Poceza m’Madzulo by Julius Chongo and Ernst Wendland

Or to give the full title: Poceza m’Madzulo: Some Chinyanja Radio Plays of Julius Chongo with English Translations by Ernst R. Wendland. Poceza m’Madzulo means ‘evening story time’, apparently, and was the name of a show broadcast in Zambia from 1967-77. They aren’t really what I would call plays: they are solo storytelling performances. Apparently he did write scripts for them but the broadcast version always differed somewhat from the prepared text; this book is based on transcriptions of the actual broadcast.

Some are the kind of thing I would think of (rightly or wrongly) as traditional African stories: Hare has been stealing chickens but he tricks Hyena into taking the blame for it. Others are more contemporary in their subject matter: stories about young men who leave the village to go and find work in the big town so they can afford to buy bicycles and record players. The division between the traditional and modern isn’t clear-cut; there’s a story about two men returning from working at the mines who are tricked out of all the wealth they are bringing back with them by a witch who turns them into wild pigs. You can imagine basically the same story being told a hundred years earlier with a different social context.

The stories are enjoyable, and these kind of things always work better if they are reproduced with all the quirks of verbal performance; tidying them up and turning them into a plain prose narrative tends to suck some of the life out of them. So that’s all good. My major problem with the book is actually with the presentation, not the content. Each story is given first in Chinyanja and then English, but to make it easier to cross reference the translation with the original, every sentence is numbered.

(251) But Hare merely said “Listen folks! (252) I told you that I’d bring a dance on Saturday. (253) Now what have you done about it, isn’t this the very dance I was talking about?! (254) What kind of dance do you want?! (255) ((That was Hare, stoking up the fire, ahi-hi, hgha!))

As you can imagine, this is incredibly irritating. You might think you would get used to it, but I didn’t — it just made reading the book a lot more like hard work. Why they couldn’t just number each paragraph, preferably in the margin… but there you go.

Still, that’s a pretty inevitable part of the Read The World challenge; I’ve been reading a lot of books published by niche publishers and university presses, and they tend to focus their limited resources on the content, rather than design. If only their were more people in the world like Robert Bringhurst, who published both a very good book about typography and his own (beautifully typeset) translations of the oral poetry of the Haida people of British Columbia.

» The photo — Zambian Women Hold Bags of Tilapia Fingerlings — has no connection to the book at all apart from the fact it was taken in Zambia. But I thought it was a nice image and a brilliant title. There are actually some great photos of Africa from the 60s and 70s on flickr, like this one, but they are all of white people.

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