Their attention was disturbed by the slight commotion in the main house at the other end of the swimming pool. Through the sliding glass doors into the main sitting room, there were people abuzz with excitement. The mood was festive—a celebration. The television volume could be faintly heard as an animated SABC reporter appeared on screen standing outside the prison gates with a throng of people chanting for their hero—Madiba!
A cardboard placard reading “Tata Foreva!” flashed across the screen blocking the reporter who remained poised.
Suddenly, the heaviness slowly crept back in Nelson’s shoulders—his frame, which at once felt indestructible, returned to a septuagenarian frailty as his spine arched slightly outwards.
Winnie pulled away, looking in the direction of the swimming pool. “I’m sorry Nelson!” she said with the air of someone seeking absolution. “The people are waiting!” She lightly patted her afro, disheveled by their inopportune show of intimacy.
“No. I am sorry,” he retorted as he walked to her. He raised his hands to hold her, but lowered them on second thought.
“It was always about the struggle. I left you and the children alone.” He paused as he put his hands in his pockets.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” she said between muffled sniffles.
“I am the one to blame, Nomzano!”
Winnie turned sharply around, with ballerina precision, with scorn in her eyes.
“Don’t apologize as if what you did was for nothing, Nelson. It’s what had to be done. The struggle is bigger than me—bigger than our happiness!”
“Nothing should be bigger than our happiness! Not even the struggle!”
“Don’t say that….”
“It’s true! Do you think it was the struggle that kept me alive? Huh!? You think it was pride, anger or the ANC?” His lips quivered as he clenched his fists, struggling to find the words that never came.
“Nelson!” she shrieked, purging the conversation into a cathartic silence. She looked around to see if they had drawn any attention. Satisfied, she turned to Nelson.
“But this is not what I wanted for us,” Nelson whispered. “This is not what I wanted.”
“Then why did you do it?” she asked, as her pink-rimmed eyes widened and her nostrils flared out, making her face spiritedly menacing. “Why?!”
—from Ta O’reva by Muthi Nhlema
Ta O’reva is a complex alternative history about travel between realities. Only gradually it becomes clear that Muthi Nhlema (pronounced something like “Moot-hee Schlema”) has imagined a different and kinder fate for Nelson Mandela. He stays married to Winnie, gives up the struggle after being released from prison, and has a long retirement. In the West, we have come to think of Winnie as some kind of monster—here, the portrait is more nuanced. Among the novella’s more notable moments are Nelson Mandela getting a phone call from himself; and when we, the readers, realize that the man Graca is married to in 2014 is not Mandela—someone else has become Father of the Nation.
The novella was partly written during the Imagine Africa 500 Workshop, though not published in the anthology. Muthi Nhlema did not have an entirely pleasant experience at the workshop.
“I was one of the ten Malawians who made it to the workshop. I told Billy Kahora (the editor) that the two days were some of the worst of my life. I was one of the oldest people there. I realised I was a terrible writer and I really needed to do a lot of work. My mentor was Jackee Batanda and she said what I wrote was very cinematic. That probably comes from me being a stage actor, everything has to be visual and I hope that comes across to people who read some of my stuff.”
“Ekari (Mbvundula), one of my writing buddies and fellow sci-fi fan, would tell me that there was not enough technology in my story, but, for me anyways, science fiction isn’t just about aesthetic, but function. It’s not about having aliens and flying saucers. That’s cool, but there has to be a function to why I’m using it. The sci-fi pieces I have enjoyed always had something to say about the human condition. With Ta O’reva for example, the idea of Mandela being alive after five hundred years was functional, there was something I was trying to say.
“Realism does dominates local writing, but speculative fiction isn’t new here, people have been writing speculative fiction for ages and one of my first spec fic stories was called ‘The Flying Saucer’ by Dede Kamkondo. I read it in 1991, I think. It was probably published in the ‘80s and it was about a bunch of cannibal aliens that land on Earth and start eating people. I was eleven when I read it and it gave me nightmares for years! It was the first Malawian spec fic book I read and I couldn’t find any after it.”
Muthi used to be an actor, and he talked ebulliently to me for two hours, at first at the swimming pool of a local deluxe hotel with great wifi, then at a small restaurant with a garden that was part of a complex where he worked for the British Council. Our conversation ranged over why the British Council seems to be in retreat, issues with the Caine Prize, and the Malawian economy. Transcribed, his interview sounds dark—in person he speaks with a bantering jollity that seems mostly to be taking the mickey out of Muthi himself.
Muthi: “Ta O’reva was a six- to seven-month ordeal because there were too many ideas—Mandela becoming a commodity in the future that people could buy parts of was one idea—I wanted to deal with him being a clone that could be purchased. But I needed to narrow it down and at the core of Ta O’reva was a kind of mantra that keeps on coming through the story: he (Mandela) felt he didn’t do enough. His role in the fight against apartheid created a dependency on him.”
Muthi already had had the idea for Ta O’reva when he first met Shadreck Chikoti.
Muthi: “Shadreck and I started talking around the time Mandela was ill, he was in and out of the hospital a lot. What I found disturbing was this idea that people wanted him to live forever. I recall one social media post that said ‘Gone too soon’ referring to Mandela’s passing and I thought ‘Really! Do you mean that?’
“The idea for the story came to me during an illness. I always have psychedelic dreams when I fall ill, and this time, sitting on the pot during a bad case of diarrhoea, a thought came to me: what if Mandela is still alive five hundred years from now? The idea stuck! There were several variations like people buying their own personal commoditized Mandela or people could modify their offspring genetically to be like Mandela.”
But this ambitious and wide-ranging novella gets even stranger than that. A nameless character is sent back in time to our era.
Muthi: “The time traveller is from man’s future. He’s man’s first attempt at trying to send a man back into the past to change everything. Africans have succeeded creating a time machine and send a man back in time, but he disappears and they can’t get him back. They have no idea where he has gone. It turns out he has become one with time itself absorbing him, time becoming conscious. Time, in my story, is obdurate and it doesn’t want to be changed. So Time, personified in the time traveller, is trying to stop any attempts to change time.
“There are certain things Time will allow you to change because they are inconsequential and there are other things Time won’t allow you to change, like killing Mugabe or changing a major event. If you do succeed, though, Time will somehow mould itself to allow that major event to occur, somehow.
“I am a huge fan of time travel. Multiple timelines. Paradoxes. Alternate universes. I just eat it up! But it took seven months trying to figure out the universe of Ta O’reva.
“The central event in the story is a black kid, Lindani, killing an Afrikaner, Bern van Tonder, which starts a race war. In the midst of the war, a bio agent is released that starts a plague. I don’t say who did it, whether black or white South Africans, but someone did it.
“Whilst researching the legacy of apartheid, I came across the term ‘white genocide’ in videos, blog posts. One stat that caught my attention was that one Afrikaner farmer is killed every thirty-six hours. I didn’t believe it at first, but gradually I started considering my own prejudices. I would be lying if I said part of me didn’t think they (Afrikaners) had it coming. But part of me thought ‘but is that morally right?’ The character of Bern van Tonder (in Ta O’reva) was modelled on an actual Afrikaner farmer I watched being interviewed on Russian TV. He said he could solve white genocide by putting all the black people in a stadium then bomb it. It was chilling.
“The deeper I got into this stuff the more I realised that writing an African version of Back to the Future would be missing the point. That’s why I wanted the story to be more ‘respectful,’ for lack of a better word. Very few of us could do what Mandela did; it cost him thirty years of his life. Making a gimmick of him felt wrong to me.
“After that point, the story took on a life of its own. I wanted it to be ten thousand words but every time I wrote it, it kept growing and going all kinds of directions. At some point I was humbled by the size of it and wanted to end it somehow. Hagai Magai (another local SFF writer) read it and said ‘I could actually feel you getting tired.’ And he was right, I did get tired.”
“I now understand something Shafinaaz Hassim, a writer from South Africa, said during a workshop: the story is birthed through you and your job is just to do the best you can to give it the shape that is needed; as a writer you should be humbled, terrified by this responsibility. Which is similar to something Stephen King also said: ‘Of all the emotions you bring to the blank page, do not be indifferent, be terrified, be happy, but never be indifferent.’"
Ta O’reva was eventually published via the website Freeeditorial.com. It was part of an international competition in which he took third place. The prize was based on the number of downloads. Muthi devoted six months of his life to driving traffic to the site, even making YouTube videos. He did well partly by mobilizing Malawians living abroad and local personalities with a strong social media following. He took third place, with the second and first being taken by American writers, one of them a published author.
Besides Ta O’reva, Muthi has written other shorter SFF stories, including one for the Imagine Africa 500 anthology, edited by Billy Kahora.
Muthi: “I originally wanted Ta O’reva to feature in the anthology, or at least an excerpt, but the story was too large to cut to 3,500 words. So I wrote something else entirely.”
The story that did finally make the anthology, “One Wit’ this Place,” is written as if from the future, a quiet piece about a people dying out from severe climate change. It was not the usual glittering dream of a futuristic pan-Africa, and the feedback it got in the workshop was, as he puts it, “extremely lukewarm.” I think ill-advisedly he stuck an action-oriented wargame-like prologue on the front, giving the story two openings. Nevertheless it told a quietly emotional story about people—striking enough to open Imagine Africa 500 as whole.
Whenever she dreamed, it was always the same dream. It was always the day before he left for the war. They were together on the white shores of Neo-Dar before the floods came. They were standing in their favourite spot, his arms wrapped around her waist, her back against the wall of his torso, facing the waters of Oce that glistened with frolicking shards of sunlight. The conversation was always the same. She would ask why he had to go; he would say he had to fight for a cause; she would plead with him not to go and fight, though she knew it was pointless. He was a stubborn man. Then he would whisper in her ear, an assuring soothing whisper, and say “I dey come back t’you. Promise you dey wait fa me?”
—“One Wit’ This Place,” Imagine Africa 500.
Muthi: “Malawi has been going through catastrophic floods and drought. They devastated most of the country. They were sudden and traumatic. So it felt natural to write about climate change. I wrote the story at a time when I was dealing with being a father. Reading the story now, I see that paternal anxiety seeping through the pages through the mother’s concern for the child being born in a dark, dark world.
“I also wanted to depict the future without deferring to technology so I decided to play with language, experimenting with bits and pieces of pidgin. At one point, I wanted the whole story to be in this new language, but I got feedback that it would make the story complicated. In the end I abbreviated it, kept it simple.”
Muthi was for many years an actor in Malawi. He remembers playing Jesus Christ in a play that caused a scandal because during the crucifixion scene people could see his hairless chest. Though he has a degree in Civil Engineering, he’s never used it. After acting, he went to work for the British Council, then the water NGO Water for People. He’s now working as a consultant for the University of Strathclyde.
His first published story was a realistic drama.
Muthi: “‘Journey of Restoration’ was an attempt to capture life under a dictatorial regime. I have a bit of experience as my father is quite outspoken and got himself arrested for two years under the Banda regime. We lost everything and moved into a poorer area, had to start life all over again.
“I wanted to write about it as a way of finding forgiveness and moving on. So, I wrote about two people meeting on a bus who have a shared past from that period.
“It was published online at malawi-write.org but it has since been taken down. The site was self-funded by Stanley Kenani (a senior, much-respected Malawian writer). He put out a call for manuscripts and I was one of only two out of several hundred that he thought was worth putting up. He took time to edit it before putting it up and Shadreck found it on there, and that was how I met him.
“I’m currently researching for two stories. I’m working on a fantasy about a mouse and a forest of magical baobabs, which came to me during a bout of psychedelic malaria. And the other about youth unemployment—I feel young people are despondent and disappointed about what the older generation has left for them and I want to write about that.
“You find a lot of young people being drawn to that rhetoric of revolution that the system should come down, give society the finger and start all over again. They are drawn to that because there are no alternatives. They know that the dream of brick fence, big house, wife, car, and kids won’t happen for them. They stay home with their parents while old-timers and cronies get the jobs. Another side to this is the expat phenomenon. There are white experts here who are doing all they can to stay because if they go home they probably won’t have it as good back there. I don’t blame them, we all have to survive, but they end up taking up the good opportunities and this is creating a quiet resentment amongst Malawians. That’s enough! You’re making me overthink the story!”
After this interview, Ta O’reva was shortlisted for the Nommo Awards for speculative fiction by an African, novella category.