Cover image for Ways of dying : a novel
Ways of dying : a novel
Mda, Zakes.
Personal Author:
First Picador USA edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Picador USA, 2002.

Physical Description:
212 pages ; 21 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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On Order



Winner of the M-Net Book Prize
Shortlisted for the CNA and Noma Awards

In Ways of Dying , Zakes Mda's acclaimed first novel, Toloki is a "professional mourner" in a vast and violent city of the new South Africa. Day after day he attends funerals in the townships, dressed with dignity in a threadbare suit, cape, and battered top hat, to comfort the grieving families of the victims of the city's crime, racial hatred, and crippling poverty. At a Christmas day funeral for a young boy Toloki is reunited with Noria, a woman from his village. Together they help each other to heal the past, and as their story interweaves with those of their acquaintances this elegant short novel provides a magical and painful picture of South Africa today.

Ways of Dying was awarded South Africa's prestigious M-Net Book Prize, awarded by the TV channel M-Net to books written in one of South Africa's official languages, and was shortlisted for the Central News Agency (CNA) Award and the Noma Award, an Africa-wide prize founded by Shoichi Noma, onetime president of Kodansha International.

Author Notes

Born Zakes Mda in 1948 in South Africa in the Eastern Cape, Mda spent his early childhood in Soweto, and finished his school education in Lesotho, where he had joined his father in exile. As a poet, he published in magazines such as Staffrider, The Voice, and Oduma, and in the anthologies New South African Writing in 1977, Summer Fires in 1982 and Soho Square in 1992. His first volume of poems, Bits of Debris, came out in 1986.

In 1978 Mda's play We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, written in 1973, won the first Amstel Playwright of the Year Award. The following year he won this award again with The Hill, a play written in 1978. The publication of We Shall Sing for the Fatherland and Other Plays in 1980 enabled him to gain admission to Ohio University for a three-year Master's degree in theatre. His play The Road, written in 1982, won the Christina Crawford Award of American Theatre Association in 1984, by which time his plays were being performed in the USSR, the USA, and Scotland as well as in various parts of southern Africa.

Mda returned from the USA in 1984, joining the University of Lesotho as lecturer in the Department of English in 1985. In 1989 he was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Cape Town and his dissertation was later published as When People Play People in 1993, the same year as a collection of four plays, And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses.

In 1991 Mda was writer-in-residence at the University of Durham, where he wrote The Nun's Romantic Story; in 1992 as research fellow at Yale University he wrote The Dying Screams of the Moon, another play, and his first novel, Ways of Dying in 1995. By 1994 he was back in South Africa from exile in America, as visiting professor at the University of the Witwatersrand. He has since given up teaching African literature to write novels.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Writing from the heart of the new South Africa, Mda tells his country's stories through beautifully realized characters whose search for love and connection takes you up close to the black experience, past and present. In Heart of Redness, protagonist Camagu (like the author) had left South Africa during the apartheid years, but now he's back. Camagu has trouble finding his place in the new system until he lands in a coastal village in the eastern Cape, where a "black empowerment" company wants to develop a tourist heaven with casinos and theme parks. The villagers are split between those who welcome "progress" and those who fear it. With the present conflict, Mda weaves in the infamous history of this place, where the savage white conquerors came with "civilization" and a Xhosa prophetess told the people to resist by destroying their cattle and crops. Then, as now, the community was split, and the questions remain. The constant weaving together of past and present slows the narrative, but Mda does a great job of subverting the heart-of-darkness stereotypes, and he does it without romanticizing the "primitive." Today's villagers want electricity, running water, literacy. But they also want to conserve their Xhosa culture and the natural beauty of their place, not as tourist fodder, but as a dynamic contemporary community. Can Camagu help find a way? The parallels with the Native American experience will grab readers, as will the personal search for home. Ways of Dying is set in the transitional years before the first democratic elections. Toloki has invented his job as professional mourner in a shantytown, and he finds plenty of work. The violence is horrific--by soldiers and police as well as migrant tribal groups and locals--but even after the worst massacre, where children are "necklaced" with burning tires, Toloki finds love, tenderness, and laughter with a woman from his childhood home and they build a shack together in the urban wasteland. In both books, it's the strong women characters--bereft, wild, funny, nurturing--who make the stories ring with excitement and hope. Like Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun (1997) and Sindiwe Magona's Mother to Mother (1999), Mda's novels tell it from the inside. --Hazel Rochman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Novelist and playwright Zakes Mda's Ways of Dying was a big hit in his native South Africa, where it was even adapted into a jazz opera. Toloki is a Professional Mourner, making a meager living by attending funerals in the violent city where he lives. In his ratty suit he adds "an aura of sorrow and dignity," often serving as peacemaker when fights break out. He encounters Noria, a childhood acquaintance whose son has just died, and the two renew their friendship, finding comfort in reminiscing over the harrowing events of their lives. There are shades of the absurd in Mda's darkly humorous descriptions of the crime, poverty, violence and ethnic unrest that plague the characters in this oddly affecting novel. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Following the trials and triumphs of Toloki, a professional mourner, Mda examines the lifestyle of urban South Africa under apartheid by looking at the stunning variety of ways in which a life may be lost or taken. Most often, it is Toloki's unfortunate task to mourn children. There is a horrifically telling depiction of an overcrowded city morgue, where nameless corpses arrive daily by the dozens. Mda's view is not so bleak, however, as this thumbnail sketch suggests. Although the novel's movement pivots on funeral scenes, it does much to portray South African culture in transition through the movement of provincial villagers to the city, with its greater risks and opportunities. Casualties may be many and atrocious, but Mda's position is ultimately affirmative. Toloki is unexpectedly reunited with the beautiful and talented Noria, a well-loved daughter of his native village. An unusual bond grows between the unlikely couple, driving the novel to a hopeful resolution. What Chinua Achebe has done for Nigeria, Mda appears capable of doing for South Africa. This is the playwright's first novel, and a fine debut for Mda as a fiction writer. Academic and public library collections. J. Lavieri; Quinebaug Valley Community-Technical College



'There are many ways of dying!' the Nurse shouts at us. Pain is etched in his voice, and rage has mapped his face. We listen in silence. 'This our brother's way is a way that has left us without words in our mouths. This little brother was our own child, and his death is more painful because it is of our own creation. It is not the first time that we bury little children. We bury them every day. But they are killed by the enemy ... those we are fighting against. This our little brother was killed by those who are fighting to free us!' We mumble. It is not for the Nurse to make such statements. His duty is to tell how this child saw his death, not to give ammunition to the enemy. Is he perhaps trying to push his own political agenda? But others feel that there is no way the Nurse can explain to the funeral crowd how we killed the little brother without parading our shame to the world. That the enemy will seize hold of this, and use it against us, is certainly not the Nurse's fault. Like all good Nurses, he is going to be faithful to the facts. Toloki belongs to the section of the crowd that believes strongly in the freedom of the Nurse to say it as he sees it. He has been to many funerals, and has developed admiration for those who are designated the Nurse at these rituals. They are the fortunate ones, those who were the last to see the deceased alive. Usually they are a fountain of fascinating information about ways of dying. He moves forward a bit, for he wants to hear every word. The muttering about the Nurse's indiscretion has become so loud that it is beginning to swallow his words of anger. Toloki thought he would need to elbow his way through the crowd, but people willingly move away from him. Why do people give way? he wonders. Is it perhaps out of respect for his black costume and top hat, which he wears at every funeral as a hallmark of his profession? But then why do they cover their noses and mouths with their hands as they retreat in blind panic, pushing those behind them? Maybe it is the beans he ate for breakfast. They say it helps if you put some sugar in them, and he had no sugar. Or maybe it is the fact that he has not bathed for a whole week, and the December sun has not been gentle. He has been too busy attending funerals to go to the beach to use the open showers that the swimmers use to rinse salt water from their bodies. 'Merrie kressie, ou toppie,' whispers a drunk, the only one who is not intimidated by whatever it is that people seem to fear from his presence. Merry Christmas, old man. Old man? He is only thirty-eight years old. He might even be younger than the drunk. 'It is the perfume, ou toppie. It is too strong.' He hears a woman snigger. Why would anyone hate his sacred fragrance? It is the perfume that he splashes all over his body as part of the ritual of his profession before he goes to a funeral. On this fiery Christmas day, its strong smell is exacerbated by the stench of sweat, not only from his body, but from those in the crowd as well. Toloki is now very close to the makeshift podium where the Nurse defiantly stands, but he still cannot hear a word he is trying to say. Some of us are heckling the Nurse. Some are heckling the hecklers. So, we do not hear one another. Toloki never thought he would live to see the day when a Nurse would be heckled. This is a sacrilege that has never been heard of before. And at the funeral of an innocent little boy, on a Christmas Day too. Then he sees her, the mother of the boy. She is a convulsion of sobs, and is surrounded by women who try to comfort her. She lifts her eyes appealingly to the feuding crowd, and Toloki thinks he has seen those eyes before. But how can it be? He must approach and speak with her. Only then can he be sure. But people close around her and stop him. 'I just want to speak with her.' 'We know who you are. You are Toloki the Professional Mourner. We do not need your services here. We have enough of our own mourners.' 'It is not on a professional basis that I want to see her. Please let me speak with her.' 'Ha! You think you are going to convince her behind our backs to engage your services? I can tell you we have no fees to pay a Professional Mourner. We can mourn just as well.' Who are these people, anyway, who won't let him see the woman he strongly suspects is from his home village? He learns that they are members of her street committee. They are determined to protect her from all those who want to harass her with questions about the death of her son. Newspaper reporters have been particularly keen to get close to her, to ask her silly questions such as what her views are on the sorry fact that her son was killed by his own people. They are keen to trap her into saying something damaging, so that they can have blazing headlines the next day. The street committee is always vigilant. The Nurse cannot go on to tell us the story of the death of the deceased, this our little brother. The din is too loud. The church minister says a quick prayer. Spades and shovels eat into the mound of earth next to the grave, and soon the hole that will be the resting place of this our little brother forever more amen is filled up. Those nearest the grave sing a hymn, while a man with a shovel delicately shapes the smaller mound that has risen where the hole used to be. Wreaths are laid. Someone wants to know if the messages on the wreaths will not be read for the public as is customary, and in any case where are the relatives of this bereaved mother? She has no relatives, someone else shouts back. The street committee are her relatives. Then a procession led by the van that had brought the coffin to the graveyard is formed, in preparation for the solemn march back to the home of the mother of the deceased in the squatter camp, where we will wash our hands and feast on the food that has been prepared by the street committee. Toloki decides that he will rush to the home of the deceased, wash his hands and disappear from the scene. He will have nothing to do with people who have treated him with so much disrespect. Hungry as he is, he will not partake of their food either. If he did not have so much reverence for funeral rituals, he would go home right away, without even washing his hands. People give way as he works his way to the head of the procession, which is already outside the gates of the cemetery. By the time he gets to the street, the procession has come to a standstill, and people are impatiently complaining about the heat. Others attempt to sing hymns, but their voices have gone hoarse from the graveyard feud. Those who can still come up with a feeble note or two are overwhelmed by blaring hooters in the street. These come from a wedding procession of many cars and buses, all embellished with colourful ribbons and balloons. They are going in the opposite direction, and will not give way to the funeral procession. The funeral procession will not give way either, since out of respect for the dead, it is customary for funeral processions to have the right of way. The wedding party is enjoying the stalemate, and they sing at the top of their voices. Their heads, and sometimes half their colourfully clad bodies, appear from the windows of the cars and buses, and they beat the sides of these vehicles with their hands, creating a tumultuous rhythm. The driver of the convertible car in front, which carries the bride and the bridegroom, argues with the driver of the van which carries the mother of the dead child. 'You must give way!' 'But we are a funeral procession.' 'We are a procession of beautiful people, and many posh cars and buses, while yours is an old skorokoro of a van, and hundreds of ragged souls on foot.' 'It is not my fault that these people are poor.' No one will budge. There might be a violent confrontation here, since the driver of the convertible, who is a huge fellow, is beginning to call certain parts of the van driver's mother that the slight van driver never even knew she had. Toloki walks to the convertible. He greets the bridal couple, and is about to give them a stern lecture on funeral etiquette, when the ill-humoured driver of the convertible suddenly decides that he will give way after all. He signals to the other drivers in the wedding procession to park on the side of the road so that the funeral procession can pass peacefully. Toloki smiles. He has this effect on people sometimes. Perhaps it is his fragrance. And the black costume and top hat of his profession. It cannot be that the driver of the convertible is intimidated by his size. He is quite short, in fact. But what he lacks in height he makes up for in breadth. He is quite stockily built, and his shoulders are wide enough to comfortably bear all the woes of bereavement. His yellow face is broad and almost flat, his pointed nose hovers over and dwarfs his small child-like mouth. His eyes are small, and have a permanently sorrowful look that is most effective when he musters up his famous graveside manner. Above his eyes rest thick eyebrows, like the hairy thithiboya caterpillar. The driver of the van approaches him. 'The mother of the child we have just buried wants to thank you for what you have done.' So he goes to the van, and his suspicion is confirmed. He has no doubt that this is Noria, the beautiful stuck-up bitch from his village. She has grown old now, and has become a little haggard. But she is still beautiful. And she too recognises him. 'Toloki! You are Toloki from the village!' 'Yes, Noria, it is me. I wanted to see you at the graveyard, but they wouldn't let me get near you.' 'You can't blame them, Toloki. Ever since my son died, all sorts of people have been pestering us.' Then she invites him to come and see her at the squatter camp when the sad business of the funeral is over. Toloki walks away with a happy bounce in his feet. He will wash his hands and leave quickly. He will see Noria tomorrow, or maybe the day after. My God! Noria! He has not seen her for almost twenty years! How old would she be now? She must be thirty-five. He remembers that he was three years older. A hard life has taken its toll since she left the village. But her beauty still remains. * * * It is not different, really, here in the city. Just like back in the village, we live our lives together as one. We know everything about everybody. We even know things that happen when we are not there; things that happen behind people's closed doors deep in the middle of the night. We are the all-seeing eye of the village gossip. When in our orature the storyteller begins the story, 'They say it once happened ...', we are the 'they'. No individual owns any story. The community is the owner of the story, and it can tell it the way it deems it fit. We would not be needing to justify the communal voice that tells this story if you had not wondered how we became so omniscient in the affairs of Toloki and Noria. Both Toloki and Noria left the village at different times, and were bent on losing themselves in the city. They had no desire to find one another, and as a result forgot about the existence of each other. But we never stopped following their disparate and meagre lives. We were happy when they were happy. And felt the pain when they were hurt. In the beginning, there were times when we tried to get them together, like homeboys and homegirls sometimes get together and talk about home, and celebrate events of common interest such as births, marriages, ancestral feasts, and deaths. But our efforts disappeared like sweat in the hair of a dog. Indeed, even in his capacity as a Professional Mourner, Toloki avoided funerals that involved homeboys and homegirls. Since his bad experience with Nefolovhodwe, the furniture-maker who made it good in the city, and now pretends that he does not know the people from the village anymore, Toloki has never wanted to have anything to do with any of the people of his village who have settled in the city. He is not the type who forgives and forgets, even though his trouble with Nefolovhodwe happened many years ago, during his very early days in the city. Noria, on the other hand, has always lived in communion with her fellow-villagers, and with other people from all parts of the country who have settled in the squatter camp. So, we put the idea of getting Noria and Toloki together out of our minds until today, at the funeral of this our little brother. * * * The distant bells of the cathedral toll 'Silent Night', as Toloki prepares to sleep for the night. The strikes are slow and painful, not like the cheery carol that the angel-faced choirboys sang that very morning on the steps of the church. He was on his way to the funeral, and he stopped and listened. Christmas Day has no real significance for him. Nor has the church. But he enjoys carols, and always sings along whenever he hears them. He could not stop for long, since he did not know what time the funeral would be. He was not involved in this funeral in his professional capacity. In fact, until that morning he was not aware that there was going to be a funeral on this day. It is not usual to hold funerals on Christmas Day. He thought he was doomed to sit in utter boredom at his quayside resting place for the entire day, sewing his costume and putting his things in readiness for the busy coming days in the cemeteries. Then he heard two dockworkers talk of the strange things that were happening these days, of this woman whose child was killed, and who insisted that he must be buried on Christmas Day or not at all. Toloki there and then decided to seize the opportunity, and spend a fulfilling day at the graveside. He did not have an inkling that a homegirl was involved in this funeral, otherwise we know that he would not have gone. But after all, he was happy to see Noria. At regular intervals of one hour the bell tolls 'Silent Night'. Continue... Excerpted from Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda Copyright © 1995 by Zakes Mda Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.