Wally Serote: Cooking of a different kind

2013-06-30 14:00

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It’s been only two years since Mongane Wally Serote’s last novel, Revelations, proving this globally celebrated poet remains determined to establish himself as a novelist.

He’s recently explained that he’s accepted the limitations of poetry. He is now trying to describe what’s happening in the country by portraying “the lives of the masses” and he believes the novel genre does this best.

Much like in Revelations (and much like Serote’s own history in the struggle), the protagonist in Rumours, Keke, is an Umkhonto weSizwe veteran.

Keke is married, has two children and seems to have landed in the butter as the CEO of a mobile phone company. It seems everything he’d once dreamt of as a liberation soldier is now a reality, and most of his friends too appear comfortable, enjoying the fruits of post-apartheid South Africa.

But of course, this being a novel, and with Serote’s greatest influence being Chinua Achebe, things soon fall apart. He loses his job, his wife leaves with the kids, and it’s not long before the only friend Keke seems to have left is a bottle of booze.

The house goes next, he wanders about as a vagrant and finally ends up in hospital. His spiral of self-destruction is radical and shocking, and it makes a mockery of the suburban, white-picket-fence dream Keke had been living.

And it’s in his dreams that the root of his problems reveal themselves, which he calls “rumours of a reality that was not yet understood ... ”

The start of Keke’s revival comes in the form of a great spiritual journey undertaken to Mali, thanks to a meeting with a traditional healer, Ami. She assists him to find guidance from his ancestors and be healed in a way he has been crying out for, without being able to identify the root of his malaise.

Serote is, of course, himself a trained sangoma, so none of this should come as a surprise.

At his book launch last week, he related the personal story of how, when he was imprisoned for his black consciousness beliefs in 1970 for nine months, his mother suggested he see a Catholic priest to try to come to terms with his trauma.

He also tried a psychiatrist, but in the end the only thing that seemed to help was turning to his ancestors and following traditional African rituals.

“We cook you where I come from,” he says, a process that involves repeatedly talking about what you want and what is troubling you – an approach to therapy that has a curious overlap with some of what happens in Scientology.

This “cooking”, is exactly what happens to Keke in Rumours. In Mali, Ami’s father, Kanore, together with his many children and wives, help Keke to be cooked and cleansed in a series of ancient rituals.

For an author with Serote’s ambitions, his pen also does not merely delineate the life of Keke. He also explores the aftermath of a teen suicide after a school pupil engages in a so-called demonic sex orgy.

And there’s the prostitute, Nomsa, who must learn to love herself enough to commit to a relationship with a man who appears less troubled by her difficult profession than she is.

Serote’s writing style is often surprisingly minimalist, hiding the odd jewel of poetic language, as with a phrase like: “... his body oozing sweat from a million pores”. His first collection of poems, Yakhal’Inkomo, was published in 1972, and there’s a sense that Serote has also been cooking himself through his writing ever since he personally embraced spiritual remedies.

His writing perhaps remains the most spiritual of all his acts. This is one way of approaching an understanding of his inspiration for how and why he built Freedom Park in Pretoria in the way he has (he’s explained the park is an attempt to cleanse some of the evil in the African soil, which has been so deeply soaked in blood) and why he recommends that people go back to living more traditionally, in harmony with nature.

He even recommends using the ideas of the sangoma Credo Mutwa as a guide.

Doubtless then, Serote is by no means a modernist, though his concerns are rooted in trying to find solutions for current problems. For one, while he may declare he still writes as an ANC cadre, he is critical of many of the party’s current policies, as well as its apparent loss of ground among the youth and the country’s service-delivery troubles.

As one character tells Keke towards the end of Rumours: “I was thinking the other day about how the struggle and exile had dislocated us from our families and relatives ... We are so torn apart as a society.”

It’s this desire to debate and discuss a range of topics that has the book ending with an approach that dominated the earlier novel Revelations – long conversations with various views put forward by characters. This is part of why Keke ends up as part of a large community of friends who seem to help him become a better comrade, father and husband.

Their discussions range from conflict to reconciliation, love to lust and trust, the roles of men and women in family and relationships, culture, art, music, wealth and poverty, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the legacies of apartheid and injustice, African tradition versus Western civilisation, Aids, the African Renaissance, xenophobia and many other issues affecting Africa, which have never been more relevant.

Serote’s reinvigorated embrace of the novel form (this is now his fifth) offers a reasonably direct and revealing window into Serote’s thoughts and, whether you agree with them or not, Serote, at 69, unquestionably remains as vibrant and creative a mind as he’s ever been.

Rumours by Mongane Wally Serote


256 pages; R178

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