Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 1, 2018

Eyes in the Night, an Untold Zulu Story (2016), by Nomavenda Mathiane

It’s not easy to classify this book: it’s a kind of reconstructed autobiography, which emerges from the recollections of the descendants of the subject.

The author, Nomavenda Mathiane is a South African journalist who became interested in her family history.  She interviewed relations who remembered her grandmother Nombhosho and recorded their recollections of her memories from the war between the Zulu King Cetshwayo and the English, during the Battle of Isandlwana and the Anglo–Zulu War of 1879. This oral history has become a book mostly written in first person, as if Nombhosho herself were recounting her memories, but these words are not actually Nombhosho’s.  They are drawn from the memories of Albertinah a.k.a. Ahh, who is the author’s much older sister.  At other times the narrative shifts so that it is clear that Sis Anh is recalling what Nombhosho has told her.  And there are also occasional bridging sections in first person, but these are in the voice of a narrator who we assume is the author herself .

What’s interesting about this book and its shifting narrators is that it tells the story of war and dispossession from the perspective, not of the British victors nor the defeated Zulu warriors, but from a woman’s point of view. Nombhosho is on the verge of puberty when conflict erupts between the invading settlers and the Zulus who own the land.  Her narrative of these events is written as if she is a young girl, not an older woman recounting it to her grandchildren.  She recounts the conflict with considerable detail in a manner not entirely consistent with her age because she realises what’s at stake if the invaders win.  But whatever narrative voice is used, Nombhosho’s concerns are primarily domestic.

Sis Ahh responded. ‘Gogo, together with her mother and little sister, lived in the caves in the Shiyane mountains, surviving on roots and rats. Occasionally, their father Makhoba – our great-grandfather – would travel from the king’s palace at Ondini to the mountains, a journey which took him days because there were no buses transporting people in those days. He did this trip, which is about fifty kilometres, barefooted. And since his country was at war, he had to be vigilant and watch out for the English soldiers, because they would kill him on sight or abduct him and turn him into a slave.

‘Gogo described their abode in the mountain as a single entrance cave that was secured by a huge boulder against which was an enormous tree trunk. A small strip was left open to let in light and a bit of air. The interior was perpetually damp and since the cave was a narrow structure, there was little room to manoeuvre. They could only lie down or sit with their legs folded. The ground was covered with grass, soft tree leaves and branches which served as a mattress beneath their grass mats. To gain entry to the cave one had to crawl, one person at a time. Apart from the chirping birds in the morning that heralded the beginning of another day, there was no way of telling night from day.’

The mood in the room had changed from jovial to serious as we listened to Sis Ahh, who at that point had transformed to personify Gogo for the benefit of her narration. (Kindle Locations 728-739).

When they are forced to flee the coming conflict, becoming refugees in their own land, Nombhosho misses the space and order of her own home. She misses the routine of her days, the chores she had to do and the games she played, and also the relaxed presence of her extended family. When looming defeat means they have to hide even further away, she is separated from her extended family altogether, and she misses her cousins, her aunts and uncles and most of all, her grandmother. She recalls the hunger, the lack of hygiene, the fear and the boredom, but she also recalls her mother wanting to delay the onset of puberty for reasons not expressed but which the reader can guess at.

Eventually, as we know it must, the war is resolved in favour of the British, and the people feel suspicious about the return of their king.  The author does not whitewash the way Zulu disunity did not help their cause.

Five years after his disappearance and five years after the end of the war the king had returned transformed. Many of us were hurt about this. After all we had been through and suffered at the hands of the foreigners for supporting him, we could not understand how he could betray us and embrace the white people’s ways. That was devastating. Whatever hopes we had that his return would reunite the nation and sort out the deserters were dashed, because we assumed that there was no way he could take up our cause now that he was one of them.

But it didn’t take long for us to realise that the king was still the same person he had been before the war, even after suffering the loss of thousands of warriors and his land at the hands of the English. If anything, his abduction had afforded him direct exposure to the enemy, making him even more determined to fight for his land. We were also aware that the king faced not only white people as the enemy for there were now many Zulus who wanted him dead. Whereas his return should have been heralded as a blessing to the nation that had lamented his absence, it instead threw the Zulu people and the region into turmoil. (Kindle Locations 1564-1573).

In the turmoil that follows, Nombhosho feels resentful that her mother has to remarry an old man who is her uncle’s brother, though she understands her mother’s reasons.

‘A woman needs a man to protect her in this world,’ she said. ‘People undermine and abuse unprotected women.’  (Kindle Locations 1635-1636).

This means that the girl has to adjust to living on a farm, and it’s a culture shock for her:

I woke up to see light filtering into the room. I was scared when I found that the man’s hut had a hole in the wall that let in the sunlight because it meant that ghosts, witches and all the other night creatures must have had a field day watching us whilst we slept. I woke my little sister up. She too was shocked at the light coming into the hut. When Mother came to wake us up, she found us already wide awake and huddled together in the corner like we used to do in the caves when we were scared. I learned later that the hole that let the light into the hut was called a window and all the houses in that area were fitted with windows.

Mbuyisa came in carrying tin mugs of tea and a plate of cornbread slices smeared with jam. He asked if we had slept well and then told us to eat and get ready to meet Oubaas, the owner of the farm, to pay our respects. (Kindle Locations 1670-1676).

She is astonished by the size of the Boer’s farm and the number of huts, but the greater shock is the sight of a white man for the first time:

It was a truly enormous building with doors and windows all around it. As we approached the house we were confronted by a long veranda with a shining black floor. While I was quietly taking in the wonderment of this building, I saw something that looked like an apparition on the veranda. On taking a closer look, I realised it was not a ghost I was seeing, but some strange-looking human being. I held my mother’s hand even more tightly. By then we were very close to the veranda and I could see what was sitting on the stoep was, without a doubt, not human. I heard Mbuyisa whisper to Mother, ‘That is Oubaas.

I didn’t know what to think. For weeks I had been preoccupied with the thought of my mother marrying the old man. I had not for a moment thought about what lay ahead for us, such as who owned the farm? What we were going to do once we got there? I suddenly realised that I was now a ‘deserter’; I was about to be owned by the enemy.(Kindle Locations 1688-1695). Bookstorm.

Nombhosho is taken away from her mother and made to look after Oubaas’s children and work as a general dogsbody.  Her humiliations make poignant reading, but it is assault and the fear of rape by Oubaas that makes her determined to escape this slavery.  Her initiative and courage lead to a whole new life in a Christian mission.

There were times when I found the violence against women rather disconcerting.  Nombhosho recounts a case of a Zulu woman choosing to form a family with one of the settlers, and she is murdered by her son who is avenging his father’s humiliation.  In another case, a husband said to be the gentlest person the narrator knows, gives his wife a solid spanking when she falls asleep while nursing and he thinks she is smothering the child. This violence is recalled in a matter-of-fact way as if it warrants no commentary.

Thanks to the Johannesburg Review of Books for bringing this book to my attention. You can see their review here.

Author: Nomavenda Mathiane
Title: Eyes in the Night, an Untold Zulu Story
Publisher: Bookstorm, 2016
Source: personal library, purchased for the Kindle from Amazon


  1. I think they are valuable, these works that gather scattered recollections and represent them in a readable and memorable form. It really is just another form of oral history. With film in particular but also print, taking up so much of the world’s attention, these histories, even with the attendant risk of them becoming the received version, are the best, the closest to ‘true’, that we are going to manage.


    • Yes, and as a way of bringing silenced voices to life, it shares the same space as fictionalised lives in novels. And here the author makes the point that most of people learn in history is about events, battles, wars, political agreements and so on and these dates are supposed to form a timeline in our minds. But here there are no dates, no timelines, just the life of one human being and how these events impacted on her.
      They’re not the same sort of books at all, but it has the same impact as Louis de Berniere’s Birds without Wings, which tells the story of how WW1 impacted on a small community in Anatolia. It’s not about the war, it’s about life under a war.


  2. I agree as flawed is it can be there is no substitute for recalling these important histories.


    • As Bill says, it gets close to real this way. While the voice of the child is a bit too knowing for her age (though kids grow up fast when catastrophe hits) I think the author has overall written a realistic voice. However, there is some bias: it’s surprisingly uncritical of the Boers, saying somewhere in the text that they were living in reasonable accommodation side-by-side with the Zulus. Well, as we know from Australia, early settlement was like that here too. The trouble starts when settlement inevitably expands so that the land available for the Indigenous population contracts, and that would have happened with the Boers too, if the Brits hadn’t turned up and exacerbated the process.


  3. […] Eyes in the Night, an Untold Zulu Story, by Nomavenda Mathiane #BookReview South Africa […]


  4. […] Eyes in the Night, an Untold Zulu Story, by Nomavenda Mathiane #BookReview South Africa […]


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