‘Whatever Sobhuza does, he ensures that he leaves no trace’—Read an excerpt from Mandla Langa’s forthcoming novel The Lost Language of the Soul

The JRB presents an exclusive excerpt from The Lost Language of the Soul, the new novel by EAP member Mandla Langa, which will be published in October.

The Lost Language of the Soul
Mandla Langa
Pan Macmillan, 2021

It all starts in the summer of 1985. It must be Sunday because everyone is dressed in what Sobhuza calls church clothes. It’s a pleasant afternoon and they are out in the garden, the sky a clear blue. Emmanuel, who hates staying out in the sun on account of someone’s advice that the sun would darken his already dark skin tone, sits in the shade under the huge rubber tree, keeping an eye on both Mulilo and Banji. Because Emmanuel prefers being alone, has voiced how he enjoys his own company, Joseph picks on him.

‘What are you reading?’ Joseph flips the book over to read the back cover. ‘Child of the Owl, oh, aren’t you too young to be reading this?’

‘Give me back the book,’ Emmanuel snaps, snatching the book out of Joseph’s grasp. ‘Leave me alone.’

‘You want to go woo-woo …’ Joseph has just started on his impression of an owl with his hands cupped around his mouth when he notices Emmanuel’s gaze lifting to settle on something behind him. Whirling around, Joseph almost collides with his father. ‘Sorry, sir.’

‘Careful, Jojo.’ Although Sobhuza’s expression is stern, there’s a hint of amusement in his voice. ‘Leave your brother alone to his books and help me with these.’

‘These’ are four chairs, two held back-to-back in each hand, which alerts Joseph to the imminent arrival of visitors. This had been a usual affair on Sundays but was discontinued at first by the onset of winter, which had been especially vicious; and then the break had been lengthened by Sobhuza’s absences. His father was the engine that drove social engagements, which was a puzzle, really, because the Sunday visitors were almost all from Chanda’s side of the family. Few South Africans ever paid casual visits; somehow Sobhuza’s life is controlled in a manner that he only allows into his life, or the life of his family, what he can manage. Everything Sobhuza does is for a specific purpose; even on those rare walks with the boys, and except for a cursory nod, Joseph has never seen him stopping to chat with other men or, as is normal with other fathers, simply going to the sports ground and kicking a ball just for the hell of it. Or, as the South African boys at school put it when expressing something that didn’t necessarily have to make sense … just nje

‘Is school okay?’ Sobhuza is crouched on his haunches, using a hammer to the underside of a trestle table. ‘Are you managing?’

Joseph stammers an answer; he is managing. He doesn’t want to tell Sobhuza that his age-mates at school torment him about his father’s disappearances. Sobhuza has been absent in a number of the parent-teacher meetings, which, Joseph knows, are just a platform for the principal to share his vision with parents. It is a big affair where Mr Muzonda, who, while threatening to take names of those parents who missed his sessions, never passes up an opportunity to inform anyone within earshot that he once headed the University of Zambia’s debating team. I’ll take names. Mark my word. 

Joseph avoids a direct question. ‘Do you go to many places?’ 

‘We have to travel a lot. One day I’ll tell you the reason behind it all. I can only say that the world is in a bad state. And we’re trying to do something about it.’ 

‘The world?’ Joseph has an unclear notion of the world, always unable to look at the map of Zambia and relate it to the ball that spins on its axis atop the bookshelf in the classroom where Ma’am Ndawo teaches Geography. At the same time, he has a sense of the world as something represented by people that speak different languages. The number of people that make up the population of the world is staggering. Also, why don’t the people in China fall off into space? And so, how can anyone do something about the world? What is that something? 

‘Your mind has to grow so that all these things can make sense.’ 

‘Is it to sort out apartheid?’ At least he has heard the story told many times at school. We are on the cusp of defeating imperialism and apartheid. 

‘More or less.’ Sobhuza regards his son, a look of something inexplicably tender crossing his face. He closes his eyes as if fighting off a thought or, perhaps, imprisoning it behind his eyelids. He shrugs. ‘Let’s get the food.’

The smell of food prevails on Sunday afternoon, taking over everything, wafting across the yard and causing the neighbour’s dogs to yelp in yearning. Sobhuza has prepared a feast and could not have chosen a better Sunday afternoon. Ranged around the rough timber table under the shade of a giant rubber tree, Chanda’s relatives, who include Mulubwa, Aunt Thelma, Agrippa and his wife, Taona, start their marathon feast with a prayer, whereupon Agrippa pours a measure of vodka on the red ground as a libation to the ancestors. Now that both the God of the Holy Bible and the forebears have been adequately soothed, the hungry family members can start eating. Joseph, Emmanuel, Banji and Mulilo occupy their own little table, which they share with Agrippa and Taona’s children, their cousins. 

Sobhuza, a most genial host, offers the children the Mazoe cordial mixed with ice water in plastic tumblers; the big people are lavishly supplied with the harder brews. Sobhuza goes on to tell a short story of the time he went to a restaurant on Chachacha Road, where he ordered orange juice. The waiter returned with a glass of emerald cordial. When Sobhuza insisted that he wanted orange juice, the waiter retorted, ‘Ah, but-ty, sah, this is green orange juice.’ The visitors crack up, Agrippa most volubly, although seemingly not quite getting the joke. Taona smiles shyly while Aunt Thelma laughs and leans across to clap Sobhuza on the shoulder as Chanda looks on, her face impassive. 

When the time for food comes, Sobhuza retreats into the kitchen and returns wearing an apron and a chef’s hat, which reminds Joseph of the lesson on drama at school, why actors choose costumes that can enrich their roles or help them remain unseen throughout the play. He has a sense of his father’s dress as a means to take attention away from himself. 

He can cook, Sobhuza can. Uncle Agrippa says as much: Sobhuza knows exactly how to titillate the palate. At ‘titillate’ the children giggle behind their hands and Aunt Thelma and Chanda exchange glances. Chanda’s folks go ooh and aah over the dishes that come out of the kitchen. Even Mulubwa: Joseph has an idea that she might be conflicted about Sobhuza, perhaps, like all mothers-in-law, unsure about what to make of her daughter’s choice in marriage. He sometimes catches her giving Sobhuza a sidelong glance. 

Possibly sensing this, in the fashion of a cat that crosses the room to rub itself against the one person averse to her, Sobhuza outdoes himself in producing Mulubwa’s favourite dishes. He knows her preference for nshima prepared with cassava rather than with maize meal or millet. He ensures she is the first taster, spooning tidbits onto a side plate for her to taste, alerting her to the consistency of the meal, the nshima that is neither crumbly nor stiff, but bouncy like a ball. A spicy goat meat stew, chicken, butter beans, playfully called umadum’ezinqeni for generating gases, the subsequent release of which results in a series of loud blasts; kapenta sardines, vegetables that include groundnuts and sweet potatoes accompany the staple, the serving table exploding with colour and aromas. 

From their vantage point, a little removed from the adults, Joseph and his more boisterous—and hungrier—relatives tuck into the food. The adults chide the youngsters against using cutlery. ‘You use your fingers to eat this type of food.’ 

Getting quite tipsy, Uncle Agrippa shreds a piece of pumpkin leaf and then rolls it around a handful of nshima soaked in goat stew and plops it into his mouth. And, after a show of wide-eyed chewing and swallowing that involves letting the Adam’s apple bob up and down, he belches. ‘There.’ 

There follows a spell of silence of undiluted enjoyment, punctuated by the sound of lips smacking with relish. Mulubwa then puts into words what was in the minds of the others. 

‘Ah, Sobhuza, my son. You were not named after a king for nothing. You really know how to please people.’ 

‘Let’s have another round of drinks,’ Agrippa says. Taona gives him a look. As if wanting to break the tension, Sobhuza launches into a story. 

‘We were travelling to a conference in Congo Brazzaville,’ he starts, ‘two colleagues, one Zimbabwean, another Zambian. As we take off, Chisha, my friend from Zambia, breaks out with a few bottles of Mosi beer. I still don’t know how he got them on the Angolan carrier. He says to us: “You don’t know how to drink. I’ll show you how to hammer the Mosi.” By the time we stopped over in Luanda, he was out cold, the Mosi had hammered him!’ 

More laughter. Agrippa does a deceptively funny impression of Kenneth Kaunda chastising his countrymen: ‘I will not lead a nation of drunkards …’ 

By now, however, everyone has forgotten about Sobhuza the host. He has participated in conversations but only in a manner to register a presence. Clearing the table, he signals for Chanda to continue with the entertainment of the guests and murmurs something before popping into the kitchen. After an hour at the sink, there’s no trace in the house that there has been a feast. Whatever Sobhuza does, Joseph notices, he ensures that he leaves no trace. 

Sobhuza leaves again, two days later. It’s not clear when he’ll come back. 

  • Mandla Langa was born in Durban, grew up in KwaMashu, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Wits University. In 1991 he was awarded the Arts Council of Great Britain Bursary for creative writing, the first for a South African. Langa’s published works include the award-winning The Lost Colours of the Chameleon (2008) and The Texture of Shadows (2014).


Publisher information

‘A tremendous achievement. With insight and literary flair Langa forges a vision of the humane out of the violence, bloodshed and treachery of South Africa’s transition to democracy. This beautifully nuanced account of the liberation struggle is a must-read.’—Zoë Wicomb

‘This is a brilliant quest novel, in which Joseph Mabaso embarks on a journey of self-knowledge. By the by, he meets his unlikely Virgils, who serve as his guides: Sobhuza, a freedom fighter; Chikwedere, a stonecutter and illicit trader; Madala, who helps him to home in on his own voice; Leila and her horses; and Auntie Susie Juma, the unofficial Zambian ambassador in Yeoville, Johannesburg. Each of these Dantean characters, in some way, assists Joseph Mabaso in bringing his daring quest to a soul-stirring end.’—Nuruddin Farah

‘If I disappeared, I’d expect my children to search for me high and low. A mother disappearing goes against the laws of nature. Fathers disappear all the time; it’s their speciality.’

Langa captures with poignancy the perspective of a vulnerable yet determined child and the clashing emotions within him as he seeks to reunite his family.

Joseph Mabaso is used to his father Sobhuza’s long absences from the family home in Lusaka. Sobhuza is a freedom fighter and doing important work, and Joseph has learned not to ask questions. But when Chanda, his mother, disappears without a trace, leaving him and his siblings alone, Joseph knows that something is terribly wrong.

And so begins a journey, physically arduous, dangerous and emotionally fraught, that no fourteen-year-old boy should have to undertake alone.

As Joseph navigates unfamiliar and often hostile territory in his search for his parents, he is on a parallel journey of discovery—one of identity and belonging—as he attempts to find a safe house that is truly safe, a language that understands all languages, and a place in his soul that feels like home.

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