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Thato Rossouw

Ever since my first encounter with the “concept” or idea of African Spirituality, and with every successive encounter I’ve had with it, I’ve realised how much of a mystery it is for many people. For a long time it seemed to me that from the very first day the rest of the world came into contact with it, and for many years after, African spirituality has been misunderstood and called all sorts of things by those who come across it: that instead of it dying down, the image of it as an evil that many need to be saved from had continually grown over the years and that many ran away from it either because of pure ignorance or a fear of the stigma attached to it.

For instance, growing up I used to abhor African Spirituality and everything that came with it – the smells, the people who practiced it, the clothes they wore, and many other things – and even though I never knew where my hate came from or why I had it – I had never had any bad experiences or encounters with African Spirituality or anyone who practices it – my hate existed and sometimes manifested itself in hate speech and total disregard. I had never come across any text that tried to explain African Spirituality without attaching it to evilness and devil worship and, as a consequence, my hate for it was fueled and sustained by ignorance and a lack of understanding.

That all changed when I came across Nwelezelang ...

Ever since my first encounter with the “concept” or idea of African Spirituality, and with every successive encounter I’ve had with it, I’ve realised how much of a mystery it is for many people. For a long time it seemed to me that from the very first day the rest of the world came into contact with it, and for many years after, African spirituality has been misunderstood and called all sorts of things by those who come across it: that instead of it dying down, the image of it as an evil that many need to be saved from had continually grown over the years and that many ran away from it either because of pure ignorance or a fear of the stigma attached to it.

For instance, growing up I used to abhor African Spirituality and everything that came with it – the smells, the people who practiced it, the clothes they wore, and many other things – and even though I never knew where my hate came from or why I had it – I had never had any bad experiences or encounters with African Spirituality or anyone who practices it – my hate existed and sometimes manifested itself in hate speech and total disregard. I had never come across any text that tried to explain African Spirituality without attaching it to evilness and devil worship and, as a consequence, my hate for it was fueled and sustained by ignorance and a lack of understanding.

That all changed when I came across Nwelezelanga and its author, Unathi Magubeni. My first “encounter” with the book came in the form of an explanation by Unathi about how the book came into existence and from that one hour conversation, and without having read the book itself, I already knew that reading Nwelezelanga was going to change a lot of things for me – and boy was I right.

A few months after my discussion with Unathi I had the opportunity to read the book and as I read through it I realised that through the book, which tells the story of a young albino girl and her life as a “star child,” Unathi endeavors to demystify African Spirituality. He sets out to achieve this task by guiding the reader (with much appreciation from THIS reader) through a journey into the different layers and realities found in African Spirituality and uses Nwelezelanga as the eyes through which it will all be experienced. He allows the reader the opportunity to accompany Nwelezelanga through the many lands she travels through, to be with her through the many experiences she goes through, and to feel with her the emotions that are evoked by her travels and experiences and, through it all, lets the reader see firsthand the different sides of African spirituality that have been oppressed from his view for many years.

Unathi’s use of Nwelezelanga as the narrator of her own story had such an impact on my level of enjoyment of reading the story that I am convinced that had it been told through the eyes of a different character I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. Apart from adding to my enjoyment, the choice of narrative used made me feel part of the story and explained African Spirituality in a way that made it part of my own existence – Nwelezelanga’s experiences became my own and her world became my world. Even though there were instances when the quick changes in narrative and tenses used by Unathi confused me – especially when Nwelezelanga unexpectedly switched from reflecting on her past journeys to narrating things as they happen in present time – Unathi’s choice of using this type of narrative added value to the experience of reading the book that is beyond explainable.

While I enjoyed the enlightening look into African Spirituality and its “evil” and “good” sides, there were many other themes that Unathi dealt with in the book that stuck out for me – deception, parenthood, the treatment of albino children in African communities, the quest of self-identity and many others – and I believe that Nwelezelanga, because of the elegance with which the Unathi approached its subject matter and the themes that accompany it, is a book that will find a permanent position in the annals of brilliant literature in South Africa. I believe that it is a novel that, like Carlos Fuentes described a novel should be, ‘is a pack of lies hounding the truth’ – the truth about African spirituality and the people who represent it.

It is a brilliant read that will stay with the reader for years after they’ve read it.

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