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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