A Walk ‘Down Second Avenue’ with Es’kia Mphahlele

I’ve been wanting to read this book for years, as Es’kia Mphahlele is well known as one of the most prolific figures in African writing and this particular title is a highly recommend classic. I finally got my hands on a copy and as a South African, knew from the beginning that I would enjoy this praised autobiography. The book made me long for a reread of Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy. Although the two books are twenty-seven publication years apart, each is a story about growing up in South Africa during the apartheid regime.

Mphahlele and his siblings are taken to the country at the age of five to go live with their paternal grandmother. (Remember Maya and her brother off to Stamps?) Later on his mother fetches them and they end up in Second Avenue, Marabastad in Pretoria.

The life in Maupaneng village is filled with stories of walking seven miles to school, bare-fist river fights, livestock, hare-hunting, story-telling at the communal fire, and the white sands of Leshoana River. In Marabastad they were in the slums. The people who had left the village for work in the city had described it as a glamorous place but where they lived was place far from glamorous, where there were long queues at the communal tap, thick smoke clouds from coal braziers in the yards, dirty yards, one room for a large family to sleep in, leaking iron roofs, and many other grim living conditions.

The marrow of the story, however, is the hideous face of apartheid and the lives of black people during that time through his lens, as a boy, throughout his growing up and as a man. The many characters in the book each give a picture of the various struggles of black people during those times, the violence, and the poverty, the hard work that didn’t have much reward, the sacrifices and most of all the fear of the white man. Mphahlele details his fears, his anxieties, and anger towards the system and the way white people had set it for their sole benefit.

There are children rummaging backyards for food, police officers who didn’t think twice when it came to violence towards young and old, the mothers who worked so hard washing clothes for white people and looking after their needs to make little money that went into the education of their children, and the hierarchy of who was better off than the other amongst blacks, Chinese, Coloureds and Indians, all under the whites. He also takes us through his literary journey and activism.

As a black South African, I was frustrated because of the familiarity of the events he shares, but I couldn’t stop reading it because even through the horrors and setbacks there is something encouraging about the way he kept on going. And it’s not just him but how Blacks at the time fought through those hard times, and still are.

The Social and Political Tensions in South Africa, in ‘Disgrace’ by JM Coetzee

A look into post-apartheid South Africa.

The South African Flag

Fifty-two-year-old David Lurie has an affair with one of his university students, jeopardising his reputation and his job. He leaves Cape Town to stay with his daughter on a farm in the Eastern Cape. His stay turns out to be longer than he had planned and things are hurled into chaos when there’s a violent attack on the farm and father and daughter are left wounded in many ways.

Disgrace is set in post-apartheid South Africa and shows a shift in power among the races, and it explores these social and political tensions through compelling storytelling. The protagonist, David, illustrates this shift in status. He goes from being this snobbish university professor in the city to a peasant.

Violence is also woven into the story and plays an important role in setting the direction in which the story goes. It is also shown in its different forms, not just the assault which takes place on the farm but also with his affair with a young student as well as the way he justifies it as desire.

South African history and cultural interactions are adequately portrayed, and you love and hate the characters, and go on a rollercoaster of feeling towards them. It is interesting and broadens your understanding of some of the crucial bits of South Africa.

Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee

Exploring Education and Corruption in Chinua Achebe’s ‘No Longer at Ease’.

No Longer at Ease is the second book in Achebe’s trilogy, the first being Things Fall Apart, and the third, Arrow of God.

Obi Okonkwo returns to Nigeria from Britain after completing his English degree, for a job in the civil service. Despite the salary he’s paid and other benefits, he soon starts experiencing economic hardships. He needs to make monthly payments back for his scholarship, send money home, and his own living expenses. Initially, Obi strongly refuses to be a part of the corruption that runs through the system but with the financial hole he’s sinking into, how long can he reject the bribes?

Achebe takes us through the course of corruption in Nigeria, and how the idealism of youth to change a broken system can easily be destroyed by so many surrounding circumstances. The corruption is shown here at all kinds of levels; the white man, the police, taxi drivers, ministers, doctors, and many others.

Another important theme that largely occurs in the story is that of the high expectations of certain societies on the educated, new professionals who’ve just started making money. Obi has just returned from England, with his prestigious education and his civil service job which to them means a river of money. He’s also the first to go study abroad in his village and was paid for from the pockets of people back home who took from the little they had to put together the scholarship. Expectations are high, and so is the “black tax.”

No Longer at Ease is a good work of social and political commentary. Chinua Achebe has written work that looks deeply into the structure of corruption, education, and politics not only in Nigeria but throughout Africa. It is also interesting how the novel ties in with the other ones. I have only read Things Fall Apart, and although brief, the link between the two is skilfully revealed. It is enjoyable, it can drag at times but eventually as the events unfold it becomes more interesting. Personally, between the two I’ve read, Things Fall Apart is the best.