by Caitlin Davies
The electrifying characteristic of BLACK MULBERRIES is its author’s depth of research and understanding of
her subject, whether it is a remote Muyengi village in the Okavanga Delta, the daily life of a castle in
Scotland, the career of a top model in London, or the tribal mores of a village in northern Botswana.
Caitlin Davies describes the lives of four disparate women and the story is told through their thoughts: it is
uncompromising, unflinching, and at times very funny.
The generation brought up on stirring tales of the derring-do of our Great White Hunters (and I mean everything from Stanley and Livingstone, through Out of Africa to Black Mischief) are in for a surprise. BLACK MULBERRIES is honest to the point of irony in its economical but faithful portrayal of a fool’s paradise. A nasty and dangerous fool’s paradise. There are ingenious and masterly sketches of Africa, England and Scotland.
Nanthewa’s story begins in a tiny village in the Okavanga Delta, where ‘at six pm the sky turns the colour of milky peach and the fronds of the palm trees on the watery islands become silhouetted against the
sky like black knitting needles. Within thirty minutes, the light will be gone and the sky the colour
of a raisin’. Nanthewa is born a Muyendi, autochthonous to the Delta: she enjoys a happy childhood on an island and her early marriage is
arranged out of decency and respect for the elders, but is clearly to her own satisfaction. She marries a
young hunter of her own kin, Rweendo, who loves her and treats her kindly. The Muyendi are peaceful and live their lives undisturbed by war. A son is born to Nanthewa and Rweendo and
named Isaac after the white man who regularly visits the little kraal to buy animal skins. Suddenly the outside world intrudes in the form of black game wardens who represent a nameless South African company which has bought all their land in order to create a safari park. The village is burnt and
Nanthewa, by now late into her second pregnancy, follows her husband on foot through the bush for two days, with beds and blankets and pots and pans
balanced on her head and her little son on her hip, until they reach another village, where they are
allowed to stay. After a miscarriage and a few unhappy years, a daughter, Kazi, is born.
Kazi inherits her pale, apricot complexion from her Bushman grandmother. She is not as dutiful as Nanthewa would wish, and eventually defies her mother and tradition by marrying a ‘white’, who takes her to a
castle in Scotland. She wonders why he had never described the ‘hills of purple as if they’d been sprinkled with bougainvillea petals’ and ‘dense green fir trees, low mountains with deep shadows that crept along the crevaces like elderly hands’. But after a year she leaves him (he deserves it) and with her lovely skin and unusual beauty, achieves fame as a
model in London. Her brother, Isaac, stays in Botswana; he takes good care of his mother, and after his father dies, develops a father-and-son
relationship with Lenny Krause, their disreputable white-hunter neighbour. Isaac buys hunting licences at
citizen prices and sells them to Lenny Krause, who develops safari parks. In due course Isaac marries, and a daughter, Candy, is born.
Petra, daughter of Lenny Krause, is of an age with Isaac, and has long been in love with him, but he marries a local girl and Petra leaves for Cape Town, becoming a journalist for the Cape Argus. She returns to the Delta to investigate the mysterious human
deaths and mutilations by animals, which Isaac and Lenny Strause are anxious to conceal and cover up. Kazi returns from England and she and Petra renew their friendship.
Candy, Isaac’s daughter, a fey child, sees far more than anyone realises. She provides an insight that is both disturbing and intriguing, and is essential to the narrative.
Of course there is a belief in witchcraft, and sibling rivalry, and deep sexual and maternal love. There is
betrayal and some well-deserved resentment against The Great White Hunters, although on the part of the
Muyengi much of it dissolves in laughter.
The book is delightful, absorbing and memorable. It is also timely and historically accurate. Caitlin Davies sees life through a very beady eye but she clearly has a very warm heart.