The hidden history of an ordinary umZulu woman who asserted her freedom—Makhosazana Xaba reviews Nomavenda Mathiane’s Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story

Nomavenda Mathiane’s Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story illuminates the times, spaces and voices in-between, writes The JRB Patron Makhosazana Xaba.

Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story
Nomavenda Mathiane
Bookstorm, 2016

We did not shed tears when the king died. There were none left to shed. Our eyes had dried out after years of weeping for the many regiments that had perished trying to save the land. They had dried out after years of agonising about the king’s disappearance. They had dried out after crying over the loss of our loved ones. They had dried out lamenting the cracks that divided the nation. Instead of screaming and wailing at the top of our voices, we silently mourned the child of Mpande, the lion of Ondini.

Thus we meet a voice of a kind we hardly hear when we read historical accounts of war, death, and big, important men. In Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story, Nomavenda Mathiane presents a story whose telling begins in the late nineteenth century—the story of an ordinary girl, and later woman, and the people in her life. It takes place during the challenging time of war, dispossession and ever-growing friction between amaZulu and the English settlers, as well as among amaZulu themselves, because of the polarising impact of the war between King Cetshwayo and the English, historically documented as the Battle of Isandlwana and the Anglo–Zulu War of 1879.

Eyes in the Night presents an alternative narrative to the grandeur of war as a social phenomenon, however, of named and honoured regiments and battalions, of journalistic reports. It demonstrates the impact of war on a people. We travel with the narrator, this ordinary umZulu woman, through her lifetime, until her old age. The book reads like an autobiography, because of its first person narrative, but it is perhaps best described as a biography, because in reality it is not the subject who is telling-through-writing; it is Mathiane, presenting us with the voice of her grandmother, Nombhosho, mediated by the voice of her elder sister Albertinah, fondly known as Ahh, who re-narrates what she remembers their grandmother telling her. It is an oral history taken up with written history’s hard facts: colonialism, war and dispossession. It exposes the mechanics of the British people’s exertions of power and the attendant land invasions in the northern parts of what is now KwaZulu Natal. Bongani Madondo’s quote on the book’s jacket is truly apt: ‘Hail a new genre: realist time travelling history.’

The eighteen-hundreds were a tumultuous political period for amaZulu. King Mpande holds the record of being the longest reigning king (1840–1872), and his son Cetshwayo was ceremonially proclaimed king by the British Secretary for Native Affairs, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, after his father’s death in 1872. As early as 1806 the British began enacting numerous racial laws and ordinances, the cumulative impact of which was to turn many black people into landless labourers, at the service and mercy of white settlers. Parallel to this was the growing influence of Christianity: divisions appeared as amaZulu split into Christians—supporters of the invaders, seen by amaZulu as traitors—and those who wanted nothing to do with foreign leadership and were determined to stick to traditional ways; those who continued to pay their allegiance to the kings. It is within such times that Eyes in the Night unfolds.

The sister narrative I was reminded of as I read Mathiane’s book is Paulina Dlamini: Servant of Two Kings (UKZN Press, 1986), compiled by H Filter and translated and edited by S Bourquin, which begins in 1872, the year of King Mpande’s death. Although the political upheavals in the narrative of Eyes in the Night start with the war of 1879, the longer narrative does include the telling of the death of King Mpande, as the opening quotation shows. This was a life-altering period among amaZulu, signified by many changes, such this one:

The king [Mpande] had come back dressed in white people’s clothes. This bothered us, for it meant that the king had become Christian and was therefore a deserter. The notion that he had capitulated to the foreigners was based on nothing but the fact that he no longer wore ibheshu, but wore invaders’ clothes.

Five years after this disappearance and five years after the end of the war the king had returned transformed. Many of us were hurt about this. After all we had been through and suffered at the hands of the foreigners for supporting him, we could not understand how he could betray us and embrace white people’s ways. That was devastating.

Nomguqo Paulina Dlamini, the subject of Servant of Two Kings, was a teenager when she was asked to be at the service of King Cetshwayo in his newly established isigodlo (royal homestead). Later in her life Nomguqo converted to Christianity and took over the missionary service of preaching among her people and converting them, declining to marry, the better to achieve her religious aims. Nombhosho’s father, Mqokotshwa Makhoba, meanwhile, was one of the generals of King Cetshwayo’s revered regiments, iNgobamakhosi. When Nombhosho was a teenager war broke out, and her father moved the family, her sister Ndumbutshu and their mother, from their home in Oqongweni village to a hiding place, a cave in Shiyane Mountain. In her later life Nombhosho also became a Christian, but unlike Nomguqo she was not a missionary. Like Nomguqo, however, Nombhosho took the bold decision to fight and escape a sexual abuser and farm owner, referred to as Oubaas, where she lived. Both women made courageous decisions during a period of intense and unsettling political change. Their sister narratives are filled with amazing details of the lived lives of amaZulu during that period, from women’s perspectives.

While sections of Eyes in the Night may read like reportage—something we have become familiar with from reading stories about today’s war zones—there is a very different personal tone:

On our journey to the mountain we had seen many villages that had been deserted. Some had been burnt down. We had come across corpses lying on the paths. They were bodies of warriors sprawled on the ground with their spears next to them. Some lay with their eyes and mouths open, with flies hovering all over their bodies. In other cases, the vultures were already at work. We had also seen corpses of women and children. It was as if someone had been going about the valley discarding the dead at random, like throwing mealies at chickens. There was no pattern or order to the corpses lying along the paths. In the beginning when we encountered the dead bodies we chased the vultures away and buried the dead in shallow graves. But soon there was no time to conduct burials as the enemy was on our heels.

Here we learn about the time-in-between, from the start of war to the time of safety-in-hiding. It is a period of walking through valleys to the belly of the mountains. It is, it can’t be stressed enough, the voice of an ordinary person, a voice not often heard; a voice between those of the victors describing their conquest and those of the journalists reporting through their biases. The voices on either side of Nombhosho’s are often the loudest, the most revered and the most highly acclaimed. The paragraph above continues:

We were weak and emaciated from lack of food. We were almost like corpses ourselves and I suspect the vultures were aware of our weak physical condition and were biding their time knowing we could drop dead anytime.

Previously-unheard voices lead us to previously-unknown spaces in Eyes in the Night. Life in the caves, for example: a space between the danger of war and the hoped-for freedom of its end. Here was a transitional space, too, literally and figuratively, because it was the space between ownership of land and enslavement by the whites. What does the space between peace and war, freedom and bondage feel and look like? Eyes in the Night answers this question with eloquence and in detail.

Beyond the caves, Nombhosho’s voice illuminates another space and time in-between: it is the voice of someone encountering white people for the first time. Such encounters are predominantly documented in the reverse, as most writing on these meeting zones has been from the perspectives of settlers and missionaries, or black people who were converted, or those who played the middle-person role between black and white—interpreters such as Katie Makanya. Reading Nombhosho’s story in its minute detail—for instance, her shock and confusion at the foreigners’s insistence that black people cover their bodies—is fascinating:

Where there was supposed to be hair, I saw something like sisal plant strands hanging down from his head to his neck. I was convinced I was looking at a ghost and this was happening in broad daylight. I was so scared I couldn’t bring myself to continue looking at him.

The man knelt on one knee next to a chair and began praying. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what prayer was.

I refused to sleep on the bed fearing that I would fall off.

At that point he dropped the newspaper on the floor, raised his face and looked at us. I almost fainted. His eyes were green like a mamba’s and his nose was long and sharp as though it had been chiseled.

In her Prologue, Mathiane reflects on how little she knew about the Zulu side of her family before writing the book. This contrasts with my own upbringing in Natal, where I had, from childhood, an abundant familiarity with most of this history: from the names of the kings and chiefs—amakhosi nezinduna—of amaZulu, to the landscape I have traversed—be it mountains or rivers—to the names of historically important people and the grand narratives of wars, regiments and commanders, all of which come with a generalised, proud tone of the bravery (some would say perceived supremacy) of amaZulu. As a child I could rattle off ‘Izibongo zenkosi uShaka’ by rote, and I remember performing the poem while in primary school. The very first stage play I watched was ‘Ukufa kwenkosi uShaka’ (King Shaka’s death). It was one of the most exciting family events I ever experienced. My siblings and I had front row seats at the Ndaleni Teacher Training College, where my father taught. I later learned that my father was a scriptwriter for the play; the reason we got such first class treatment. In my teen years I read many a novel written in isiZulu—by men—about amaZulu.

As I grew older and more politically conscious I felt the need, first, to piece together logically in my head the historical narratives I had been told, and second, to understand better this received wisdom of the greatness of amaZulu. I started looking for narratives that were in opposition to the narrative of grandeur with which amaZulu are often presented. I found and read a fair number of books about Zulu commanders, battles that amaZulu had fought, and who had killed whom in the fight to take over as king. I found very few books written from the perspective of women, but those there are happen to be in conversation with Mathiane’s book in interesting ways.

I’ve mentioned Paulina Dlamini: Servant of Two Kings in this respect. Eyes in the Night is also in conversation with Margaret McCord’s The Calling of Katie Makanya: A Memoir of South Africa (Wiley, 1995): both are narratives of women’s lives in the land of amaZulu. Mathiane is in conversation with her elder sister Albertinah, who had a direct relationship with her grandmother Nombhosho, unlike Mathiane. The Calling of Katie Makanya uses a tape recording of an interview between McCord and Katie, who was over eighty years old at the time. Both books value memory as a significant carrier of history. Interestingly, in 2016, the year in which Eyes in the Night was published, Zubeida Jaffer’s biography of Katie Makanya’s sister Charlotte, Beauty of the Heart: The Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, was also published, a product of archival research. The two sisters’ lives, although vastly different from Nombhosho’s life, matter in a time when biography, autobiography and books of life writing generally are dominated by the stories of men.

Eyes in the Night is also in conversation with Rebecca Hourwich Reyher’s Zulu Woman: The Life Story of Christina Sibiya (originally 1948; most recently by The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1999). Both books tell the story of a woman who rebelled and ran away. Nombhosho absconded from a farm at night, risking everything, including the dangers of the natural world. Christina asserted her individual freedom by leaving an abusive polygamous marriage to a king. She was the first wife of King Solomon Zulu (by this time colonialists insisted that the ‘King’ be called ‘Chief’, as the word ‘King’ was to be reserved for English royalty—colonies, dominions and territories not having the same status) and she left him, with his sixty-four wives, for good in 1931. Reyher relied on a white interpreter, Eric Fynner, to interview Christina over the period of a month.

Stories of organised women’s groups and movements speak to the power of the collective voice and what possibilities for freedom this voice allows. In these two books we read about the power of individual women who gain individual freedom.

Eyes in the Night is also in conversation with Not Either an Experimental Doll: The Separate Worlds of Three South African Women (1987) edited by a South African historian, Shula Marks, who happened upon the papers of Dr Mabel Palmer at the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban. Marks assembled the letters, a record of correspondence between three women, Mabel Palmer, Lily Moya and Sibusisiwe Makhanya, and in her introduction writes about the hidden nature of women’s lives and stories—the very fact of which Mathiane’s book responds to. In the letters we learn about the ordinary lives of two black women, a story of a sisterhood of sorts that begins in 1949—in Nombhosho’s lifetime.

The stories in these five books unfolded during a period in which black women in South Africa were not in a position to tell their own stories or have them published. The suppression of black people’s voices, and women’s voices in particular, extended to all spheres of life during the periods of the Union of South Africa, which began in 1910, and the apartheid rule of the Nationalist Party of the Afrikaners, which began in 1948. This is before Helen Nontando Jabavu, known as Noni, wrote and published her first memoir, Drawn in Colour: African Contrasts, in 1960, thus becoming the first black South African woman to publish a book, albeit by John Murray in London, where Noni was living.

Eyes in the Night is also in conversation with a more recent book, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi’s The Land is Ours: South Africa’s First Black Lawyers and the Birth of Constitutionalism (Penguin Random House, 2018), a work of archival research. Both books render in print the often neglected minutia of the impact of colonial laws on ordinary people’s lives. From Eyes in the Night:

In the absence of the king, the white people were in total authority. To rub salt into our wounds they introduced onongqayi, policemen. The concept of policing the community was alien to us. Communities knew the dos and don’ts. We did not have prisons in which to keep wrongdoers.

In The Land is Ours we learn about the cases of land invasions and theft that black lawyers took up in support of their clients, who were the kinds of ordinary people we read about in Eyes in the Night. Two of the six lawyers discussed in the book, Richard Msimang and Pixley ka Isaka Seme, were born and bred in either Natal or Zululand, and had personal experience of the negative impact of these laws, which inspired them, later, to take up work on such cases. It is in reading the details of these cases that the dialogue between Eyes in the Night and The Land is Ours becomes palpable. In an interesting way The Land is Ours becomes the supporting evidence for Eyes in the Night.

Oral history narratives rely on memory for their telling. Memory: fraught and complicated and subjective as we know it to be. Archival research relies on the subjective decisions of those controlling the archive, those who decide what is worth archiving and what is not, fraught and complicated as we have learned this to be. Some archival evidence is also founded upon subjective actions and naming practices. Oral history narratives are sometimes mediated by in-betweeners, like Fynner and Bourquin in the books mentioned above. What is lost during translation and interpretation? What filters through, and how? And prior to the writing of anything also sits the subjective decision of what to write about.

Mathiane’s mediator was her sister Ahh, who was relying on her memory, but Mathiane uses a first person narrator, as if it is Nombhosho herself speaking. She alternates between Nombhosho and herself as Mathiane, telling her story as the researcher, the interviewer and the writer. As a professional journalist, Mathiane’s skills in probing are demonstrated through the depth of her sister Ahh’s responses. Journalism being a profession founded on substantiation, Mathiane reflects on the fact-checking she needed to undertake to be certain—as certain as possible—about her story.

The most fascinating aspect of Eyes in the Night for me is how the story spans over four generations: the story of Nombhosho’s mother, ‘Mother’ Makhoba, for example, is told by Nombhosho through the voice of her granddaughter Ahh, who, with her sister Nomavenda Mathiane, also tells the story of their mother Joana, Nombhosho’s daughter. Put differently, the writer of the narrative (Mathiane) is a family member of the mediator (Albertina/Ahh, assisted by their cousin, Mjabhi Cebekhulu) who are also family members of the person (Nombhosho) whose story is being told. What was lost in Ahh’s narration of Nombhosho’s story? How accurately did Mathiane reconstruct and write the story? Whatever the answers to these questions, it is the story of the Makhoba clan, told by its people, for themselves and those of us ready to hear it.

The relevance of Eyes in the Night when discussions, debates and conversations about decolonisation as a broad topic, and land as a specific one, are so high on the agenda is immense. Mathiane provides readers with crucial details that help one understand the granularity, the base mechanics of colonisation, as expressed in occupation and invasion, land grabs, and how black people were turned into labourers for whites at the stroke of pen. Eyes in the Night may be specific to a geographical area, but it provides instructive examples for these nationwide conversations.

Nombhosho’s life story corresponds to the reigns in KwaZulu of Kings Mpande, Cetshwayo, Dinizulu, Solomon and Bhekuzulu. She died in 1962, while Bhekuzulu was holding the reins. Anyone keen to learn about an ordinary woman’s gaze upon these kings is likely to gain from reading this book. Historians seeking hidden stories, feminists seeking stories told from the perspectives of women on the lives of women, and practitioners and facilitators of creative non-fiction seeking unusual narrative styles will also benefit from reading Eyes in the Night.

Nombhosho’s story is one of in-between-ness amid grand narratives. It is also a story of the prophetic nature of her given name, uNombhosho, one who would ‘come out of any situation fast and unscathed, like a bullet’. It is a story of triumph. Mathiane ends Nombhosho’s story in this way:

I am proud to say I come from a stock of people who fought gallantly to save their land. There are those who will argue it was a futile exercise because the odds were stacked against the Zulus. For me, it is with a deep sense of pride to know that our regiments gave it their all.

I highly recommend this book to anyone wishing to learn from the perspective of someone who lived through the period of the systematic entrenchment of white rule in South Africa. Mathiane clearly gave her all in the research and writing of this reconstructed narrative. She offers us an opportunity to look back and learn from specifics. When we do look back, and choose to learn, we stand a better chance of charting a variously informed future. Eyes in the Night is therefore a laudable contribution to the national project against erasure.

3 thoughts on “The hidden history of an ordinary umZulu woman who asserted her freedom—Makhosazana Xaba reviews Nomavenda Mathiane’s Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story”

  1. Mntanami Makhosazana,
    I am so touched by what you have written regarding my book. If you can see me now (as the song goes) I have goose pimples all over my arms and my heart is beating very fast, something that is not good for someone who has (i high-high).
    I would appreciate if you could call me so that I may thank you properly with a hug and maybe a kiss. Ngiyabonga, ukwanda kwaliwa umthakathi.

    NomaVenda Carol Khumalo/Mathiane

  2. This sounds like an interesting book that fills a gap in the story of SA. I’ve ordered a copy so thanks for bringing it to our attention:)
    Lisa Hill, Australia

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