Vol.23 No.162

Friday 27 October 2006    
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Arts/Culture Review
'In dreams begin lies, my son'

Reviewed by Sheridan Griswold
10/27/2006 6:02:01 PM (GMT +2)

Peter Orner (2006) "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo: A Novel". New York, Little Brown, 311 pages, hardcover, US$23.95 or UKŁ11.59, ISBN 0-316-73580-9. Available at Exclusive Books, Riverwalk.

Peter Orner is a young American who taught in Namibia soon after independence in 1990. He served there for 18 months and then returned home to the United States to study law. He began writing about the experiences of a teacher in a school below the Erongos Mountains, near the Kuiseb River, in 1993 (though there is a map of Goas in the book, it is a highly abstracted location, which may disturb those who know Namibia). It has taken him a dozen years to get what finally is called "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo: A Novel" completed. In between, in 2001, he published a collection of short chapters called "Esther Stories".

In 2002, nine years after he had started, he released in the literary magazine "Ploughshares" of Emerson College, Boston, Massachusetts, [Volume 28, Numbers 2 and 3, 2002] eight chapters of the novel he was working on. Orner then referred to his unfolding novel, a work in progress, as "Off the C-34: Stories from Goas Farm". This is ironic as in Namibia the C-34 is the route that runs north from Swakopmund through the Skeleton Coast Park.

Orner since changed the route to C-32, the road that runs for one hundred kilometres to the south from Karibib on the B2 between Windhoek and Swakopmund. He also changed the name of his first novel. Some of the characters have had their names changed too. For example gone are Sakatumbo and Klaas.

The chapters in "Ploughshares" also reveal, when you compare to the published novel, a very meticulous style of writing, with chapter headings changed, and the text heavily re-written. In interviews Orner has confessed to being a compulsive re-writer. His literary models come first from, Andre Dubus, his mentor at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he did a Masters in Fine Arts. He says that the African writers who have inspired him are Herman Charles Bosman, Bessie Head, Camara Laye, Dambudzo Marechera, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Richard Rive, Can Themba and Wole Soyinka. He also loves Kafka. He credits Dubus with instilling in him a dedication to writing and the realization that it could be a "way of life".

Since leaving Namibia, Orner has done a variety of other things besides becoming a lawyer and earning his MFA. In Boston he worked as a public defender specializing in juvenile cases. He has volunteered with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. He has helped asylum seekers in San Francisco. He has also served in Mexico as a human-rights observer, helping First Peoples in Chiapas deal with harassment by the Mexican Army. He now teaches in the MFA programme at San Francisco State in California.

The wait for "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo" has been worth it. I find it one of the most delightful novels I have ready in many moons. Why should it be so? For many reasons: First, the poetry in his writing. Then I love the short chapters because they make you pause and review what you have just read. They give an opportunity to assimilate levels of meaning. Orner's novel is a work on Africa that belongs to Africa, even though he is a foreigner. He has returned to Namibia frequently over the past dozen or so years since he left. He is also a lifelong learner who has spent extensive time in libraries, reading to understand more about Namibia, to enable him to transcend the limitations of his own experiences and to grow from others and their stories. Orner loves the characters he has created and you learn to love and identify with them too. I have read many books about schools and schooling in all parts of Africa, and most end up being sermons and quickly forgettable. Orner has done the opposite. He has captured the human experience. Many parts of this novel also ring true for Botswana, including the drought, the heat and waiting for the rain and the Tswana boy from Gobabis who drowns in the dam. Though the novel has universal qualities it is grounded in Namibian realities, including the guerrilla war, the struggle led by SWAPO and its accomplishments and abuses. Orner, without preaching or lecturing, is able to bring in a whole range of Namibian experiences, going back to the German genocide in 1904.

Goas is a Roman Catholic mission station with a boarding primary school that had once been a Boer farm. It was marginal as a farm and remains marginal as a school, but is sustained by the priest and the system. It is populated by a diverse group of unforgettable characters. These include: the narrator, Larry Kaplanski, the volunteer teacher from Ohio; Obadiah, whose Datsun is mired in sand, a teacher with a passion for history; Festus and Dikeledi, the "abhorrent newlyweds" at Goas, yet she would dance in the rain when it came; the principal and his wife, Miss Tuyeni. Then there is Theofilus who cares for the mission's livestock, and Antoinette, Obadiah's wife, who keeps the pupils alive. Auntie Wilhelmina has lived at Goas for years-she is the resident kleptomaniac, taking the products of her thievery to her humpie in the desert.

"Kaplansk", as he is called, lives in the single quarters with its paper-thin walls, along with Pohamba, a dedicated teacher who was always broke, and Vilho, the only one who would loan Pohamba money.

"Vilho is always cold. Unlike the rest of us, whom the sun warms too quickly, after the cold mornings, he remains bundled, wool-hatted, scarfed. He accepts chill as his fate. He never complains. We complain. We complain about the heat. We complain about the cold. We complain that Vilho never complains. He's the confusing sort of lonely person who does not seek to be unlonely. And beyond this, the most alarming fact of all: It's not the terrible coincidence that Vilho was a learner at Goas and is now marooned here again as a teacher. It's that it's not a coincidence. Upon graduating near the top of his class at Dobra, Vilho requested a posting at Goas. 'Requested' Obadiah cried incredulous. 'It means our poor Puck outcasted himself!'" (page 110).

When the beautiful Mavala Shikongo arrives at Goas to take the preschool class, her coming is accepted, as she is Miss Tuyeni's younger sister. It is also known that she was a "genuine hero of the struggle ... an ex-PLAN fighter. Not even twenty-five and this girl's shot her share of Boers". Also that she wants to be an accountant, not a teacher, and is studying with a university in England by correspondence.

She has with her Tomo who is "no baby. He only looks like a baby. Mavala called him her monstrous, her squirmy, her rodentia, her bedlam". Her sister says, "The girl goes off to fight a war and now look at her, toting a child without a husband. Which is what men want. Any man. To plant seeds without staying around to water the garden. The price respectable women charge is marriage. There is no other fee". Mavala lasts only three weeks at Goas and then vanishes. Then, unexpectedly, she re-appears, her second coming. No one can believe that she would return.

The sacred time at Goas is "Siesta". A time to try to cope with the heat and recoup one's energy. Kaplansk, at this time, would retreat to the "Graves", a secluded place along the ghost of the Toanib River, where Grieta Dupreez and others who stayed to die on their farm were buried. There he would rest and read, and when Mavala followed him there, get to know her completely. "Antoinette would say that we'd been cavorting in the stench of sin". Starting halfway through the novel, chapters headed "Graves" suddenly appear, and there are dozens of them. This is a novel to be savoured, and then savoured again. sheridangriswold@yahoo.com Send us your comments about Mmegi newspaper Search For Old Newspaper Editions To advertise contact us through email

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