A young man sets out from his home village in South Africa on a quest for self-sufficiency. He is no more than a boy but his journey becomes one of self-discovery and beyond that, a journey of radical self-invention. Compelled by cruel circumstances and forces beyond his control, he propels himself through desperation and survives disaster after disaster. He is the epitome of human agency. He is Toloki.
On his journey from his village and into an urban and industrial world, he faces dire economic straights and profound disappointment, seemingly at every turn. His humble successes and modest progress are thwarted by a society that does not recognize his value as an enterprising individual and certainly not as a person worth protecting and nurturing. His own people do not fully value him. Perhaps, they simply cannot see him as worthy, even if they wanted to, because he does not possess what they would consider an ideal appearance or intelligence.
Despite the odds stacked against him, Toloki thrives. He thrives in the sense that he is happy and at peace within himself and with the choices he makes for his life and his livelihood. He clings to his dignity, at all costs. He refuses to succumb to a life of begging. Toloki may be poor beyond what most of us can imagine, but he chooses to live without depending on charity or the generosity of the people he encounters. He will work in exchange for whatever help he receives from others. He pays back his debts and upholds his principle of self-sufficiency.
Out of the failures and disappointments of his life, Toloki learns great lessons on not just how to survive with dignity but how to live a life endowed with purpose. His life may be one of poverty, but it is a life is rich in meaning and direction. Let’s be clear: There is nothing glorious about poverty, but poverty can never define the human spirit. Similarly, oppression and injustice cannot define the human spirit. Toloki exemplifies this radical human power of self-definition. Out of the chaos of his circumstance, Toloki creates a beautiful new order. He fashions a profession for himself that he can believe in and through which he can serve others. He becomes a Professional Mourner. He works for those who cannot pay him very much but who can appreciate the work he does.
In a world that seems to thrive on an economy of death, a heartless world keen on destroying its dark-skinned citizens and children (their innocence, their dreams, their futures), Toloki manages to preserve his heart. And along the way, he meets individuals whose lives are illuminated by compassion and laughter. There is hope that goodness can be found and good people exist, even if their dreams, ambitions, and lives are cut short. As a Professional Mourner, Toloki certainly participates in the economy of death, but he defines the terms of his participation and opts to work in a manner that is as minimally exploitative and destructive as possible. He strives to work and live from the heart.
As Toloki’s journey unfolds, a parallel journey takes place. This parallel journey is that of Noria, a girl Toloki grows up with. Her circumstances differ from his because she is girl on a journey into womanhood. Her story also differs from Toloki’s because she is gorgeous and blessed with the obvious gift of a beautiful voice. Though Toloki and Noria have some things in common, they endure incomparable losses. Noria’s attractiveness and talents could not shield her from the murder of her children. Despite her losses, Noria works daily to give care to the displaced and orphaned children of her community. She cares for these children despite the loss of her own and the ways in which these children might remind her of her grief.
The ability to transcend incalculable loss is something Toloki and Noria have in common. In a land where poverty, violence, and oppression reign, where one’s enemy is not always a stranger or foreigner but is the person one knows, Toloki and Noria forge a bond of mutual respect and friendship. They reflect to each other their individual resilient spirits. They find in each other true hearts that know how to value what is important in life, which is not wealth or fame but love. Through each other, they find companionship. Ultimately, they find love and the ability to create a space of healing for themselves and others.
Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying is filled with tragedy. However, it is also filled with light, laughter, and honesty. It is a novel about the resilience of the human heart and spirit, a book about the power of hope in a harsh world. Ways of Dying is about “ways of living.” It is a story about love and how it allows for the possibility of creating new realities. Love is the fuel for social and personal change, and artistic creativity is the steady vehicle.
Artistic invention moves people and carries the world forward. That magical thing called the imagination is critical to human survival. That force within the individual and the community to imagine–and to create tangible things from that which is imagined–holds healing power. Toloki and Noria must use their imaginations to liberate themselves. For a long time, they do this creative work separately, but when they come together, they forge a new work of art that enhances and fulfills them both. Theirs is a creative partnership, the narrators tell us.
The narrators of the story, who happen to be the town gossips, are the all-seeing eyes and all-knowing ears and voice of the community. The narrators, however perplexed or humored they might be, want us to know that Toloki and Noria are happy and successful, even if unconventionally and unexpectedly so. They want us to know that these two souls have figured things out. They know a lot about death, but they also know life. They know how to live. And beyond this, they know how to love. Is this knowledge of theirs not what so many of us seek?
Review by Viola Allo
Viola Allo is a Cameroonian-born poet and essayist based in the United States. Her first chapbook of poems Bird From Africa, is included in the Eight New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set published in 2015 by Akashic Books and the African Poetry Book Fund. Viola resides in California and writes at her blog, Letters to Cameroon.