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I have many names. My mother calls me ‘Nwelezelanga’ because of my golden hair. Some call me ‘Mholope’ because of my fair, almost-ginger skin. One wise old woman of the tribe calls me ‘Mehlomadala’ because of my big round eyes that reflect oceans of untold stories. The village girls who like to taunt me just call me ‘that albino girl’.

— The first paragraph of Nwelezelanga, The Star Child.

Unathi Magubeni stands out. In a country where most men wear Western clothing, he walks through East London airport barefoot in a long kanga. Walking with him reminds me of being in London in 1972 and travelling with a transvestite on the tube—there was that same sense of steeling yourself against other people’s eyes.

Unathi is a working sangoma or healer/spiritual guide now based in Lusikisiki, Eastern Cape, in the former Transkei (there is a lovely Google Earth drive through Lusikisiki). His journey has taken him from the townships to Cape Town’s corporate world and then to the three-year process of becoming a sangoma.

His novella Nwelezalanga was long-listed for the then Etisalat Prize (now the 9ja Prize) for best first book by an African—a very prestigious award. It is a magical novella in three parts drawing on his experience and knowledge.

East London airport was tiny, crowded, and noisy—no interview would be possible there. We decided to go into town. But the taxis for whatever reason were eye-poppingly expensive or already reserved. So we decided to walk from the airport to catch a local. Fortunately an informal cab slowed down for us on the road and gave us an acceptable price. It started to rain.

Twenty-three years after apartheid, the city still appears to be divided racially, rundown but reasonably prosperous, though online sites show a resort town with leafy communities and sunny beaches. Through the rain under thick cloud, it was a dreary yellow-grey-green.

East London is South Africa’s only river port, though sanctions during apartheid damaged the shipping industry. German cars are made there and exported all over Africa and to Brazil.

The coelacanth, a fish that was thought to be extinct from prehistoric times, was discovered living in one of East London’s rivers.

I am reminded of Nikhil Singh’s South Africa. Dinosaurs stalk Taty Went West. Prehistoric creatures swim the rivers of Unathi’s hometown.

In the 1960s the township of Mdantsane was created for black populations, fifteen kilometres from the centre of East London. The township is the second-biggest after Soweto in Johannesburg.

The restaurant the driver found for us was large, overlooking the sea. The chairs had gold upholstery, but otherwise looked a bit rundown. For some reason, as soon as we sat down, the staff turned on the radio and sat very noisy people all around us.

This is one of the most fascinating interviews in this series and one of the hardest to transcribe. Unathi speaks with beautifully clear consonants—but in a low, gentle, and private voice. He didn’t like holding up the recorder as a microphone. The result is a clattering, music-and-laughter-filled recording that nearly drowns him out. So hearing and typing all of this was hard work, but worth it.

We establish that he is an isiXhosa speaker (though he comes from the Mpondo people). I start to ask about his book, but he at once takes control. I don’t have to ask many questions after that. Unathi has a story to tell. Or rather, many stories. To give a sense of structure, this is the only interview so far in the series to have subheadings.

Unathi: “I will say from the beginning that I was introduced to literature very late.

“Growing up, I wasn’t privy to literature. The reading I was doing was forced reading of school textbooks. I had a weird relationship with school and I didn’t read the textbooks that much either. I finished Matric without ever reading a novel. The only thing I would read was sometimes an article in a magazine, but a book for leisure, no.

“I grew up here (near East London, Eastern Cape) in Mdantsane. I went to Quleni Lower Primary, Langelitsha Higher Primary, and Qaqamba High School.

“I matriculated in 1999 and went to Cape Town to study at the Cape Technikon, now called the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. I was to study Management Technology. It was my first time being away from home so I was kind of lonely and homesick. I missed my family and my significant other; my first inspired writing was actually writing letters to them. But the family wouldn’t write back. (Laughs). It was my first experience of writing with no one telling me what to write; I was just communicating my innermost feelings.”

The poetry group and first publication

“In the second year of study, a friend invited me to a poetry session called Off the Wall at Off Moroka in the Cape Town. I think they still exist and are now based in Observatory at a venue called Touch of Madness.

“I had never been to a poetry session before the invite. I went there and when I was listening, I realized that the people were talking about things that I was mulling over. I felt so at home. I felt comfortable among the artists and the misfits. I was inspired on that first day and I went home and wrote my first poem.

“On the following Monday I went to share it and attended every poetry session. The creativity was coming through as there was a lot of stuff I wanted to talk about.

“Growing up, I had been a loner. What caused me to be a loner was I was sensing something beyond that life. My friends were not intrigued by it but it was on my mind and I thought about it a lot. Now I had an opportunity to express it through writing.

“I was the youngest member of this poetry club and I had a big support system from the older folks. The people were responding to my being earnest. Everyone would clap and that encouraged me to write more.

“During the second year of attending the poetry session, I wrote a short story when I was at home on holiday. When I told my mother and my older sister, ‘This is a short story that I wrote in the evening,’ they didn’t believe me. They read it and were more convinced that I didn’t write the story and I kept telling them, ‘I wrote this yesterday!’ (Laughs.)

“A gentleman who ran the poetry club, Hugh Hodge, said, ‘You know what? You can publish your work.’

“Because of my ignorance, I didn’t think that there was such a possibility. So we collated the poems and the short story and we self-published in 2003. The book was called Food for Thought. You can find it in the National. I was surprised to learn that it is also available at the National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown.

“I printed about two hundred copies and sold them at the poetry club and they sold out. I was still a student in the second year and I thought, ‘Gee you can make money doing this. This is something I love doing and it comes naturally.’

“I asked Hugh, and he said that there was no money in writing, that people have to work in academia or have two jobs. Other people were telling me the same thing—‘Just finish your studies and go work.’”

The corporate life

“I listened and went to work for Old Mutual in 2004, an insurance company, one of the oldest and biggest ones. Their head office is in Cape Town, Pinelands. I worked in their Project Office. I was young. I was the only black person. (Laughs). My family was proud.

“The very first day I started working there, I sold my book to managers and staff. So people knew me as this writer who is coming to work there.

“But my creative writing got killed as I started to assimilate in this new world. I was now writing reports, business cases. I wasn’t writing for myself anymore. I didn’t feel whole, something was missing. I was only reading biographies of people like Richard Branson and business books from the likes of Robert Kiyosaki. I was being brainwashed into this new life. I saw myself as a corporate person. I forgot about creative writing. (Laughs). I forgot about poetry.

“Years went by. My spirit wanted freedom. I interpreted this feeling as maybe being tired after three years working for Old Mutual. So I thought being my own boss would give me this freedom my heart was yearning for. I researched entrepreneurial ventures that I could start. I managed to convince friends of mine to write down their ideas for a project we could do, develop a business case and we‘d choose one idea that was more profitable than the others and get behind it.

“One project was chosen. It wasn’t mine. It was a business in telecommunications. We kitted offices with Internet and had a suite of software and hardware office solutions. We’d started operating late 2007.

“But the anxiety I felt while I was working for Old Mutual was still there; I found refuge on a mountain. I started spending time on the mountaintop of Table Mountain in an unconscious effort to untangle the riddles in my heart.

“One time, when I was on top of the mountain, there was fog, and I couldn’t go down. So I had to sleep on the mountain. Something happened that night, I felt things I couldn’t explain; I was alive, scared, cold. My body was alive, I only managed to come down at the break of dawn the following day.

“I started having a double life of going to work then spending time on the mountain. I would go to work during the week but on Friday, I would go to the mountain and not come back until Sunday. I would sleep on the mountain purposely. I was still feeling the anxiety but I wasn’t sure what it was. I started going up the mountain every weekday after work, feeling a pull of energy I couldn’t refuse.

“In 2009 things got to a point that I was feeling unhappy and depressed, and I started to ask myself questions about the purpose I’m supposed to serve. What is it that I want to do in this life? The only thing that came naturally to me, though it came very late, was writing. I had forgotten about it. Writing! Like other people want to be doctors or pilots. I thought, I must do this thing.

“Then in October 2009 I wrote a paragraph of my first manuscript called Shades of Black. I showed a friend and said, ‘What you think?’ and she said, ‘Carry on.’ That was enough for me.”

The journey

“December 2009 comes, and the business closes (for the holidays) and I come back home as usual to East London. I was supposed to go back to Cape Town in January 2010 but when the time came, something inside said no. I couldn’t go back to Cape Town.

“I cut all my clothes and left two pairs of pants, two T-shirts, and a jacket and I was walking barefoot. My friends ran away from me. They didn’t want to spend time with me because of the change that was happening. They didn’t want to connect with me.

A continuity of tradition? Drawing from the early nineteenth century by Andrew Geddes Bain of the son of Mpondo leader.

“People thought that I was losing my marbles. I didn’t understand why people were saying this. I thought that this was just a choice. It was a process of cleansing, being reborn, just following instinct and being comfortable with not knowing what is happening.

“Relatives here were concerned. They would gossip and say that something is wrong with me. They would use words like ‘Oh shame, he had things going for him. Oh shame, oh shame.’

“I told my mother I’m not going back to Cape Town. I’m going to Transkei. My parents come from there. It was work that made them settle here. My mother comes from Lusikisiki and my father comes from Flagstaff.

“They (his family) are Mpondo people. We are not a big group as a people. Our dialect is not accommodated in the official languages of South Africa. We got absorbed by other languages in the Nguni group. Mpondo kids are taught isiXhosa at school.”

At this point, Unathi remembers something and breaks his story.

The influence of K. Sello Duiker

Unathi: “Something I left out that is very important, Geoff.

K. Sello Duiker

“In 2007 I was visiting a friend, I picked this book. It was The Quiet Violence of Dreams by K. Sello Duiker. Usually he puts the K. but it stands for his African name Kabelo.

“This is the book that inspires me, that reminds about writing. I read it three or four times. I read it, finished it, read it, finished it. I was blown away. Here’s a guy opens himself up like his heart, he walks with it; it’s on the floor how he expresses himself. It is very very wonderful. It became part of me, I said I can do something like this.

“When I started to do research about him, I found out this guy had passed on in 2005 at thirty and he had written three books. The Quiet Violence of Dreams was actually his first manuscript but it was the second one that was published first, 13 Cents. That manuscript won the Commonwealth Fiction Prize (Africa region). The third one was called Hidden Star.

“Like me—Nwelezelanga was the second manuscript I wrote, but the first one published. “

Duiker was a hard-hitting and controversial novelist. 13 Cents is about a street kid who is exploited as a rent boy, and raped as a way of controlling him. The Quiet Violence of Dreams is also about a gay sex worker.

Unathi Magubeni and Zakes Mda (Photo courtesy UM)

Unathi: “There was a lot of darkness in himself and you will understand why when you read that book. He was in an asylum. He was breaking boundaries even in the use of the language. Of all the writers I know in South Africa post 1994, Duiker was that guy holding the torch. Nobody comes close in terms of passion, in terms of letting go, in his generation. No one comes close. Zakes Mda (author of The Whale Caller) said that if he had lived Duiker would surpass him.

“But I thought since he is gone, I can take up the torch, at the very least be on a par in terms of delivery, in terms of the energy within the work. I didn’t want my work to be below this hero of mine. My intention was to take the torch from him and move it forward.”

At that point in the interview our food comes. The extent of Duiker’s influence can be seen in the opening of Nwelezelanga, which reads in part as an homage to Duiker.

Unathi picks up the thread of how he finally left the corporate life and moved to the Transkei.

Becoming a sangoma

“In 2010 I went to the former Transkei. I took a taxi to Port St Johns but then got out in the middle of nowhere, ten kilometres before reaching my destination. I just started walking and walking, along the Umzivubu River. I could feel the ocean calling me. The wild coast was alive. I slept there for two days. I had my pen and paper but I wasn’t writing anything at that time, but this movement was to help me write and finish the manuscript (Shades of Black).

“Three days later I was hungry and I needed to go back to where people were. I had seen a curio shop when I was travelling, so I thought, ‘Let me go to the shop and find work.’ I didn’t have money. Just looking around, and the lady there asked me ‘Oh, are you an artist?’

“‘Yes, I am, but not this kind of artist. I write.’

“We are talking, talking, and then she tells me she’s wanted to go to Durban to collect more curios but she has no one to mind the shop. ‘Would you mind?’ That’s how I got my first job and a place to stay. I needed that.

“I slept inside the curio store and worked for two months in the shop. The ocean was constantly calling me. One time when I went to the Oceanside, I saw a backpacker (hostel); I went in and asked for a job and they offered me one as a barman. (Laughs).

“I am meeting new people I’ve never seen before in my life, and I’m staying in people’s homes, two weeks here, three weeks there, and be a member of that family and work and then move on to another village. So I’m moving around.

“I phoned friends of mine in Cape Town, business partners, and told them that I was not coming back, I’m resigning and could they please assist me in selling the stuff in my flat? So I could settle my debts and close that chapter with Cape Town.”

The next hour was the most fascinating part of the interview. Unathi talked a lot about how meeting someone he had seen in a dream confirmed he had a vocation as a sangoma, and of the three-year process that followed. The ancestors wanted the process to involve all of his family, as a process of healing, and there were many efforts to bring his family together for it. He told a story of the moment he left Western clothing for traditional dress.

After reading the transcript, however, he wrote what he wanted to say about the process, and that text is included in After this interview, in the subheading Becoming a sangoma.

 Back to being a writer

“In 2013, it was finished. People went home and I was officially dressed as you see me now, with these beads with everything you see now. I had left this world in 2009. In 2011 I was even more secluded. I wasn’t allowed to move so I was in the homestead for nearly three years.

“In January 2014 I come back to East London. And the thing I wanted to do was write. And I thought you know, I would write about the journey of a trainee sangoma. What we call ukuthwasa. It’s about opening up, an opening up like in spring, the blossom opens. The flower was like this and now opens up. (Gestures blooming). What was within that was hiding … you were not acknowledging your full potential, the power to perceive, you know.

“So that was the process. When I come back home I started writing in January. But I had already written the paragraph, the paragraph I had written when I was a trainee sangoma.

“I was sleeping. And you know when you are sleeping and you have an urge to wake up, maybe you have a meeting at six o clock. You set your alarm for six. In your dream state you feel an urge to wake up so Wwwwhmmm (Gestures waking up) and when you look at your watch it is five to six. Oh, OK, it is already time to wake up.

“From your dream state, you are called back and you can even feel it consciously, being pulled. The same thing happened—Whhhmmm—but what was calling me was that first paragraph, for me to write it… the one that goes ‘I have many names my mother called me Nwelezelanga.’

“So Whhhmmm. The first paragraph. But I couldn’t write further because I was going on another journey on a different train altogether.

“So I didn’t continue with the paragraph until six months later in 2014. Then I wrote and finished the first chapter, and I posted it on Facebook. People paid attention to it. (Laughs). But it didn’t pay me any money. I showed it to friends and got some response, ‘Hey there’s something there.’ So I went back to Facebook and wrote a second chapter, still in 2014. And shared it with a focus group of about ten people. And people said they liked it, and then I showed them the third chapter, the last one, I felt I was I was onto something here.

“I was very thankful for this first paragraph. It was a blessing, an inspiration. With this paragraph I thought, I can go anywhere, I can go beyond the world.”

Publishing Nwelezelanga

“So I finished the same year (2014), October or November. I had to finish in the same year, I had to. Because it was forcing its way out. Wanting to get it out.

“There’s’ a gentleman call Siphiwo Mahala. He’s Head of Books and Publishing in the national Department of Arts and Culture.

“Siphiwo also a writer. He has published a novel and a short story collection. He was one person … remember when I was trying to publish Shades of Black and no one was listening, no one was giving me feedback, ‘Please just tell me what’s wrong with it?’ No one.

“In the email I would write that I was inspired by K. Sello Duiker and I would like to take the torch from him and move it forward and people would say, ‘How dare you?’

“Siphiwo said, ‘Give me the manuscript,’ and he read it and what did he do next? He flew down and met me at Hemingways (an East London hotel) to give me feedback on it. Ta ta ta … who was that bad guy? And then he edited it, like an editor would do, common sense stuff. It was huge to me, this thing that I was looking for, someone to give me feedback, he was willing to do and he wasn’t intimidated by me saying I want to take up the torch from this great writer who is reckoned the best post-1994.

Siphiwo Mahala and Unathi Magubeni (Photo courtesy of UM)

“So we finish editing. He says Shades of Black would be a breakthrough, but it got no attention in different spaces. So I said ‘I’m letting go of that one.’ But our relationship stems from that first book, the initial one.

“I showed Siphiwo one, two, three of Nwelezelanga. Then I finish in October and I give it to him again. He’s the only one who has the full manuscript of Nwelezelanga. What he does? Flies down to East London. We don’t meet at Hemingways this time, but in my suburb, a walking distance from my home, like three hundred metres. We meet at a McDonald’s there.”

At first Unathi submitted the novella to Kwela, the company who had published K. Sello Duiker. The book ended up being published by BlackBird Books, an imprint of Jacana. How BlackBird came into being is in itself an important part of South African literary history.

Unathi: “The publisher who ended up publishing it (BlackBird) is an imprint of Jacana and it publishes works by blacks. It came into being because of what Thando Mgqolozana did.

“So I sent it to the Ubantu people and then they (makes a popping sound). I don’t know if you know the story of Thando Mgqolozana and the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

“He had a go at them (the overwhelmingly white attendees). He’s doing his own festival called Ubantu Festival. He’s a groundbreaker. Many people, because of his action, have benefited because that needed to happen, but now he’s seen as a bad guy for saying the things he was saying. So this will be the first one.

“BlackBird was a response to what he did. When Thando did that—and I think there was a follow-up conversation in Joburg hosted by Jacana. And then Thabiso Mahlape, founder of BlackBird  Books, announced, ‘This is what we are going to do.’ It was a response to this oppression (of black writers). Publishers like to hide and say, ‘Publishing is subjective.’ But no! Subjective to a level that is discriminative.”

Unathi then compared the publishing industry in South Africa to the wine industry. At first the wine industry made little effort to sell to black South Africans, but then began through wine festivals in black townships, to open up new markets. For a moment, Unathi sounds like the business executive he once was. He compares publishing unfavourably to the wine industry.

Unathi: “Penetrating these spaces that the product was not associated with previously. But publishing doesn’t want to go outside the five percent of the market that they serve. “

Healing through fiction

Unathi: “There is a purpose behind this book. Before I left this world I had seen a lot of disharmony; I had seen a lot of negativity.

“If you look for example in print media, if you look at motion pictures and television, if you look at radio, disharmony is amplified. There can be an accident here and it will be on the five o’clock news, the six o’clock news. It will be amplified.

“If an individual is subjecting themselves to this eighty per cent of time—I haven’t done scientific research on this, but it’s a high percent. But if 80 percent of your input is disharmony, then the person would have disharmony inside, would have anxiety inside, would have bipolar tendencies inside. That would be their worldview, their consciousness. The whole society now is caught up in that same paradigm.

“So what I wanted to do is create a work of art that is harmonious, that is concerned with ascension energies. When a reader reads it, they feel at peace. They feel round. I wanted to create a work that is round. And I needed this work to be put on a mainstream focus for these harmony messages.

“So this book I couldn’t self-publish it; I couldn’t take a small publisher. I needed a big publisher to give me access to bookshops, to mainstream focus so that the message in the book that speaks of harmony and ascension is in that focus.

“We wanted to heal the people. Massage their heart. Make it at peace. Make it calm. Calm the waters. Show the possibilities of the spirit.

“I was invited to UCT (University of Cape Town) to speak. It was ten o’clock in the evening, to a large group of people. I had to speak there and the message was clear: As we passionately partake in the revolutionary without, we should also seek spiritual renaissance within. As we seek harmony without, we should also seek harmony within. The revolution without will crumble if the house within is unstable.

“What I do, Geoff, is I work with people. I use herbs to detoxify. For example I spent a month in Cape Town and when I came back, I steamed myself with herbs to detoxify. This feeds the mind-body balance, where you start with the body.

“Once you detoxify the body, the body’s open to receive these messages that are outside the five-sensory reality.

“In 2014 when I came out (of training) I realized that I cannot grind up enough herbs to heal all of South Africa. I cannot steam South Africa. I use them on an individual basis. At the most I work with families. When I go to a family, I cleanse the homestead, cleanse the individual within the homestead. But that is very tiring work.

“I needed to take that medicine and transform it in a way that will reach as many people as possible. This is the medicine, Geoff. So it’s no different from that thing that I grind up but it enables it to reach the many homes. Reading is an individual thing, a personal thing, a healer in the reader.”

I tell Unathi that I found Nwelezelanga to be a very tense book. From birth people want Nwelezelanga dead, and there are the Budi, people who use spiritual powers to do evil.

What is the word for witch?

Unathi: “If you look at Book Two, the midwife uses dark magic for personal gain, for ego, for self only. What we try to show in Book One is how people of light use magic—and that’s what a sangoma does—you use magic for the ascension of the community as a whole. It is not about self. The ‘I’ dies.”

I mention that Dilman Dila in the reading group asked if there was a different word for people who do harm.

“But when we talk about witches, the ‘I’ is alive, the ego is staunch. It tends to serve dark spaces because it’s all about the ‘me,’ manipulating things to serve the ‘me.’ Witch is an English word. The word in isiXhosa is Mthakathi.”

We go back to talking about the impact of the book.

Unathi: “What this book has contributed is to burst these assumptions held by people in high esteem that fiction doesn’t sell in South Africa or black people don’t read.

“This book is being read by people who don’t usually read (Laughs) but they want to read this one and they relate to it. If you look at its architecture and the way it’s told, I use the characteristics of oral storytelling. I use heightened pitch to try to hold the reader’s attention all the time; handle the reader’s heart with care, almost begging for attention; be round around the edges and put a candle at the end to give hope.”

He talks how the book has surprised many people, and a talk he gave at the Book Lounge at the Open Book festival soon after publication. The publisher talked about how it had outperformed expectation.

“My mother’s group are not readers of novels, but when my mother gave it to them they went, ‘Wow,’ and it went from the next person to the next person.”

GR: “So your mother is proud of you now.”

Unathi: “Yeah. The journey didn’t make any sense to them, even to my sisters. Up until the moment she got the book at hand. Now she sees in my feed people posting stuff, and they are going for the third reprint. It’s breaking the boundaries.”

Why African science fiction is different

We start talking about genre, and traditional science fiction with its dreams of finding other Earths to settle, and immortality. We start talking about speculative fiction in Africa.

Unathi: “Our concepts of time are different. The Western model of time tends to project into the future, far into the future.

“Our time, the moment you are born the deeper you go into time, you go backwards. As you get older, you don’t go forward with time, you are going backward. You become an elder of the tribe, a grandfather. You are not looking there, (gestures to one place) sharing the future, there as in forwards. You are there. (Gestures to a different there). That person passes on. We remember them by libations. ‘I am drinking this water in honour of this person.’ Or we do certain rituals in honour of this person. And they go further into the land of myths. (Laughs). Back, back, back.

“It seems to be that if this is new science fiction, we are looking at time differently. You’re not going to find Africans projecting themselves forward when they write their science fiction.”

Which I think is as good a statement of why African science fiction so often seems also to be looking at the past as any.

At this point I remember that I need to take photographs, one close-up, another full length. It is still hammering with rain.

Unathi’s future

Unathi: “The journey for me is a spiritual journey and the more I dig into my spiritual self, automatically I become a better writer. But writing is just one form of expression; I will express myself in other ways to serve the same purpose. The journey is calling me deeper to magic, understanding deeper the physical and psychic healing capabilities of plants and share my being with other change agents and frequency holders.”

“So even now (Laughs) the reason that I am here (visiting East London) is to take care of Cape Town. My life is not here, it is in the heartland. I’m finishing this year. I will let the book do its own thing because I’ve given it power.

“I’m done with South Africa now. (Laughs). I’ve been all over South Africa, and I don’t think there was an author in South Africa this year who was working more than me. Cape Town now for a month, I did more than twenty readings, some days I would do two.

“The voices are calling me to kneel again, kneel with the heart and go deeper to the reservoir of being.”

Having just taken his photo (and having worked in publicity myself), I voice my fear that his book and his robe and his journey could so easily be turned into a shtick, commodified for publicity. Weirdly, the restaurant starts to play American country music.

Unathi: “I need to move away from it. Johannesburg is not good for me to stay long. I can see how people react to the work, almost like praise it. And once you hear it over and over, (Laughs) you start believing it.

“There are places I still need to go to inside. I still have dark places. I still have rooms I haven’t opened. I am being put into this position where I am supposed to be this goody-goody.

“For example I disappointed someone recently. And then on the other side people are like ‘Yay, your work, yay.’ (Mimes cheering and applause). I‘m like all people, you know. I deal with ups and downs, the highs and lows, and I have to express, you know, this other side, there is a fullness.

“As I was going to the airport today, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine saying that I need to leave this, my time is finished, I can’t go beyond this year being in this. But if I am called —Africa will call—if I am called beyond the shores I will go.”

We had talked for 160 minutes. The taxi was supposed to come back after two hours, but now finally a taxi had shown up for us with a different driver.

We had to stand up and pay in a hurry. The noisy people had gone, but an older woman had been sitting at the next table for the last half hour nursing a quiet cup of tea. As we stood up, she caught my eye and gave us both the most beautiful smile and slight downward nod.

The new taxi driver beeped and waved, and when we got in, he said he knew it was us. He’d been told: a white guy with a guy in kanga. I was going back to the airport, but Unathi was getting out halfway—either to go see his family or to catch the bus back towards Transkei. We said good-bye and waved, and Unathi walked off barefoot into the rain.

As we pulled away the taxi driver asked me, “What does his wife make of him?” I think I said something like “You’d have to ask him that yourself.” As we drove on in silence, I began to realize all the reasons why the driver might have asked that question. Most of them I didn’t like.

After this interview

This interview happened in 2016 and when Unathi saw the nearly eight-thousand-word transcript, he wrote a lot of extra material for it. He put a lot of work into these additions, though they weren’t part of the interview at the time. These are included here, including the written section on becoming a sangoma.

Unathi is hard at work on the next novel, which devotes individual sections to a paranoid king, a woman who rebels against the oppression of women, and a sage much sought after by kings.

On K. Sello Duiker’s influence

My first manuscript called Shades of Black was influenced by The Quiet Violence of Dreams in terms of the emotional feel-scape. I explored dark spaces inside me; I dealt with feelings that I was scared to engage. I became lighter afterwards; it was a process of growth and self-healing, and Sello K Duiker played a big part in this important phase of my life.

Other writing influences

In the later part of my training as a sangoma, a friend visited me for a week carrying two novels and a poetry anthology by Ben Okri. I didn’t have time to read and finish the books during his stay but Ben Okri had already inspired me greatly. I could feel that a part of K. Sello Duiker is influenced by him; however, I felt that Ben Okri drank upstream in purer waters.

He made me look at writing much deeper; be a visionary and talk with the times and times yet to come. One thing that melted my heart while reading Ben Okri’s works was the beauty in how he presented his story. I would read five or six pages of amazing beauty and I was in awe and swallowed in the moment.

I made a pledge to create beauty in my next writing project. Beauty doesn’t necessary mean pretty. Beauty is vast. Beauty has scars. Beauty is not static but has lingering possibilities. In my debut novel Nwelezelanga, The Star Child, I wanted to create a beautiful work of art that can be consumed easy by people who don’t normally read but also appreciated by the reading connoisseurs. I still study Ben Okri’s work and appreciate his vastness. He is a sage. He is inspirational.

I read “Indaba, My Children” by Credo Mutwa the third time in late autumn this year. I was much more mature and had bigger space inside me to fill myself with his writing spirit. He’s a deep well of knowledge. He’s a seer. He’s an excellent storyteller.

The one thing that stands out for me is that he is true to himself. He doesn’t conform in the process of bringing his message across. At times, he rips literary “norms” apart. His courage is as big as the highest mountains. He has influenced me to truly listen to the voice that tells me the story, let go and not be scared to go with it to spaces that might seem outside literary “norms” and project energy in the artwork to generations yet to come. He has encouraged me to tell stories that are authentic to our being and reflect our essence. There’s still so much to learn for me from this chosen one.

These are my heroes. Sello Duiker inspired me to write. Ben Okri inspired me to write beautifully. Credo Mutwa inspired to write outside literary norms. It is not necessary, though, to shrink in their light. One has to allow oneself permission to truly serve one’s purpose, live life passionately, and use writing as a healing response to current cultural norms.

Becoming a sangoma

I was still writing. The manuscript was growing. I met new people, mainly overseas tourists, but then again I didn’t stay for long. After two months I was on the road, staying in people’s homes, two weeks here, three weeks there, and be a member of that family and work, and then move on to another village when the feeling calls. I had surrendered to this thing I didn’t know. I got to experience Ubuntu; I was humbled by how people were open to a stranger.

The writing came in intervals of inspiration. The feeling of anxiety came back unannounced. I started to feel that my life was in danger. This voice that had been guiding me wanted me to drop everything and follow its guidance. I could smell danger if I don’t listen. It seemed that whatever was guiding me was becoming impatient with my wonderings. I prayed a lot; praying that nothing happens to me. I prayed and asked to be given time to finish the manuscript Shades of Black and I finally did in June, 2011.

I showed the manuscript to friends and they were impressed. I then went to Cape Town and Johannesburg to find a publisher, but publishers were not interested. I got dejected from the negative responses as that meant that the eighteen months I had invested in writing the manuscript amounted to nothing.

Then a voice came “Hey, remember? You made a pact with us that you’re going to listen.” I knew I had to finally honour the call to become a sangoma.

Ancient voices whispered gently in the ears of my soul, offering revelations and urging me to surrender. The ancestral spirits led me to my spiritual guide, a sangoma in the seaside village of Nyavini in Bizana. I was initiated in September 2011 into the realm of those who came before me, the long lineage of traditional healers and medicine men.

I had to honour a strict code of conduct that opened several pathways into the deep reservoir of being. I found a home and was born again. I felt like a child, full of wonder, with an agility to explore the celestial and be swept away by feelings I’d never experienced before.

I spent three years kneeling and honouring customs, rituals, and ceremonies, part of my journey to become a sangoma. I stayed in a sacred healing hut and I was introduced to realities that I never knew existed. I travelled far and wide in the soul-sphere experiencing life beyond the apparent reality.

The unassuming thatched mud hut was more than a sanctuary to me: it was also a shrine. I got a taste of a deeper freedom and moved closer towards love in a quest to become one with it. I released the tyrant clutches of clock-time and went on a journey to heal the body, the mind, and the spirit.

I lit candles at the altar in the northend of the room every morning before dawn and expressed my heart’s desires to the living ether; I ground up herbs on a stone in the left side of the circular interior wall during the day; and at night we sang and danced to the haunting and healing sounds of the beating drum as it spoke to matters of the heart.

Our homestead stood in a semicircle of three huts overlooking the Indian Ocean, and ours was a home for the many frequent visitors. I listened to the stories shared by the greying ones about the wisdom of our people. I learnt about the physical and psychic healing powers of plants and, in my final ceremony as a trainee sangoma, I was given the responsibility to share ascension energy in my surroundings and with greater society.

I cannot go through the entire nitty-gritty of the journey. The training took me three years. I am forever grateful that I found a spiritual home that guided me in my rite of passage. The experience was a blessing, yet something tells me that my real home is in the heaven of the heart, the deepest depths of being.

More on the African view of time

Our time moves backwards. The African consciousness is not too preoccupied with the future; it is more concerned with moving back to the land of the ancestors. The deeper we go in time the more it calls us to the land of myths, magic, legends, and the land of origins … the land of ancestors.

Our lived reality is informed by the distant past of ancestors, legends, and myths which are full of activities and messages that inform the present and what’s yet to come, the evolution of the people. The past is our foundation, where the golden age of our people reside, where wisdom rests.

We have no myths about the end of time in future because we understand that time has no end ...

His relation to Nwelezelanga

Nwelezelanga, The Star Child is charting her path in the hearts of readers and I believe more and more people will interact with her. The book has a life of its own now. I had an epiphany moment the other day, I realised that I initially thought I had given birth to Nwelezelanga, The Star Child but now I realise I’m born again through her.

Other preoccupations

(A building project in Lusikisiki; photo courtesy UM.)

I’m now permanently based in Lusikisiki, in the Mpondo land. I managed to get land earlier this year and have been working it. I’ve cleared bushes, fenced the yard, and brought the services of a TLB to level the ground where building structures are going to be. I’ve just finished the first building structure, just for me to set myself up within the yard.

I’m creating a home for the many. It is a home for seekers, change agents, and frequency holders. We are creating a support system for ourselves in order to effect the paradigm with our creative endeavours.

We are planning to build an Early Childhood Development Centre with partners who are in the know in the field and our facilitators will start voluntary work next year with Grade R learners in three schools in our village and surrounding villages. We also are planning to build a Skills Development Centre to up-skill those in need. The journey continues; more will be revealed in due course.

I’m simplifying my life and trying to live as organic as I can, and contribute to society without the fanfare. I’m treading in the unknown; we live and we learn.


Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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