Reviewer: Sue Glynn

Publisher: Envelope Books  November 2021

ISBN: 978-1838172039     PB

This book by award winning South African writer Marguerite Poland was inspired by and is dedicated to the Reverend Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama (1848-1885). His fictional counterpart is Stephen Mzamane who is found, aged nine, in the bush by the Reverend Rutherford. With his parents’ permission, he is taken to live and be educated in the local mission school. His brother Mzamo later joins him there but it is only Stephen who is deemed suitable to travel to England to continue his studies at the Missionary College in Cambridge. There he meets Alfred Newnham and is moved by a photograph entitled Kaffir Woman that he sees in a photographer’s window. His continuing friendship with Alfred when they both reach Africa and his search for the woman in the photograph form major themes of the book. Moreover Stephen cannot escape racism. In England he is seen as alien and exotic and on his return is relieved to feel ‘not an imposter here – a curiosity – but a fellow man’. Unfortunately the Church and the British Empire do not have the same view. Stephen is torn between his vocation and his community from which he is estranged and cannot marry into as he hasn’t gone through the the required initiation rituals. He is also  finally forced to choose between his conscience and his loyalty to his brother.

There is no doubt that this an important book about the evils of colonialism. Stephen and Alfred have very different experiences in Africa.  English Alfred is given a parish in a large town with his wife and family whereas Stephen lives alone in a remote parish. Although today we are aware of many of the effects of the drive to bring Western religion to Africa, the author  reveals more about this and how it affected individuals. This discrimination is followed throughout the two brothers’ lives.  How could it seem reasonable to send Stephen’s teenage brother away from the Native College for the ‘insubordination’ of speaking his own language, Xhosa?

This is an intense and at times upsetting book as we follow the emotional turmoil of Stephen’s life and I admire the author’s treatment of this. I have only a few reservations. I found the style sometimes a little difficult and the whole perhaps too detailed. Nevertheless, well worth reading.