Moteane Melamu (2010) Baptism of Fire and Other Stories. Gaborone, Pentagon Publishers, 187 pages, P179. ISBN 978-1-99912-083-4-3. Available at Exclusive Books, Riverwalk.
Moteane Melamu is a man of many careers. When people search for Botswana authors from outside Botswana they usually come up with eight people. These include Unity Dow, L. D. Raditladi, Andrew Sesinyi, Thomas Tlou plus Bessie Head, Patrick van Rensburg and Moteane Melamu - the last three adopted Botswana as their home, having begun their lives' journey across the border.
That Botswana has many poets and writers, including Nsununguli Mbo, Wame Molefhe, Bontekanye Botumile, John Makgala, Sebati Mafate, Barolong Seboni, Gasebalwe Seretse, Lauri Kubuitsile and others, is not usually recognised.Moteane Melamu is a child of Sophiatown, who went to Orlando High School in the South West Townships (Soweto), and then on to Fort Hare, followed by Durham and Sussex universities in England. He has taught at Fort Hare and then at Roma when it belonged to the three former High Commission territories. At the University of Botswana (UB) he became a professor of English; at the University of the North West (South Africa) he was deputy vice chancellor. These various venues all appear in his short stories. Professor Melamu has also represented Botswana as high commissioner in Zambia, ambassador to the European Community (EC), and ambassador in Washington DC.
Baptism of Fire and Other Stories is Professor Melamu's fourth collection of short stories. The first is Children Of Twilight (1987). Then came Living And Part Living (1996), followed a decade later by Unweeded Garden And Other Stories (2006). The stories reflect observations and learnings made over decades living and working in Gauteng, at Alice in the Eastern Cape, at Roma when part of UBLS, and at UB.
Baptism of Fire is a bit like sitting around a fire late at night, after the young and timid have gone to bed, and then being entertained by the best storytellers present. The title story is told in the first person by Bra Ken Pule, a lecturer who has been five years at Roma in the mid-1960s. He is now the warden of a hall of residence, and subject to early morning knocks by the police when his minions have erred.
Percy and Sam, friends from Johannesburg, are notorious for causing disturbances when they have befriended Johnnie Walker. Other students like Robert Makatini find young women from a nearby village, Mafefoane, whom they conceal overnight in their rooms in the residence. When Mpho Selikane begins receiving poison-pen letters, a conflict escalates into 1970, an election year, and the party rivalry has engulfed students at the university. The one who attempts a violent baptism by fire will lose.
The opening short story, The Suitor, is one of a few not set in academia - instead we move to Armitage Street, Mzimhlophe, in Gauteng. Speed Molefinyane thinks he is courting Caroline, one of Mma Koma's six beautiful daughters. Mma Khoma is sullen and belligerent. She announces that she is "tired of nursing fatherless children".
The storyteller loves Eugenia. Mma-Khoma likes him, because he is educated and respectful and has a face that does not promise impregnation and disappearance. Speed, who comes to stare at Caroline on the saddle of a bicycle, fits Mma-Koma's profile of an unwanted suitor. When Speed finally changes his method of locomotion, she screams, "I'm raving mad at you. What do you mean bring this car of death to my front door?"The Nuptials or Bobby and Geraldine are getting married, is about a surprise wedding, the alienation of the affections of a friend for his girl, and the loss of a friend. The Strange Visitation is set in Soweto a few weeks after the beginning of the 1976 student uprising.
The school the storyteller attended decades before has been burnt down. Should he feel a loss, be sentimental about
it, or celebrate change? This brought back memories of a previous crisis at Eastern High. Three of the best teachers were dismissed for not cooperating with the Bantu Education Act. This would have rolling consequences. "The death by fire of my old school ... our experience those many years back was nothing but a damp, apologetic squib". Being able to define "quisling" was now irrelevant.
The Long Day features a university messenger known as "Gestapo", not without reason, and the role of a Drama Club in the resistance. Our raconteur, Pete Mokwena, is up against a head of department who is convinced that an African cannot teach English. The university registrar is in cahoots with the apartheid authorities, and uses Gestapo as his messenger. They are taken in for questioning by Special Branch officers who are convinced that the Drama Club is a front for "clandestine political activities". But who has given the police that idea?
Haunted is really the story of the ghost of Gabs City. This is a tale of poverty and deception, and anger at having been the victim of a scam. It is not a tale of a "Ghost Taxi", but instead how to get free rides on taxis by playing a spirit. Ndumiso takes us back to Roma and UBLS in the mid-1960s and events involving "City Mafefs", the students other name for Mafefoane, the village nearby. Ndumiso Magazi, the "limping bully", has been murdered. "What the hell was he doing in Ntate Sefako's house when he should have been in his room at Moshoeshoe Hall?" Ndumiso had begun satisfying an illicit craving, and became the secret lover of Masechaba Sefako. Ndumiso's father had gone to Fort Hare, moved to Lesotho as an exile, became a science master at a local high school and the boy had grown up there, becoming one with the Basotho. At Roma he was part of a syndicate of six, Lekhotla, who pooled and ate and drank in excess together on weekends. Dan Moeketsi, visiting from Wits, has described Roma "as a glorified High School". Ndumiso hatches plans to put Dan in his place.
The Cain Syndrome takes violence to the next level. Jonathan Osei relates events involving close relatives, his Auntie Mompati, and his cousins, Michael the elder, Andrew the younger. Michael dropped out of school at 15, wanting to earn money and become a big man the quick way - robbing people on trains between Soweto and the city - while denouncing "educated fools".
Jonathan does an MA in History and Andrew studies English and History. Michael gets 22 years for armed robbery. When out he will turn his bitterness against Jonathan and Andrew. At 46 Michael even tells his mother, when disgusted with her, "I'll haul you before the authorities for child abuse". Pascalina is the story of what can happen when a Protestant Moruti's son, Zolile Madoda, makes child a young Catholic woman, Pascalina Khabele from Teyateyaneng, a shining light in Lesotho and an "A" science student at Roma. Only the excesses of the resident Irish Catholic priest, Reverend Father Sean O'Connor, can unintentionally extract Zolile Madoda from his predicament.
This collection of short stories ends with Down Memory Lane, a tale set in Centurion, probably in the 21st Century. Before 1994 Centurion, as many will remember, was Hendrik Verwoerd's model apartheid city, Verwoerdville, a place where non-whites were not allowed to live, only to visit to work, then leave. Alpheus Skosana, at the Woolworths in Centurion, meets a man he once hated - and who he knows hated him - retired police officer Wouter Swanepoel. It was 50 years before at Alice in the Eastern Cape that they last faced off. Can they now share coffee and scones and have a civilised conversation? Is this the New South Africa?