Things Fell Apart: a review of The Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda

Zakes Mda
To Bhonco, son of Ximiya, of the amaXhosa people of South Africa, redness connotes the backwardness of his ancestors. It refers to the red ochre "that women smear on their bodies and with which they also dye their isikhakha skirts". He strives to lead his family out of the primitive past, out of the darkness of the redness , toward the rest of civilization. This he believes, can be advanced through the approval of plans for a new casino in his home village of Qolora-by-Sea; where tourists may flock, bringing sophistication and money and jobs.

In his 2002 novel, The Heart of Redness (the title being an allusion to Conrad's classic novella) Zakes Mda, a South African, novelist, poet and playwright, not only recounts the true story of Nongqawuse, a young prophetess, and her supporters, the Cult of the Believers, but he also imagines the effect they had on modern day citizens of Qolora, her legacy to the amaXhosa. Bhonco belongs to the Cult of the Unbelievers, he follows the tenets of Twin-Twin, the original Unbeliever, who lived during the time of the great Xhosa cattle slaughter of 1856/1857 (see Jeff Peires' book The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-7 which Mda cites as the prime resource for this work). His distant cousin, Zim and his daughter, who live nearby, are Believers. They follow the philosophy of their ancestor Twin (Twin and Twin-Twin were brothers, son of the beheaded Xikixa) who were faithful to the prophecies: kill all your animals, cattle sheep, goats, and the great ancestors will rise from the ocean bringing fresh livestock and blessings for a fortuitous future.

The two, Zim and Bhonco, as were their ancestors, are at odds; to join the modern or to respect the old ways, that is the question. Mda never really tips his hand, as he excavates this old debate. He instead wisely inserts an anti-coagulant into their festering wound, the worldly Camagu, an South Afrrican ex-pat who has returned to his homeland after thirty years from, among other places, America. Camagu blunders into Qolora-by-Sea on the scent of a woman he knows only by the common Xhosa name of Noma Russia, but soon he becomes taken with another, inexorably entangling himself with the diametrical elders.

Cattle lounge on the shore of Qolora-by-Sea with the
shipwrecked Jacaranda in the background
image by jacashgone
Like Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe before him, Mda, explores common themes of African literature like cultural divide, colonialism, and gender roles. The amaXhosa are patriarchal, however they greatly value women, hence the allegiances to the young prophetesses; yet we do get a sense that behind them, their uncle, Mhlkaza, pulls their strings. Zim seems lost without his wife, NoEnglish, dead this past year, and Bhonco depends heavily on his mate, NoPetticoat. Both have daughters, Qukezwa and Xoliswa respectively, who are also opposed, both with their eyes on the stranger, Camagu. The author describes the two eloquently thus: "She is so beautiful. Xoliswa Ximiya. So staid and reliable. Qukezwa is not burdened with beauty. She is therefore able to be free-spirited." And then there is the white man, merchant John Dalton, who provides a bit of irony, as he supports the preservation of the village perhaps in atonement for the infamous deeds of his legendary ancestor of the same name. Mda allows his characters to learn and grow, and we get a sense, dynamically, of their growth. Camagu, in conversation with Believer Zim and the skeptical Dalton, has this to say about the power of belief:
"There is nothing foolish about belief... It is the same sincerity of belief that has been seen throughout history and continues to be seen today where those who believe actually see miracles. The same sincerity of belief that causes thousands to commit mass suicide by drinking poison in Jonestown, Guyana, because the world is coming to an end . . . or that leads men, women, and children to die willingly in flames with their prophet, David Koresh, in Waco, Texas.”

Over the ten years since its publication, The Heart of Redness has gained near classic status, being included in the popular literary reference, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die compiled by Dr. Peter Boxall (that is how yours truly learned of its existence). Besides its historical ken, the novel is funny, romantic and hopeful. Mda's style is innately African, if there is such a thing; the use of understatement and subtlety seems key to achieving this. It is these qualities of writing which help to sustain the novel's powerful and very unsubtle message into the heart of its own redness.

  • Title: The Heart of Redness
  • Author: Zakes Mda
  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1204 KB
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1 edition (April 1, 2010)
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled