|Ezekiel 'Eskia' Mphahlele|
Title: Down Second Avenue
Author: Ezekiel (Es’kia) Mphahlele
Publisher: Faber and Faber first published in 1959
Genre: Non-fiction (Auto-biography)
Reviewer: Manuel Odeny
The author’s life as captured in this title has relevance to Africans and more so Kenyans where, while in exile from his country South Africa, directed Chemchemi Cultural Center and published a short story In Corner B in 1967.
Like most South African biographies Ezekiel Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue offers a personal account of the effects of degrading apartheid system. Born on 17th December 1919, the first two chapters are dedicated to his childhood in Pietersburg where he lived with his unkind paternal grandmother who was ‘as big as fate, as forbidding as mimosa, stern like a mimosa tree”. His drunken father takes after the grandmother which sees his parents separate after domestic violence at a tender age.
The family moves on with the author’s maternal grandmother and Aunt Dora, who do laundry for a living, on Second Avenue of Marabastad slum in Pretoria which form the main setting of the book. He shares the tin shack with his little brother and sister, three uncles and three cousins as his mother works away in white suburbs as servant.
Mphahlele’s description of the slums of the 1920’s still resonates to poor housing and demolitions to date. He writes “Marabastad, like most locations, was an organized rubble of tin cans. The streets were straight; but the houses stood cheek and jowl, rusty as ever on the outside, as if they thought they might as well crumble in straight rows if that was to be their fate…the standards were always swaying in drunken fashion”. As kids they are forced to rummage through bins in Indian and white locations to supplement the meager family income.
The author escapes this appalling condition heightened by apartheid’s segregation through education offered by missionaries which gave rise to the country’s first black elites which spurred anti-apartheid resistance. He went to school with Oliver Thambo and author Peter Abrahams among others.
As the noose of apartheid tightens education is controlled completely making the author lose his job as a teacher and ends up being an office messenger even after getting a Masters Degree with distinction.
Equally, locations considered to be in white areas are brought down without any negotiations with tenants like in Syokimau saga. House 2A of Second Avenue where the author grew is brought down.
“Marabastad is gone but there will always be Marabastads that will be going until the screw of the vice breaks. And the Black man keeps moving on…they yell into his ears all the time: move nigger or be fenced in but move anyhow” he summarizes the ordeal.
Without a job the author moves to Botswana to teach before coming back to his country to become a journalist and a literary editor with Drum Magazin in 1956. He try’s and get dissolution with politics by joining Africa National Congress, ANC before leaving the country for exile in Nigeria to teach in Lagos.
Ironically it is while in exile that his writing career takes off, this book was written while the author was in Nigeria. He says his short story Man must live again, whose story of the same title was in Kenyan set book Encounters from Africa, was an escapist writing since he “ can never summon enough courage to read a line from any of the stories”
“Writing in exile somehow feels like having just climbed down from a vehicle that has been rocking violently for countless times” he notes.
The book is divided in twenty three chapters with the author using simple English in a strong narrative to tell the story of his life within the struggles of apartheid. by giving full chapters to other characters in their daily struggles against the system the reader is offered a mirror to see the society in a wider angle. Equally by using interlude written in first person between major chapters, the reader get a chance to glimpse at the author’s personal struggles.
But by finishing the book with his move to Nigeria away from his country, Mphahlele falls for the pitfall of autobiographers’ ‘escapism’. Consider the following finishing: Barack Obama (Dreams from my father) where he leaves for Harvard from the Chicago slum, VS Naipaul (Miguel Street) moving from Trinidad to abroad trhe same with Camara Laye (The African Son) he leaves Mali for African in a scholarship.
Apart from Kenya and Nigeria, Mphahlele lived in Zambia and USA in exile before returning to his country in 1977 and changed his name to Es’kia as a means of recanting Christianity. He died on 27th October 2008 which his two autobiographies, thirty short story collections and several poetry books leaving a major mark in African literature.