Mozambique: uncharted territory

I was preparing a post about Mia Couto’s Under the Frangipani when Miguel popped a comment on The List that took the wind out of my sails. He told me that I should read Paulina Chiziane’s Niketche for Mozambique ‘because it’s a cliché to only read Mia Couto and she needs more attention’.

Horrified at the thought that I might be turning into a literary cliché, I swallowed my reluctance to add yet another book to this year’s tally and googled Chiziane.It took quite a bit of digging before I came across a company called Aflame Books that seemed to have published an English language translation of Niketche. Keen to get hold of a copy, I sent them an email.

A few days later a message came back from translator and company founder Richard Bartlett. He was sorry to say that Aflame Books had gone bust before it managed to publish Niketche and only a third of the book had ever been translated. He was a big fan of Mozambican literature, but the only writer he could think of whose work was available in English was… Mia Couto. He did, however, have an unpublished translation of a novel called Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa if I’d be interested to take a look?

A cursory internet search told me that this Khosa fellow was really rather a big cheese in Mozambican literary circles. Not only had Ualalapi won the 1990 Grand Prize of Mozambican Fiction, it was also included on the list of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century drawn up in 2002. This I had to see.

Told in six installments, partly through the eyes of Nguni warrior Ualalapi, the novel portrays the rise and fall of the legendary leader Ngungunhane, who presided over the region now known as Mozambique until the Portuguese  conquered it in the nineteenth century. Graphic and startling, it lays bare the bloody realities of tribal warfare and colonialism, revealing the personal and societal costs of the human desire for power over others.

Myth-making is a big theme. Delighting in unpacking Ngungunhane’s national significance as a symbol of resistance against imperialism, Khosa plays conflicting accounts of the leader off against one another. Charismatic and ruthless, Ngungunhane remains something of an enigma, driven by the impossible longing to be ‘the first protagonist and the only one that History will record while men will be on the earth’.

This running preoccupation makes his final speech before he boards his captors’ ship, in which he envisages the horrors of the colonial and post-colonial eras and imagines the Portuguese forcing children ‘to speak of my death and call me criminal and cannibal’, all the more striking. He exits the narrative to take up his place alongside Oedipus, King Lear and Okonkwo as one of the world’s towering tragic heroes.

Some fantastical events add to the novel’s mythic quality: from the woman whose menstrual blood floods a village, to the strange prophesies that come to pass. These are expressed with lively and at times wonderfully earthy imagery. So we hear of the gossiping servants leaving a house ‘with bags full of words that they were throwing to the wind’ and the shrugging acceptance that no-one is perfect: ‘who is the man who has not snot in his nose?’

Being one of the few people ever to read this powerful classic in English was a huge privilege. It felt like getting a glimpse through a keyhole into a locked garden full of astonishing plants flourishing out of my reach. It made me sad to think of all we must miss in our little English-language bubble and angry that Mozambican literature in so commonly spoken a language as Portuguese is not more widely translated and read.

I am very grateful to Richard Bartlett for sharing the manuscript and to Miguel for forcing me to raise my game. What other Mozambican literature should be translated into English? Leave a comment and let me know.

Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa (translated from the Portuguese by Isaura de Oliveira and Richard Bartlett). First published by Associacao dos Escritores Mocambicanos (1987)

19 responses

  1. Surely Mr. Bartlett knows what he’s talking about, but I find this line confusing:

    “He was sorry to say that Aflame Books had gone bust before it managed to publish Niketche and only a third of the book had ever been translated.”

    I was under the impression the full novel had been published in 2010, as Amazon claims here:

    I’m sorry my recommendation wasn’t so good after all, but I’m happy you discovered a new writer. That’s quite a story! I had never heard of Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa myself, so I’ll try to find his book in Portuguese.

    As for other Mozambican writers: José Craveirinha, its national poet, and João Paulo Borges Coelho, a contemporary novelist.

    • I know, I thought so too, but it seems it was available for preorder but never actually made it into print. Your recommendation was brilliant – I would never have found this book if it hadn’t been for you. Let’s hope another English language publisher picks Chiziane up and helps her reach a larger audience. Please keep those suggestions coming.

  2. Hi, I’ve read your article and I’m giving you a list of some of the famous mozambican writers. I hope you find their books translated to portuguese. By the way, I’m portuguese and I come from Mozambique, although I live in Portugal for more than 35 years. I’m also a great fan of Mia Couto, and like you, I never seem to be able to read anything else than Mia’s books, but I think it’s a great idea to expand our taste for writers from Mozambique.

    Here is the list:

    Carlos Cardoso
    Eduardo White
    José Craveirinha
    Lília Momplé
    Lina Magaia
    Luís Bernardo Honwana
    Luís Carlos Patraquim
    Mia Couto
    Noémia de Sousa
    Paulina Chiziane
    Rui Knopfli
    Rui Nogar
    Suleiman Cassamo
    Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa

  3. Well done, you’re truly blazing a trail here. I’m awaiting delivery of An African in Greenland now but this one’s imagery as quoted by you above is unforgettable. Thanks

    • Thanks Bradley – yes, I did read it, but didn’t include my comments about it as it seemed unfair to do two books for Mozambique. It’s a while ago now, but as I recall I had mixed feelings about it.

  4. Hello, is the translation of Ualalapi available in some ways? I would like to use it for teaching purposes (I am a scholar of Mozambican history). Thanks!

    • Thanks. It is not commercially available, but if you email me (ann[at] I can pass your request on to the translator and see if he would be happy to share the manuscript with you. Hope that helps

  5. According to my information it is now commercially available. The ISBN is
    1933227737 and it was published by Tagus in September 2017

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