Author: Es’kia Mphahlele
I first came across Es’kia Mphahlele in late June 2015 while I was doing research on a community newspaper I was planning to establish. After weeks of digging through mountains of books and documents, I finally came across a document titled “The Drum Boys” which included other writers such as Henry (“Mr DRUM”) Nxumalo, Can Themba, Todd Matshikiza, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi, William “Bloke” Modisane, Arthur Maimane, and Casey Motsisi.
As the fictional editor of the magazine from 1955 to 1957, I automatically fell in love with Es’kia Mphahlela’s writing skills and his canning ability to tell real African stories through fiction. I thought that he was such a good writer that, to a certain point, I sometimes could never tell if some of the stories I read by him were fiction or not. I soon became aware of the fact that I wasn’t the only one who thought of him as a literary super star: with Barney Mthombothi stating that “If Nelson Mandela is our political star, Mphahlele was his literary equivalent,” soon after his passing in 2008.
“Down 2nd Avenue” is an autobiographical book about the life of this world renowned and Nobel Prize nominated South African laureate. He begins this literary recount of his life by describing his days in the little village of Maupaneng, which he describes to be ‘a village of about 5000 people seventy-five miles out of Pietersburg’. Using his impeccable penmanship, he describes all the joys and struggles of growing up during those times, and takes us on a journey through his life up to the point of his departure to Nigeria on a teaching job.
As soon as you turn the first page, it is easy to deduce the fact that the hand that wrote the words in those pages belonged to a man who had a passion for the English language. As the chapters unfold and the journey of his life moves from one period to another, Es’kia’s love for the English language reveals itself in his wonderful use of the language. I never once got the sense that he hated his mother tongue as I read this book (as a matter of fact; I believe if he had written this book in any other language he would have produced a product of similar brilliance). In fact, the only language he hated, and made perfectly clear of the fact, was Afrikaans, which he had to teach to learners who shared in his sentiments.
The book is a 23 chapter page turner with different chapters grouped together, with their own interlude, to describe different part of his life. As a lover of autobiographies about life during Apartheid, this was the first one I have ever come across that was written and published during these times. The others I have read were published post-1994, as a reflection and a recount of the person’s victory against the struggles of Apartheid, so it was a different experience reading this one; mainly because it didn’t have “a happy ending,” so to speak.
One of my favorite chapters, Chapter 17 – ‘St. Peter’s School’ – is a chapter where Es’kia reminisces on a very important part of his life. In this chapter he explains how for the first time in his life, when he was at St. Peter’s, an awareness crept into him: ‘an awareness of the white man’s ways and aims’. I believe that this time frame marked an important part of his life because, to use his words, it was during this time that during the debate sessions he began ‘to put into their proper places the scattered experiences of [his] life in Pretoria.’ The chapter is set between 1936 and 1937, and in it he also briefly describes his first time with a woman and how he managed to break things up with her because of his fears that his time spent with her was going to cause him to fail.
The book ends with a chapter called “Ticket to Nigeria,” which to some would seem like a victory – because he was leaving behind the struggles of Apartheid – but I feel for Es’kia this was far from a victory, and he reflects this by writing: “I despaired often about the education of our children under the new system, but I felt I had no right to save them by taking them away, instead of fighting it out side by side with those whose children are also being brought up in a police state.” The chapter describes a time of emotional turmoil for Mr Mphahlela caused by the difficulties of leaving his family – grandmother, brothers and sisters, et al – and friends behind. And it marks an emotional end to an emotional journey.
This book is a wonderful read for anyone who would like to know about the life of one of the biggest role players in the literary development of South Africa. It gives one a peak into the life of a South African icon, and gives them a chance to see the world the way he saw it. If you’re a lover of literature like myself, this book is a must read!