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The backstory: ‘A Sin of Omission’

Marguerite Poland writes about the origins of her novel, ‘A Sin of Omission’ (Penguin), shortlisted for the 2021 Sunday Times CNA Literary Awards.

13 June 2021 - 00:00 By Marguerite Poland

The spark that ignited the inspiration for A Sin of Omission

Cory Library, Makhanda, 2004: Reverend Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama. The name was entered in a hand-written register of the clergy in the diocese of Grahamstown, scored through in pencil with the cause of death and dated July 12 1885. There were many other names - a few others scored through as well, with various different comments written in the margins: “Dismissed for immorality”, “Whereabouts unknown”, “Fallen away”.

Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama - a name coaxing out a recollection from childhood of my great-uncle telling me about his life on a mission station in the Eastern Cape and of a Xhosa youngster his grandfather, the missionary, had chosen to be educated in Grahamstown and, possibly, in England. His star pupil: the brightest hope of a future priest to serve among his own people.

But there was more to the story. Something dark, deeply puzzling. Unresolved. I was just too young to understand.

That was the start of the journey in search of “Stephen”. But I only comprehended it when, involved in other research, I opened the register of the clergy by chance and saw the name, the comment and the date. It seemed to me that Stephen Mnyakama had been waiting to be recognised - at last - though he had been gone for over 100 years.

Arriving at the Mission: A tapestry by the Keiskamma Art Project, illustrating 'A Sin of Omission'.
Arriving at the Mission: A tapestry by the Keiskamma Art Project, illustrating 'A Sin of Omission'.
Image: Supplied

Extract from A Sin of Omission

They have smashed the bells. All over Kaffraria the sound has ceased.

There is a great silence. More profound, more still than the dim before the dawn. A great conspiracy of emptiness except for the sound of the wind - vaulting, powerful.

Once, for Stephen Mzamane, every hour of every day had been marked by the ringing of the bell. In over twenty years, it had proclaimed the time for waking, washing, matins, breakfast, lessons, dinner, handwork, supper, prayers, bed. He had long forgotten how to allot his day by the rising or the setting of the sun, to sense the hour when the seed-eaters gather or the anvil bird marks the meridian at noon. He knew nothing of the swifts and swallows following the herds: this is dusk; this the time when we beg the last sweet drop of milk. That had been exchanged, when he was ten, for the bell, its gong quartering the hours, hitching men to labour or to prayer.

Not all the bells were smashed.

Albert Newnham's bell at St Paul's still hung on its scaffold of logs. Stephen had asked that it should be left alone - in tribute to all the bells that he and Newnham had answered together, especially the great Cathedral bell in Canterbury which had summoned them as students every Sunday, marching two by two in their choir cassocks to the chime of God.

At his small mission in the hills - barely more than an outstation - Stephen had ceased to function by the bell. He had not had the funds to buy one and the Sunday offertories were so erratic it would have taken years to pay it off. Instead, he had hung a piece of scavenged iron piping in the old shrubby tree outside the parsonage door. He would strike it with a shorter piece of pipe to call the faithful to Sunday service and the children to school. The sound had neither melody nor weight. He was like a colonial farmer summoning hands to the fields.

Now he was glad he was without one.

Those holy bells he had rejoiced in on a Sunday in England belonged in another world, echoing from church to church, caroling out, underscored by the mighty tongue of the Cathedral bell. Here, at Nodyoba, they were the doleful reminder of bondage to a thing called sin.

Hated by the heathens. Feared by the converted.

As he packed his suitcase and rubbed his extra pair of boots with a cloth, Stephen listened to the wind gathering outside, the lift and creak of the iron roof, the thrashing of the sturdy old tree before the house. He glanced at the cross on the wall above his bed, its varnished surface catching a spark of light from his lamp. It was made of English oak, a gift from the Warden of the Missionary College in Canterbury nine years before, in the winter of 1871, on the eve of the voyage home to the Cape.

How different his journey in the morning was to be - without the hope or exhilaration of that noisy embarkation from a great English port, his fellow students waving their hats as they stood on the quayside, his dear friend - his English “brother” - Albert Newnham among them. The Warden had raised his hand in blessing as the rowing boat filled with passengers pulled away and swung out towards where the ship was anchored. Stephen had shouted his farewell, standing legs astride, the wooden cross held aloft: he, at the start of his great adventure, his crusade of Faith.

A warrior of Christ.

He no longer felt like a warrior - nor armoured by his Faith. And in the years of war that had just passed, he was neither soldier nor, it seemed, a priest. He was just a frightened young man, forgotten by his fellow clergy and - if Mzamo's words were true - a traitor to his own Ngqika people.