A portrait of the peri-urban: Review of Niq Mhlongo’s “Soweto Under the Apricot Tree” – Thulani Angoma-Mzini
his award-winning collection of short stories Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree, NiqMhlongo has collaged a portrait of the peri-urban and an assortment
of characters in quirky stories that explore a variety of topics; from paternity
to xenophobia, revolutionary politics and aspirations all the way to vigilantism.
And the curious case of one dead cat.
killed the cat’ is about the tension that builds between two neighbours from
the death of a cat. The feline strikes a colonial terror on Ousi Maria, the
domestic help of the Phala household. One fateful day his bullying sauntering
lands him in cold water and he drowns in the swimming pool. Then ensues the
tussle between African culture, with its non-filial connection to domestic pets,
and Western culture with its adoptive embrace of the cat and the dog. The story
juxtaposes the beliefs of one race against another as neighbours struggle to
is interested in the substitution of African beliefs and practices for
Christian faith and liturgy. In ‘My Father’s Eyes’ a woman is shocked when her
Christian husband consults a traditional healer to establish the cause of their
daughter’s cerebral palsy.
really don’t understand why we black people have to slaughter goats and cows to
ask ancestors for …things that are beyond us by nature,” reflects a mother to a
son-in-law about her granddaughter.
things about tradition…Christianity cannot solve,”rebuts the son-in-law.
contemplation of tradition also features in the story ‘Avalon’, named after a
popular cemetery in Soweto which is the scene for the philosophical reflections
on race and politics. Bra Makhenzo, a local political enthusiast and faux
business man who floats around the township in his BMW 5 series while drowning
in debt, reflects:
people don’t waste money like us black people when it comes to death and
burial…when one of them dies today, they bury or burn you tomorrow”
unnamed narrator of the story gives a blunt reply: “But we’re not white”
Mhlongo’s stories is like discovering a Russian doll. You’ll think of it merely
as a quaint ornament, until you realise that there’s another version inside,
and another inside that – each layer and its detail coming from a seemingly
impossible place. The titular story “Soweto under the apricot tree” presents an
example. Sipho, the narrator, sits with his friend Siya and a few elders in the
aftermath of a successful tombstone unveiling. Mhlongo starts the story with an
innocuous lesson on the history of the apricot, peach and plum trees in
apartheid era Soweto. The story meanders on random detail, then out of the blue,
Bhodloza’s eyes turn to Siya. “You see that branch where the pigeons have just
settled? That’s where your father committed suicide”
here details of 70’s township criminals and their exploits expand into the
disclosure of a family secret that leaves Sipho confounded:
by these family secrets, I decide to go inside the house…Were my mother’s
marriage and my birth really just accidents of apartheid?”
story ends as abruptly as finding the last piece in a Matryoshka doll. Not in
any cliff hanger kind of way, but in the quotidian way that you realise the setting
sun has suddenly disappeared and it’s dark outside.
is a story teller bar none. Everything he lacks in brevity is made up for in
the adventure he captures.