A narrative of exile and reconciliation: Nkosi Sikelele Africa


“The sun comes down and fries us – ndopatigere pano
The rains come down and we have no shelter- ndopatigere pano
The wind tosses us about like dry leaves – ndopatigere pano
The cold is in us and we are numb- ndopatigere pano- this is our home now…”

The stray refrain – ndopatigere pano- in the Shona language of central and south Africa is from a song by Jordan Chitaika that speaks of forced relocation, exile,  nostalgia, collective memories and long-haul migration which churned the socio-political fabric of the contemporary Africa of the 1970s- during the swell of the apartheid movement when the colour crusaders had begun to hammer at the walls of quarantine.

It is also the essence of Marion Molteno’s lyrical tale of a young woman’s journey from the battleground of Bloemfontein and Johannesburg in South Africa to the immigrants’ London of the early 1970s – when the city became a melting pot of cultures, colours, tongues and lives of a plethora of “relegated” nations clubbed as the “third world”. London was the “rainbow” that the young surge sought as the shelter at the end of long crossings across oceans, deserts, mountains and bordered air spaces.

The book which trails Jeannie de Villiers odyssey across a swathe of 14,000 km from South Africa to London as an “anti-apartheid” fugitive and political migrant of white origin from the old Scottish stock of settlers in the sharply polarized “black-vs–white” Africa probes a gamut of historical realities drawn on the canvas of the faraway strains of the continent’s folk music and its fusion with the west – that bailed legions of young battle hounds out of a catastrophe of loss to spread the gospel of freedom.

Molteno’s association with “Save the Children” as a caregiver and her exposure to Orientalism in India and Pakistan – through the study of Urdu and her extensive travels across Asia and Africa – sustain the scaffolding of the story that actually begins in Bloemfontein, where her protagonist Jeannie spends her childhood in a home bustling with brothers, a devoted dad and a dedicated mum. Music weaves its way in with older brother Richard’s flute that harks to the exotica of Okavango swamp, Nyika plateau and the Zimbabwe ruins – landscapes that etch the impressionistic contours of Jeannie’s childscape in colours of these landmarks that her older brother treks to for soul succour.

The music opens the road to revolution on the campus in Cape Town – where the white and black students alike run afoul of the authority cracking down on the coloured stock, standing up for their rights. Jeannie is caught in the melee of anti-apartheid – in which the colours blur to spill into the melodies of Africa. She is forced to flee with war-fellow Kevin after Jonas – the black guy – is whisked away by the police in yet another unaccounted for “disappearance”. Jonas is the shadow mascot in Jeannie’s life – “You can’t get away from it, Jeannie”. The anguished prophecy becomes the denouement of the narrative bringing Jeannie’s life to a full circle – from South Africa to London and back to Africa across Kenya, Malawi and Zambia again to organize the kids- all of them from the villages of Nyika to the shanties of Sweto in the outskirts of Jo’burg- to give them a voice in their incarceration and then freedom in their adopted home-turfs that is as a unwieldy as the black thunderclouds and spurts of rain that swamp the land.

The story of an individual war on colour is tempered to softness by love – an unlikely romance between Jeannie who marries Kevin Cartwrigth for a passport to England fearing jail in a students’ movement trial and Neil, a composer of structured sounds who holds his “personal retreats” from long-term entanglements with women and “freedom to create music for those who assimilate sounds to break challenging grounds” between paid concerts- like a flag. Jeannie is a migrant in the teeming alleys of 1971 London cloistered in a tenement of rainbow women – who have drifted in search of new livelihoods from across European cities in political ferment, Asia of shrinking opportunities and Africa hunger, civil war and apartheid.  Kevin flows on in his British birth tide unable to meet Jeannie in bed with his detached ardour and loud ways.

The two, legally husband and wife, meet for occasional meals to keep the foreign office procedures in fettle. The passport arrives two years later in 1973 – at a time when Jeannie has found solace in the viola at Neil’s home, at the local arts council organizing children with cognitive itches and at the School of African Studies understanding “the inheritance” of her homeland- in musical notations and ethnic languages.

Jeannie is a revolutionary – a rebel who refuses the confines of conventional grammar in life and music. She epitomizes an anachronistic antithesis of the apartheid movement – a legion of veterans who jumped the colour bar to pitch for the persecuted “black” multitudes. In the De’ Villiers clan, the compassion and empathy for the black communities of South Africa are rooted in the secular cultural mosaic of the old settlers from Europe with their genteel breeding and affinity to finer sensitivities of th music, arts – and education – which brought on an universalism of consciousness and homogeneity of intellect among the old “coloured natives” and white settlers alike – distinct from the Boer (Afrikaners of Dutch origin) aggression at the turn of the last century.

A gentleness that binds the kinships of the clans like reinforced concrete – and human warmth- are the underlying threads of the journey beginning at home and smoothening the twisted paths of the narrative beyond – spanning disparate topographies such as those of the village Mbabane on the South Africa-Swaziland border, where Jeannie expends her soul to teach Charity and her African friends English as the kind “Mlungu” (white-skinned foreigner in the local ki-swati dialect)   -to the Victorian shanty sprawl of a townhouse in London where Jeannie finds sleeping room in an attic, led by the Portuguese immigrant rebel and poet Maria from the lunch-bar. In the warren of inhabited spaces, Jeannie meets Jaswinder from a Asian (Punjabi) home. Jas is runaway who trawls the downside to find toe-hold as an individual – a Londoner of Indian descent replete with Mumbai film music and elaborate cuisines – and Paula, a lesbian who can transcreate the blues and music in Jeannie’s soul like the crystal gazer.

“ku le zo nta a ba
bo-li-BA- mba linga sho-o-ni
On those distant hills, catch the sun before it sets
You who are mourned
I am now just a song that everyone sings
I loved a young man but they took him
Gone to seek work in the mines…

The nostalgia of Swazi hill melodies meld seamlessly into the free lunch hour concerts- where the string quartets of Corelli and Albinoni lift the chords of her existence to find resonance in the humble “mbira”- an African string instrument which Jeannie works on diligently in her attic. The warmth is the winds of her destiny – that propel her to Neil’s apartment to encounter the viola and to child -mind Michael, slow on the uptake. The strings bear portends of shifts- transformation in Jeannie’s life. A short brush with the archived academy of African music at the School of African Studies in London – bears her to a non-profit job in Nairobe and further on to the official de rigueur of the United Nations – the feeding duct of a striving Africa and shelter for the black kids on the rebound from Cape Town and Johannesburg. A short commission to engage with those fleeing in the camps and rehabilitation teaches her the stresses of bureaucracy – liaisoning and currying room to accommodate the itinerants.

The music brings Neil – a die-hard Scotsman – to the high velds and hills of Kenya and Zimbabwe to explore the music of the Nyika plateau. The beats of Africa unfurl in all its pagan riots (of colours and sounds) to unleash passion – dredging up the primal ambiguities of adult relationships in Jeannie’s doubts, insecurities, temporal qualities of love and dire need of free space between two thinking minds to manoeuvre.

Molteno laces strange dichotomies of politics, oppression, romance, officialese, migration, living on the edge of sustenance, engagement across cultures, landscapes and continental divides into a riveting narrative  of personal redemption that begins at home in the imagination of a South African girl child – free to explore the niches of the undefined – and ends with the timeless bonding between the mother and the daughter – the girl as a young woman tending to an old widowed mum at home. It is a story of exile, repatriation and homecoming – played out in million ways in the lives of the South African apartheid warriors in the two decades between 1970s and the 1990s when the African National Congress helmed by Nelson Mandela came to power.

Molteno  employs the lilt of African folk to convey her narrative through the language of music, a literary device that draws and flags off in unfinished endings- deflating at times. The exchanges are tiresome in snatches – rambling monotones which sags under the weight of words. But then it is a deeply psychological investigation of cross-cultural assimilation, growing up and acceptance – of freedom and realizations within the self. The writer can therefore be acquitted with honour.

BOOK- If You Can Walk, You Can Dance
Author – Marion Molteno
Publisher – Niyogi Books

Madhusree Chatterjee
(Editorial Consultant, The Statesman. Kolkata
In-charge of international affairs)
India Coordinator, Asia News Network)


(Article for The Statesman)




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