Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya revisits the past under erasure in A Portrait of Emlanjeni

Arts, Culture and Sport

Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya revisits the past under erasure in A Portrait of Emlanjeni

The idealised landscape of Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya’s new novel, A Portrait of Emlanjeni, is animated by the spirit of the people, their community ties and abiding regard for tradition. Ngwenya brings the indigenous and official justice systems into conversation, broadening them to make space for women.



Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya’s fourth book, A Portrait of Emlanjeni, was recently published by UK-based Carnelian Heart Publishing. Photo supplied.

Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya’s fourth book, A Portrait of Emlanjeni, was recently published by UK-based Carnelian Heart Publishing. The novel, Ngwenya’s first in English, pays homage to an idealised landscape, its community ties and abiding attachment to tradition. Ngwenya’s teenage protagonists, Khethiwe, a survivor of sexual violence, and Zanele, who falls pregnant from a toxic relationship, embody women’s struggles. In the case of Khethiwe, the struggle is symbolically acted upon by a clash between the indigenous and the adopted colonial justice delivery system.

Ngwenya, a town planner by day, wrote her first short story collection, The Fifty Rand Note and Other Stories, under the stimulus of hyperinflation in 2009. With her investments burnt and her business on shifting ground, she decided to make a silver linings playbook of it all with the 14-piece book, first published in 2017, and now awaiting reissue this year by Carnelian Heart Publishing. Ngwenya’s culturally themed Ndebele duology, Izinyawo Zayizolo (2016) and Zalabantu Ziyebantwini (2022) came out through Barbara Makhalisa Nkala, the first published woman writer in the language. 

While inspiration from Ngwenya’s day job seems merely contingent The Fifty Rand Note, she may have leaned into her urban-planning imagination to achieve the idyllic tableau that is Izinyawo Zayizolo. Literally translated Footprints of Yesterday but published as A Portrait of Emlanjeni, the book draws on Ngwenya’s judicial exposure to detail a battle of laws.


A self-aware writer of decolonial intent, Ngwenya’s books have travelled well, prompting researcher engagement in Zimbabwe, South Africa, the U.S and other parts of the world. She says the occupational hazards of self-publishing, distribution problems and quality issues, have seen her working with foreign publishers and booksellers. “This is because the local bookstores are happier to sell school textbooks not novels, and very reluctant to order other literature books,” Ngwenya says in an interview with This Is Africa. 


The homely tinge of memory 

Ngwenya channels her nostalgia for an idyllic childhood in Izinyawo Zayizolo retaken in English, as A Portrait of Emlanjeni. She remembers in an interview published in This Is Africa last year growing up when children were raised alike, help was passed around, manners were cultivated early, chores were shared and so on.

The idealised childhood is, by extension, the childhood of Matobo district, an important spiritual centre in Zimbabwe, and the childhood of the nation. In Ngwenya’s book, the village retains its qualities of unconditional humanity. Homecoming adventurers, immersed in crime and degeneracy elsewhere, respectfully blend into the community code upon return. Romantic imagination is, however, undermined within the book itself as the culture has been contaminated; the nation has failed the test of innocence, with attempted genocide stalking social memory during the drive to Emlanjeni; and the olden justice system exists in name, throttled by unholistic law courts.

It has been said that in the infinitely divergent characterisation of Kojo Laing’s masterpiece, Search Sweet Country, Accra itself turns out to be the main character. If the same can be said of Ngwenya’s Emlanjeni village, as editor Tanaka Chidora intimates, it is because Emlanjeni village is where cross-border adventurers, armed robbers, peasant farmers, sangomas, students, doctors, police officers and so on dissolve their individuality into an overwhelming community spirit. 

The decolonial metaphysics of the book may also be a skilled rendering of Ngwenya’s industrial exposures. Her day job is a two-way reimagining of the space between city and village. On one hand, a town planner conceives the enchantment of the village into the banality of the city. On the other hand, she tames “a bush into a town with all networks coming together before people can come in.” The urban village, better known as suburbia, is an artifice but so too is the actual village which is always already the outcome of colonial displacement.


Nostalgia is not just a backward gaze but also negative one. Hopelessly rid of its materials, it creates the beauty of the past out of discontent with the present. A Portrait of Emlanjeni favours the traditional customs and figureheads for a benign rendering and what goes wrong in the book represents the abuses rather than the flaws of indigenous philosophy.

At the centre of these abuses is Sibanda who rapes his own daughter Khethiwe while his wife looks on. Sibanda’s obsession with sex knows no bounds, moral or legal. Following his crime, he uses violence and intimidation, abusing the law further to stay clear of it, and somehow gets away with it. But he knows that indigenous culture will fight back those who wantonly disregard it, so he dabbles in juju to stay untouchable. Apostle Joshua, a Christian variant of Sibanda, is a manipulator of crowds who cuckolds his happy clippers. 

But Ngwenya’s village men are not all monsters. Hadebe, intransigent and doctrinaire, progressively shifts towards a humane angle in the case of his pregnant daughter. Sikhwehle is a holy fool, mentally ill and warmly regarded by his people. He gets to be the ladies’ man in his hard-working involvement with every village task including the brewing of rainmaking beer. At gatherings and at the chief’s court, he has an unwritten contract to say the truth that polite society muzzles in the decency of silence. 

Chief Mlotshwa is almost too good to be true, wise, listening, benign. He might seem like the junior party, liable to be overwritten in his collaboration with modern courts, but things do not always proceed in one direction. The modern court has the last say on the case of Khethiwe, aborting justice in favor of procedure, but it is the chief who has the last say in an acquitted murder case that must now be returned to the guardians of tradition lest nature avenge herself. 

The problem of memory


Emlanjeni, the idealized landscape that gives the book its name, is immersed in the ways of the ancestors. The Ndebele source text, Izinyawo Zayizolo, literally Footprints of Yesterday, pays regard to this preservation of the past. The first sighting of this are the communal ties which still run strong in this community. Just as the child who does not cry dies in the swaddling bands, problems are only terminal for individualist and materialist cultures who hold on to problems like private property – a running censure in the book is that depression is not an African disease. The other sighting is the indigenous religion – the Njelele god of Matobo still has a priesthood waiting on it and fertility rites observed around it by the Emlanjeni community. Importantly for Ngwenya, the other sighting is the indigenous judicial system, although the novelist deliberately portrays it under erasure, its relative merits always already undermined by the modern order. 

Ngwenya is consciously running into the complications of writing the past

Ngwenya is consciously running into the complications of writing the past. The past is accessible through memory but memory cannot reach outside itself, at best it remembers its own remembering. We experience memory as the intimate and sacred workings of our subjectivity without stopping to consider who has been tasked to do our remembering for us. Memory is a site of power that asks to be taken at its word. We think of the present in terms of change, a change the present itself is not immune to, but the past gains in enchantment, asking only to be gazed it, worshipped and idealized. The trouble with the past is not merely the institutional stamp running through memory, as we have suggested, but that the past has itself adjusted for shifts in the present. 

Writing in a thrice minoritised voice as a black Ndebele woman Ngwenya is aware of the mutations she must confront in the past. One such mutation  misdirects attribution to the past as the self-legitimating origin of patriarchy. Precarious is the place of women in a modern justice delivery system that can be gamed by the resourced and violent. Ngwenya’s Emlanjeni is a retreating picture of an African justice system that venerated community and prioritised the vulnerable. As Joyce Jenje Makwenda points out, European colonisers, coming from culture where women were so oppressed, curtailed the freedom of women in this country and made good on the fraud by doing it in the name of African culture. Part of Jenje Makwenda’s ouvre concerns itself with debunking taboos of a dubious origin. Ngwenya’s village women, speaking up and organising for justice, can only do so under erasure. 

Ngwenya’s Emlanjeni is a retreating picture of an African justice system that venerated community and prioritised the vulnerable

Much of this is personified in Ngwenya’s book in the character of Khethiwe, a young teenage girl who fails to get justice after being raped by her father. While men seem to be figureheads in home, village and state, Ngwenya’s women owe their power to community and culture. Their voices command Emlanjeni’s regard for the sacred and the mystical but fall uselessly against the walls of government speak up and organize for Khethiwe, even travelling to court as presumptive witnesses The tragic business between the violated young girl and the untouchable father becomes Ngwenya against the colonial immunity of men. “I am comparing the official system versus our indigenous system. I am saying let us take not completely abandon our way of life favouring the adopted one,” she says in her This Is Africa interview.

More romantic faultlines   


Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, set much earlier in time than Ngwenya’s Portrait of Emlanjeni, during the time of colonial administration, predict the perils of returning to origins. Achebe’s colonial administrators are committed to the bloody business but they must be “all the time enlisting the real force of the spirit of the people, instead of killing all that out and trying to start afresh. We must not destroy the African atmosphere, the African mind, the whole foundation of his race…” (Arrow of God). In other words, the colonial grip on political power may be totalising, but it must appeal to the native mind by token and title. African culture must be channeled in the service of the Crown so the ruled may experience their condition as to natural.

Achebe’s Britishers set about the business of willed misremembering. If a stereotypic playbook will help them milk “the spirit of the people… the African mind, the African atmosphere” so be it, they may well send specifics to the devil.

During his “tigritude controversy”, Wole Soyinka makes a distinction between French colonialism and British colonialism, the former bent to wipe out African culture, the latter only concerned with absorbing it for British interests. In V.Y Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa then, cultural activism accumulates into missionary orthography, just as indigenous-language literary romanticism in Zimbabwe was fantastically mixed up, first with the practical business of orthography, second with the adjustment of the past for colonial policies and missionary mores. 

Achebe’s Britishers set about the business of willed misremembering. If a stereotypic playbook will help them milk “the spirit of the people… the African mind, the African atmosphere” so be it, they may well send specifics to the devil. Egalitarian Igbo ancestors had ruled that “the man aspiring to be king must first pay the debts of every man and every woman in Umuaro.” The colonial administrators have other ideals, installing African chiefs and kings to rule by proxy. “This among a people who abominated kings!” Achebe exclaims. “This was what British administration was doing among the Ibos, making a dozen mushroom kings grow where there was none before.” 

Chinua Achebe. Photo: Cliff/Flickr/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)/No changes made

In Rhodesia, know that they must crush the traditional and religious leadership for their role in the ill-fated uprisings of 1893 and 1896. They destroy the current but not the form of these structures, installing parallel bloodlines with nothing to avenge to report directly to them, to be colonial subordinates.

Romantic faultlines are written into the village as it is the rural rather than the traditional area. The chiefs personifying the indigenous justice delivery system are exaggerated jumping-jacks first of a self-interested colonial government and now of an equally narrow African government. The problem with chiefs in Zimbabwe is that they have been a ceremonial branch of the colonial government for more than a century. While Ngwenya generously portrays them as purveyors of righteousness and wisdom in her book, their impotence is not lost to her. This extends, not so much by design, the idea of writing a past under erasure.

Rear-view pixels of home


More than just the romantic scenery of the village, A Portrait of Emlanjeni offers up the dreams of young  Zimbabweans in rear-view pixels on the highway to Egoli. Loss is important to Ngwenya’s undertaking. Even as her novel is abundant in community activities and rites, there is a retreating vibe to everything. As in Michel Gondry’s Freudian parable, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, the village portrait is a full-resolution recollection of a forgetting. The gesture is not purely Ngwenya’s but is written into the failed decoloniality of the village as a rural rather than a traditional area as we have seen. 

Emlanjeni is where silence is an official language, even as death sits uncomfortably in social memory and the muted cry for healing goes unanswered. Journeys by bus overlooking the Bhalagwe Mine dump remind villagers of the uncollected bodies of children, some fallen in fire, some in airless bags. Chronicling this silence, Ngwenya writes, “Silent drumbeats echo from the mine dump, evading through the leaves of the trees dotted around it, pervading the rocks, past the rivers and the vast sands and into the hearts of Emlanjeni inhabitants. 

“Sorrow. Fear. Anger. 

“These feelings are the people’s well-kept secret. They do not show them to strangers. They say nothing to them about the men, women and children who were swallowed by a moment in the country’s history, a moment that is spoken of in hushed tones.”

Ngwenya’s performance in A Portrait of Emlanjeni is complex. Her novel gives breath and soul to a purely imagined but historically grounded landscape. Few critics have understandably favoured the village, Emlanjeni, to be the true protagonist of the book named after it. This immersion in the environment is animated by the spirit of the people, their community ties and cultural values. In the struggles of her young female protagonists, Ngwenya at once romanticises and reevaluates culture from a humane imperative.


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