EXTRACT | Zakes Mda’s Little Suns

‘You can’t even look after one horse,’ Mhlontlo would say. ‘The white man’s jail has made you stupid.’

11 January 2019 - 12:07 By Zakes Mda and umuzi

Umuzi has shared an excerpt from the new novel from Zakes Mda, Little Suns.

Mda’s latest work is a love story set in the early 1900s, written against the backdrop of true events surrounding the assassination of colonial magistrate Hamilton Hope in the Eastern Cape.

Possibly most famous for the novels Ways of Dying and The Heart of Redness, Mda was the winner of the 2014/2015 University of Johannesburg Prize and is longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award – described as “the world’s richest literary award” – for his novel Rachel’s Blue.

Read an excerpt from Mda's 2017 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize winning novel below:

Gcazimbane was full of tricks. He had this habit of taking off at full gallop, neighing and swishing his tail from side to side in mock irritation.

Malangana knew that it was all part of a game. He just wanted his groom to run after him. And then look for him when he disappeared down the gorge. Gcazimbane enjoyed playing hide-and-seek.

Malangana, on the other hand, was exercised by this kind of behaviour because it was the cause of Mhlontlo’s annoyance with him whenever the king needed his horse and Malangana could not locate it. 

‘You can’t even look after one horse,’ Mhlontlo would say. ‘The white man’s jail has made you stupid.’      

Malangana should have been angry, walking the wilds looking for the horse. But who could stay mad at a fine Boerperd specimen like Gcazimbane for any length of time? He was hiding somewhere among the boulders down the hill. And the bounder did it on purpose, just to cause a problem for him.           

He whistled as if calling a dog. Gcazimbane sometimes responded by whinnying back when he thought it was time to be found. He didn’t this time. Malangana did not know what direction to take so he wandered aimlessly.           

Suddenly the air was filled with a strange combination of whirling and chirping and buzzing and humming sounds. The sky had been blue all along with nary a cloud, but without warning Malangana was walking in the middle of deep shadows. Above him was a dark cloud of swarming locusts flying in the direction of Sulenkama.           

Malangana marvelled at their stupidity – invading a month before the planting season instead of waiting till the fields were green. Their folly saved the land of amaMpondomise from famine.          

Unless they were the harbingers.           

At that moment Gcazimbane came cantering up. He was neighing with his head held high in search of his groom. He was obviously agitated by the sudden darkness and his tail was swishing violently from side to side.           

Malangana burst out into a belly laugh while Gcazimbane nuzzled and blew.           

‘I thank the locusts for routing you out, you silly nag,’ said Malangana.           

He began to walk back to the village with the horse following him.           

On the outskirts of Sulenkama children, maidens and young women were spread all over the veld. Malangana knew at once that the locusts had landed and were feeding voraciously on the grass. When he got closer he saw that the people all had containers of different sorts, ranging from clay pots and grass baskets to enamel basins.

They were picking up the locusts that had formed a thick carpet on the grass, and were stuffing them into the containers. They were all singing and beating rhythmically on their containers.

The children were laughing and giggling and prancing about on the hapless creatures. In the evening the whole of Sulenkama would be feasting on stiff sorghum porridge and savouring fried or grilled locusts.           

Locusts were destructive in the fields. But they got their comeuppance by becoming a juicy meal for the day and a sun-dried snack for weeks to follow.           

Malangana could see Mthwakazi among the locust gatherers. He made a point of passing her way, though it was a detour from his path to the Great Place.

He stopped next to her and gave her a mischievous look, folding his arms across his rippling bare chest and leaning against Gcazimbane’s head.

Mthwakazi surveyed him from toe to head and then back to toe, one arm akimbo and the other holding a basketful of locusts. She looked cheeky in her tanned-hide back-and-front apron, a single-strand ostrich eggshell necklace gleaming on her bare chest.           

He suspected she was impressed with his European trousers, though the turn-ups were frayed – most young men in his age-group wore loin cloths. He knew immediately that she was different from other girls. An ordinary Mpondomise maiden would have cast her eyes on the ground shyly.

But this Mthwakazi was staring back at him. And she was giggling to boot, as if there was something funny about him.           

‘I’ve seen you before,’ said Malangana. ‘You’re the Mthwakazi who nurses our queen.’          

‘I know you too,’ said Mthwakazi. ‘You’re the man whose buttocks were shredded by the white man’s kati.’           

He chuckled. That was his claim to fame, the fact that he was lashed by Hamilton Hope with a kati or cat-o’-nine-tails. And the magistrate had done it himself, personally, instead of assigning the task to a policeman.

After that he had summarily sentenced him to imprisonment. Malangana had served almost one year in prison in Qumbu. He had only just been released, and yet his reputation had spread.

He knew that women pointed at him when he passed and whispered to one another:

‘That’s the man who was in a white man’s prison.’

Part of the fascination was that the whole concept of locking up transgressors in a building was new to the amaMpondomise, and Malangana had been among the first inmates of the new jail in town. The proud pioneers, so to speak.           

Gcazimbane nuzzled him at the back, pushing him until he staggered. He wanted them to leave, but Malangana resisted.           

‘I do have a name though,’ he said. ‘I’m Malangana.’           

‘Little Suns? Ha! Your name means Little Suns!’ she said in the language of the abaThwa which he did not understand.           

‘What did you say?’

‘There’s only one sun,’ she said in perfect isiMpondomise.           

‘Uyabhanxa,’ he said. That’s silly. ‘There’s a new sun every day. It rises in the east and crawls across the sky until it hides itself behind those mountains in the west.’          

‘It is the same sun, you silly man!’           

‘Silly Mthwa girl, did you see it go back?’           

She did not.           

‘There are many suns,’ he said, driving home his victory. ‘Each day has its own. Some are small, some are big. I’m named after the small ones.'

Extract provided by Umuzi, an imprint of Penguin Random House.