In the Eastern Cape, Stephen (Malusi) Mzamane, a young Anglican priest, must journey to his mother’s rural home to inform her of his elder brother’s death.
First educated at the Native College in Grahamstown, Stephen was sent to England in 1869 for training at the Missionary College in Canterbury. But on his return to South Africa, relegated to a dilapidated mission near Fort Beaufort, he had to confront not only the prejudices of a colonial society but the discrimination within the Church itself.
Conflicted between his loyalties to the amaNgqika people, for whom his brother fought, and the colonial cause he as Reverend Mzamane is expected to uphold, Stephen’s journey to his mother’s home proves decisive in resolving the contradictions that tear at his heart.
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Review This Product
Mon, 4 Nov 2019 | Review by: Breakaway R
Wrenchingly and emotional story that explores the complexity of history and family.
Over fifty years ago, Marguerite Poland’s great uncle told her ‘the poignant story of a young man at his grandfather’s mission station in the Eastern Cape.’ It was the story of Reverend Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama. It ‘lodged in her heart’ and half a century later, it has finally ‘found an expression’.
The Rev Stephen Malusi Mzamane in Poland’s book is not the original Stephen, but it was Mnyakama’s life that inspired this book. The story itself has in turn been informed by and grown from a marathon of research. Research that had its origins in the Cory Library in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) and took her all the way, amongst other places, to the Missionary College in Canterbury, England wherein 1869, fresh from the Native College in Grahamstown the young Stephen Mzamane was sent to study.
Two things were key to his sojourn at Canterbury: one was his firm friendship with the boisterous young Albert Newnham. Until that is, ‘Bertie’ falls in love with Unity, daughter of respected Precentor Dr Wills. The other is a photograph: a portrait of ‘Kaffir Woman’ that was, in a sense, to both comforts and haunted him throughout his life.
On his premature return to South Africa, Stephen is posted to Nodyoba, a mission station as humble and far removed from his dreams as is possible. But this is not all he has to contend with. There is the tension between him and his accomplished, rakish and prominent older brother Mzamo – who, had it not been for his fiery spirit should have been the one sent to England.
There is the conflict of loyalty between his traditional heritage and his learned, deep commitment to God and his missionary vows. Simply put, a clash between ‘the ancestors and the angels.’ More cruelly there is the judgemental mindset of the colonial missionaries and their wives (amongst them Albert’s Unity). Whilst Poland makes no judgements herself, the words and deeds of her characters speak volumes about hypocrisy, prejudice and power.
The betrayals are almost too numerous to bear, but most difficult for Stephen is his brother’s infidelity which leaves him impossibly divided. That and the apparent schism in his friendship with Albert. But as a foundling (Stephen went astray as a child which is why he originally came to be taken in by missionaries), he has been estranged and distanced from his beloved, rural and anguished mother for the better part of his life. Towards the end of the book, he is duty-bound to take her a letter with the worst imaginable tidings and is forced to make a choice.
In the context of modern-day South Africa, this is a wrenchingly emotional story to revisit. But the multi-award-winning Poland has done what she set out to do, to immortalise the original Rev Stephen, vindicate him and give him his rightful place in history. Be sure to read with care, understanding – and possibly a box of tissues. Poland’s writing is as poignant as the story itself.
Woman Zone Cape Town received a copy of the book to review, on behalf of Breakaway Reviewers.
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