It's been a while since I read a page-turner from Botswana. To my delight, Gasebalwe Seretse's The Pursuit of Xhai captured my imagination in its first few pages - on a bus to Gaborone - and wouldn't let me go. My enthusiasm intensified when I reached the rank and had to wait to get to the end!
The beginning unfolds in Serowe. It is a year or two before Boipuso, maybe 45 years ago, when rigid social divisions still held sway in Gammangwato. Basarwa were servants and herdsmen and menials. It was not uncommon for a Basarwa family to lead an unpaid life at the cattlepost of a big cattle owner, without schooling or health care, receiving only food and blankets and occasionally some tobacco.
Worse, they could be punished for trying to escape such servitude! Older sons customarily followed their fathers at the same cattleposts. This is why outsiders sometimes likened the not-so-free Basarwa to serfs or low-caste persons.
(These borrowed words reflect the severe, enforced, permanent inequalities found in certain regions. Arundhati Roy's acclaimed The God of Small Things is a poignant novel about the caste system in India. It overlaps the present story in several aspects of plot and intent).
Author Seretse wishes to rip open these inequalities. On page 1 we read:
"Xhanadu was an ageing Mosarwa servant to one of the most prosperous cattle barons in Ngwato country, Sebeso, a very ruthless Mongwato royal. Sebeso did not hide the fact that he held Basarwa, otherwise known as the San, in contempt ... Xhanadu had nothing to show for years of servitude in Sebeso's household except scars left by his master's whip."
The writer, outraged, then goes on to construct a short novel in which tables are turned, Sebeso is defeated, and social change seems imminent. By a San rebellion? A curse by jealous baloi? A great conversion to Christianity? None of these. One of the pleasures in this tale of conflict is that it is driven by a love story.
Xhai and Tshepo are young, beautiful, intelligent, in love -- and in total conflict with the rules. Xhai is the son of old Xhanadu, the Mosarwa servant. Tshepo is the eldest daughter of none other than master Sebeso himself, the cruel aristocrat. When these two come of age, they notice each other anew -- in an immodest scene unusual in a Botswana book.
The seed of love is planted. From now on there are clandestine meetings and secret night-time visits to her rondavel. Both lovers are aware of the consequences. Trouble cannot be far away, especially as her rondavel is of course still in her father Sebeso's yard.
Plenty of trouble! Sebeso finds out soon enough about his daughter's affair. It is not his manner to call people together. Instead, he decides impetuously that he, personally, will kill Xhai. Thus, just a few pages into the book, the second main thread is set and the book's title is fulfilled. His friend Kgori recites a praise poem in his honour:
Sebeso is the most handsome among the princes of Gammangwato.
A handsome man walks with the handsome.
A warrior walks with warriors.
Of late we have heard a rumour,
A rumour that the Masarwa are invading homes!
Invading the homes of their masters.
Sebeso, the son of Sekgomenyane said "No!"
He refused to let the sons of the desert defile his flower.
The warrior within him woke up.
He called the handsome sons of Gammangwato and said,
"War is upon us, my brothers. Let's go hunting, hunting, for the Masarwa that are invading our homes."
At this point many writers would let the two themes unfold against each other, until either love triumphs or revenge despoils. Fortunately for us, author Seretse's free-wheeling imagination goes much further. Every major character has friends, kin, and neighbours, and each of these may be cause for another subplot. The book is quickly teeming with villagers in commotion, comedy, conflict, and tragedy.
In a brilliant move, Seretse lets them play out their action at the same time. He cuts back and forth between storylines at a frenzied pace, sometimes one paragraph per subplot before switching to another. Indeed, this technique creates the book's primal tension and excitement, much more than what he achieves with the conventional tools of plot development and character.
Multiple subplots also allow the author to explore other social themes, particularly the roles and expectations of women. Sebeso's wife Marea, for instance, chafes under her husband's tyranny. After he leaves on his murderous hunt, she gives refuge to Mma Xhanadu, Xhai's mother, when the mob burns the latter's dwelling. A jealous neighbour clashes with her:
"Marea Sebeso, tell us the truth about Mma Xhanadu. I can't smell that old witch roasting in the hut. Where have you hidden her?" The ever combatant Morwadi disrupted Mma Sebeso's thoughts, her arms held akimbo on her fat hips.
"Morwadi, how many times should I tell you never, ever step in my home again? You have long shown me that you are as cunning and evil as a snake."
"Well, I hate Masarwa and all Masarwa-lovers. How could you stoop so low to protect a Mosarwa. What if a little bird tells your husband that you have been hiding the mother of the boy that defiled your daughter in the house?"
"I have never seen a little bird that talks, but I have seen a big, fat and ugly woman who keeps on gossiping about other people's affairs all day." Mma Sebeso spat the words in a fit of rage.
Almost without thinking she poured the sand from her bucket over Morwadi. The on-lookers roared in a fit of laughter as others restrained Morwadi from fighting Mma Sebeso.
In other passages Seretse shows the strength of the kgotla and brings two benevolent dikgosi into the story.
Traditional beliefs and superstitions are explained or exposed. Snakes and birds appear at key moments and in dreams. He seems to pay homage to the badimo as well as bringing them up to date. His attitude toward Ngwato culture and history is ambivalent and complex, giving the best chapters a tense, edgy feel.
Unfortunately the author cannot sustain his intensity to the end, nor does he offer a satisfying conclusion to the story of the Xhai and Tshepo. When this reviewer asked Seretse why he simply abandons his main characters, the reply was that The Pursuit of Xhai is the first part of a trilogy. The lovers will resume their adventures in part two. I said, you should have told us that! The ending now makes more sense.
Some further comments to the author: Give us more of Xhai and Tshepo, their thinking, feeling, and intimate selves. We crave their pillow talk! The other characters generally don't change or grow, but rather follow their familiar pattern to the end. Your descriptions of nature are often vivid and original, but not those of people. More Tswana proverbs would be welcome, as they often convey a worldview in a phrase. There are enough instances of awkward English to justify some editorial intervention. I hope you go back to work on Pursuit and make it better. Happily, the publishers have already blessed the book with a lovely cover.
More background for readers: Gasebalwe Seretse is, as his name suggests, from an aristocratic family himself, albeit one that left Serowe in the famous dispute over chieftainship. It is likely that he required courage to confront his own heritage in order to write Pursuit.
The unjust society he depicts may have some exaggerations, but it rings of overall truth. This reviewer remembers Serowe in the 1960s, both its tribal tyrants at the centre and the minority ethnic groups at its impoverished margins. Although the Basarwa retainers of the Khama clan were released long ago, other herdsmen remain much as before. In a current case known to me, a Mosarwa man was shot dead at a cattlepost by his lifelong employer, in a dispute concerning the behaviour of the herdsman's dog.
As a story of forbidden love, Pursuit has many predecessors in Botswana. The "hottest" is probably Andrew Sesinyi's 1981 novel, Love on the Rocks. Although Sesinyi writes a more masterful English, Seretse's is the more challenging, more memorable book.
Curiously, this is Botswana's second story of being both in love and a Mosarwa.
The first was Bessie Head's classic novel Maru in 1971, in which the "bushy" Margaret finds herself as a young new teacher in a village in Gammangwato. She quickly falls in and out with the local big shots, who look and sound much like, well, those in Pursuit. When I asked Seretse about his influences, he immediately acknowledged his debt to Head.
Conclusion! Why should you, reader, go out and find this book? You will enjoy its love story and its fast pace. All who read it say the same: You can't stop turning the pages. You will learn a lot about Tswana village life "in the old days". Hopefully you will ponder the social discrimination that still exists in Botswana today.