The tiny Kingdom of Swaziland doesn’t sound too promising when you’re on the hunt for world literature. According to the CIA World Factbook, it has the globe’s lowest life expectancy, with those born in 2011 only predicted to live an average of 31.88 years – just a year older than I am now.
Given such a bleak backdrop, I assumed any story I did find would be pretty solemn. So when The Modern Novel recommended Sarah Mkhonza’s self-published memoir Weeding the Flowerbeds, I was in for a surprise.
Recalling Mkhonza’s time boarding at Manzini Nazarene High School in the seventies, the book reflects on life in southern Africa in the years after Swaziland declared independence from British rule. With Apartheid and racism enshrined in the statutes of all the region’s nations, there is much for young girls Bulelo (Mkhonza), Sisile and Makhosi to struggle against, but there is also a wind of change blowing that promises more opportunities and possibilities for young women than ever before.
As in John Saunana’s novel The Alternative (my Solomon Islands book), boarding school with its British structures and legacy is a microcosm of the struggles the nation faces as it tries to shape an identity independent of its colonial past. From the prejudice against Zulu and the very anglocentric reading lists – including Shakespeare, the Victorian classics and The Flies of the Lord as one confused English teacher calls the book he has to give lessons on – to the continued religious efforts to teach the ‘saga of the cross […] to the children of Swazis who still believed in muti [magic] and sangomas’, Bulelo is surrounded by the attitudes of the old regime.
Mkhonza treats this with a great deal of humour, recalling how she and her classmates ‘wondered what the United States of England was like’. She is also refreshingly honest about the way she and her fellow students ‘used the power of the underdog toward white people’, bamboozling their British-born teachers with dialect and slang. This is nevertheless tempered with a great deal of affection for many of the staff and the opportunities her education gave her: ‘This is why you are reading this book,’ she writes at one point. ‘We had some very good teachers who were dedicated to teaching us’.
The memoir really comes alive in the passages where Mkhonza recalls her female friends and the challenges facing them as young women, a subject to which Mkhonza has devoted much of her adult life and because of which she was forced to leave Swaziland in 2003. Among the more serious accounts of the mistreatment of women in wider society, there are some wonderfully funny stories of the sisterly bond developed over boyfriends, whose letters came secretly to PO Box 315 Manzini (I wonder what would happen if we wrote to that address now?), and the covert reading of Drum magazine. Indeed, the brusque problem-page advice of Agony Aunt Dolly is too good not to share:
‘You are stupid if you think the man loves you and you are still in high school. You are stupid when you think an older man can love you better than his wife. If you have sex with him, you will become pregnant, and that will be the end of you.’
Powerful episodes aside, though, the narrative often lacks tension and a throughline to drive it forward. At times, particularly when Mkhonza reflects on the boredom that characterises much of school life, we can feel as though we are plodding with Bulelo from class to class and, like her, begin to wonder exactly why we are bothering. There are also some quirks with the writing style, which skips between the past and present tenses in a way that is too erratic for it to be deliberate.
Many of these problems could have been ironed out with the help of a sensitive editor, something that Mkhonza, as a self-publishing writer, was probably obliged to do without. As it stands, though, this is an intriguing and witty, if inconsistent, account of how a significant moment in Swaziland’s history played out in young lives. It is full of hope, and worth reading for Aunt Dolly alone.
Weeding the Flowerbeds by Sarah Mkhonza (Sarah Mkhonza, Xlibris, 2009)
Where can I go buy this memoir, it sounds interesting?
Nice post, keep up the good work.
Thanks. I found my copy on Amazon UK. It’s published through Xlibris, so you can also get it directly through their website.
I hope you enjoy it.
Very interesting. I had the chance to visit Swaziland a few years back. It’s a place not many people have heard of. There is a lot of pain there because of how prevalent aids is there but it is also a very beautiful place. Thanks for sharing about this book 🙂
Thanks Hilary. Mkhonza’s book certainly makes it sound like a challenging but inspiring place.
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Great review. I’m enjoying your whole adventure of reading the world but of all the books I’ve heard you talk about so far this one looks the most intriguing to me — even with the lack of editorial finishing.
Thanks. It’s certainly an intriguing read…
I’m reading this right now – I was surprised that this is one of the few reviews that I can find for it – and it doesn’t readily show up in a google search and only 1 person on goodreads has reviewed it – i’m looking forward to finishing it up so I can post my review
I know. It’s not widely reviewed, probably because it’s self-published so there won’t have been any marketing for it. I’m sure the Sarah Mkhonza will be very glad to have another review.
Thanks for the review. The school and mission were celebrating 100 years and I felt compelled to write about their contribution to our lives. I am grateful that you were able to give the book an honest review. I never really thought it would be read beyond Swaziland and the mission. Most of the teachers have passed away. It makes more sense to have written something about their contribution to our lives I am grateful that you were able to have something to read on a country which is struggling to create writers and give the people a voice. Political parties are still banned and journalists are still being imprisoned. Thanks for mentioning some of these facts in the review.
My pleasure, Sarah. Thanks very much for your comment – and for your book!
I’ve just got back from Swaziland. I picked up “The Giraffe stepped over the Fence” by Storm James which I’m reading as my Swazi novel. It’s pretty much a conventional novel as far as I can judge (not a genre I usually read), although it’s very long (and only volume 1 of a series!) But it is full of lots of fascinating background about culture and life in Swaziland.
Sounds intriguing – thanks for the tip off. What was Swaziland like?
Beautiful scenery, interesting culture, amazing national park (Hlane) with a waterhole where the animals come to you…
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