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March 11, 2017

Book Review || The Spirits Speak (or African Spirits Speak) by Nicky Arden

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It feels strange for me to have picked up this autobiography, "The Spirits Speak" (or "African Spirits Speak" as it was published later) by Nicky Arden, at a time when South Africa is once again in turmoil politically, especially as it was written around the time that we experienced the country's biggest political revolution. If there is one thing this book can teach us is that we are never too far from each other's cultures to learn about them, reconcile our differences, and learn to love each other.

Nicky Arden is among those white people who ran from the unrest in South Africa during apartheid, in 1966. She frequently refers to herself as a coward for doing so, for being unable to stay in the country of her birth and fight for the struggle in the way that many others had.
It is just that the world had forgotten them - those who were that other minority in the quilting of whites. There were those who opposed and fought; there were those who opposed and left; there were those who supported the Nationalist regime. But there were also those who, like me, did not have the courage to fight for their belief - and courage is what it took in those days of torment and unlimited detention - for whom, unlike me, Africa nevertheless remained home; who covered eyes, ears, and mouth in order to stay in a place they loved. This day [1994 elections] was for them, too, a reckoning. [244]
She and her husband return to South Africa after Nelson Mandela is released from prison and apartheid has been brought down; it is during this visit and a trek into the bush that she meets a sangoma who tells her she needs to study to be one, too.

Nicky's journey from here onwards is inspirational: she breaks so many boundaries and taboos on her journey to become what is traditionally seen as an African icon. However, this novel is not about her physical journey but her emotional one, one that takes her right into African culture, where she discovers that she, and all of us, have always been welcome would that we stopped being so afraid and proud.

This novel is about the potential for reconciliation, a gift that black people in South Africa were - with open arms - willing to give to the white people who had heretofore either taken an active part in oppressing them or a passive part by doing nothing to change it.
And what love and acceptance poured from those black Africans who called into the radio station; what forgiveness shone from their words. Would that country have ever reached this conciliation had they not carried in their hearts such true generosity of spirit? Not a word, not a sound, not a sigh of anger, of retribution, only delight and merciful inclusion. [244]
Through Nicky's little group of sangomas and thwasas (sangomas in training) she not only learnt how to love herself but to be loved by a culture that was all too willing to share its love with her, indeed they teach her how to love herself.

This novel left me somewhat melancholy and yearning for the vision of the reconciled South Africa that sparks hope in all its pages, a vision that has somewhat been battered by corruption and a lack of progress in the country's most important arenas.

However, Nicky Arden's story of her journey is highly recommended for those who feel out of touch with their cultural roots or who feel a yearning to learn something about someone but are too afraid to ask.

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