cat called a few seconds later once she’d turned back and noticed my progress.
Spurred on by her clapping and encouragement, I hopped even faster, not noticing until it was too late that a lace on one of my takkies had come loose. It tripped me up just as I cleared the last square and brought me crashing down knee-first, my skin scraped raw on the rough concrete. I cried out, first in alarm and then in pain, and it was this noise that brought my mother’s flip-flops clacking into my line of vision. Her shadow fell over me.
“Oh for goodness sake, not again.” My mother reached down and yanked me up. “You’re so clumsy. I don’t know where you get it from.” She tsked as I raised my bleeding knee so she could see.
Cat was crouched next to me, wincing at the sight of the gravel imbedded in the wound. Tears started to prickle, but I knew I had to stop their relentless progression quickly or suffer my mother’s displeasure.
“I’m fine. It’s fine.” I forced a watery smile and gingerly stood up.
“Oh, Robin,” my mother sighed. “You’re not going to cry, are you? You know how ugly you are when you cry.” She crossed her eyes and screwed up her face comically to illustrate her point and I forced the giggle she was looking for.
“I’m not going to cry,” I said. Crying in the driveway in plain sight of the neighbours would be an unforgiveable offense; my mother was very concerned with what other people thought and expected me to be as well.
“Good girl.” She smiled and kissed me on the top of my head as a reward for my bravery.
There was no time to savour the praise. The trill of the ringing phone cut through the morning and just like that, one of the last tender moments my mother and I would ever share was over. She blinked and the warmth in her eyes turned to exasperation.
“Get Mabel to help clean you up, okay?”
She’d just disappeared through the back door into the kitchen when I became aware of whimpering and looked down to see that Cat was crying. Looking at my sister was always like looking into a mirror, but in that instant, it felt as though the glass between my reflection and me had been removed so that I wasn’t looking at an image of myself; I was looking at myself.
The misery etched onto Cat’s scrunched-up features was my misery. Her blue eyes welled with my tears and her pouty bottom lip trembled. Anyone who’d ever doubted the veracity of twin empathy only had to see my sister suffering on my behalf to become a true believer.
“Stop crying,” I hissed. “Do you want Mom calling you a cry baby?”
“But it looks like it hurts.”
If only it were that straightforward in the eyes of our mother. “Go to our room so she won’t see you,” I said, “and only come out when you feel better.” I tucked a strand of brown hair behind her ear.
She sniffed and nodded, and then scurried inside with her head bent. I followed a minute later and found our maid, Mabel, in the kitchen washing up the breakfast dishes. She was wearing her faded mint-green uniform (a coverall dress that was too tight on her plump frame, the buttons gaping apart where they fastened in the front) with a white apron and doek.
My mother was on the phone in the dining room using the carefree, happy voice she only ever used with one person: her sister, Edith. I left her to it, knowing that if I asked to speak to my aunt, I’d be told either to stop interrupting grown-ups’ conversations, or to stop being so in love with the sound of my own voice.
“Mabel, look.” I said as I lifted up my knee, relieved that it wasn’t one of her few Sundays off.
She cringed when she saw the blood, and her hands flew up to her mouth, sending suds flying. “Yoh! Yoh! Yoh! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” she exclaimed as though she’d personally caused my suffering.
To me, this litany was better than all the plasters in the world and an immediate balm to my pain.
“Sit. I must see.” She knelt down and inspected the scrape, wincing as she did so. “I will fetch the first aid things.” She pronounced it ‘festaid’ in her strong accent and I savoured the word as I savoured all Mabel-English. I loved how she made regular English words sound like a totally different language, and I wondered if her children (whom I’d never met and who lived in Qua-Qua all year round) spoke the same way.
She fetched the kit out from the scullery cupboard and knelt down again to tend to the graze, the cotton ball looking especially white against her brown skin. She soaked it with orange disinfectant and then held it to the wound, murmuring words of comfort each time I tried to pull away from the sting of it.
“I am sorry! Yoh, I’m sorry, see? I am almost finished. Almost, almost. You are a brave girl.” You arra brev gell.
I basked in her focused attention and watched as she blew on my knee, amazed at how the tickle of her breath magically eased the pain. Once Mabel was satisfied that the broken skin was clean enough, she stuck a huge plaster over it and pinched my cheek.
“Mwah, mwah, mwah.” She placed lip-smacking kisses all over my face, and I held my breath waiting to see if this would be the day I finally got a kiss on the mouth. Her lips came as close as my chin before returning to my forehead. “All better now!”
“Thank you!” I gave her a quick hug before heading out again, and I’d just stepped out the back door when my father called me.
“Freckles!” He was sitting in a deck chair next to the portable braai he’d set up in the bright patch of sunlight in the middle of the brown lawn. “Get your old man a beer.”
I ducked inside again and opened the fridge, pulling out a bottle of Castle Lager. My inexpert handling of the bottle opener resulted in a spray of foam across the linoleum floor but I didn’t stop to wipe it up. Mabel clucked as I made a run for it, but I knew she’d clean it without complaint.
“Here you go,” I said handing the still-foaming bottle to my father who immediately used it to douse the flames that had leapt up beyond the barrier of the grill.
“Just in time,” he said, nodding for me to sit in the chair next to him.
My father’s blue eyes twinkled out at me from a handsome face that was mostly hidden behind a thicket of hair. Wavy blonde curls flopped over his eyebrows in the front, and grew long at the back so that they dipped over his shirt collar. He’d also cultivated long mutton chop sideburns that just fell short of meeting up with his bushy moustache. Kissing him was always a ticklish undertaking, and I loved the bristly texture of his face against my skin.
I sat down and he handed me the braai tongs as if he was passing me a sacred object. He nodded in a solemn way and I nodded back to show I acknowledged the transference of power. I was now in charge of the meat.
My father smiled as I leaned into the smoke rising from the grill, and then he glanced at the plaster on my knee. “You been through the wars again, Freckles?”
I nodded and he laughed. My father often joked about having a son in a daughter’s body. He especially loved to tell the story of how I’d come home from my first and only ballet lesson when I was five years old with ripped tights and my leg covered in blood. When he’d asked me how in the world I’d managed to get so roughed up in a dancing class, I confessed that I’d injured myself falling out of the tree I’d climbed in order to hide away from the teacher. He’d roared with laughter, and my mother had lectured me about wasting their money.
Teaching me how to braai was something my father should’ve taught a son. If he felt cheated that he never got one, he never said so, and he encouraged my tomboyish behaviour at every opportunity.
Cat, on the other hand, was a sensitive child and in many ways, my complete opposite. She was also squeamish about raw meat. There was no way my father would ever have taught her the subtleties of cooking meat to perfection, or how to hold your fist when throwing a knockout punch, or how to bring someone down with a rugby tackle.
“Okay, now turn the wors. Make sure you get the tongs under all the coils and flip them together or it’s going to be a big mess. Good. Now, nudge the chops to the side or they’re going to be overdone. You want to crisp the fat but not burn it.”
I followed his instructions carefully and managed to cook the meat to his satisfaction. Once we were done, I carried the meat in a pan to the table Mabel had set for us on the flagstone patio. The garlic bread, potato salad and mielies were all already there, protected under a fly net that I sometimes used as a veil when I played at being a spy disguised as a bride.
“Tell your mother we’re ready,” my father said as he sat down. He didn’t trust the giant hadedas with their long beaks not to swoop down and steal the meat; they often swiped dog food left outside in bowls, and had been known to go for bigger prey like fish in ornamental ponds.
“She’s on the phone.”
“Well, tell her to get off. I’m hungry.”
“We’re ready to eat,” I yelled around the doorway before stepping back outside again.
I’d just sat down next to my father when Cat trailed outside to join us. She’d washed all evidence of tears from her face, and smiled as our mother sat down next to her.
“Who was that on the phone?” My father asked, reaching for the butter and Bovril spread to slather over his mielie.
My father rolled his eyes. “What does she want?”
“Nothing. She’s got some vicious stomach bug that’s going around and she’s been grounded until it clears.”
“I suppose that’s a huge crisis in her life? Not being able to serve shitty airplane food on overpriced flights to hoity toity passengers. God, your sister can make a mountain out of a molehill.”
“It’s not a crisis, Keith. Who said it was a crisis? She just wanted to talk.”
“Wanted to suck you into the drama of her life, more like it.”
My mother raised her voice. “What drama?”
Cat’s eyes were wide as they darted between our parents. She pulled her gaze away from them and stared at me. Her meaning was clear. Do something!
“Everything’s a drama with her,” my father said, matching my mother’s increased volume. “It’s never just a small hiccup; it’s always the end of the world.”
“It’s not the end of the world! Who said it’s the end of the world?” My mother thwacked the serving spoon back into the salad bowl. She glowered at him and the vein in her forehead began to bulge, never a good sign. “God! Why must you always give her a hard time? She just wanted to -”
The doorbell rang.
Cat’s expression of relief said it all. Saved by the bell!
“Oh, for God’s sake!” My father threw down his cutlery so that it clattered across the table. “Look at the time. Who has no bloody manners rocking up at lunchtime on a Sunday?” My mother stood to go but my father held her back. “Let Mabel get it.”
“I told her to take the afternoon off and said she could come in tonight to do the dishes.”
As my mother disappeared into the house, my father called after her. “If it’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses, tell them to piss off or I’ll shoot them. Tell them I have a big gun and I’m not afraid to use it.”
“I wonder who it is.” Cat asked and I shrugged. I was more interested in the gun.
When my mother returned a few minutes later, she was flushed and carrying two books which she thumped down on the table in front of Cat.
“What’s that?” My father asked. “Who was at the door?”
“What did she want?”
“To complain about Robin who’s apparently corrupting her daughter.”
“What?” My father looked at me. “What did you do, Freckles?”
“I don’t know.”
My mother nodded at the books. “You gave those to Elsabe?”
“I didn’t give them to her. I borrowed them to her.”
“Lent them,” my mother corrected.
“Yes, lent them.”
My father reached across the table to pick up the books. “‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ and ‘The Famous Five’,” he read. “Books by Enid Blyton?”
“Yes, apparently Gertruida took exception to the character’s names and told me, in no uncertain terms, that Robin is a bad influence and she doesn’t want her playing with Elsabe anymore.”
“What names? What is the bloody woman talking about?”
My mother paused before answering. “Dick and Fanny.”
“Are you being serious?”
My mother nodded. “Yes, she said they’re disgusting names that shouldn’t be allowed in a Christian household.”
My father guffawed and that set my mother off. They were both in fits of giggles and it was my turn to look to Cat in mystification. I didn’t know what was so funny.
I hadn’t meant to upset Elsabe or Mrs Bekker; all I’d tried to do was start my own secret society like the children in the books. I wanted to solve mysteries and have hidden clubhouses; I wanted to think up exotic passwords about cream buns and jam tarts that no one else would ever guess. Unfortunately though, all the other girls in our whites-only suburb of Witpark in Boksburg were Afrikaners, and from what I could tell, were only interested in playing house. All that cooking, knitting, sewing, baking, looking after screaming babies and yelling at drunken husbands who came home late from mine parties didn’t appeal to me. I wanted, instead, to broaden their horizons, and introduce them to a whole new world they were missing out on.
“I just wanted her and the other girls to read the books so they’d join my Secret Seven Club,” I said. “So far, it’s just me and Cat and we need five others.”
“Bugger them,” my father said, reaching over and fluffing my hair. “You girls can have a Gruesome Twosome all on your own. Or better yet, forget the girls and go play with the boys.”
My mother rolled her eyes again, but she was still in a good mood and I didn’t want to ruin it by complaining about how none of the boys would play with me. She didn’t like whining and always said that instead of dwelling on the negative, I should try to think up solutions. Which is what got me thinking about what my father had said earlier.
“Where’s your big gun, Daddy?”
“Your big gun? The one you said you’d shoot the Jehovah’s Witnesses with?”
“I was just joking, Freckles. I don’t have a gun.”
“Oh.” This was disappointing. I was hoping to use it as a conversation starter with the boys. “Maybe you should get one.”
“Piet’s dad said the kaffir black bastards are going to kill us in our sleep because we’re sissies. He said if we don’t own guns, we may as well just bend over and take it up the backside like the moffies do.”
“Oh yes, when did he say this?” my father asked just as my mother told me not to say ‘kaffirs’ and ‘moffies’.
“The other day when I was there playing with the dogs. What do the moffies take up the backside?”
“That’s enough questions for one day, Robin.”
“No buts.” He shot my mother a look and they both snorted with laughter. “End of conversation.”
It had been an ordinary Sunday in every way. My parents fought and then made up and then fought again, switching from being adversaries to allies so seamlessly that you couldn’t put your finger on the moment when the lines were crossed and re-crossed. Cat perfectly acted out her part of the quiet understudy twin, so I could take my place in the spotlights playing the leading role for both of us. I asked too many questions and repeatedly pushed the boundaries, and Mabel hovered like a benevolent shadow in the wings.
The only difference was that, without my knowing it, the clock had started ticking; in just over three days, I’d lose three of the most important people in my life.
14 June 1976
Transkei, South Africa
My daughter is in danger.
This is my first thought when I awaken and it spurs me on to get dressed quickly. Dawn is still two hours away and the inside of the hut is black as grief. I can usually move around the room and skirt the boys’ sleeping mats in the darkness, but I need a light now to finish the last of my packing.
The scratch of the match against the rough strip of the Lion box is grating in the confines of the silent room, and my shadow rises up like a prayer when I light the candle and place it next to my suitcase on the floor. The lingering scent of sulphur, an everyday smell that has always made me think of daybreak, feels portentous now. I breathe through my mouth so that I do not have to inhale the smell of fear.
I am quiet but there is nothing to help muffle my movements. Our dwellings are circular and entirely open within the circumference of the clay outer wall. No ceilings crouch above us, bisecting the thatch roofs from the dung floors. No partitions cut through the communal space to separate us into different rooms. Our homes are borderless just as the world was once free of boundaries; there would be no walls or roofs at all except for the essential shelter they provide. Privacy is not a concept my people understand or desire; we bear witness to each other’s lives and take comfort in having our own lives seen. What greater gift can you give another than to say: I see you, I hear you, and you are not alone?
This is why, no matter how quiet I try to be, both my sons are awake. Khwezi watches as I roll up my reed mat; the reflected light of the candle’s flame burns in his eyes. Thirteen years old, he is my youngest child. He does not remember the day, ten years ago, when his father left for the goldmines in Johannesburg, nor the agony of the months of drought that came before. He does not remember the gradual slump of a proud man’s shoulders as Silo watched his family and cattle starve, but Khwezi is old enough now to be fearful of losing another family member to the hungry city.
I smile to reassure him but he does not smile back. His thin face is serious as he reaches up absentmindedly to rub the shiny patch above his ear. The mottled pink tissue, in the shape of an Acacia tree, is what remains from a long ago fall into an open fire. There was a reason God placed the scar in a place where Khwezi cannot see it but where I, from my height as a mother, cannot overlook it. It serves as a reminder that the ancestors gave me a second chance with him; one I was not granted when I failed to protect Mandla, my firstborn son, from harm. I cannot fail another of my children.
“Mama,” Luxolo whispers from his mat opposite his younger brother. His grey blanket is wrapped around him like a shroud to ward off the morning chill.
“Yes, my son?”
“Let me go with you.” He posed the same plea soon after my brother’s letter arrived yesterday.
The crumpled yellow envelope bearing my name, Beauty Mbali, has travelled a circuitous route to get here from my brother Andile’s home in Zondi, a neighbourhood in the middle of Soweto.
Our village is so small that it does not have an official name that can be found marked on a map of the Transkei, and so there is no direct mail delivery to the foothills of this rural landscape in our black homeland. Once the letter left my brother’s hands, the postal service carried it out of the township of Soweto - on potholed and sandy roads - into Johannesburg, the heart of South Africa, and then south across the tarred arterial highway out of the Transvaal, over the Vaal River, and into the Orange Free State.
From there, it travelled south still over the fog-cloaked Drakensburg Mountains and then down, down, down zigzagging through hairpin bends to reach Pietermaritzburg, after which it branched off into the veiny, neglected side roads that would officially deliver it to the post office in Umtata, the Transkei’s capital city.
Its journey not yet complete, the envelope still had to be passed hand-to-hand from the postmaster’s wife to the Scottish missionary in Qunu — a distance of thirty kilometers that would take six hours for me to walk, but takes the white woman forty minutes to drive in her husband’s car — and then onwards still from the missionary’s black cleaning woman to the Indian spaza shop owner. The final leg of its journey was made by Jama, a nine-year-old herd boy, who ran the three kilometres over dusty pathways to my classroom to proudly hand it across to me.
I do not know how long the envelope took to travel the almost nine hundred kilometers from black township to black homeland to bring its warning; the post stamp is smudged and Andile, in his haste, did not date his letter. I hope I will not be too late.
“Mama, take me with you,” Luxolo entreats again. It is only his desire to prove himself as the man of the house that spurs him on to challenge a decision I have already made. He would not risk disrespecting me for any other reason. Only fifteen years old, Luxolo fulfils the duties of a grown man in our household. He believes that protecting the womenfolk is as much his responsibility as tending the cattle that is our livelihood; by accompanying me on the journey, he will help keep his sister safe from harm and ensure that we both return safely.
“The village needs you here. I will fetch Nomsa and bring her home.” I turn away from him so that he cannot see the worry in my eyes and so I cannot see his wounded pride.
My bible is the last of my possessions I pack. Its black leather cover is careworn from hours spent cradled in my hands. I slip my brother’s letter between its hope-thin pages for safekeeping though I have already memorised the most worrying parts of it.
You must come immediately, sister. Your daughter is in extreme danger and I fear for her life. I cannot guarantee her safety here. If she stays, who knows what will happen to her.
I blink away the vision of Andile writing in his cramped scrawl, the wave of ink blowing back over his sentences like ash from a veld fire as his left hand smudges over the words he has just written. With it comes the memory of our mother superstitiously hitting him over the knuckles with a sapling branch every time he reached for something with the wrong hand. She could not torture his left-handedness out of him no matter how hard she tried, nor could she quench my thirst for knowledge or my ambition. Just as I could not rid Nomsa of her obstinacy.
Once I’ve wrapped a doek around my head, I slip the shoes on. They are as unyielding and uncomfortable as the Western customs that dictate the donning of this uniform. Here in my homeland, I am always barefoot. Even in the classroom where I teach, my soles connect with the dung of the floor. However, if I am to venture out into the white man’s territory, I need to wear the white man’s clothes.
I unzip my beaded money pouch and check the notes folded inside. There is just enough for the taxis and buses as I journey north. The return fare will have to be borrowed from my brother and it is a debt we can ill afford. I slip the pouch into my bra, another constrictive Western invention, and say a silent prayer that I will not be robbed during my journey. I am a black woman traveling alone, and a black woman is always the easiest target on the food chain of victims.
A cock crows in the distance. It is time. I hold my arms out to my sons and they rise silently from their beds to step into my embrace. I hug them fiercely, reluctant to let go. There is so much I want to say to them. I want to impart both words of wisdom and remind them of trivial matters, but I do not want to scare them with a protracted farewell. It is easier to pretend that I am leaving on a short journey and will return before nightfall. It is also important for Luxolo to know that I have complete faith in him to take care of his brother and the cattle while I am away; I will not belittle his efforts with entreaties for caution and vigilance. He knows what needs to be done and he will do it well.
“Nomsa and I will be home soon,” I say. “Do not worry about us.”
“And you, Mother, must not worry about us. I will take care of everything.” Luxolo is sombre. He wears this new responsibility well.
“I will not worry. You are both good boys who will soon be great men.”
Luxolo steps out of my embrace and nods as he accepts the compliment. Khwezi is reluctant to let go. I kiss his head, my lips touching his scar. “Try to get another hour of sleep.” Like the good boys they are, they obey me and return to their mats.
I step out into the dawn with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders and make my way down the narrow hillside trail. The scents of wood smoke and manure rise up to say their farewells. Crickets chirp a discordant goodbye. My breath is visible in the cold moonlight; ghostlike puffs of air lead the way ahead of me, and I trail them just as I trail the phantom of my daughter down this sandy path. My feet fall where hers did seven months ago when she traded our rural idyll for a city education.
I try to recall how she looked on the day she left but what comes to mind instead is a memory of her at the age of five. Our thatch roof needed repairing and for that, I would have to use the panga to cut the long grass. Fearful of the children getting in the way of the blade, I sent them to the kraal to see the lamb that had been born in the night. Three-year-old Luxolo ran off trying to keep up with his sister and I set to work harvesting the thatch.
Later when the cry tore through the fields, setting a flock of sparrows in flight, I dropped the panga and started running. By the time I neared the kraal behind two other women who were racing ahead of me, the cry had turned to shrieking. Another more ominous sound threaded through the noise though I did not register what it was until I cleared the last hut.
There Nomsa was standing with her stubby legs apart in a fighter’s stance. She had inserted herself between Luxolo and a low-slung jackal that was snapping and snarling at her with foam frothing from its muzzle. The jackal was rabid and out of its mind with aggression as it tried to get to its prey: my son.
Nomsa’s small fist was raised and she shook it while shouting at the beast that was sloping towards her. Before I could begin running again, Nomsa reached for a rock and threw it with such force that it hit the jackal square in the head, sending the animal staggering off to the side. When I got to them, I grabbed both Luxolo and Nomsa and pulled them up into my arms while the village women chased the jackal away. Nomsa was trembling with fright. My daughter, only five years old, had bravely fought off a predator to protect her younger brother. I expected to see tears in her eyes but what I saw instead was triumph.
I force the memory and the accompanying uneasiness from my mind. There are still six kilometres of dusty paths to walk before I reach the main road near Qunu. A rural village like ours, sunken into a grassy valley surrounded by green hills, Qunu is inhabited by a few hundred people which has accorded it a proper name. It is rumoured that Nelson Mandela grew up in those foothills so the soil is said to foster greatness. Perhaps touching it along my journey will bring me luck.
From Qunu, I must catch the first taxi to take me out of the protection of the Bantustan of the Transkei into the white man’s province of Natal, specifically four hundred kilometers northeast through sugar cane and maize fields to Pietermaritzburg via Kokstad. After that, I will need to make my way north past the Midlands, through the Drakensburg Mountains and then on to Johannesburg.
My journey will take me from this rural idyll where time stands still to a city that is rocked from below its foundations by the dynamite blasts used in the mining of gold, and assaulted from above by the fierce Highveld thunderstorms that tear across its sky. Almost a thousand kilometres stretch out between here and Soweto in a thread of dread and doubt, but I try not to think of the distance as I hold my suitcase away from body to stop it from drumming into my thigh.
I follow the morning star and look forward to sunrise which is my favourite time of day though Nomsa prefers sunset. There is no lingering twilight in Africa, no gentle gloaming as day eases into night; a tender give and take between light and shadow. Night settles swiftly. If you are vigilant, and not prone to distractions, you can almost feel the very moment daylight slips through your fingers and leaves you clutching the inky sap that is the Sub-Saharan night. It is a sharp exhalation at the closing of day, a sigh of relief. Sunrise is the opposite: a gentle inhalation, a protracted affair as the day readies itself for what is to come. Just as I now must ready myself for whatever awaits me in Soweto.
I have just turned into the valley to follow the meandering path of the river when a thin voice calls out to me.
“Mama.” The word expands in the hushed sanctity of the morning and is absorbed by the mist blanketing the riverbed. I think I have imagined it, that I have conjured up my daughter’s voice from across the country calling to me for help, but then I hear it again. “Mama.”
I turn and look back upon the trail I’ve walked and a figure bounds down the path towards me. It is Khwezi, sure-footed as a mountain goat. Within a few minutes he is next to me, our breaths mingling in puffs of exertion as we face one another.
“You forgot your food,” he says, holding up the bag in which I wrapped the roasted mielies and chicken pieces the night before. “You will be hungry.”
He looks so much like his father — the boy his father was before the goldmines took his joy and crushed it — and he smiles an unguarded smile, proud of himself for having spared me from hunger. My hearts swells with love.
“You will bring Nomsa home?” he asks and I nod because I cannot speak. “You will come back?”
I nod again.
“Do you promise, Mama?”
“Yes.” It is a strangled sob, a fire of emotion robbed of air, but it is a promise. I will bring Nomsa home.
What People are Saying About This
Expertly crafted, both lyrical and gripping, with some truly poignant moments especially pertaining to parenthood.
Bianca Marais parts the curtain on an unexpected view of Apartheid-era South Africa in this gutsy, surprising, and richly imagined tale. It will be a long time before the reader forgets the novel's compelling characters, and the tremendous determination, yearning, and humanity with which they navigate complex emotional landscapes in their intersecting quests for connection, family, and justice.
Beautiful and tragic, intimate and sweeping, Hum If You Don't Know the Words is a gorgeous debut novel. You don't read this story, you live it. Bianca Marais creates characters with such love and compassion they nearly walk off the page.
Bianca Marais's compassionate debut paints a picture of the alternately beautiful and tragic strategies we humans employ to meet our needs for love. Hum If You Don't Know the Words takes us into the human heart's wiliness as it attempts to survive the frontal attack of racism. While the attack is a sin, the response is wondrous and wounding and an illustration of the resiliency that can transcend the color of a person's skin.
Bianca Marais's compelling debut novel is a heartrending coming-of-age tale that not only illuminates the horrors of apartheid South Africa but also speaks with unmistakable relevance to the racism of our own times.
Bianca Marais has written a haunting and moving novel of Apartheid South Africa that held me in its thrall from beginning to end. Against a backdrop of legislated racism, Marais brilliantly entwines two disparate voices in a searing story of love, loss and recovery. Masterful and memorable.
I read this book in a gallop, compelled to discover the intertwined fates of its tragic heroine, Beauty Mbali, and her young orphaned charge. Hum If You Don't Know the Words is an exciting and compassionate novel about a period of devastating cruelty in South African history. With passion and grace Marais makes the political personal and the personal intimate.
An important contribution to literature about racism in South Africa...it's a powerful story and one with a perspective many of us haven't read.
Bianca Marais's stunning debut offers an evocative and thought-provoking look at the unlikely relationship between two South Africans. Set against a backdrop of apartheid-era South Africa, Marais illuminates the experiences of both black and white South Africans during one of the bloodiest periods in the country's history and gives us an emotionally powerful and historically important story about forgiveness, love and redemption.
Reading Group Guide
1. Robin is a product of her environment and adopts the racist ideology of those around her. How do these prejudices and preconceived notions about black people inform the way she acts? And how does Robin’s behavior and thinking change throughout the book, particularly toward Beauty?
2. Compare 1970s South Africa to today’s world. How have issues of racism and homophobia progressed since then? And in what ways have they remained the same? What can we do individually and in our communities to facilitate forward thinking and change?
3. Robin and Beauty come together, against all odds, to create a family of their own. How does this book challenge norms of the conventional nuclear family? How does Beauty’s role as the mother of Nomsa differ from her role as Robin’s caretaker? What does Hum If You Don’t Know the Words tell us about human connection in the face of adversity?
4. The pass laws and the Group Areas Act meant that Beauty and her children had to live in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei approximately 600 miles away from where her husband worked in the gold mines. How much of Beauty’s family life is affected by the laws of apartheid? Do you think this had an impact on Nomsa’s decision to become a freedom fighter? Once apartheid ended in 1994, how much do you think the state-legislated disintegration of families continued to impact South African society and black cultures?
5. What purpose does Cat serve in Robin’s life, and what necessitated her appearance? How does Robin use Cat to navigate her home life with her parents, and then her life with Edith? Is Cat an effective coping mechanism? Are there any downsides to her presence?
6. Compare Beauty and her daughter, Nomsa. As the plot unfolds and more of Nomsa’s character is illuminated, what similarities between the two come to light? How does your perception of Nomsa change throughout the book, and why?
7. What is the significance of the book’s title, and why do you think it was chosen? How does it relate to the book’s central themes?
8. How does the narrative change between Robin and Beauty’s alternating perspectives? What stylistic choices does the author employ to differentiate each voice from the other? Who is a more reliable narrator?
9. How does the White Angel help Beauty in her search for Nomsa, and how much does she hinder it? Does her need to control the situation say anything about Maggie and her subconscious attitude toward black people? Does Robin really save the day at the end of the story? Do her actions really make everything right again, or are they more a child’s way of trying to fix what cannot be mended?
10. What do you make of the ending, and why do you think the author chose to end the novel at this moment? If there were an epilogue, where do you think we’d find the characters?