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REVIEW | Barbara Masekela memoir is destined to become a classic

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Barbara Masekela (Photo: Melinda Stuurman)
Barbara Masekela (Photo: Melinda Stuurman)

After reading three pages, I know this is a book I'll keep. It is likely to become one of Africa's great classic memoirs, shining beside those of Sol Plaatje, Deneys Reitz, Ellen Khuzwayo, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela. (Add your own favourites.)

In Poli Poli, Barbara Masekela, well-known for her role in the ANC, in Mandela's presidential office after 1994 and as ambassador first to France and then to the United States, shows us the era of her childhood, her first 22 years. To many, she is known primarily as the sister of Bra Hugh Masekela, legendary trumpeter and jazz musician.

Her brisk, swift and compact style can also change to sweeping and elegant. KwaGuqa, the "place of kneeling" that is Witbank location, is where her memories begin. Here, her Ouma Bower, after a mysterious sojourn in Kimberley, has built a solid house with keys in the doors, ceilings and a garden. Ouma Johanna, or Jwanna or Jwi, is of the Ndzundza Ndebele chiefdom, who were scattered in the conflicts of the 19th century, ending up indentured, or tenant farmers on farms, or taking refuge at the Lutheran missions of the eastern Transvaal. Ouma Jwanna's life is never fully known, but she marries a Scotsman, Walter Bower, and Afrikaans is her home language, from her childhood in Boer kitchens. She is a staunch Lutheran but makes sure Barbara and Hugh attend the Anglican church. Barbara lives with her for 12 years, seeing her parents for weekend visits that are announced by telegrams delivered by a man on a bicycle.

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