- Title: Hunger Eats a Man
- Author: Nkosinathi Sithole
- Publisher: Penguin Books (South Africa)
- Number of pages: 166
- Year of publication: 2015
- Category: Fiction
Hunger Eats a Man is a story of the grim, riotous cycle of poverty and hopelessness, violence and oppression, lying gods and ancestors, and the necessity of political revolutions. The novel is set in Ndlalidlindoda – a sprawling geography of destitution in Gxumani near Drakensberg mountains.
Ndlalidlindoda began as an informal settlement, but now many people have built houses as big as eight rooms and more, while others prefer to emulate the structure of their rural homelands by building up to three houses, some of which are rondavels and others called “kneel-and-pray” (p 24)
Ndlalidlindoda translates as ‘Hunger Eats a Man’ and gives the novel its name. Everything is ugly and hungry in Ndlalidlindoda, even the grass ‘seems to be crying for food’ (p 1).
Our first interaction with the protagonist, Father Gumede, or just Priest, is at his home. MaDuma, his wife, has prepared a meal of pap and potatoes, there is no money to buy anything else, and Sandile, his son, fifteen years old, has been sent home by the Principal of Bambanani High School, Mr Bongani Habede, to collect a fee balance of R50. Priest does not have anything in his pockets. He puts on his priestly garb, heads to the school, but the meeting is unfruitful. MaDuma nudges Priest to seek employment, rather than watch his family suffer. Johnson, umlungu, a white farmer, is hiring.
The narrative beam shifts to South Africa in the 1960s. The white man is the owner of ‘land and money and everything’ (p 14). The white man is God. Hunger-stricken blacks endure slave labour in the vast farms of umlungu, harvesting potatoes at a pittance, R 2.50 (p 15), or digging two hundred holes for planting trees at R 16 (p 51). At lunch time, blacks are served dry pap and sugar on a plastic bag and tormented by black supervisors like Zuma, the induna, ‘who does not permit anything he thinks would waste umlungu’s money’ (p 15). ‘Zuma is the best overseer any farmer can hope for. He is loved by his employers and despised by his fellow workers’ (p 16). The workers fear him. A negative report from Zuma can lead to the cutting of one’s wages. But they fear him most for his witchcraft.
Abject poverty has dehumanised the people of Ndlalidlindoda. It has turned them into scavenging pigs. One of the white farmers, the better one, Sagilasomthakathi, is a devout Christian. To show that he loves his neighbours like the good Lord commanded, Sagilasomthakathi ‘sends a tractor of half-rotten potatoes to the starving community of Hunger Eats a Man for free. His workers dump the potatoes wherever they please and the people scramble for them. Sometimes the scramble ends in fights’ (p 97).
Priest believes in God’s power to turn the wheels from the highways of poverty and strife. Sithole, on the other hand, who has been without a job for six years, believes the ancestors will intervene. He makes sacrifices in the form of goats and cows, to the anger of his wife, MaXulu, who thinks rituals are silly and wasteful. She pushes Sithole to ‘man up’ and go to the farms like other men (p 42).
As a school principal and chancellor in the Bambudonga Regional Council, Mr Bongani Habede is doing well. He lives in Canaan, the biblical metaphor for the Promised Land – the aspirational dream of black people to become ‘white’. During the years of Separate Development, Canaan was a whites-only suburb but has now become home to rich blacks like Bongani, since whites have moved to even more expensive parts that blacks cannot afford. He drives a bottle-green Audi 6, wears costly clothes, is educated even though he ‘is known for his lack of intelligence and that he reached his present position by buying his diploma certificate’ (p 19). He could have been the happiest man in the world, but ‘at thirty-seven he has no child of his own. Not because he cannot have them but because his wife, Nomsa, does not want to have children, as she says, she is not a slave to bear children’ (p 21).
Bongani is a contrast of sorts, presumably educated and rich, but still hangs onto ancestral worship. He is also the face of the corrupt black elite dispossessing fellow blacks.
While Priest toils as a slave at Johnson’s, his son, Sandile reads Orwell’s Animal Farm, voices dissatisfaction with the Bible to his father’s chagrin, and creates the words that will inspire the overthrow of the oppressive political system. At school, Bongani is completely disappointed in Sandile. He believes Sandile’s poetry should focus on the beauty of nature, that ‘a mere glimpse of the moon and the stars can trigger a creative mind and issue quatrains and sonnets of outstanding beauty and purity’ (p 66), but ‘the boy chooses to write unpatriotic nonsense about our government’ (p 67). He borrows a book from the library, Counter Communism, to learn how to deal with Sandile, whom he labels a terrorist. The silly boy must be taught how to be a proud South African.
The women in Ndlalidlindoda are assertive and proactive, sometimes to the extreme. Nomsa is the leader of the Grinding Stone.
The Grinding Stone was started as the Canaan Women’s Organisation, expanding only in 1995 to exclude the starving community of Ndlalidlindoda. Many women of Ndlalidlindoda were very pleased when they were called upon and encouraged to join their well-to-do and educated fellow women in Grinding Stone (p 74).
Nomsa is very strict about punctuality, and is invested in ending ‘the silly notion that if a meeting is said to begin at nine, it means it will start at ten’ (p 74). At a meeting in Gxumani Community Hall, a discussion on ‘the bestiality of men’ – based on the growing number of rape cases reported in media – the women decide to take the law into their own hands. Their first target is Muntukabani. The Special Five, a team of five strong and able-bodied women, which includes MaDuma, sneaks into Muntukabani’s homestead and finds him having sex with a dog in front of his mother. The Special Five elects MaShandu – a woman who had stabbed her late, abusive husband to death – to cut off Muntukabani’s balls.
She throws him down violently and holds him with her knee. “Take off his trousers, MaDuma! Faster! MaShandu’s eyes have become frighteningly red. She does her job so sharply and neatly that it is only after she has finished that she thinks about the horror of holding a man’s private parts.
“Well done. MaShandu, you have made him an in-between. He is neither man nor woman now.”
“I think MaShandu should keep them because she cut him and did it very well at that. Shaka would have offered her a herd of cattle for her bravery.”
“Yes! Let’s reward her with them.” (p 85)
Nomsa’s childhood trauma and the resultant decision not to have children, MaShandu’s willingness to exact violence as compensation for her own abuse, the endemic violence by men against their wives and children, and the systemic oppression via racialised slave labour, shows us how violence begets violence, how violence in private spaces mutates and suffuses into public spaces, how a complete overhaul of ethical systems and values must be considered in creating just and safe spaces for healthy living.
The history of South Africa, for blacks, just as the narrative of the lives in Ndlalidlindoda, is a history of continuously struggling people. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in his book Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (2009), situates South Africa as a microcosm of the black and African experience. It carries the best and worst in Africa. The white farms and slave pay show us how racialised capital and labour is linked to wealth and power. In the absence of any safety net against lack, the people turn to superstition and religion for intervention, while failed justice systems create, nurture, and maintain violence both in private and public spaces.
The denunciation of shackles becomes necessary for creating the environment for revolutionary action. Towards the end of the novel, Father Gumede denounces God. He gets rid of ‘anything that symbolises our relation to God or the politicians’ (p 147). He burns his tattered priestly garb, Bible, Christian pamphlets, baptism certificates, rosary, certificate of priesthood, political membership cards. This denunciation prepares the stage for the enactment of Sandile’s imaginative revolutionary action – that classic moment described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ‘when the people shall have nothing to eat, they will eat the rich’.
Photograph: ‘Luke 19:41 and When He Was Come near, He Beheld the City, and Wept over It’ by Kevin O’Mara
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