Hunger Eats a Man is the English meaning of Ndlalidlindoda, a village situated in the foothills of the Drakensberg, not too far from Estcourt. The wealthier blacks live in Canaan, an area where the whites used to live, and look down on those who live in the informal settlement of Ndlalidlindoda. The community struggles and still lives in extreme poverty with little chance of employment. The white farmers continue to exploit their vulnerability and there is no one to protect their interests.
The narrative follows the lives of several families as they wrestle with their circumstances. Many of them are a strange mixture of modernity and traditionalism, especially when it comes to belief. Furthermore, even in this rural community, there are divisions according to class, or perhaps it is rather that class is defined by wealth. Some have gained their wealth and position through corruption and do not want the poverty stricken to infiltrate their domain. Notwithstanding the bleak nature of the topic, there is a healthy injection of humour mixed in with the pathos but some events were a little far-fetched which detracts from the whole.
Priest is a pastor who lost his job at the bacon factory several years ago. He is a rather droll character with simple thought processes who reacts emotionally to incidents. He is angered at demands from the school so marches in to confront the principal. This is an amusing encounter because Priest, in his priestly garb, intimidates the principal who does not understand Priest’s accusations; he feels as if he is “someone who was too drunk the previous day to remember what wrong he might have committed”. However, as soon as he realizes Priest is there as a parent, his attitude changes and he becomes very patronising. Priest returns home, having accomplished nothing, to find his wife wants him to apply for work on a farm as she has heard they are hiring. This puts him in a flat spin as it reminds him of the terrible experience he had working on a farm as a young boy. At that time, he had vowed never to work on a farm again. Yet in his heart, he knows he must do something to put food on the table. They have been living on a diet of pap and potatoes for too long. He tells his son, Sandile, a very bright boy of fifteen, the story of his childhood experience. Sandile converts his story into a short story that shows great understanding. The unfairness meted out to the young Priest is heart-wrenching.
The principal, Bongani Hadebe, is short with a big belly and is a fancy dresser; he is from a rich family but is not very bright. Everyone knows his qualifications are suspect and it is difficult to understand how he attained his position as principal. Bongani is married to Nomsa who is very involved with a woman’s group and is passionate about “the cause of women”. (The action her women’s group takes against known rapists in the area is radical). He loves her but it plagues him that she refuses to have children. He climbs the mountain to look for solutions and is late getting home to Nomsa. She is furious and jumps to the conclusion that as is he is so late, he must be having an affair. Her reaction to this is rather extreme. This did not quite ring true and borders on the burlesque.
Bongani turns to traditional medicine though the purveyor of the cure, which purportedly will ensure he has children, charges exorbitant rates and seems rather shady. At the same time, Sandile is in trouble with the principal because one of the wealthy woman of Canaan is distressed to find that Sandile has been penning love poems to her grand-daughter and she puts pressure on the principal to expel him. They have an encounter but Bongani does not come out on top. Sandile is a very strange and interesting young man; he questions his father’s religion based as it is on the bible; he has strange dreams and visions that he writes into stories.
The inevitable happens when Priest agrees to work on the farm; exploitation and unfairness rear its ugly head again. Yet at least he has tried; his friend Sithole does nothing but offer sacrifices to the ancestors in the firm belief that this will solve his problems, much to his more practical wife’s dismay.
This novel illuminates the lives of ordinary people living in a poor community where the vulnerable and needy are exploited by white farmers and black elite alike. It addresses many issues such as rape within families that no one addresses, the pull between modernity and traditionalism, the tension between people who are living with childhood scars and keeping these to themselves. Layered over this is the hope of the youth. Sandile, who, with his visions and stories, represents a future that is brighter and people empower themselves.
On the one hand, I think the book tackles too many issues and therefore does justice to none of them but on the other hand, the characters are colourful and extremely passionate. The dark humour underscores the tragedy of life in this poverty-stricken community rather than trivialising it. It is refreshingly unusual despite its flaws and worth reading.