Saturday, June 8, 2024

The Real-Life Sangoma and the Star Child


By Agbonmire Ifeh

  • Title: Nwelezelanga: The Star Child
  • Author: Unathi Magubeni
  • Publisher: BlackBird Books
  • Number of pages: 129
  • Year of publication: 2016
  • Category: Fiction

Nwelezelanga: The Star Child is the testament to a drastic career change. Information gleaned from the author’s biography reveals that the author left the corporate world to become a sangoma and trainee herbalist, and the book could be read as an explanation for his choice. It is also public relations for his new job. Written in the third person, the book is divided into three parts. Taken as a novel, it would comfortably fall into the genre of magical realism, but Nwelezelanga: The Star Child really is a mystical and philosophical book. The narrative is starkly framed in terms of darkness versus light.

The first part of the book begins with Nokwakha giving birth to a restless ancestral spirit:

I’m young yet old; I’ve experienced the cycle of birth and death many more times than I care to count. I’ve donned and shredded many skin colours in my lifetime. I’ve lived the lives of many; the lives of the poor and the healers of Bantu and served the divine purpose in countless ways (p 3).

When it is discovered that the baby is an albino, the sinister midwife tells the mother that the baby is cursed and must die. Nokwakha and the midwife take the unwanted child, named Nwelezelanga, to the Umfolozi River and throw her into it. What the two women do not know is that the child is under the direct protection of the all-knowing Qamata.

The child is rescued by a middle-aged woman. Her adoptive mother is a sangoma who nicknames the child Nkwenkwezi, meaning a star of the heavens. Nwelezelanga is fiercely protected by her adoptive mother because there is a belief in the land that children with albinism have special powers. Witches of dark magic also believe the body parts of albinos possess powerful magic, and many albinos are vilely hunted down and murdered for sacrifices.

Nwelezelanga: The Star Child is a richly poetic and confident book, written in simple and clear language. Magubeni offers a portal to a world about which much has been forgotten, and the narrative succeeds in making this an inviting world in which the reader’s imagination continues to dwell long after the book is closed. With this book, Magubeni takes the reader on a spiritual journey to the old world and old ways of living and also shows that the old ways are still alive in our contemporary times. Nwelezelanga, just like Azaro in Ben Okri’s classic The Famished Road, is an abiku with a strong connection to the world unseen:

It is true that I am addressed by the unseen. Most of my spiritual companions ‘visit’ every now and then and share holy privileges that I cannot easily access in my present plane of existence. Sometimes we communicate telepathically (p 11).

The creation story in part two of the book is similar to the one in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. In the beginning, there is incredible darkness and a diabolical being called Bubi, lord of darkness. His goal is to destroy the light created by the almighty Qamata. But star children roam the world, illuminating the dark corners, keeping the balance between the upper and underground worlds.

The midwife, who is a servant of Bubi, is notified in a nightmare that she did not succeed in killing the girl. The dream troubles her, as it means that she has failed in her duty, and her chances of one day being crowned high priestess in the world of dark spirits are in jeopardy. In a bid to fulfil her mission, she goes looking for Nokwakha. Nokwakha has gone mad due to grief, but she is still connected to her child. The midwife finds her and begins the evil rites to kill the star child. Nokwakha runs away during the process as she cannot bear to kill her child a second time. The midwife pursues her with the intention of killing her.

In the closing part of the book, Nwelezelanga is attacked by a man in a white robe, who wants to kill her and make away with her body parts. She is rescued by her sister, but spends many days drifting in and out of a coma. It is while in this state that she travels to meet her birth mother; she discovers Nokwakha’s pain, remorse and desire to see her daughter again.

The hunting and killing of albinos is a sad reality in parts of Africa. This book advances the idea that children with disabilities are actually special beings who should be loved and protected. It also deals with how darkness and light are interrelated and also interdependent. Nwelezelanga: The Star Child is also a glorious portrayal of the ways of practitioners of traditional African medicine. It describes many of their rituals, dancing, chanting and drumming.

Nwelezelanga: The Star Child was on the longlist of the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Literature, one indication of the critical reception of the book. The book is a fantastic read, adding to a near empty section in the library of African literature.

Photograph: ‘Star Child’ by LastHuckleBerry

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Agbonmire Ifeh
Agbonmire Ifeh
Agbonmire Ifeh is a bookworm, has neither cats nor dogs, writes as a way to free the thoughts spinning around his head but primarily is a reader.

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