(Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2015)
Harnessing the power of observation in service of revelation is slow, painstaking work, but its results appear effortless in the best nonfiction. Maggie Messitt achieves this in her elegant first book, The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa. Messitt’s portrait of a community of some two hundred families draws on her deep, if not intimate, knowledge of her subjects, earned over a year spent with them and several years of living in the country. This immersion is grounded in research and details beautifully transformed as insight that still intrigues, saying something between everything and nothing.
To read these lives is to become a regular visitor into the homes and the day-to-day habits of three citizens living in northeast South Africa: Thoko Makwakwa, Regina Hlabane and Dankie Mathebula. Just as one begins to know a friend better each time one sees her in a new setting, each character becomes more complex as we return to his or her story after time spent with one of the others. By organizing the work into a cyclical rotation that moves from Thoko to Regina to Dankie, Messitt replicates the sense of time passing and hopes progressing, standing still or, sometimes, shattering. The book’s division into larger sections named for the seasons furthers the sense of movement and change in forces beyond our control.
This is reportage in its most distilled, pure incarnation, the excesses of commentary and exposition stripped out so that the situation speaks directly to the reader through a rendering that gifts us with the experience of its sensory qualities.
Thoko is a middle-aged sangoma, a traditional healer and diviner of sorts whose professional accouterments include a wildebeest tail, and is the first of the trio of lives that we come to know. In a spellbinding moment, she uses fragments of the past—literal bones—to see into the future:
Thoko lifted the bag and tilted it to the right, shaking in a circular motion, filling the grass mat before her with the contents of the bag: dominoes and currency; bones from the lion, elephant, zebra, bush pig, steenbok, and baboon; one small water level; marula and futsu seeds; an odd collection of shells including one large blotched cowrie…she began to move her hands upward and then let them drop to hit the mat, causing the rattle of each object—a motion she repeated three times before the final lift and release of the bones: across the mat, off the sides, onto the floor. And there it was. The ancestors were revealing the truth.
Thoko conveys this truth to be that a young woman has been selected to be a healer like herself; she attributes the woman’s symptoms of illness as a manifestation of this gift. It is a prophecy that comes back to haunt her, and us: in fact, the woman is exhibiting signs of AIDS.. When she dies, so does Thoko’s plan to train her as a successor songoma, an activity akin to an apprenticeship that would have been a source of income. Messitt shows how no two people think alike about HIV. Thoko, who claims she has cured others of the virus, is shocked by her failure to realize its presence this time. But for Regina’s friend and neighbor Anna Mdludi, a woman whose husband insists on multiple wives, testing positive for HIV at a clinic seems to feel inevitable, the only answer expected after a long, lingering illness. Anna’s comprehension of the disease is expressed by the precise number she remembers—fifty-three—and her vague understanding that this number is high on the scale of the bad thing it measures.
Dankie, a studious villager who hopes to attend university, offers a rare male perspective. The first thing we learn about him is that he considers himself fatherless, in a place where “the men with good money are either teachers or politicians. Most of them are married with many girlfriends.” His is perhaps the most painful narrative, as a string of increasingly low paid and lower skilled jobs replace the plans he keeps trying to recalibrate, plans to further his education or start a career. We feel Dankie’s diminishment keenly when he receives a bible from a preacher as he is trying to sell cigarettes; like a talisman of a world that is slipping away from him, he “hid the word inside his cigarette crate so he could keep an eye on what was most important.”
In Rooibok, how genders and generations interact shows a society in flux in which traditions are transformed, cast off or supplanted by new ways of functioning. We meet women whose bonds are experiential rather than biological: to some of the women in Mapusha, the weaving collective that exports its work with the help of a foreigner, devout Catholic Regina is a “mother, not by blood, but by yarn and rosary.” (12) Yet when her mourning period ends, the widowed Regina is taken down to the river for a ritual that inducts her into “a mystery to every woman, one solved only at the death of her husband.”
Here, the trappings of human civilization are marked by our waste and carelessness; when heading from the village to the town center, “the more litter you see, the closer you are.” Rebuilding one’s home is a constant, aiming for the next material up in the hierarchy; neighbors exchange handmade bricks in financial transactions. The atmosphere is one of incongruity: Regina may watch WWE Smackdown three nights a week, but the earth’s behavior can still be predicted by the presence of another creature; in Shangaan culture, “black millipedes are a sign of forthcoming rain.” Dankie’s scores on his matriculation exam are, to him, a disappointment, but to the crowd who read his name in the newspaper, a cause for celebration. “People musn’t be afraid to have a baby, because one day something like this will happen,” they sing.
Although it is built around three individuals, some of the book’s most indelibly etched moments occur at large gatherings, such as the funeral for a man who commits suicide. In these scenes, we witness how a place’s approach to that which is most universal – like death – is what makes it singular.
Messitt wisely elides herself—a malungu, a white person—from this biography of a place within the apartheid-era designated Shangaan homeland, choosing to transmit her fine, steady gaze in a seemingly omniscient third-person narrative. Her contemplative eye is a generosity that we should expect to follow again into other lives, other worlds.
Arriving two decades after Nelson Mandela’s presidency inaugurated the new South Africa, The Rainy Season is an essential history – not about those who redraw national maps, but those who persevere each day to fulfill the maps of their imaginations, of their own making.
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Cynthia-Marie Marmo O’Brien writes and edits in New York. Her nonfiction on faith, depression and the imagination from the Bellevue Literary Review was a notable selection in Best American Essays 2011. She has contributed to America: The National Catholic Review, Killing the Buddha, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Narratively, Real Pants, The Rumpus, and Words Without Borders: Dispatches, among other publications. A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, she has taught writing in the United States and Europe. Find her at www.cynthiamarieobrien.com or @CMMOB on Twitter.