Marc Mierowsky

In You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006), Wole Soyinka’s final volume of memoirs, the writer cites a piece of Yoruba wisdom: T’ágbà bá ńdé, à á yé ogun jà – as one approaches an elder’s status, one ceases to indulge in battles’. This was once the hope of a man who describes himself as a ‘closet glutton for tranquillity’. At one point, Soyinka even dared to think that he would assume the position of a serene elder at forty-nine: seven times seven, the sacred number of Ogun, his companion deity. But Ogun is wilful as protector and muse. The life the god carved for Soyinka took the image of his own restlessness. A poet, playwright, novelist, and Nobel Laureate, Soyinka remains an activist for democracy, his bona fides hard won as a political prisoner during the Nigerian Civil War (1967–70) and in exile during the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha (1993–98).

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Rachel Swart is in the final decline of a terminal cancer when she extracts a promise from her husband, Manie: he agrees to give their maid Salome the deed to the Lombard Place, a small house on the family’s farm. It is an act of recognition. Salome has cared for her, has mopped up ‘blood and shit and pus and piss’, doing the jobs Rachel’s family found ‘too dirty or too intimate’. It is 1986 in South Africa, and already the idea of giving Salome the land on which she lives can’t help but invoke the paranoid spectre of widescale repatriation.

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