The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenström

Baobab Tree CoverI came across this book by chance, first published as Die kremetartekspedisie in its original Afrikaans in 1981, it was translated into English by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, initially in 1983 and again in 2014.

I had never heard of Wilma Stockenström, but after a little digging, I find:

“For the past four decades Wilma Johanna Stockenström has been enriching Afrikaans literature with her satirical, obstinate and compassionate voice. Along with Elisabeth Eybers, Sheila Cussons, Ina Rousseau and Antjie Krog, she remains one of the most important women writers in Afrikaans.” © Johann de Lange

After recently reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, a story narrated by a female slave, I was interested to read this more literary novel, set in the harsh interior of South Africa.

It is a quiet, compelling, stream of consciousness narrative of a slave woman who finds refuge in the hollow of a baobab tree, attempting to survive following the death of her third master, finding herself abandoned in an often hostile wilderness.

“I was sold off a second time on the square near the sea where even then the raggedy castor-oil trees were standing. Was sold secondhand. I was a damaged plaything, my bundle of baby and myself bid for separately and disposed of separately. Simply playthings. Useful, certainly. My owner thought he had wasted his money.”

The Baobab Tree

The Baobab Tree

Embracing this newfound freedom of her body, mind and time, she thinks back over the years, reflecting on what her existence thus far has meant, the role of her three masters, moments shared with a friend, the loss of her children and the inclinations of man, something she has witnessed both in captivity and in this solitary freedom, where she finds a kind of disturbed though preferable peace.

“I know the interior of my tree as a blind man knows his home, I know its flat surfaces and grooves and swellings and edges, its smell, its darknesses, its great crack of light as I never knew the huts and rooms where I was ordered to sleep, as I can only know something that is mine and mine only, my dwelling place into which no one ever penetrates. I can say: this is mine. I can say: this is I. These are my footprints. These are the ashes of my fireplace. These are my grinding stones. These are my beads. My sherds.”

She is viewed by a tribe of small people who make a pilgrimage to the tree and recognise her as some kind of deity. It is their generosity and ritual of giving alms that aids her survival.

She notices everything, she appreciates her surroundings and tunes into small changes and disturbances in it. She becomes it.

Haunting, lyrical, this work is unlike any other narrative of the life of a slave woman I have ever encountered.

 

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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11 thoughts on “The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenström

  1. I am surrounded. Books everywhere. As fast a reader as I am I can’t keep up. But I have to read this book :). Thank you.

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    • The time will come Fransi, and even if we never catch up, being surrounded by literary intentions and having them in view can be a great source of pleasure, like anticipating a fabulous holiday without having to leave home. 🙂

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      • Claire,
        I love how you describe the reading experience. “A fabulous holiday without having to leave home.”
        This book is also captivating. Nice review.
        The baobab tree reminds me of The Little Prince.

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  2. Tried to decipher the title (Afrikaans is close to Dutch). Story sounds very depressing (sold-off, damaged, disposed of, plaything) . Were there any uplifting moments?

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    • It’s a stream of consciousness narrative, I didn’t find it depressing, relating to her present, being in the sanctuary of the baobab tree.

      It’s not like a narrator telling a story, it’s really like being in the mind of someone who has been freed from captivity and is now in isolation, but appreciating that freedom of time, mind and body.

      If we think from our own perspectives we might find it depressing, but to put ourselves into the mind of the slave woman, it is kind of liberating, with moments of sadness as she reflects on certain losses, moments of indignation, when she remembers how she was treated and moments of joy when she makes her own decisions, takes her own risks, defines her own home and is even admired and revered by another people. It is a unique literary read.

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  3. Beautiful review, Claire. I haven’t heard of Wilma Stockenström before. It is so wonderful that books written in Afrikaans have been translated in English. This book is definitely fascinating. Thanks for writing about it.

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    • I agree Vishy, I’d heard of none of the authors mentioned as being important women voices in this language, and this story is exactly the kind of writing and perception that I couldn’t imagine coming from anywhere except inside the heart of an African country.

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