The lit­er­ary san­goma and the star child

CityPress - - Voices -

Unathi Magubeni left the cor­po­rate world af­ter a suc­cess­ful stint as a tele­coms entrepreneur. To­day, at 35, he is a san­goma, trainee herbal­ist, pub­lished poet and au­thor. Pre­cious Mavuso read his ex­tra­or­di­nary de­but novel and se­cured an in­ter­view with him

Nweleze­langa: The Star Child by Unathi Magubeni

Black­Bird Books 131 pages R195

Iad­mit that Unathi Magubeni’s de­but novel had me shiv­er­ing with fear from the first page to the last. For a fairly short book, it is crammed with shock­ers and twists in the tale, themes of be­trayal and mur­der, evil mid­wives and heroic herbal­ists.

It is un­like any­thing I have read be­fore, tee­ter­ing as it does be­tween the dark side of tra­di­tional be­lief and the light.

Nweleze­langa: The Star Child is writ­ten in a po­etic style, nudg­ing the reader to push be­yond the bounds of their imag­i­na­tion.

I felt as if I knew the char­ac­ters and had been to the places they find them­selves in.

The story is told through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl, named Nweleze­langa by the vil­lage herbal­ist. But she is no or­di­nary teenager.

“I’m 13 years old; how­ever, that’s a dis­tor­tion on its own. I’m young yet old; I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced the cy­cle of birth and death more times than I care to count. I’ve donned and shred­ded many skin colours in my life­time,” she tells us.

She is also an al­bino, although the book is not just about al­binism. That said, it does not shy away from delv­ing into the dark world where peo­ple with al­binism face mu­ti­la­tion and dis­mem­ber­ment.

Af­ter be­ing born, the star child is tossed into the mighty Um­folozi River. But she sur­vives to un­dergo a jour­ney and re­alise her pur­pose.

The story’s over­ar­ch­ing themes fo­cus on the in­di­vid­ual, our spir­i­tual quests, love and the at­tain­ment of peace.

De­spite Magubeni’s rich vo­cab­u­lary, you will not need to reach for the dic­tio­nary. But be warned, the pow­er­ful end­ing may break your heart.

I chat­ted to the au­thor, who is based in the Eastern Cape, while on a visit to Jo­han­nes­burg to pro­mote his de­but novel. What drew you to writ­ing?

I was in­tro­duced to writ­ing in 2003, when I was in Cape Town. A friend of mine in­vited me to a poetry ses­sion. I felt at home there, I felt that this was what I wanted to do. Is that when you re­alised you had a po­etic style of writ­ing?

I worked in the cor­po­rate world be­fore writ­ing, but never really felt at home there. When I left the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany [a suc­cess­ful start-up that Magubeni had formed with two friends], I felt free. It was the ex­act free­dom I wanted, even though peo­ple thought I was crazy be­cause of what I sub­se­quently did. What did you do?

I sold ev­ery­thing I owned in Cape Town, put the money into the busi­ness, then left with just a few bucks in my pocket and two trousers, which were torn. I trav­elled for 18 months, not know­ing where I was go­ing. I stayed in peo­ple’s homes, do­ing odd jobs. What in­spired Nweleze­langa?

I feel that in South Africa there is a lot of dishar­mony, po­lit­i­cally and re­gard­ing other stuff that brings about a neg­a­tive spirit. In writ­ing this book, I wanted peo­ple to re­flect on the pos­i­tive. I wanted to try to bring in some har­mony and heal­ing.

I felt this great power af­ter I ac­cepted my calling [to be­come a san­goma]. One sees many grad­u­ates mis­use the pow­ers they get af­ter do­ing all the nec­es­sary cer­e­monies, so I thought, ‘I am go­ing to write a book and I am not go­ing to talk to any­one, even at home. I will use all my power and en­ergy on writ­ing the book.’

Fore­most in my mind was test­ing a for­mula on how we ac­tu­alise our vi­sions and our dreams. Why the child nar­ra­tor?

I used a child to at­tract more at­ten­tion. Chil­dren are more in­ter­est­ing. I be­lieve that, had I used an old char­ac­ter, it would have been an­other story be­ing told by an or­di­nary per­son. Did you do a lot of re­search?

It was a spir­i­tual jour­ney for me be­cause I had never in­ter­acted with a per­son with al­binism.

I put it down to a spir­i­tual con­nec­tion that I would write about such things, and then read about the killings of al­bino peo­ple in news­pa­pers. So, in­for­ma­tion just came to me.

I felt a sense of free­dom writ­ing this book. I felt like me again. What was the hard­est part of writ­ing the novel?

To know which lines not to cross as a san­goma. I could not share ev­ery­thing; there are things that are for ev­ery­one to know and things that are not for ev­ery­one. Then the pub­lish­ers. Al­most all the pub­lish­ers I know did not think the book was good enough. Some did not even re­spond. It was a stress­ful time hav­ing to wait for re­sponses, as I had a time frame and the date was clos­ing in, with noth­ing to show for what I had done for a year. Where can peo­ple buy the book?

At book­stores, or they can re­serve a copy through African Flavour Books (african­flavour­books.com).

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