In the Belly of the Baobab: Wilma Stockenström’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree

Deborah Garfinkle

Translated by J.M. Coetzee. Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2014. 129 pages. $18.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

One night almost thirty years ago, I attended a benefit reading for South Africa organized in conjunction with the fortieth-anniversary PEN World Congress. On the stage was an august panel of writers of international reputation who had raised their voices against the brutality of the Botha regime, which had done everything, including torture and murder, to silence those it considered its enemies. Two among them that night—J.M. Coetzee and the late Nadine Gordimer—would later become Nobel Prize laureates for works that exposed the horrific contradictions of their homeland and its system of racial apartheid. Norman Mailer, also a panelist, during his speech on Africa waxed poetic about its “great womb,” as silly and sexist a characterization as I’d heard to describe a complex and culturally diverse continent; but then poor Mailer had already taken heat from feminists at the Congress for urging all writers to fight the arms race for the sake of their “battered wives.” I remember looking up at the South African poet and activist Breyten Breytenbach as Mailer gushed on. The intimate, tender look of amusement in Breytenbach’s eye as he gazed at his wife, Yolande, sitting among us in the audience, seemed to say, how very silly, how silly, indeed. How far away this Mailer and this effete literary gathering in New York must have seemed from Breytenbach’s prison cells in Robben Island or Pollsmoor, addresses he shared with Nelson Mandela.

Now from more than a generation’s distance, the year 1986 and the whole event—Mailer and Breytenbach, Soweto, Biko, the state of emergency, martial law— seem so far away. All that bloodletting and repression built up until, as no one there that night could ever have imagined, the door, suddenly, swung open. Apartheid, bloodlessly, gave up the ghost. Mandela stepped out of prison after twenty-seven years to cheers. Seemingly overnight, to the world’s amazement, Mandela went from being reviled as terrorist to being called Mr. President, the last great statesman from the era that ended in walls crumbling, curtains falling, and velvet revolutions.

In many ways, that night sets the stage for the current book under review, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, which Coetzee, its English-language translator, at the time called “one of the most hallucinatory and poetic probings of the female condition in post-modern fiction.” Originally published in Afrikaans in 1981, and in English in 1983, Stockenström’s non-linear first-person narrative is set at the end of the fifteenth century, when Vasco da Gama’s expedition lands on East African shores. The narrative is told through the impressionistic flashbacks of an anonymous African slave woman, now old and stripped down to rags, who—after the eponymous expedition has failed and ended in her last master’s death—has taken up residence in the belly of a great baobab tree in the middle of the wilderness. There, among the relics of past civilizations, she lives side by side with wild animals and “the little people,” members of the San bush tribe, who cater to her needs and worship her just short of “adoration.”

Through the narrator’s fragmentary memories, we learn that she came from her native village in the interior to an unnamed commercial capital on the southeastern coast of Africa (most probably what is now Durban in Natal Province) after having been kidnapped by raiders who killed her parents and pillaged everything in sight. Stripped of her childhood, culture and identity, prized in the Muslim sultanate for her uncircumcised genitals, she is sold into bondage to her first master—an old merchant who likes to “crack [virgin slave girls] as one cracks a young pod.” In his household, she is initiated into “the game of love,” tutored by the other slave women who, like the narrator, have been pressed against their will into sexual and domestic servitude. These more experienced women show the girl how to satisfy her master’s desires; but the most important lesson they teach her is the art of survival in a place where a slave woman’s future is “decided upon a whim” – how to “remember the rapture and the torment, but inwardly remain untouched, remain whole, remain [herself].” As a female slave nothing, neither her body, her time, her tongue, nor the fruit of her womb, born from her master’s seed, are hers to keep. Once she has given birth to her master’s child, she has outlived her usefulness as a means for her master to satisfy his desire for virgins; she becomes a “damaged plaything,” worth only the price her owner can fetch for her body at auction. The next “little thing” replaces the girl, now mother, in her master’s bed. The narrator and her infant are placed on the auction block to be sold as separate lots to the highest bidder. As she awaits her fate, she vividly describes the process in which, in the hot sun, she is poked and prodded by potential buyers until an agent, representing her new master, purchases her for what she considers “a risible sum”:

Someone unknown grabbed my child. What was spoiled? Another examined my head, the inside of my mouth, my pelvis, my arms and legs. He was dubious. What was skew? A merchant sent an agent to buy as many slaves as the fingers of one hand. Where did it leak? Where was it cracked? What was botched about it? The sun baked down on my head… One by one I was left. On one leg. On the other leg. Biting my nails. What was missing? What had been twisted? I no longer saw my child. I spun around. Nothing to see. I screamed within myself. I could cut open my belly, draw out the guts. I looked for a knife. If I could spit myself out of myself. My heart froze. Who was buying me?

This poignant depiction reveals that in this powerful Islamic city-state on the trade routes between East and West, everything has been reduced to its price tag, to be bought and sold by merchants—human, animal, vegetable, and mineral, all has been objectified and monetized.

Yet, unlike the other unfortunate slaves who stood with her at auction, Stockenström’s slave woman has learned her lesson. Her indomitable spirit refuses to bow down or pay tribute to anyone or anything; instead, she chooses to “ignore all spirits save that which live in [her].” She maintains a deep and abiding connection to the natural world and her inner goddess. Turning her back on the other slaves, whom she calls “the damned,” she feels more kinship with the turbulent sea, to which she runs at first glance, attracted by its awesome power. This woman’s proud bearing and feminine beauty make her rise from abject poverty in the household of her second master, a miserly and abusive spice merchant, as the result of a twist of fate—a sudden hurricane of mythic proportions which “elect[s]” her. She is injured by a tree branch and brought to the house of the most wealthy and influential merchant in the city to recuperate and soon winds up as the man’s “head slave girl,” a pampered and beloved possession in her benefactor’s household with more power than “many a wife.” Yet she still yearns for something beyond her gilded captivity.

In the merchant’s household, she falls desperately in love with a man she calls The Stranger, an African, like her of tall, noble bearing, who has journeyed beyond the seas and has knowledge of the world and its commerce. After her master dies in her arms of a sudden illness, she convinces the restless wanderer to buy her. And he takes her away with him on the eponymous, and, for the time, unheard of expedition west, back into the uncharted interior, to seek the merchants’ holy grail, the overland trade route between East and West that would liberate sailors and their cargoes from having to circumnavigate the treacherous Cape. As she travels further from the city into the wilderness, man’s dominion loses its power and nature prevails. The stranger falls prey to a force greater than all his erudition and she wanders alone until, stripped of the last vestiges of civilization and her captivity, she takes up residence in the protection of the tree. But in the distance, the fires are burning. The “bearded newcomers,” the Europeans, have arrived. We know the history. For her and her gods, the apocalypse is only a matter of time.

Although it might be tempting for readers to view the lasting significance of Stockenström’s lyrical, visionary and moving work solely in terms of racial apartheid, this novel, like Coetzee’s work from the same period, the masterful Waiting for the Barbarians, transcends the binary opposition of black and white. Baobab is an allegorical meditation on the male drive to dominate that which it labels the other—whether women or barbarians. We’re left wondering who the barbarians really are. It’s no wonder that Coetzee so admired the work that he chose to render it into English. Taken together, Baobab and Barbarians form a hallucinogenic diptych on the genocidal horrors of European “civilization,” that, at the time of the book’s publication, was once again on the brink of apocalypse. Exterminating angels pursue Stockenström’s slave woman, the spiritual twin sister to Coetzee’s magistrate (whom his torturers force to dress as woman), both characters objects of the full force of these angels’ homicidal wrath. Here details matter little; Coetzee and Stockenström keep the specifics sketchy. The past shadows and prefigures the present. What do details matter when the conquerors’ urge for blood is eternal?

Yet, history changes everything. At the time of the PEN Congress, as the panel on the stage that night revealed, white South Africans, English and Afrikaner, were still the masters of the international literary discourse on apartheid, slavery, gender and colonialism in South Africa. The life of the other was still spelled in a European script with a capital O. Coetzee, a Afrikaner man, translates a feminist tale by Stockenström, an Afrikaner woman who imagines the consciousness of an African slave woman living before the European conquest, out of the language of apartheid’s patriarchy into English, the language of the Boers’ conquerors. These textual variations reveal that cultural domination does not exist as a linear hierarchy, but a complex, ever-changing dialogic web between the conquerors and conquered. Suddenly, the balance of power shifts and the narrative web becomes even more intricate. Which is why this particular edition marks an essential addition to world literature: we must never forget the eternal questions about freedom and domination raised by Stockenström’s tale. And yet, the publication of this volume now, when so few English translations are published, is, in a sense, an anachronism. Twenty years after apartheid collapsed, South Africa, a free multicultural nation, faces a different set of social challenges and contradictions. Now South African writers, black, white, mixed-race, male, female, native-born, those living at home and in the diaspora, can speak freely about the complexity of the post-apartheid experience.

As I was writing this review, I scoured the internet for recent works in English by South African writers born after 1950, and came up with surprisingly few. One exception is poet, novelist and scholar Yvette Christiansë’s acclaimed English-language novel, Unconfessed (2006), a fictionalized account of the historical nineteenth-century black slave woman named Sila, who has been sentenced to hard labor on Robben Island for the crime of murdering her own son. In the novel, Sila speaks into the void to her dead son about her life and suffering under a system that crushes the human spirit. In some sense, Christiansë’s Sila serves as the spiritual kinswoman to Stockenström’s nameless heroine—a proud, yet broken woman worthy of being remembered. One only hopes that more such moving works, addressing what Sila calls “the sons and daughters of [her] generation,” will garner international attention. After all, the past, present and future belong to every individual who desires to speak truth to power, to imagine the infinite variations of the human experience.

As I finish writing this, Gordimer has just died. Tomorrow, Facebook informs me, is International Mandela Day. Under the post, I see Mandela, a good-natured grandpa with his hands sheathed in boxing gloves, mugging for the camera in order to recreate a famous photo of him taken long ago, before he was imprisoned. The dead statesman smiles at me as if he hasn’t a care in the world.

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