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Bantu Knots by Lebo Mazibuko

“Everything I had fought for – it all came down to that single moment. And we performed as if performing were oxygen itself. At the end, the applause was so overwhelming it left me shaking from the euphoria and relief that was flowing through my body.”

PAGE 255


In her debut novel Lebo Mazibuko ushers us into the world of Naledi, Dineo and Norah (Mama). These three people are tied by blood and present different personalities mirroring society and to some extent life in the township. Naledi the girl with the Bantu Knots, a signature hairstyle which she one day abandons for something more unusual either as a radical act of defiance or fresh start but the two are not mutually independent. Mazibuko tackles important themes in this novel such as; the family setup, friendship, body image, relationships, gender based violence, sexual violence, sex, religion, romance, womanhood, liberation and growth.

If ever there was a quote to aptly capture the struggle with generational variances and change this one does it so well, ‘You come into our houses and you tell us about feminism and independence. There’s no word for “feminism” in any African language because those things came with white people and democracy. Look at the divorce rate, all because women want to be men.’ I enjoy most coming of age stories mostly because they show the reader the growth of characters & their reflections. Reading this ‘Bantu Knots’ I was reminded of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The First Woman which I read earlier this year (you can read my review here), Naledi and Kirabo’s worlds are a million miles apart (one in South Africa another in Uganda) yet the struggles of growth are the same. The dynamics of womanhood cannot be ignored and Mazibuko goes in-depth. There is a constant strain in wanting to find words that translate to certain things for example feminism. Reading this book further cemented what I have always believed that just because there is no local word that directly/remotely translates to ‘feminism’ doesn’t mean that it did not exist, it doesn’t mean that long ago women wanted to/were comfortable in their oppression and dehumanization. What does feminism mean and look like to you as an African? Naledi and Mama’s (her grandmother) relationship sheds some light on the friction that generational gaps in ideas, beliefs and desires creates. I have lost count of the number of times that older women have castigated younger women for ‘wanting to be a man’ which is not the case. Perhaps, that gap is not such a bad thing as it is a constant reminder of the work still yet to be done and barriers still yet to be smashed. The truth is that the insistence to preserve harmful cultures, ideas and practices is very damaging but strategies and perspectives must continue to shift to address the fight.

I kept my fingers crossed the whole time as I was reading this book because I wanted Naledi to win. I wanted Naledi to catch a breath, make good decisions and exhale. A tumultuous relationship with a parent/parents is one thing that can destroy a child’s life. Naledi, is a young girl living in the township with her grandmother (a staunch Christian) and a mother with intermittent presence (a young troubled woman who is shamed for the life she lives). Despite being facially similar to her father (a drunkard who denies responsibility), he does not want her yet the irony is that the whole time you read this book, Naledi sees her father more than she sees her mother. Her father stays in the township and is part of the gang which sits by the corner drinking and in most cases catcalling and harassing women. Naledi is not spared from this treatment, on a daily basis she is harassed by these men who dress her down and objectify her. Mazibuko does a great job in tackling this theme. In more ways than one the reader is made aware of Naledi’s relationship with her body and its image. Firstly the novel begins with a practice familiar in some societies, beating a young girl’s breasts with a wooden spoon/ broom/ plate to stop them from growing. Mama does this to Naledi. What is the point really? If they were not meant to grow they wouldn’t. The protagonist then views her body as something that shouldn’t grow and as Mama says ‘shouldn’t be oiled in sin.’ This becomes a body that is subjected to that physical pain and the pain of being violated in the streets by men catcalling and shaming her. An important issue closely related to this is complexion, the attacks and privileges attached to it depending on who you are. Naledi is the only dark person in her family and this proves to be a thorn in her flesh. Her grandmother perpetuates harmful ideas about complexion to her “You even look like him. No one is dark in this family except you…, this is what Moruti was talking about when he was preaching about generational curses.” In the streets her father calls her ‘Mnyamane’ meaning the dark one. From a young age Naledi’s body becomes something that she is unsure of, which is sad really but shows the effects of body shaming on girls as they grow into women.

This is an easy read which is filled with so much character. I liked that Lebo Mazibuko did not restrict herself in terms of character development, themes and locations. It was a good surprise to get a bit of everything in a calm and assured manner. I like the title chapters written in various South African languages. I could not reconcile the Naledi described in the novel with the one on the cover but that is a small issue. Just a warning to readers that this book is filled with so many triggers and one should be prepared. I am satisfied with the ending and I don’t think the story could have ended in any other way.


Book Details

Title: Bantu Knots

Author: Lebo Mazibuko

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 256

Publisher: Kwela Books (2021)

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