Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness is one book which has been cropping up a lot in my working life. When I started working as a librarian proper in the fall of 2006 I came across two battered copies of The Heart of Redness. As I was doing a major weeding operation at the time, I felt that these books should not be thrown or given as I found the subject matter to be useful as a teaching aid. I stored them in my cupboard for safe keeping.
Come a few weeks ago and I discover that this book is on the list so I ordered a copy from Amazon (yeah I know but it was unavailable outside of Europe at the time) Only when receiving it that I had two copies stored aside. A D’oh! moment if there ever was one!
Mda tale entwines South African history with present day South African politics. Its plot is very labyrinthine so I’ll try to explain it as clearly as possible.
Back in the 1850’s the child prophet Nongqawuse told the Xhosa tribe that if they killed all their cattle, The British colonial government will leave South Africa and a new breed of cattle will arise out of the sea. This divided the tribe into people who believed this prophecy (believers) and those who were sceptical (unbelievers) unfortunately the prophecy did not work out and the tribe died of starvation or resorted to cannibalism.
We jump forward to the late 90’s and we find out that a scholar from Johannesburg, called Camagu decides to visit the Xhosa people in order to find a woman who has been haunting him. Upon arriving Camagu sees that the tribe is still divided. This time the believers are seen as people who hate progress and the Unbelievers, people who want a progressive change in their village. In the midst of this a casino is going to be built which divides opinions.
To complicate matters even more Camagu falls in love with the daughters of both factions and i forced to make a decision.
In The Heart of Redness (which signifies The Xhosa tribe’s traditional culture) the history of Nongqawuse is closely entwined with modern day South Africa so Mda shows us how the past and present reflect each other. There are crumbs of humour but it focuses on how modernization and capitalism can influence a certain type of mentality. Mda piles on a lot of memorable scenes as Camagu learns the way of the Xhosa people and the book ends on a ambiguous note, which could mean that progress is still unresolved. It’s a book that clearly gets your brain cells jumping.
It’s funny that it takes off where Dan Sleigh’s Islands finishes however I disliked Sleigh’s book, which tackled the same subject except in more depth. It’s clearly a case of how you tell your story then what is in your story!