New Internationalist

Mama Africa

Issue 307

Mama Africa
A parable by Sindiwe Magona

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Image from photo by
CLAUDE SAUVAGEOT

From all the countries of Afrika, they came: on foot, by horse, camel, donkey-pulled cart, lorry, bus and car. From South and West and East and North.

The hordes came speaking KiSwahili, Arabic tongues, Bantu tongues, Amharic and even tongues foreign to Afrika. Siziwe’s eyes were drawn to the centre.

The web-cracks in the ancient mahogany face melded into the bark of the tree against which the Old Woman leant, her upper body upright as though it were but a branch or stump of that tree. Voluminous layers of heavy cotton skirt, ochre-coloured as the ground on which she sat, completely swathed her, hiding even her feet. Only the rich ivory of her teeth and her eyes, deep and wise, full of compassion, stood out.

All doubt dissolved in Siziwe. The Old Woman’s voice, so soothing, made her feel at home. She listened and saw that all present understood, for the Old Woman addressed them in the language of the ages. Her gestures, few but telling... the language of her body burned itself into their minds.

The journey had taken Siziwe many, many days. In her village, both the skeptics and the believers had urged her to go, each group looking for confirmation of its position through her.

‘What if I cannot find the place?’ she had asked at the last meeting.

‘Siziwe, are you not Vongothwane’s daughter?’ they asked her.

She lowered her eyes.

‘Have the ancestors not singled you out as the one who...?’

‘But I have not yet been confirmed into the society of those who see.’

‘Child,’ her mentor said, her voice without rebuke. The mentor was a healer of immense power, feared and respected by all in the village. ‘Do you doubt the wisdom of your elders?’ Then the mentor thrust out her hand.

Not trusting her voice, Siziwe stepped forward, extending her hand to accept the mentor’s sceptre. It would guide her and protect her from evil.

She knew she was near her destination when she met pilgrims from other parts of Afrika. They gathered into a steady swelling stream, all on the same quest, all touched by the magic they were seeking.

Now she looked about her. Such a multitude, everyone there filled with a spirit of co-operation, consideration and love. Occasional spontaneous outbursts of song, thousands of arms waving in the air like seaweed tossed about by gentle waves, punctuated the Old Woman’s speech.

Life is a chain! We are one! Sibanye!
The ant, the tree, the flower and the bird
Life is a chain! We are one! Sibanye!
The fish, the duckling, the river and the wind
Life is a chain! It is a chain, for we are one! Sibanye!


If the wind sings, the river laughs, and the bird will fly
For life is a chain! Life is a chain. We are one.
It is a chain, my children, it is a chain! We are One!
It is a chain, break it only to your damnation! Sibanye!


‘If the eye be unwell, how can the body be said to be well?’ asked the Old Woman. Thereafter she urged them to convey to the leaders that it was imperative to join hands, to work together ‘...that I may again be whole’.

Petitions fell from the mouths of many.

‘The children hunger.’

‘The children are not the problem,’ she answered. ‘They are the future... the solution. Afrika needs all her children. As parents in their old age depend on their children, so does Afrika depend on her children for her salvation.’

‘The forests are bare. We have neither firewood to bring our hearths to life nor grain to grind and feed our hungry pots,’ they said.

‘Afrika can feed all her children,’ she answered. ‘The children have hands. They are not only mouths. They have hands and feet and hearts and eyes and minds. Feed all these things. Feed by example, word and deed.’

There was a stir in the crowd. Heads turned this way and that.

‘Mama Afrika!’ a voice shouted from somewhere. Face lost in the crowd, Siziwe couldn’t see the speaker. But it was the voice of a young man.

‘Mama Afrika, you speak in riddles. We, your children, do not understand your words.’

‘My children,’ she said. ‘Celebrate life. Celebrate it and honour it. When a child is born, plant a tree to mark the event. Help both to grow strong and healthy. Let the child know the tree that is her life. Let her grow with it, loving it, nurturing it, protecting it even as she is loved, nurtured and protected.

‘Plant another tree to mark each of the child’s milestones. And that child will never be without firewood. Nor will the birds of the forest be bereft of homes. Thus not only will she cook her meals but she will also know the song of the bird, know the power in flight of its wing, the bright glint of its beady eye, the strength of its ferocious beak and the sharpness of its claw. She needs all this and more, if she is to be whole.’

‘A woman? A woman needs to know of birds? But why so? She doesn’t hunt.’

‘My child,’ the Old Woman said. Smiling, she said: ‘I dare say you have heard the saying: Umntu ngumntu ngabantu, a person is a person because of others!’

Thousands of heads went up and down in assent.

‘The saying doesn’t stop at human beings only but embraces all life. Umntu sisidalwa kwindalo, a person is a creature in creation.’

Again heads nodded. More this time, and more vigorously too. But the Old Woman was not done.

‘Sibanye! We are one. All nature is linked. What happens to any part of that chain cannot but affect what happens to another. People and forests, rivers, seas and mountains, deserts and wetlands; beasts of the forest and those of the home; fish, fowl and flea; rain, sun, moon and stars... everything is one – connected, mutually dependent.’

‘But why? We do not live in the air.’

‘Because all boundaries are false. They mean little and are powerless to stop the mutuality that is life and living.

‘Plant and tend the trees and the deserts shall flee. The parched lands shall smile again and bear good grain for all. Embrace it with all your heart and the land shall heal. Tend it and love it and feed it as though it were your only child. Then the trees and the birds and the rivers that sing will drive the drought forever far away.

‘And remember now. Gone are the times of kings and queens. We are one. Those who rule do so with the consent of those on whose behalf they rule. Lead the leaders. Tell them what it is you expect of them. As you would your children, guide them so that they do not stray from the common good. The child suffers when given too much latitude; she needs discipline as well as love and respect. The leader who is without good counsel, who never hears word of dissent or warning, runs the danger of corruption... soon he may see himself as a god. To him it will matter not how history judges him: eating from gold plates, sleeping on gold beds, houses with swimming pools; Italian leather shoes and French silk suits... And this when the children have no schools and mothers die on birthing beds for want of adequate medical care. Go and be the custodians of humane governance! This is my charge to you!’

But on the way back, doubt again plagued Siziwe. Would the people believe her? Would they be willing to follow the Old Woman’s instructions? And what of the other countries of the continent? Would they be willing to do her bidding? However, memory of the Old Woman’s words and the hope-filled music of the crowd flooded her. Once more, she was buoyed. What if it happened? What if the world heeded the Old Woman’s words? What a transformation there would be!

She envisioned all the little girls and little boys of her village, each holding a seedling, a tiny plant, the beginnings of a mighty tree. They were all clothed in green, to mark the promise of growth. Proud fathers watched as mothers helped the little hands dig holes and plant the little trees. The whole village watched as each child promised to look after the tree till full-grown. Then it was the turn of the amakhankatha to step forward. These were the men and women, chosen to shepherd the children safely through the long journey from the garden of childhood to the house of adulthood so that they would enter that house already able to live in harmony with all life.

Addressing the children, the amakhankatha said:

‘We, your mothers and fathers, promise to hold you in our hearts during all the years of your growth, till you reach the age of 18 and are ready to take your places alongside other grown-ups. As you support your life tree, so do we give you our support for your life path. You are all our children. All of us, the adults standing here before you. Not one of you shall fall between the cracks.’

And here the whole village of grown men and women joined hands, wove their fingers tightly together and said:

‘See? There are no cracks,’ they said, hands swinging high and low. ‘There are no cracks for you to fall through. You will grow whole! For, as we join our hands, we hold you in the palms of those hands. See!’ For that is what Mama Afrika had said. All the problems besetting her had their answers in the children, each unique and with their special talents. ‘Each child is born with hands folded into tiny fists. It is in those fists that I put the answers to the problems of which you speak,’ she had said. ‘Help each child unfurl those tiny fists and you will harvest the gems – the solutions to all your woes.

‘All the children are your children. Feed them all, body and soul. For failure to do so will earn you the criminals you deserve and the layabouts that will forever feed off the blood of the industrious. Help the children unfurl and blossom and grow to fruition.’

She was a mystic, some said. Others swore she was Sheba’s incarnation. Others still said they had it on unimpeachable authority that she was Mama Afrika personified. Siziwe knew... the Old Woman was The Insight of the Ages. Truth.

Sindiwe Magona grew up in South Africa and now lives in New York, where she works for the UN. Mother to Mother, her fifth book and first novel, was published in South Africa in August.

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