The Broken River Tent: Shifting the weight of history

For 100 years, a collection of tribes in the Eastern Cape, known as AmaXhosa, fought off a global empire as the British tried to expand their occupation of the continent from their stronghold in Cape Town.

Simply the length of this war, with its battles won and lost, its villians and heroes, leaders and traitors, honour and treachery, its millennium tragedy resulting in famine and a nation on its knees, along with the barbarous duplicity of the British, is biblical in scope. Grecian, certainly. Yet, where in our own literature are these tales, and the myths they spawn?

Their lack is logically due to the British eventually overcoming what had become a scattered and starving nation, and thus the Western writings of the ancients were inked across the landscape, despite its grandeur being equal to that of Crete or Rome.

We have been blind ever since, not seeing what is before our eyes and under our feet, the concentric rings of history unnoticed.

Mphuthumi Ntabeni, in writing The Broken River Tent, takes a confident step to put this right.

Through Phila, a trained architect in his mid-to-late thirties, we see the scope of what is not told..

Ntabeni’s novel, through the narration of Maqoma, who is in history largely unheralded but is in reality a fascinating leader who for decades fought to protect land for his people before eventually being imprisoned on Robben Island on trumped-up charges,walks us through the door to an African perspective.

Beyond the lyrical yet rooted depictions of place and landscape, and the tension inherent in a nation’s strugge for survival, Ntabeni liberally scatters gems throughout his spacious novel.

With an aside on architecture, he introduces comparison to the ancients. On the doorpost of an elegant building the single word Resurgam – I will rise again.

“You must always be able to find a metaphor for humans in a house or building. Until you do the scales will not fall from your eyes”, thinks Phila, recalling his lectures and thinking also of Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus.

In this way we are neatly invited to consider the coming tale with myth in mind. Gaika’s Kop is our own Mount Ida, the landscape from the Amathole mountains to the Gonubie estuary the canvas of past and present.

While the novel is not flawless, the intersections occasionally clumsy, it succeeds in fulfilling the promise it sets up. There is after all the epic nature of what was waged, not just against the British, but also the Shakespearean internecine struggles in which chief was pitted against chief, nephew against uncle. And Ntabeni, I’m sure, would not mind using an adjective – Shakespearean – from Western literature. His is not a retributive novel. After all, the ancestors are beyond politics, and share their tales among one another.

There are cultural gems too, bringing the realisation of how little has been preserved of the Xhosa idiom, and how much we have to lose, are losing.

On the road from Gqeberha to Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown, also known as Rhini), Phila asks a woman to whom he gives a lift, what the origin of the name Rhini is. Her rural response, that he is asking her about her mother’s wedding day, reveals the depths inherent within Xhosa proverbs; their clues to oral culture and how that alters perception of time and place in the universe.

He writes of the weight of history. How knowledge allows us to see beyond the prosaic. The Kowie ditch, as it is referred to by locals, running through the middle of Makhanda is more than a litter-strewn and polluted stream flowing away past the Fort England Psychiatric hospital. It remains a marker of where the British expansion eastwards was tripped up, despite Makana’s unnecessary defeat . From there it all unfolds, along with the realisation of how unnecessary it all was, and how locked into the continuous unfolding of this history we remain.

Ntabeni makes us aware of the conflict still pulsing through our blood, and shifts that weight, balances the load, and allows us to lift our chins higher so that we may see further before us.

The Broken River Tent was published by Jacana in 2017 and is, if not at your local book store, available through The Book Lounge.

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