The storyline for A HILL OF FOOLS

Book cover for Mtutuzeli Nyoka's A Hill of FoolsI suppose my interest in slavery was piqued in the 80s when I laid my hands on a banned copy of RootsAlex Haley, and I read it as a thirsty man would sip water. I think I was both stunned and fascinated that money could buy human beings as property.

Since then I have steadily devoured most of what I could find on slavery, not for the purposes of academic learning, but out of interest in the history of the continent: what my late school principal once referred to as the worst affliction visited on any continent in the last millennium.

Of all the material I have read through the years: Up from Slavery Booker T. Washington, Incidents in the Life of slave girl Harriet Jacobs, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Harriet Stowe, AmistadAlex D. Pate, and others: Alex Haley’s book still remains to me the most important book on the subject ever written.

Thus when I started writing my first book, I SPEAK TO THE SILENT, in the late 90s, I knew that my next book would have slavery as its backdrop – and thus the idea of A HILL OF FOOLS was born. A lot of documentaries and books on African slavery focus on the victims’ fate after they have been snatched from their homes and shipped to the new world. They dwell on the horrors of slave plantations, and the degrading humiliation of slave auctions in foreign markets.

Others deal with the harrowing ordeal of that final journey to the new world – what is often referred to as ‘the middle passage’. But I had to find out about how slavery enacted itself on our continent. I set out to discover the instinctive reactions of the ordinary African men and women to the extreme burden of slavery. I have therefore based the story entirely on the continent.

I hope in the end that I did not oversimplify the rather complex subject of slavery. It still exists in the brothels around the world, and in the form of child and human trafficking – with over 12 million people today held in bondage of sorts. Almost every country in the world, either as a source or destination of this human traffic, is affected.


The storyline for I SPEAK TO SILENT

Book cover for I Speak to the Silent written by Mtutuzeli NyokaIn the late 80s when political parties were unbanned in our country some of the returnees found refuge in Ponte City, a large apartment building that once shimmered with beauty, buzzed with life, but now looks like a crumbling and dilapidated ruin. I was at the time a tenant in room 1309, a trainee resident in the Department of ENT at Wits.

Since exile, perhaps more so than ordinary life, is often stalked by many medical and psychological illnesses, word soon got around of my residence in the building. In no time I became a resident physician to many of the returnees, unsung heroes and heroines of our struggle. I ferried many in the middle of the night for the treatment of many ailments. I would smuggle some into the wards at the Hillbrow Hospital to avoid the fear members of the Special Branch of the infamous South African Police force.

I searched the hospitals’ medicine cabinets for whatever drugs or remedies I could get to treat the many and varied ailments this group had. The ultimate reward for me, as it would be for any doctor, was to help those who were in need. But there was also another gift: that of friendship to many. In some instances though I became someone to confess to about the many and heavy burdens of life in exile. To say I was badly affected by the trauma they shared and the sadness of their narrative would be an understatement. Nothing in my short life then had prepared me for what I experienced.

This is how the seed therefore of I SPEAK TO THE SILENT was planted. I could never of course divulge the names of those who trusted me with their pain. I had also to fictionalise their painful experience. In the end I had to write the book, if only to help myself heal.  Since the book was released there has been gratitude, repeatedly expressed, by all those who shared their secrets with me. For this, and the rewarding experience of writing my first novel, I shall always be grateful.