Book Review: Miriam's Song
‘Miriam’s song’ by Mark Mathabane is one of those rare finds. If a book can be a friend, then Miriam’s Song is one of those books.
A random purchase in a second hand bookshop which has made a huge impression on me.
Mark Mathabane is a South African-born author who presently resides in America. Miriam is his younger sister and he recounts her life in this moving memoir using her voice.
Even though this memoir is a graphic account of Miriam’s upbringing and childhood during the dark days of Apartheid in the township of Alexandra, it is told with a refreshing honesty and a gentle authenticity devoid of bitterness or an agenda.
This is her life and we get to take that journey with her.
Her hardships and struggles amidst overwhelming poverty are beautifully balanced by her heartfelt observations and perceptions.
My connection to Miriam and her story is due in a large part to the fact that we were born in South Africa in the same year, 1969. This resonated with me as my childhood and upbringing in South Africa, under the same political regime, could not have been more different. Vastly different. We lived these parallel lives unaware of each what each other’s lives were like. No access. No connection. Two worlds completely separated by Apartheid’s ideology. Her story gave me a picture and a visual reality of a theoretical system.
There was not one chapter in the book that did not evoke some emotion in me.
Anger at the Apartheid regime, the Township teachers and the Comrades.
Compassion and sadness for Miriam and her peers at the loss of their innocence and their childhoods.
Shame and guilt for being unaware of the struggle and reality of her life.
‘Most of us have never known anything but violence in our lives. Seeing people get killed is as normal as seeing people get married.’ [pg.190]
Frustration at my ignorance of the injustice played out under the reality of Apartheid.
‘White hospitals go begging for patients; white women deliver their babies under the most hygienic and comfortable conditions…white women are even allowed private rooms during labour, which they share with their spouses. We black women are penned like animals. No one cares if we live or die, or if our babies live or die.’ [pg. 246]
Miriam’s will to survive and to get an education so she could become a nurse, inspired me.
‘I’m released the next day even though I am still racked with pain and am not fully recovered. The bed is needed for someone else. On the way home, I vow I will never have another baby under such conditions. I am more determined than ever to go back to school and study to be a nurse. I see more clearly now the need for compassionate nurses…who will still remember that their patients are human beings, not garbage.’ [pg. 246]
Her simple and sacrificial love for her family and community humbled me.
‘Mama and I pray. I pray to God to end the violence, to let us return to school, to end apartheid somehow, which I know is the cause of the violence. I also pray for Alexandra. I know deep in my heart I belong with them. They are more part of me than the people in Venda. We’ve shared a great deal of experiences and suffering and pain.’ [pg.190]
This is not a victim’s story. This is the story of a survivor. If there is someone I could have the privilege of meeting, it would be Miriam Mathabane.
Would I hug her? Would we have much to talk about? I don’t know.
I do know I would have tears in my eyes. I know I would be
meeting someone I would like to call a friend.
Miriam’s song opened my eyes and moved my heart as her voice educated me through her simple honesty and candour. Her message is that acceptance doesn’t mean giving up.
It is her song and it is a beautiful one.