South Africa happens to be my dream destination in Africa. It is the place where some of the most intriguing people and cultures of the continent are found. If not for much, I just want to visit a Zulu village and watch them perform that dance they are famed for that involves kicking and jumping. Also, I need to learn Xhosa; it is perhaps the only tongue through which I can click at a lady without being slapped.
But I am scared of going there. Rumors of how the locals perceive visitors stay my resolve. Tales of horror especially from Cape Town, most of them concerning racial discrimination, make me cringe and wonder whether travelling down to South Africa is worth the trouble.
Reading A Walk In The Night & Other Stories by Alex La Guma takes me back in history where the South Africans put too much weight on the significance of skin colour. It reminds me of the predicament non-whites faced during apartheid regime in South Africa, laying bare the lives of the outcasts living in the shantytowns.
The main story, A Walk in the Night is set in Cape Town’s District Six; a tough neighbourhood to live in. Typical living conditions in any ghetto, including the ones we have in Nairobi. The hub for vagabonds of every shade, trying to eke out a living from crime, and drowning their sorrows with alcohol at the local shebeen.
The story revolves around a chap, Michael Adonis, who after being wrongfully fired from his work place, passes through a joint to irrigate his throat and then heads home. He lives in a tenement, modern day flat, together with other people. One of them is an old man who he unintentionally kills due to frustration and inebriation. His friend, Willieboy, has a strange streak of bad luck finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time and takes the fall for it.
La Guma tells the story in pell-mell fashion, broken down into interconnected chapters that hold the reader captive in unbridled suspense. His sentences are milky, laced with beautiful descriptions that make his characters feel like someone you know from somewhere. In these paragraphs, the main themes of racial discrimination and police brutality rear their ugly heads in several places.
Through Joe we find out about a plan to construct beaches for white people only. It is also in Constable Raalt’s reaction to the old white man living together with the black folk, that we realize it is almost an abomination for people of different races to share a living space. Also, the tenants at the flat are scared of reporting the matter of the dead old man to the cops, majorly because the deceased is a white man and they do not want to get into any form of trouble. A subtle indication that if the deceased was black, then his murder would not have so much traction.
Where racism prevails, then a brutal police force is necessary to maintain the status quo. The people who suffer most are of course the ones who bear the unacceptable skin colour. That is how Constable Raalt ends up shooting Willieboy, yet he was unarmed. That is how Constable Raalt can afford to step into a convenience store for a pack of cigarettes as Willieboy bleeds to death at the back of their car. Perhaps the only consolation is the constable’s driver who is sympathetic to the plight of the black folk.
The other stories in the collection pronounce these two themes. In The Lemon Orchard a black man is being punished unfairly by some white folk who want to teach him a good lesson. The lead character says “We do not want any educated hottentots in our town.” To which his friend replies “Neither black Englishmen.
This kind of tension is also felt in The Gladiators involving a boxing fight between a white guy (Kenny) and a black dude who’s repeatedly called a kaffir by the pale skinned spectators of the match. Of course Kenny got his ass kicked a good one.
Violence is forms a large part of the culture of people living in neighbourhoods like District Six, as shown in A Walk in the Night where a gang exists to raid and plunder people. In Blankets we meet a guy who has been knifed in the streets for the fourth time now. The same is also evident in Tatoo Marks and Nails; here, through Ahmed the Turk, we are presented with another definition of the phrase ‘criminal justice system’. A system in which tortured inmates form courts to mete out punishment for rats and people who wronged them on the outside.
At the Portagee’s breathes socioeconomic segregation. How the haves and the have-nots cannot dine in the same restaurant. The same could be said about A Matter of Taste. Here, it is not about race or skin colour. The common ground is the struggles that people of the same social caste experience, and that is what unites them. That is how come two black boys welcome a white boy to share their meal. In their conversation, the whitey says “It is all about the taste. Some like chicken and the others sheep heads and beans.” One his hosts corrects him by saying “…bull, it is a matter of money pal.”
Later the black boys help the white boy jump on a train on his way to wherever. A show of solidarity among the suffering.
Alex La Guma’s A Walk In The Night & Other Stories is arguably a historical reflection of what goes on today. We see and live racism every day in the way wazungus are served first at Art Caffe; in the way wazungus are duped into paying mortgage sums for taxi services and paintings/artefacts from Maasai Market. It is manifested in the trial of Oscar Pistorius. And the murder Trayvon Martin in the free world whose leader is (ironically) a jarateng’ from Alego, Siaya.
I have spent some time living in the ghetto, Huruma. La Guma’s Distrct Six is just another Huruma. The stench of desperation is just as strong. Many a Franky Lorenzos are struggling to feed six children, with one more on the way, inside a tiny cube of a house. They try to stay out of trouble with the police; when dark settles in and makes itself comfortable, they keep off the streets. And when they have the chance to afford a drink, they step into one of those seedy joints for a tipple of illicit brew, cheap sex and some good old rhumba sounds by Franco Lwambo Makiadi.
This collection of six stories elevates Alex La Guma as one of the finest short story writers I have read from the continent so far. Like Ngugi and other prisoners of conscience who wrote about oppression, he was exiled from his home in 1966 and spent the rest of his life in London.
Perhaps as an African and a human being, I owe him more for his sacrifice. Perhaps, instead of relying of whispers floating in the wind, I should just dump my fears, travel down to SA and find out for myself whether or not the scenario he painted in A Walk In The Night & Other Stories has changed.
See, the truth about rumors is that they are easier to spread than a harlot’s legs, but also as easy to unspread as butter on bread.
I hope the stories about extreme racism in SA are just rumors, or exaggerated talk, because by God, I want to click at a Xhosa woman. Just to see whether she gets offended or turned on.
Reviewing this book was part of my Writivism 2015 mentorship process. Thanks to @lilymutinda for lending it to me. Until 2 days ago, Ms. Mutinda was a stranger to me. Then I posted about needing this book on my timeline, and she was quick to send it to me in Nairobi from Nakuru. Why? Because she is a fan of the blog, and was more than glad to be of help. I am not sure I would have done the same for someone else. Probably not. Puts things in perspective, aye?
COVER PHOTO: BiblioVault