It is December 1907 in Tsau, Bechuanaland, after the Herero and Namaqua genocide perpetrated by the Germans occupying German South-West Africa, today’s Namibia. The Herero couple Tjipuka and Ruhapo have survived “the scattering”, but lost nearly everything in the process. When we first encounter them, they are together, but terrifyingly estranged. Tjipuka traces her husband’s body, trying to remember all that she’d loved about it, but the memories are overshadowed by his distance and the blood and cruelty of lies which haunt them: “Being dead made a lot of things uncertain.”
The narrative takes us back to the moment of their first encounter in Okahandja in 1894. We witness their falling in love, the certainty with which they decide to face the future together, their courage and strength. The juxtaposition of the image of these young lovers with the ruins of the people they’ve become is shattering. One anticipates that whatever had happened to them in the intervening years must have been horrendous and will not be easy to read about, but it is impossible to resist the urge to know. The Scattering recounts their journey.
Interwoven with theirs is the story of Riette. After her brother dies, her parents have little use for her on their farm in the Transvaal and even though she had trained to be a nurse and wishes nothing else but to pursue the profession in Kimberley, she is married off against her will to a widowed neighbour: “Riette wondered how two people could be so unknown to each other, and yet so intimate.” At the beginning of the Second Anglo-Boer War, her husband goes off on commando and leaves her alone on the farm to fend for herself and his two daughters. As a result of Kitchener’s scorched earth policy, the three women end up in a British concentration camp where Riette forms an unlikely alliance. Hardship, sickness and death prevail in the camp, but Riette finds protection in a forbidden love relationship. “They would survive this war, this horrible, bloody war, and find their lives on the other side”, she hopes. Betrayal and loss will accompany her on her path: “She didn’t want to live with the shadow of who she was and what she’d done forever darkening her life.”
In 1904, across the border, the tension between the Germans and the Hereros rise. The infamous German commander Lothar van Trotha issues his gruesome orders: “Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.”
Believing in the beginning that they can take on the German army, Ruhapo and other Herero leaders decide to attack and reclaim their land around Okahandja, now occupied by the enemy. “Have they not taken enough? I would rather die, my blood watering this land, this land of the Herero, our land, than let them take anything else”, Ruhapo tells his wife. Full of foreboding, Tjipuka is afraid. In the next three years, she and her people will have to face evil in all its incarnations, and attempt to survive against all odds.
But what does it mean to survive if everything you believe in, everything you love is gone? Repeatedly, she will ask herself whether the price to be paid is not too high: “They were no longer complete humans. They were something else. Something less than that.” In the desert, she will look at the familiar stars at night-time and wonder how they could remain “unchanged by all the evil they have witnessed?” Separated from his family, Ruhapo will ask himself what is the worth of pride, land or cattle when loved ones have to be sacrificed for them? Nothing could have prepared any of them for what awaits ahead.
The Scattering impresses on several fronts. Through the life stories of two seemingly insignificant women Kubuitsile links two seminal events of the early twentieth century history in Southern Africa. Two fates out of millions, but they personify the remarkable resilience of women throughout history: “War is for men. It’s always for men. They have a dark place where war grows.” Without consciously pointing to it, the novel exposes the cradle of the worst evils to emerge in the twentieth century: eugenics, concentration camps and the mass extinction of peoples believed to be inferior by those in power.
Kubuitsile’s depictions of war, violence and oppression are vivid but never gratuitous. Her writing is lyrical, affecting. It allows the reader to develop a deep sympathy for the characters, especially when they are confronted with impossible choices which leave no one unscathed. Her portrayals of people on all sides of the diverse conflicts are strikingly balanced. She shows the ambivalence of our passions and the decisions we make in order to survive. The Scattering is one of those superb historical novels which live on in the reader, simultaneously sounding a warning and shining the light of hope.
by Lauri Kubuitsile
Penguin Books South Africa, 2016
Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 June 2016.