EsKia Mphahlele – Writer & Activist: 17-12-1919 – 27-10-2008


In 1957 EsKia Mphahele left his home in South Africa for what became 20 years in exile. First to Nigeria and then on to England, Kenya, Zambia and the US before finally returning home in 1977. He became the first Black man to to be offered a chair at the Wits University in Johannesburg where he taught African Literature. Mphahele, who started out as a journalist for Drum magazine was a huge literary presence in Africa as much for his own novels as for his work as a literary academic and critic. His most famous book is his autobiography “Down Second Avenue” which includes his early life in Apartheid South Africa as well as his time spent in Nigeria at the University of Ibadan.


Saturday night. Darkness. Sounds of snoring from my uncle at the corner. Like the muted lowing of a cow. Tomorrow the other uncle sleeping with him on the floor will complain that he had been roused from his sleep by the snoring. My younger brother doesn’t stir beside me. Nor the youngest uncle the other side of him under the same blanket as we. They say I’m a bad sleeper and when sleep descends on me there is going to be tugging and tossing and rolling among the three of us. I know the cold air coming through the hole in the flooring boards will whip us out of sleep as it plays upon bare flesh, else one’s leg will rest on my neck and then I shall dream that some fiend is slitting my throat and I shall jump up with a scream… Tins of beer dug into the floor behind the stack and the strong smell of fermenting malt and grey spots on the floor around the holes. No policeman will find it easily. Policeman? Saturday night. The men in uniform may even now be sniffing about in the yard. Far to the west end of Marabastad a police whistle, the barking of dogs – no it must be in Fourth Avenue maybe because I hear heavy booted footsteps, it’s sure to be a person running away from the law, the police cells, the court and jail. Saturday night and it’s ten to ten. I can hear the big curfew bell at the police station peal “ten to ten, ten to ten, ten to ten” for the Black man to be out of the streets to be at home to be out of the policeman’s reach… The Saturday night buzz has now been muffled. Siki is walking down the street playing his guitar the one he carries about on him, the guitar he plays while he coughs on and on, for he has been coughing ever since I knew him, a long long time. Siki’s music comes and goes and comes and goes… the music fades and is gone fused with the night. “The white man is strong”, funny this comes to me as I seem to hear my mother say it: the white man’s strong I don’t know you mustn’t stand in his way or he’ll hurt you, maybe when you’re big I don’t know you will open your mouth and say what is in your heart but remember now the white man has a strong arm. Saturday night and I’m thinking of school and my classmates. I feel so weak, inferior, ignorant, self-conscious. Saturday night and I’m still thinking and feeling… Mathebula is asleep maybe but I think through his herbs he can see me wide awake. He put a stick into the fire when he went to bed as he always does to keep away other people’s baboons but he cannot tell us how to keep the police away. I wonder what the matter is with Mathebula’s herbs…

Links: The Es’kia Institute