Shades of Africa: Kwasuka Sukela
by Toko Loshe

"…my father…had grown up with a mixture of English, German, Afrikaans, Zulu, and Xhosa on the farm in the Transkei."

This novel is based on the true story of Shirley Schreiber, a white girl who grew up in some of the most troubled places in Southern Africa during the late 1950s. It is written with the hindsight of adulthood but felt from the heart of an unhappy childhood. Because this is a novel with an autobiographical underpinning, separating actual disturbing events from fiction sometimes resembles solving a mystery. Why must her father drink? Was he abusive, protective, or both? Did she inherit his strong determination and artistic talent or her mother’s sewing skills and ability to love obediently? Would Shirley repeat their mistakes?

The author’s pen name, Toko Loshe, undoubtedly holds subtle meaning. But the book’s subtitle, KWASUKA SUKELA, clearly translates as “Long, long ago.” These are the words Shirley’s black nanny of the Zulu tribe used to begin the ancient stories she told of African history. The indigenous religion of the area was based on communicating with ancestors, and Nelson Mandela acknowledged that the desire to free his people came about after learning of ancient battles his Xhosa tribe had won over white colonists.

This book has sharp contrasts. Black versus white is obvious, with murders of both white neighbors and kaffir workers traumatizing a confused girl. Catholic convent schools topped with crosses housed stern nuns who applied a ruler to the wrist of any wayward student, while Sangoma shamans were chosen for their people skills and healing abilities. Did the turquoise beads and blessing of the shaman/healer protect Shirley or was it her father’s strong belief in family? Would life prove safer in the city than on a Southern Rhodesian farm?

Certainly, it was not safe for a white man to work at the Congo Belt’s copper mines in 1960 as the republic was birthed. The family escaped by car over roads where marauders burned and killed those fleeing. The family moved further south again, just before Northern Rhodesia became Zambia in 1964. How much of these political happenings the author remembers is uncertain. In a newspaper she was using to pack dishes, Shirley read about Nelson Mandela, a black lawyer, accused of inciting racial trouble. Other places in the book it seems as if she fills in with facts learned from books or online. But the fear experienced in that family car was real!

In the book, childhood memories get mixed in with drums passing warnings and blood from dead chickens, broken glass, and monkey scratches. The eyes of the shamans roll up exposing their whites as they see what the author calls the shades of Africa―where a Gogo mama might replace the white grandmother Shirley was not allowed to meet, or where a cousin might rape a teenage girl. The drums stop when the family moves to a Johannesburg suburb. But the bloody path that began with a gruesome flashback concludes 224 pages later, when the girl dares to become a woman, and, like her father, bravely challenges those who would hurt her and her family.

In Shades of Africa, the author demonstrates that looking into the past enables us―no matter our religious beliefs―to clearly see the protection that brought us to this present moment where we can face the future confidently. Judy Witt, or Toko Loshe as she prefers, has written a truly film-worthy story.

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