February 16, 2022

The Ochre People_A Book Review

I think I was young and too radically minded when I read Noni Jabavu's Drawn In Colour. Its language put me off. The Ochre People is written in similar language although here she writes more with an anthropological eye into the Xhosa mindset, language and worldview, whereas continental politics are the prevelang concern in Drawn In Colour, which I found irritating because of its condescending tone. I found myself more tolerant of the time difference between our eras in this book, though I was still bored and sometimes vexed by the use of offensive and antiquated words, like kaffir in seriouness. It is the idea of looking at themselves as the chosen among other 'native pagans' [her terms again] that gets my goat on the Jabavus. This mentality is derived from her grandfather Tengo, the editor and founder of the Xhosa newspaper that was partially funded by Cecil John Rhodes, most probably when the Cape Liberals still thought they would be able to convince him to stand as an MP of the Cape Party.  Tengo refused to stand and was later very critical of Rhodes Progressive Party government. Unfortunately he allowed himself to be used by the Smuts government to condemn as religious fanatics the group of Israelites, led by Mgijima, who were massacred at the Bulhoek.

Be that as it may, this is actually a valuable book for Xhosa philological, ethnographic, anthropological and historical studies in general. From it you see also how closely related the first educated class, from the Makhiwane to the Bokhwe, etc were. The part about Cecelia (Makhiwane) being the young shadow cousin of Noni is amazing. By the way, Noni was the one who arranged her passage to  be trained as a nurse in England into becoming the first black nurse in SA. You learn also about the likes of Mary Malahlela whom Noni knew from Fort Hare University where her father (Don Jabavu) was a lecture in African linguistics. Mary Malahlela who became Dr Xakana became the first qualified female doctor in SA. I guess you can say this is a book of first black what-what. It's unavoidable since they were really pathfinders in entering into the western education as Xhosas. Noni depicts how they regarded and were regarded by the uneducated Xhosa then called amaQaba, those who still applied ochre, meaning the traditional ways. The educated ones were also called amaGqobhoka, the turncoats, because they had converted to  Christianity. Noni also gives the first hand account of Sophiatown forced removals that is perhaps only surpassed by Bloke Modisane's Blame Me On History.

Noni narrates talks about how her father and his friend were amused over tea about Roman soldiers who were fed by inkobe (boiled mealie grains) as they went around conquering the world. To these Xhosa men, she says, this made these Romans real human beings, not some mythical figures of the Bible and ancient books, because, like Xhosas, they ate inkobe which they took as proper staple food. This fascinated them to no end. She tells of such stories where the native Xhosa meets the established Western one in a natural organic way that makes the book most endearing. Though extremely fond of her obviously doting father and distant grandfather she doesn't spare them the wield of her strong feminist views. She rightly finds much fault on the Xhosa patriachal culture which she thinks is only tamed by the kindness of some men, like her uxorial uncle on Makiwane side she obviously had much preferance for amongst relatives.

The book is written in exact language of an experienced editor Noni had been. She also delves into what people thought of her being married to an 'Englishman' (her husband was Irish) when the Xhosa national psyche still had fresh wounds of history from the iron hand of Britain. The book is a gentle introduction to the ways and history of amaXhosa in general.

I believe soon Makhosazana Xaba will be releasing a biography of Noni Jabavu soon. It is therefore wise to read Noni's books in preparation. I shall also talk about Ochre People on a BookTube channel https://youtu.be/zR-hUtqYdEE titled Shawn The Book Maniac.