Review by Ishmael Mzwandile Soqaga
Here is a phenomenal novel that presents an interesting tale of certain women who honestly waited and longed for the return of their husbands after a long departure. Overall, the novel comprises of part one and part two respectively. Njabulo Ndebele has creatively succeeded to establish such astronomical and glamorous novel that authentically whets the appetite. Apparently, the novel is one of the ilks of fine literary works that fascinate dramatically. Created by an African writer, academic, Professor and essentially it will remain one of the most resounding novels to be produced by an African.
Part one of the novel unfolds with the descendant of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus who had waited for nineteen years for the return of her husband. “While waiting, Penelope had to bear the agony of persistent advances by countless suitors among the nobility of Ithaca. They all wanted her hand in marriage. In an unspeakable insult to her privacy, some of these men, in an effort to wear her down, shamelessly camped at her house.”
This invasion was of course equally an insult to the honour of her absent husband.
But where was he?
“He will never come back!” the persistent suitors pressed their demands. “Surely, he is dead” they said to this waiting wife, poking at her vulnerabilities, tossing her this way and that, in an open field of uncertainty and anxiety, testing the limits of her love, loyalty, and faith.
It didn’t work
Penelope spurned them all...
In fact the author relates his novel to Penelope with other women who have similar experiences of longing and waiting for the return of their husbands after a long absence. He precisely refers to these women as the descendant of Penelope, from the first descendant to the fourth one. However, in wealth of detail we see in part two of the novel the essentials mentioning the participation of Winnie Mandela.
The First Descendant
Harsh realities of poverty in Lesotho make Lejone Mofolo to leave his country to search for a living to bolster his family. Leaving behind his wife and children was not an easy thing. Of course, it was a very difficult decision to make however; circumstances compelled him to do so. Drought, unprecedented poverty, unproductive land to yield maize, lack of rain etc pose a daunting situation for their survival. Felicitous, Lejone Mofolo manages to get the job in the mines as was a common thing at that time. At first he repudiates to allow city life to allure him to forget his wife. He will diligently send money and pay regular visits to his wife and he obviously desired to have his wife s photo as other co-workers in the hostel have them. But things begin to change when he adapted to city life, changing language and use township accent. He forgets to pay those regular visits to Lesotho, settles in Benoni, eThwatwa with another woman and starts another family. At home in Lesotho his real wife begins to be overwhelmed with consternation and many tentative questions lead her to break the law of Penelope of waiting for Odysseus. She goes to the city to search for her husband but her efforts are a complete miscarriage – she cannot find her husband.
The Second Descendant
A young man at the age of thirty –five got scholarship to study in overseas. He was a married man with two children and he wished that his young beautiful wife could join him in overseas. Probably it was impossible. His wife was very skilled and she always supported her husband while in the meantime she is still waiting for her husband. After many years - six years waiting the East Rand township produced its first black medical doctor. It was not her husband. However she persists to wait for her husband. But surprisingly as she was waiting for her husband, in the tenth year of her husband’s medical studies, she discovers she is pregnant. In the twelfth year her husband finally completes his studies and returns home in the fourteenth year to find a four year old child. Six months after his return, he divorces her. She has been honestly supportive, and waited for her husband but her husband accused her of infidelity and abandoned her.
Another reeling waiting begins when the couples were teens. Mamello had to wait for her husband since their teen years. Growing together, playing together and essentially attending the school together until they graduated and get married. However, something whimsical happened when Mamello had to wait for her husband to return home. She waited and waited and never realized about the departure of her husband, but later on she discovers that her husband went to exile for political purpose. She continued to be patient and committed herself to take responsibility to look after her husband s aged parents. Eventually, after ten years of waiting, his husband was jailed for fifteen years in Robben Island. Subsequently her husband was released but he never returned home and she had to wait but only to discover later that her husband has married a white woman and ultimately Mamello was divorced. .
Her concern was her Odysseus to be loyal and remain at home; however in contrast her husband was not at home as a married man. But he openly “sleeps around”. In the meanwhile as she waits, her husband finally died and she buried him with a casket giving him a decent funeral.
The part two of the novel narrates how the four descendants met and gathered together to share their experiences about their predicament. The women chit-chatted very emotionally and Mamello came with the proposal to talk about Winnie Madikizela Nomzamo Mandela. She argued that it will be apposite to talk about her as she waited too. The women declared Winnie Nomzamo Zanyiwe Mandela as a member of ibandla labafazi abalindile. Eventually all these woman confabulated and expressed anything pertinent to their situation as ‘women waited’ with Winnie and at the very same time Winnie responded positively to their interlocution. In conclusion of the novel we see the women with Winnie Mandela heading east for Durban and on the road they meet with a stranger. “Women, are you Penelope?” Winnie asks in absolute astonishment.
“None other, my dear,” says the stranger. “For more than two thousand years I have been on a pilgrimage of reconciliation. On the morning after our first night together in nineteen years of absence, Odysseus decided to leave me again to perform cleansing rituals to forestall possible evil strife following his brutal slaying of my shameless suitors.
“Well, he left, but it has never been told that when he returned, I was gone. I went on my own cleansing pilgrimage. Odysseus should not have left like that on that special morning when I was still learning to savour his return. He should have shown more sensitivity…
Apparently, this is one of the transcendent novels that when one concludes to read one will be overwhelmed with lot of euphoria considering the prodigious flair of the author. Utterly mesmerizing! Moreover, this is a novel that must be relished with great delectation. Its construction, the style and contents are explicitly remarkable. Njabulo Ndebele is one of the few African intellectuals who continue to write stunning books with profound enthusiasm. His exhilarating books conspicuously evince the fact that he is one of the top classic African writers.
The Cry of Winnie Mandela although it is a novel, but it wittingly gives an emotional picture of women who affectionately waited for the return of their husbands. Albeit it furnishes the most important details about South Africa, city life and rural life like in the case of Lejone Mofole and Mannete his wife, Delisiwe Dulcie S’ khosana, Winnie Mandela etc . The novel reveals how likely womens marriages are affected in particular when the man is absent for very long time. Indeed it is a wonderful novel to relish and inevitably Njabulo Ndebele remains stupendous and credible as the one of the extraordinary writers in Africa. Using European literature, impressive allusions, biographies and other sources to concoct a novel in African context patently demonstrates the ability of the author as an illustrious and veritable writer with palatable literary prowess.
Works by Njabulo Ndebele
Fine Lines from the Box: Further Thoughts About Our Country, 2007
Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South African Literature and Culture, 1991, Reissued 2006
Fools and Other Stories, 1983, reissued 2006
The Cry of Winnie Mandela, 2004
Umpropheti/The Prophetess, 1999
Death of a Son, 1996
Bonolo and the Peach Tree, 1994
Sarah, Rings, and I, 1993