BOOK REVIEW: The Sculptors of Mapungubwe
I’d seen an interview on Morning Live about a year or two earlier; in which uTat’ uZakes Mda, the author, was discussing the book (his latest work at the time) with Ayanda. I remember the excitement after watching the interview and the resolution to read it. However, time passed and it eventually slipped my mind. So when a friend showed me what she was reading, which turned out to be The Sculptors of Mapungubwe, and offered to lend me the book for a day or two, I was ecstatic.
The story is set during the period of a Kingdom which no longer is, or at least no longer is as it was then; Mapungubwe, a Southern African Kingdom in the thirteenth century, CE. So as someone with an indefatigable interest in pre-colonial Africa I could barely hold the excitement. The Kingdom itself lasted about a hundred years, a non-event by African standards; so brief, it was born and passed within a single blink of an eye. However brief the Kingdom, I was still excited at the prospects before me; to watch Mapungubwe and its people come to life through the author’s vision.
Here I use Kingdom, loosely, to refer to the organisation around the Mapungubwe site and not necessarily the people and within social structure; as recent research confirmed that the so called Zimbabwe culture found at K2 and Mapungubwe sites was in fact birthed by Mapela which already exhibited the culture 200 years earlier (itself a child of much earlier Kingdoms). Also, we find it expressed in Great Zimbabwe and later in Khami, long after it passes Mapungubwe.
The book is beautifully written, the language itself executed so elegantly, just as a sculptor would in expressing a fine piece. I couldn’t help but wonder how much richer it would have been had the story been told in an African tongue. As a result, there were times when I felt like the English language had failed to meet the demands of the author, or at least the character in question. Such an instance was when the father of the boys Zwanga said to Chata’s mother, “I made you human”, which one could easily misinterpret to mean he did not consider her a human being at some point.
Yet the opposite is true. This is a common expression in Xhosa where one would say, “Ndakwenz’ umntu” the literal translation of which is, “I made you a human”. However the expression, depending on the context could mean I made a lady or a gentleman out of you, a decent or a person deserving of honour, and the like; which really refers to the elevation of one’s status or standing within the community. Something that also painfully reminded me of how closer our languages are edging death, before our very eyes; the most ancient languages in human history but that is a wailing for another day.
The central character in this story is Chatambudzi, affectionately known as Chata. A free spirited fine young man. He is in many respects unconventional. As one of the sculptors of Mapungubwe, his pieces are unconventional, men his age are already married with children, yet he remains a bachelor, and he shows no interest in building a homestead with livestock to look after both for consumption and as a store and an expression of wealth, as is the convention. He prefers to go hunting, and to trade gold whenever the need arises.
His brother Rendani is the complete opposite; a traditional, conventional man who’s grown to become a respected member of the ruling class and its administration. As two boys brought up as brothers by the same father (Rendani’s father), they’ve always had rivalries between them. The nature of their relationship in adulthood ceases to be a rivalry though, since it is one sided; in that it is Rendi who competes with and is hell-bent on disrupting Chata while Chata is really just getting on with his life.
Rendani, out of spite towards his brother, concocts a stratagem designed to control him; really to imprison him. He then executes his stratagem, which would eventually land his brother Chata in the King’s court, as the accused. The author does a splendid job of explaining the source of the conflict between the brothers. Though they were close, Rendani grew up harbouring resentment towards Chata as he believed him to be more gifted and to be his father’s favourite. As a boy longing for his father’s approval he felt robbed every time his father marvelled at Chata’s deeds or creations instead of his own.
So when his father recreated Chata’s “ugly” creature, while he left his clay bull unbaked, it left a whole in his heart and he would endure many blows which left him psychologically scarred even as he reached manhood. As it were, the root cause is well established and yet the conspiracy is weak. The court case is dodgy to say the least and the proceedings outlandish.
To start off with, the basis of the case is questionable, firstly, historically, the King (as a cultural role) was not a despot who did as he pleased, and he exercised no control over the private lives of the people, a fact evident in all African Kingdoms from antiquity to the period in which the book is set, the only means by which he maintained control over the people was through the control of trade; particularly the control of international trade. The King also controlled the standard measures of such commodities as gold. So for the King to dabble in such petty affairs as what people wear and worst of all to make a law of it was completely off the mark. In fact, it represented a missed opportunity by the author to bring to light such attributes regarding the old Kingdom. If it was the desire of the author show a foolish king, then he should have done so in the correct context, and made it clear.
Here the author seems to have been too in hurry to get on with it and therefore fails to establish a convincing scenario that speaks to the culture of the time. To understand this one has to assess the design of the justice system in the African context. In African culture, justice is first of all accessible to everyone without exception; in that anyone can lay a complaint with the court and should the merits suggest it, a case would be open and the accused summoned before the court.
The complainant neither requires wealth, nor a representative in order to access justice. The same goes for the accused. The Council of Elders usually composed of “chiefs” and various other members of the administration would serve both as the “defence” and “prosecution” for both. And everyone present at the proceedings would have an opportunity to interrogate both the complainant and the accused. The nature of the proceedings is geared towards justice and truth and is restorative in that a desirable outcome is one in which the relationship of the brother is restored.
The elders are the custodians of knowledge and the beacons of wisdom and therefore are held in high regard. It would have made it impossible for them to be so easily manipulated by Rendi, collectively. Moreover, the fabric of society is woven by custom and obligation so that each person is obliged to not dishonour his family and nation by acting without virtue; more so in the King’s court. So the naivety, bias and the lack of insight displayed by the elders there is far-fetched.
In portraying them in that way, the author makes fools of wise men. As a result what he portrays there is a kangaroo court; something completely foreign to African culture. That part was disappointing for me, as it rendered Rendi’s scheme illegitimate in the context within which it was taking place. Therefore, in order to carry on with the story, I was forced to accept the author’s narrative, even though it did not make enough sense.
The author goes into much detail to breathe back life into Mapungubwe. He paints us a picture to help us visualise life as they knew it; each stroke meticulously drawn as he describes the landscape and architecture. He takes us for a joy ride along Chata’s stroll, describing in fine detail the spatial makeup of the town. Then we get to see the houses close up; the layout of the homestead, the makeup of the family home, furnishings, decorations, and we get to compare between nobility and the commoners.
We get to see professionals at work. Even though the mechanics of the administration remain evasive, we are left with enough detail to infer the inner workings. With Chata’s journey with his two young apprentices in search of a mine, the author also gives us a view that asserts that the kingdom was not merely constrained to the town but that the King presided over a vast Kingdom, spanning a large area. A point the author also makes clear when Chata was honoured as Muvhaḓi wa Vhavhaḓi; that not only do various “chiefdoms” pay tribute (taxes) to state coffers, but their sculptors also participate in the ceremonies related to the craft.
In tagging along on Chata’s wonderlust, we get a glimpse of the trade and the networks that feed that trade. We also follow it to foreign lands outside the continent of Africa. And every now and then, we see also the internal trade within the Kingdom; an affirmation that trade, both internal and external has always been an important part of African life.
The author offers us much detail into the goings on in the Kingdom and its environment yet he does not go deep enough into its cultural fabric. In tackling our contemporary issues, I found that he, for the most part, superimposes today’s attitudes and culture (which is too far from that of that time) on the Mapungubweans. In the case of homosexuality, he makes reference to it in connection with the Azande army but does not really address it. It seemed as though the reference was made to say, “You say homosexuality is not African, but look here are the Azande practicing it”. The only other statement, so to speak, was Chata’s and his fellows’ attitude towards it; which seemed to suggest it was unimportant and merely a personal choice, as it is made to be nowadays. Something I found very confusing and an approach I found lacked courage.
The other thing that left me rather perplexed, because it is also so random is Rendani being involved in the hunting and killing of a sacred animal; the rhino. The source of Rendi’s animosity towards Chata is clear and logical and so are his aspirations to usurp the King, however ambitious. But why is Rendi killing the sacred beast? In as much as he is conniving and power mongering, he is by all measures a traditional man. He is also a man who acts with intent. In addition to the cultural problems regarding this act, what purpose does it serve him to kill rhinos? What drives him to act this way?
The only way I could make sense of this was that Rendani’s imprisonment of Chata was so effective it rendered it virtually impossible for him to escape. Yet he had to escape the prison somehow. So the author created that scenario so as to facilitate that escape. And so, just as the beginning of Chata’s troubles was founded on a weak conspiracy, so was his great escape. Here again, we find another example of how the author fails to go deep enough to capture the essence of the culture and ends up portraying one more reflective of these scattered remains of battered kingdoms that we have now; the colonised token Kingdoms stripped of their culture, dignity and power; mere shadows of their former selves.
From the beginning of it all, I’d been eagerly anticipating the face-off between the brothers; that moment when Chata decides, “I’m fighting back now”. However, having journeyed through the book, with each page a step ascending towards the peak of the sacred hill, by now I’d acquired an instinct for the story teller’s pace, I’d reached the peak and had my dance with the rain-makers and right about this time I was undoubtedly in descent; toward the end of my journey and my hopes of that big battle of wits was fading. Yet I still harboured a faint hope.
That final battle was not to be. I was almost disappointed by that but after a somewhat deep reflection, I came to realise that the only reason I’d feel that way would be because we’d come to be accustomed to such stories, to the point of depending on them. Yet there was something so profound and beautiful here; Chata simply has a good heart. Here uTat’ uMda created such a beautiful character, so pure he kept the monster inside well in check. It was not forced too; he’s upbringing (by his mother), his spiritual awaken-ness are all consistent with his character. In the end it is a beautiful story of how good prevailed over the not good.