It takes a village: Sindiwe Magona on her new novel

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Sindiwe Magona isn't afraid to tackle uncomfortable social issues - as she demonstrates in her new book, When the Village Sleeps. (PHOTO: Bjorn Rudner)
Sindiwe Magona isn't afraid to tackle uncomfortable social issues - as she demonstrates in her new book, When the Village Sleeps. (PHOTO: Bjorn Rudner)

The literary icon’s latest offering, When the Village Sleeps, is told by multiple generations of amaTolo women: the living-dead, a child who is not yet formed in the human flesh and the protagonist who brings these spirits to intervene in the present through her choices. 

Why do you choose to write stories about people living in rural areas and townships who are often marginalised?

The stories I tell are stories that come to me. How? Because I am of those people. I may no longer live in the township but I have family and friends there.

So every week what has happened in my street and neighbourhood comes to me – who has died and how; who has gotten married; who has had a baby… People who were babies before, as are my children, are now the parenting generation. I’m now the grandparenting generation.

But the parenting generation in Gugulethu, in Nyanga, in Langa, some of them I knew as children. When I read the newspaper or listen to the news and hear “so many people got shot in NY this or that”, I can see that house [in my mind]. I know the mother who lived there. She was my mother’s generation. I know the children who were my age. I know their children who are now being massacred.

So this is, for me, my reality. I write about my reality. If it is painful, it is my pain. There’s no running away from that.

Tell us about Busi, one of your main characters, who lives with her mom in the backyard dwelling of her aunt’s RDP house in Kwanele township and falls pregnant at 13. 

Sadly, that character was given to me. Many, many years ago, I read the front page of my community newspaper, The False Bay Echo. Here is this 16-year-old, holding a baby. She is being interviewed by a social worker and she tells this story that she tried to get pregnant from when she was 13.

I’m not talking from any moralistic platform, I had three kids by 23. It’s from my knowing what that means from a personal point of view. In my day, we didn’t know about protection. Today you’re going to make the same silly, stupid mistake I made?

But she goes on, this young lady, she goes on to say, “I used to drink before I got pregnant. After I got pregnant, I started taking drugs.” In print, I’m reading this today?! Well, five, seven, years ago. “I wanted this baby to be deformed.” 

The book comes out of that, because the social worker ends this article by saying, “This is a growing trend in the townships – mothers deliberately maiming their unborn [so they are entitled to claim extra support grants].” 

I was shocked. Then angry – at her, then her mother, the people who knew her, the teachers…

I juxtaposed this story of evil against the generation before me. My mother’s generation. They never went to school but as soon as they were big-bellied, as soon as the red-blanketed one, the one who never went to school, the one who smoked that long pipe and drank umqombothi. As soon as she knew she was with child, she stopped drinking; she stopped smoking. 

If our foremothers knew this truth and had such huge love, what happened to us? Who have we become? What will happen in 50 years’ time? South Africa has the highest prevalence of [foetal alcohol spectrum disorder] in the world. We are now compounding it. No-one is held responsible for this. That’s where Busi comes from.

Busi’s child, Mandlakazi, who is born with foetal alcohol syndrome, does not seem to be fully of this world. Tell us about her.

You see thina [we], ma Afrika, believe in ancestors, therefore one is fully aware all the time that you are never alone. That’s where this deep-seated respect comes from. The respect of self is the awareness that you are surrounded by ngabadala [the ancestors] who guide you, who protect you, who are always there for you. You are never alone.

During times of hardship you should say, “Where are they? What are they trying to show me that bad luck seems to be with me? Have I abandoned them? Or have they abandoned me?” And you look for how you have disassociated. It comes down to looking into yourself: self-examination. To see how you may have erred from the path chosen for you.

We all have a path in life that was decided for us before we were born. We may go astray, but abadala [our ancestors] are there to guide us back. So there is the present – the people who are in flesh; there are those who have gone to the world of the spirit; there are those who are yet to come – the future.

Each generation – the flesh generation – is beholden to both. Because those before us have left us what we have. We come into this world with nothing. We know nothing… So uMandlakazi, yena, comes from the ancestral world. She agrees to come and be human because the ancestors say, “Where will this end? How will it end? Let’s intervene.”

As one reads her story, one becomes more hopeful as uKhulu, her grandmother, seems to be succeeding in her ministrations towards her as she discovers which plants to use to heal her in the village of Sidadweni, where she raises her.

Khulu has no idea she herself is being led by the same Mandlakazi who she thinks she is healing! All our strength and our marvel come from the divine. 

Which character did you find most relatable? 

As the Americans say: I plead the fifth! I plead the fifth! 


Sindiwe Magona is an author, storyteller, motivational speaker, poet, playwright, and actor. She has received numerous literary awards as well as awards in recognition of her work around women’s issues, the plight of children, and the fight against apartheid and racism. Dr Magona recently received the Ellen Kuzwayo Award as well as her third honorary doctorate, from Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha.

When the Village Sleeps, By Sindiwe Magona, publis
When the Village Sleeps, By Sindiwe Magona, published by Pan Macmillan

Sign up here to get our weekly books newsletter delivered directly to your inbox.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()