Caine Blog: “Memories We Lost” by Lidudumalingani

This post is part of a series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download Lidudumalingani’s story here as a pdf.

This story, one about losing someone to mental illness, and trying to navigate a path between bad options regarding it, is a beautiful one. Lidudumalingani manages to weave the narrator’s memories – flashes of her sister’s episodes of schizophrenia – with a story of coping, escape, and love among siblings. It’s also, as Ikhide Ikeloa notes, a story that sheds light on the precarious situation of South Africa’s rural population in regards to healthcare. The sister undergoes treatment after treatment that renders her docile, but not well. She has no episodes, but she also has no life anymore. Finally, their mother decides to take her to a healer with a frightening reputation:

[T]he next day my sister would be taken to Nkunzi to be baked. This is what they did with people who heard voices or demons, as they called them; they baked them until the demons left them. What was even more terrible than the baking was that people had come to be convinced of it. I had heard of how Nkunzi baked people. He would make a fire from cow dung and wood, and once the fire burned red he would tie the demon-possessed person onto a section of zinc roofing then place it on the fire. He claimed to be baking the demons and that the person would recover from the burns a week later. I had not heard of anyone who had died but I had not heard of anyone who had lived either.

Between medicine that makes you a vegetable and a sangoma that bakes you like one, the options of mental health here are not good. Recently, an interlocutor here in Uganda tried to explain an Acholi phrase to me. He likened it to being in a situation where all options are bad, and you must be prepared to leap at a way out. This whole story, as we move from one schizophrenic episode to another and to the community’s solution, I was hoping for a way out. An out to which the main characters indeed leap to.

This is surely a story about community – the village community that gathers during key moments as well as the familial community and the bond between sisters. But in addition to community, it is also a story about place. When the narrator describes the villagers as they search for her missing sister in the night during a particularly bad moment, for example:

Those without torches or candles walked on even though the next step in such darkness was possibly a plunge down a cliff. This was unlikely, it should be said, as most of them were born in the village, grew up there, got married there, had used that very same field as their toilet for all their lives, and had had in overlapping periods only left the village when they went to work for the white man in large cities. They had a blueprint of the village in their minds; its walking paths, its indentations, its rivers, its mountains, its holes where ghosts lived were imprinted in their blood.

Surely some of the villagers are reluctant to go off into the night in the search, but they are a part of the community, so they do their part. They are also part of the space that they’ve existed in all their lives, and so they are able to go out into the dark. Later, when the narrator tries to whisk her sister away from their mother’s plan to have her baked, they must escape not just the situation, but also the community, also the place:

We walked by the river and then abandoned it, walked up a mountain and down the other side into a village. I was not sure whether it was Philani or another village. I had only ever been there once before and that visit was not even physical. My mother had mentioned it in one of her stories before she moved us into the new house – before a week later replacing our father, and us, with the Smellyfoot.

Once we descended the mountain and found ourselves in a strange village we would knock on the first house that had its light on and sleep there. That had been the initial plan, but it was flawed. Everyone in the villages knew everyone. I was convinced that whomever we asked for a place to sleep, even if we were to lie and give them false names, tell them that we were heading to the next village but something had delayed us, they would have recognised us, either because we have my grandfather’s ears or my mother’s nose or that they had seen us when we were toddlers, even stroked our buttocks. It had always been said that my sister had my grandfather’s forehead. The plan was too risky.

We are close, I told my sister. Close to where, I had no idea. All the same, we were going forward, and it felt like we had reached where we were going, which was nowhere in particular. All that mattered was that we were now far from home. We had no idea where we were going to sleep, what we were going to eat or how we were going to live, but returning home was not an option.

To escape the situation, they had to escape everything else. In the end, the sisters continue on, “to somewhere.” Anywhere but home – even nearby villages ran the risk of being part of the wider community that they were a part of. They needed to escape completely in order to help her sister. She might not be able to escape her mental illness, but she can escape the treatment and the sedation and the burning. But to do that she has to be removed from the community in a different way.

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