Book title: Umkhosi Wenhliziyo

Number of pages: 220 pages 

Author:  Olivia Mahwaya Sibanda

Publisher and year:   Radiant Publishing Company

Reviewer: Lickel Ndebele

Ndebele fiction dates back to 1956 when Ndabaningi Sithole published Umvukela WamaNdebele. There has been a relatively slow development of this literature. Olivia Mahwaya Sibanda through her book Umkhosi Wenhliziyo, (The groans of the heart) makes a significant contribution to this genre. Umkhosi Wenhliziyo is a recent novel published in 2020 by Radiant Publishing Company. The narrative acts as an important milestone in Ndebele post-colonial literature. 

Synopsis of the novel

The story explores the experiences of men in a marital set up in a changing Ndebele society. The main character, Thamsanqa Mlalazi loses his beloved wife Ruth Sibanda. Ruth dies unexpectedly due to hypertension and is survived by Thamsanqa and his twin adolescent girls. After Ruth’s death, Thamsanqa leaves Filabusi and goes back to South Africa where he was working together with his wife before her death. In South Africa, Thamsanqa finds it extremely difficult to cope with bereavement. His friend Thulani Mpofu visits him more often to offer him comfort and counselling. A year lapses, Thulani meets Zandile; a desperate divorcee with four sons from different fathers. Thamsanqa’s conscience tells him that he and Zandile are worlds apart in terms of character, but he somehow chooses to ignore it. Later on, Thamsanqa decides to marry Zandile with the hope that she would provide him solace and also take care of his children. Thamsanqa marries Zandile against his parents’ will. At first, Zandile pretends to be a good wife and a good daughter in-law and manages to deceive Thamsanqa.   Her true colours betray her later on. She is involved in a fist fight with her mother in-law. She disrespects her and ends up poisoning her food and killing her. She mistreats and abuses Thamsanqa’s children while taking good care of her sons from her previous relationships. Her sons rape their step-sisters (Thamsanqa’s children). Thamsanqa realizes that he made a mistake by marrying Zandile. He fails to find happiness in his second marriage and is always distressed. The novel ends with Zandile and her sons murdering Thamsanqa in order to thwart Thamsanqa from reporting the rape case to the police as he had threatened. Zandile anticipates inheriting Thamsanqa’s properties, but Thamsanqa’s written will which his lawyer reads out just before his burial says his children from his first marriage will inherit all the properties.  Zandile’s sons are arrested for rape and they reveal that they also murdered their step-father with the help of their mother. Zandile is also arrested.

The plot of the novel is neatly woven and gripping. It grabs the reader’s attention in a unique and amazing way. It is indeed one of the novels whose plot propels one to want to continue reading right up to the end without taking a break. The plot is remarkable and captivates the reader. The writer uses foreshadowing, psychological realism and stream of consciousness techniques which effectively propel the plot, explains the story and helps the reader to explore the mental state or inner lives of the characters. This is crucial in helping the reader to explore the philosophical implications of human existence.

The characters are so much believable. They think and behave in a logical manner and they are a true depiction of different personalities in the real world. They behave in a normal way that effectively depicts the various social relations together with their related challenges. For example, the main character, Thamsanqa Mlalazi behaves in a natural convincing manner that befits any man who is in his situation. He gets so depressed after the death of his beloved wife Ruth, and then rushes into marrying a woman whom he has not taken enough time to know. He is driven by the desire to have someone who will take care of his adolescent children as well as comfort him and take care of his properties. Most men feel so helpless and desperate after the death of their first wives whom they have relied upon in various aspects and end up going to unimaginable extremes.  Thamsanqa ends up marrying Zandile, a selfish and cruel woman who is only after his hard earned wealth. He is determined to marry Zandile within the shortest possible time despite his parents’ advice against the woman. Many families living in the modern Ndebele society have at some point witnessed or experienced gruesome quarrels between sons and parents on issues of mate selection. 

Umkhosi Wenhliziyo depicts contemporary reality. The author explores lived experiences in the context of marriage and family in a changing Ndebele society. In African cultures, Ndebele included, a stronger society is one that is made up of healthy and strong family relationships with the family institution serving as a foundation to the survival and continuity of the society. The author explores a number of central family life issues such as marital happiness, marital challenges, death of a spouse, and the importance of writing a will, inheritance as well as the challenges associated with re-marrying. 

The novel gives direction to the society. For example, through the character of Thamsanqa’s selfish and irrational father-in-law who wants to inherit Thamsanqa and his wife’s house after the death of Thamsanqa first wife, Sibanda emphasises the importance of writing a will to prevent disheartening family squabbles that normally arise as a result of property inheritance. In the play Indlalifa Ngubani (Who is the heir?), Ndabezinhle Sigogo also depicts a similar challenge which he unfortunately does not provide a solution to and leaves his characters murdering each other instead. Unlike Sigogo, Sibanda can be applauded for providing a solution to the challenge. She seems to believe that in a modern Ndebele set up, there is no need to be fighting for inheritance when an individual can simply write a will. As an African writer, the novelist effectively plays her role as a teacher. She also effectively plays a crucial role as the voice of the voiceless on issues of child abuse – physical, emotional, sexual abuse which are more often than not swept under the carpet while victims suffer in silence.

The author mainly focuses on the experiences of Ndebele/African men in a marital set up. The author brings to her readers’ attention the social reality that like women; men also undergo a lot of distressing situations in marriage and in life in general. She shows that despite the cliché’ “it’s a man’s world”, Ndebele men also experience difficulties such as bereavement, emotional abuse and marital challenges and most often suffer in silence due to patriarchal gender constructions that stipulate that men are supposed to be strong and always in control of matters and overcome all the challenges that come their way. After the death of his first wife, Thamsanqa, a wealthy man becomes vulnerable and falls into the trap of a pretentious divorcee who abuses her step-daughters and ends up poisoning Thamsanqa’s mother and murdering him. Thamsanqa’s friend Thulani is representing men who fail to find marital happiness but endure silently and passively.  This is not new in Ndebele experience. Thus, the novel is a vital development in Ndebele literature where a lot of creative works (colonial and post-colonial literature) have been focusing on the plight of women. Examples include Sigogo’s Usethi Ebukhweni Bakhe, Makhalisa’s Umendo, Ncube’s Lokhu Akungake Kwenzeke and others.

Apart from its depiction of contemporary reality, the author generally employs rich language which enhances the quality of the novel. The author exhibits poetic prowess that reminds one of J.P Ndebele, Mayford Sibanda and Ndabezinhle Sigogo.  In some instances the author borrows some English expressions and localizes them. Some language purists may frown at this innovation but such language use exists in real life especially among educated young people. Chirere (2004), in his review of Mapenzi, a popular Shona novel, quotes Laura Chiweshe who argues that African languages should not behave as if they have not benefited from and in return, fed into neighbouring and far away languages. These are examples of this language borrowing:

  • Ungamangali…ubona sikutshaya nje ngehlombe eliqanda mo (Don’t be surprised to see us giving you a cold shoulder)
  • Azizwele ngokwakhe emlonyeni webhiza (to hear it from the horse’s mouth)

It is not the author but characters who do such borrowing. The language might seem to indicate a deviation from standard Ndebele expressions but it is worth arguing that the language depicts real modern characters in a modern Ndebele society.

The writer does not employ the use of language only for aesthetic purposes and this separates her novel from art for art’s sake. Sibanda artistically employs a number of proverbs and sayings that help her to counsel and teach about important marriage values that she believes need to be upheld for the betterment of the marriage institution which is in crisis. These are examples of such proverbs and sayings:

  • Inxele aliwubusi umuzi (a despotic man doesn’t rule a family)
  • Induku ayakhi muzi (violence destroys the home) 
  • Ikhuba lithengwa ngokubonwa (take care that you marry a girl from a good respectable family)
  • Umendo awuthunyelwa gundwane (marriage is risk taking)
  • Ubuhle bendoda zinkomo zayo ( the worthiness of a man is in his wealth)

A reader who considers this specific use of marriage related proverbs and sayings very closely would understand that Umkhosi Wenhliziyo is an invaluable contribution  and effort towards the promotion of marital stability, marital happiness and preservation of marriage.

What then is the author’s social vision? Sibanda seems to believe in Sankofaism which teaches that it is not taboo to go back and fetch the best values of the past and merge them with the best values of the present in preparation of a better future. An ideal society is probably enhanced by going back to the centre, a commitment to respectable cultural values and an absorption of other modern values deemed fit for the sustainable development of a society.