FICTION: Aunty Ose

BY ALUKA IGBOKWE

The memories of Aunty Ose remains, determined to overshadow the the playful recollections of my prepubescent years: war start with street boys, Okoso with neighbours which left our fingers smarting, hide and seek and hopscotch with willing girls.

Aunty Ose or Pepper Aunty. The moniker was not because she sold peppers at main market or because she shared a tender redness with danjarawa peppers. It was because she derived a deep personal happiness from hurting others. Some of us can remember such people: people who kidnapped footballs, who drove us away from play grounds, who reported us to our parents if we climbed guava and mango and orange trees. Aunty Ose was such a person.

Aunty Ose was a stout woman with a reddened skin lined with crooked green veins reaching out like roots – evidence of many years of toning with cheap bleach. She wasn’t married, but it was said that her husband drove her out because she was barren. I wondered what kind of man would marry a woman who wears a frown like a second face and appears to be perpetually smelling the air. Others said she was a witch. I did not know which to believe. I just wanted her to leave our street and let us play until our heads ached, until our throats were parched and our limbs bruised. But she would have none of that.

One day, I was playing football with Confusion, Rubber Boy and Jet Li. We constructed a makeshift field by walking six steps one foot in front of the other and then drove cassava stems into the soil to serve as goal posts. Jet Li and Rubber Boy against me and Confusion. We had been sent home for not paying school fees, so we played during school hours. We liked it each time we were sent home. In fact, most times, whenever Uncle Kalu sauntered into our classroom with that Book of Life of his that is as big as an encyclopedia holding the names of debtors and creditors on separate pages, we would leave before he mentioned our names, even if we had paid.

We like to give ourselves names. It makes us feel important. He was called Confusion because he had a quarter-past-four eye. He would be looking at you and you would think he is looking at another person. If he happened to be looking at another person, it would be like he was staring at you straight in the eyes. I think he enjoyed confusing us.

Rubber Boy was named for his previous life playing rubber bands. Green, red and yellow rubber bands circled his wrists like bracelets – trophies from games with street boys.

Jet Li, at the slightest provocation, would aggressively kick the air this way and that way like an atilogwu dancer, as if he were strong. I could beat him and I’ve beaten him before with all his fake kung-fu.

I do not want to share my name because I am ashamed and I do not want you to start laughing at me.

When Aunty Ose returned from where ever she went, we knew that trouble loomed. She refused our greetings, which was not unusual, but we didn’t care, so we continued playing. When she came out again, we knew she was coming to pierce our hearts with her assegai and beat our bodies into shape with her knobkerrie. She called Confusion over. Their lips moved and we couldn’t make out what they were saying. He returned and said she asked us to leave her house front, and that she wanted to sleep. I confirmed she was really a witch – who else would sleep at noon so as to be awake and fly in the night.

It’s not that we didn’t agree to leave. We planned on leaving, except that Rubber Boy committed a foul before she came out to tell us to leave, so we wanted to play it out before we moved elsewhere. Since Jet Li is the goalkeeper on their side and Confusion is the goalkeeper on my side and Rubber Boy committed the foul, I was the one to take it. I was glad I didn’t acquiesce to becoming the goalkeeper. I would have missed this golden opportunity to prove to Jet Li that I am a great footballer and not the ‘JB’ he always called me.

I bent over and positioned the ball at the spot the foul was committed. I scooped warm soil round the ball because it was always rolling over. Satisfied that the ball was firmly in place, I stepped back and locked eyes with Jet Li. Jet Li squatted into an imaginary chair, waiting for my kick. I looked back at Confusion to give me that go-ahead look but he gave me that be-fast look. I rolled my eyes and sucked my teeth.

I muttered a word of prayer and looked around at imaginary spectators. I saw them waving at me with permanent smiles on their faces. I drew my foot backwards and released it so the ball could curve outwards. The white ball stiff with trapped air was making a smooth journey, but instead of moving in the direction it had been shot, it took a sharp turn as if it had suddenly developed a mind of its own, as if something was playing sweet ogene for it. It was heading directly at Aunty Ose’s louvres, bent on shattering them.

It slammed into them and the louvres chased each other towards the ground. They covered the cement floor with uneven shards. For a moment, the wind paused and the trees quieted as if in solidarity. Silence enveloped us. We stood unflinching, unmoving, stoic. I think we were all thinking the same thing as we dashed off at once to hide behind the oil palm tree.

Stooped behind the oil palm tree like harried dogs, we feared for our lives. If Aunty Ose was really a witch, she would surely come in the night and drink our blood and eat our flesh and fly away with our skeletons. If she reported us to our parents as usual, it could be worse. It is like killing us and calling back our spirits and killing us again.

Aunty Ose rushed forward through her back door, her wax wrapper loosely wound around her chest, screaming, “Chim o, umuaka a egbugom o!” My God, these children have killed me!

“We should go and tell her sorry” Rubber Boy said, his voice light and feathery.

“Shhh. Do you want to die?” Confusion said, “Haven’t you heard she is a witch? Have you forgotten what she did to Yahoo Yahoo the last time?”

“What if she finds us?” I croaked, choking back tears.

“Shut up! She will find us if you continue this way. Let her find us and I will show her some skills” Jet Li said, wringing his hands like two entwined snakes.

I shot him fierce eyes and said “Onye ara, madman, you’re the one that’ll make the first run if she…”

“Will you two kom-kombilities just shut your stinking buccal cavities?” Confusion interjected harshly, his voice high. I do not like Confusion, he feels because he can speak big big English and because his father is a lecturer at the University College, he had somehow become a lord over us.

By this time, Aunty Ose had stopped wailing. She had reemerged from her house fully clad. She peered around, sniffing like a dog, as though certain we were hiding somewhere nearby. When her search proved futile she made for the exit. We did not need a soothsayer to tell us where she was going. Tonight, we are going to be killed and have our spirits called back again to be killed all over.

There is this myth that if as a child, you tie a knot at the tip of ashara tea before your assailant reached your home, your parents would forget everything they heard. Just like that, amnesia. Buoyed up by this myth, we searched frantically for the nearest ashara tea to make a knot. If we must escape the wrath of our parents and not have our buttocks tender and swollen as retribution from papa’s cowhide, we have to make a knot at the tip of ashara before Aunty Ose reached our homes.

We searched until we came upon a cluster of green lemon grass shaped like broken knife blades. We took our positions and faced our chosen stems. We each chose the greenest we could find. We called her name thrice: “Aunty Ose! Aunty Ose! Aunty Ose!” and tied our knots slowly so that the grass would not snap. That done, we were certain our parents would forget whatever Aunty Ose had come to tell them and come to receive us prodigal sons with arms spread apart whenever we returned.

BOOK CLUB: There Should Have Been Five

Professor BILL NASSON is enchanted by MJ Honikman’s There Should Have Been Five which vividly brings a highly-charged 1940s wartime episode to life.

There Should Have Been Five by MJ HonikmannShould you ever judge a book by its cover? You have my blessing to do so with MJ Honikman’s There Should Have Been Five. A first glance at its quietly dignified and intriguing cover design is enough to excite curiosity and interest. The staged front photograph portrays three dark-complexioned and khaki-clad Allied servicemen from the rear. They are gazing across flat and brown desert terrain towards a distant explosion which is sending a massive red-and-white ice-cream cone topping oozing out against a streaky blue sky. Who were these men, and where were they? What was the eruption that had caught their gaze?

The back cover illustration is a rampantly romantic head-and-shoulders colour portrait of an African soldier, with chin jutting and eyes set in a flat stare. Again, it begs a question. Who is this Othello in camouflage and with shoulder-flaps?

The answer – and an explanation of this book’s enigmatic and poignant title – is provided by the author’s engaging and imaginative historical story-telling. There Should Have Been Five is a compact dialogue between the present and the past which illuminates a largely-forgotten adventure from the Union of South Africa’s participation in World War Two. While Marilyn Honikman’s exceptionally readable novel is aimed at young adult readers or mature teenage readers, it has a wide enough reach to grip adult readers who need not be stuck in a state of arrested adolescence, like your reviewer. In other words, it merits a readership beyond the breathlessness of Teenzone Mag or the earnestness of The Teacher.

Impeccably researched, with a valuable short bibliography listing books, articles, oral interviews, private correspondence and even a recent documentary film, this book recreates a highly-charged episode from the wartime experiences of the 1940s in a fascinating and novel manner.

The peg upon which this drama hangs is the real figure of Lance-Corporal Job Maseko, a non-combatant African support soldier of the country’s Native Military Corps. Involved in Allied campaigning in East Africa and in North Africa, Job Maseko ended up in Western Desert fighting at Tobruk in the Italian colony of Libya. Hemmed in by circling Italian forces and punched by the German General Erwin Rommel’s crack Afrika Korps, the South African command threw in the towel in June 1942. With Tobruk having fallen, tens of thousands of South African troops, white and black, were rounded up and taken prisoner. Among them was a no-nonsense Lance-Corporal Maseko.

While the Union’s front-line white soldiers were shipped off to prisoner-of-war (POW) camps in Europe, most black servicemen did not cross the Mediterranean. Instead, they were consigned to local desert camps and pressed into labour service by their captors. Having laboured for Pretoria, they now found themselves labouring for Berlin and Rome.

As depicted here, Maseko was prominent among those who toiled for the enemy most grudgingly. During his work time unloading Axis supply ships at the port of Tobruk, a scheming Maseko was on the lookout for an opportunity to make things hot for the enemy. Single-handedly, he secretively pieced together oddments that had been collected – matches, fuse-wire, an empty tin, a pile of cordite extracted from old discarded bullets. This was sufficient to rig up an explosive contraption. When an opportune moment arrived in July 1942, Maseko got three of his most trusted fellow-POWs to distract their easily-diverted Italian guards, wormed his way deep into the hold of a supply-ship, and laid a slow burning device in an incendiary spot. By the time the delayed explosion set the ship on fire, a stealthy Job Maseko and his associates were back in their POW camp, their captors left none the wiser.

After the end of World War Two, four white South Africans were awarded the Victoria Cross for acts of valour. Maseko was also nominated, but this was vetoed by the Union Defence Force high command on the grounds that it would not do to award so high an honour to a lowly and subordinate Native Military Corps serviceman. But some recognition there had to be, and it came with the giving of the Military Medal.

We learn from Marilyn Honikman that this heroic character survived the war in which he had been “Lance Corporal Job Maseko MM”, only to return to a postwar South Africa to find that it was business as usual in a place where his place was to be called “boy”. True to this personal drama, Maseko’s end is tinged with tragedy, sadness and mystery. No one knew for certain what had happened, but “they found his body on the railway line… Not a good way for such a splendid man to die,” one of the story’s aged characters concludes.

This book uses the device of a lost or forgotten past being discovered by a curious present in a consistently lively and informative story which weaves back and forth between 1942 and the early 21st Century. We discover – or rediscover – Job Maseko through the widening eyes of two teenagers, John and Zanele Matshoba, who come across his noble painting while visiting the Ditsong Museum of Military History in Johannesburg. Consumed by curiosity over “a Black South African who won a medal in the Second World War”, they launch a barrage of questions. The most animated answers come not from tattered 1950s copies of Drum Magazine, but through spending a night with their grandmother or gogo, in Diepkloof, Soweto.

As a writer who wants to get across a point or two about this relatively neglected aspect of South African history, Honikman’s approach is to grab the reader by the lapels and not to let go. In a deft contrivance which works entertainingly in this kind of historical fiction, the grandmother’s old next-door neighbour, “Old Mr Ndebele”, turns out to be a WW2 veteran who had actually served alongside Job Maseko.

Drawing on a sprightly set of wartime memories, he captivates his teenage visitors with an array of jaw-dropping tales, from driving army lorries in Kenya and Abyssinia, eluding Italians, and dodging ravenous hyenas, to encountering Rommel himself in a POW camp. These snapshots are an effective mechanism to bring a vivid historical story alive for contemporary readers, especially for those who are younger. Of course, this also entails doing something which historians should never do – making up words to stick into the mouths of dead people. But Honikman gets away with it. As with Elizabeth Bowen, the classic Anglo-Irish novelist of childhood, here the sharpest observers and most probing questioners are not adults, but buzzing children. A scrupulous and self-aware author, in her interesting author’s notes at the end she reflects upon what had to be done –adaptation, minor invention and borrowing – as devices to deal with matters that could not be known. Maybe more history should be left to accomplished writers who can write well and with verisimilitude rather than to historians who have forgotten that history is a literary craft.

Lance Corporal Job Maseko is the spine of a plot in which time flits back and forth, between the army recruiting pamphlet waved at African mineworkers in the early 1940s and a teenager’s iPad in 2014. Around it, the author fills a rib cage with an account of some of the experiences and fortunes of the almost 80,000 black South Africans who volunteered for the Union’s war effort, touching on their motivations, their feelings about serving a racially discriminatory country, and their return home to a deflating life. For Jan Smuts’s opportunistic claim that “the world cause of freedom is also our cause”, was, predictably, specious. Dedicated to “the great-grandchildren of the 354,000 South Africans of all races who volunteered to serve… in the fight against Hitler, the Nazis and the Italian fascists in World War II”, this little book is a moving and worthy tribute to all those who had hoped that victory might have been brought them a better society at home.

There Should Have Been Five is published by Tafelberg. Nasson is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book is History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016, and was published in 2016 by Penguin.

REVIEW: The Wisdom of Adders

BY ALAN MULLER

Adders by Dan Wylie

Addo, Adder, Addis. To Shawn Xaba, the protagonist of Dan Wylie’s The Wisdom of Adders, these places may just as well be one and the same. In 2170 South Africa, places have been stripped of their historical weight by an ecological cataclysm, rendering most of the country’s landscape barren and largely unpopulated except for a few isolated communities and freeway bandits. Set in (what used to be) Grahamstown, and the Eastern Cape, the young Shawn, after abandoning her work post and missing curfew, is sentenced to collecting coal from the “Coastal Line” near Port Alfred some 60km away. In a world where motorised travel has become a thing of the past, this is, of course, easier said than done.

To add to the arduous journey, Shawn, accompanied by the mysterious Mali, must navigate the Atomscorch – a landscape ravaged by radioactive fallout from a malfunctioning nuclear reactor some 100 years prior. Additionally, after global capitalism and industry had ravaged the planet, there had been the “Millennial Mission of Twenty-One Hundred”; a failed mission to colonise Mars that resulted only in the eventual death of the cosmic colonisers on the planet. Between the reader’s present and 2017, there has also been a near total loss of historical context and knowledge as places and institutions take on new names that are mere homophones of the places they used to denote. Port Alfred is reduced to Palfred which has since been overcome by rising sea levels while national highways like the N2 and N10 have become the Entu and Enten and home to bandits and are traversed only by brave merchants who scour the Atomscorch for “trinkets and techno-baubles”.

Wylie’s post-apocalyptic novella is at once both an emptying out and filling up in terms of its ecocritical approach to such a disaster. While the landscape is initially all but emptied of its flora and fauna (humans included), nature proves resilient and increasingly intrude into the narrative as it progresses. The novel begins and ends with the elusive adder while a jackal proves omnipresent yet is only as visible as it chooses to be. More striking though, is the discovery that Shawn and Mali make in Adder (an area west of what was Grahamstown); a species long thought eradicated by humans and the Atomscorch. Nature, it seems, has a way of bouncing back from the most aggressive assaults.

Although nature and acological crises come to the fore in The Wisdom of Adders, the novella’s plot and setting are not entirely emptied of their political baggage. A centralised government may be something of the distant past and is not even mentioned but racial politics does rear its all-too-familiar head. While South Africa has become “a country of browns”, there are rare racial exceptions in the form of ‘Throwblacks’ like Mali and even rarer ‘Whitebacks’ like the Tharfields. While the backstory of why Mali’s lineage remained black is unclear, the Tharfields openly boast about their 1820 settler roots and how they remained ‘pure’ by resisting what they saw as shameless miscegenation as the population shrank.

The Wisdom of Adders is a stylistically slick novella that incorporates poetry into its already lyrical prose. Before embarking on her journey, Shawn is befriended by the mystical Stormchaser who gives her a collection of his poetry to take along. She and Mali read some of these to one another along their journey and the reader is able to glimpse a flash of Wylie as a poet also. Having published seven collections to date, his poetry is able to stand on its own but complement the novella well in their ecocritical themes. Wylie’s seventh collection, Slow Fires seems to function as a poetic genesis for this novella with its focus on the lives of animals and inevitability of the cycle of birth and death (read Finuala Dowling’s review of the collection here). The novella also mirrors a scene from a poem titled “Even a darkness which may be felt” as people run to scoop up locusts, making the best of an approaching swarm.

The Wisdom of Adders joins a growing body of outstanding ecocritical speculative fictions to emerge from South Africa in recent years such as Henrietta Rose-Innes’ novels Nineveh and Green Lion, Cain Prize-winning story “Poison”; and Nick Wood’s “Thirstlands” and “Of Hearts and Monkeys”.

The Wisdom of Adders can be purchased from Amazon.

WORK/LIFE: Paige Nick

Paige Nick

Paige Nick’s novels include Dutch Courage, This Way Up and A Million Miles from Normal (which is also the name of her popular Sunday Times column). A copywriter who has worked on brands such as Santam, BMW and Nashua, over more than two decades, she’s also is one third of the Helena S. Paige trio, whose first choose your own adventure erotic novel, A Girl Walks into a Bar, launched in 2013.

What does “writing” mean?

Sitting down and beating off every other distraction to get your words down for the day, every day. Whether they’re for a book, column, or an ad for coffee beans.

Which book changed your life?

When I was 11, I took The Never Ending Story, by Michael Ende, out of my library. It was the first “proper” book I ever read, because it had so many pages. I was completely absorbed by it. That was when I first discovered that I had magical powers, and I could make the whole world disappear, and a new one form in front of my eyes. All I had to do was open a book.

Your favourite fictional character?

Ooh tough one, so many to choose from. It’s somewhere between Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland.

What are you working on at the moment?

I just finished my ninth novel, Unpresidented. It’s a political satire, set in the future. The president of South Africa, Jeremiah Gejeyishwebisa Muza, has just been released from prison early on medical parole for an ingrown toenail. Entirely fictional of course.

Describe your workspace.

Whereever I am at any given moment.

Paige Nick's Workspace

The most important instrument you use?

Easily my laptop, closely followed by my brain.

What’s your most productive time of day?

I think the best author preparation, has been spending the last twenty-three years with a full-time job as a copywriter in ad agencies. I’ve learnt mental toughness, a resilience to feedback and criticism, and most importantly, I’ve learnt how to be productive at any given moment, and how to squeeze in an hour of writing anywhere I get a gap in the day; whether it’s morning, noon, night, or later that same night.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

A run almost ALWAYS helps me untangle a plot knot. I also rely heavily on a handful of really amazing (and patient) writing friends. We discuss mental traffic jams, which often unloops me too.

How do you relax?

I don’t think I’ve been properly relaxed since my first novel came out in 2010. But to partially unwind, I run, travel, hang out with friends, have sex, and watch the most disgustingly brain-dead TV series, which I’d be too embarrassed to name in public.

Who and what has influenced your work?

Sarah Lotz, international author, and powerhouse of inspiration constantly influences my work, because I’m constantly picking her brain. There are others to add to the list too; my amazing editor Helen Moffet, and other writer friends, Edyth Bulbring, Rahla Xenopoulos and Yewande Omotoso. But I know that’s not what you’re asking.

I read widely, or rather, as widely as possible, given the time-drought we find ourselves in. But I don’t know who influences my work. Of course Sex & the City influenced my early colums, but my novels seem to be coming from so many different places right now that it’s hard to pinpoint any specific influence.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Nobody cares that you only had the weekend.”

It’s the headline from a print ad from the 70s or 80s for an advertising awards show, and I need to dig it out of my archives again. The copy went to talk about how excuses don’t matter. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the work and how good it is.

This was reitterated by writing coach Sarah Bullen who once told me that you can watch a TV series/go out/sleep/read OR you can have a novel. It’s your choice.

These thoughts play over and over in my mind while I’m mired in a draft of a new novel.

Your favourite ritual?

Probably making tea, sharpening pencils and checking social media and my email obsessively. I do that several times, then get down to work.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Other than the self-hatred and angst when you’re in the middle of it? It’s got to be the market. It’s so freaking flat, I can’t stand it. You work yourself to death to sell a couple thousand books. For what? I can’t stop doing it, but I know I probably should.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

God, how long do you have? We may need a longer page.

What are you afraid of?

Again, I think I need more ink on this one. I have a lot of fear and anxiety. Mostly to do with failure and death, in that order.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

It’s the most boring advice in the world. Write.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Dutch Courage (Penguin SA, 2016) was the hardest book I’ve ever written, because it was so far out of my comfort zone and realm of reference. It took me four years and two overseas trips to research and write, while all my other books have come out of me in six months to a year. But more than that, I’m proud of where I am. I’ve worked really really hard for this life, and it’s one thousand per cent the one I want to live, and I think there is much merit and some luck in that.