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Es’kia Mphahlele: Father Come Home

(Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1984)

Es’kia Mphahlele believed that the regeneration of African consciousness is essential to real African development and progress. African consciousness arises from the norms and values inherent in the traditional way of life. These values were marginalised under colonialism and apartheid when African people were forced to adopt Western norms and values. As a result they developed a divided consciousness and became spiritually and psychologically weakened.

In order to regain the pride, dignity, strength and independence of the African spirit, it is necessary to return to traditional values. As African people have lost the context that gave rise to these values, regeneration of the African consciousness now depends on the formal articulation of traditional values. And this is what Es’kia Mphahlele has provided in his philosophy of Afrikan Humanism. In his articles he sets out the tenets of Afrikan Humanism and in his stories and novels illustrates the struggle to maintain African values. A study of his writings, therefore, will lead to an understanding of a humanism that is essentially African.

And his novel, Father Come Home, in presenting a community clinging to vestiges of African spirituality and culture and struggling to assert its dignity and self-esteem in the face of exploitation and prejudice, provides the reader with an opportunity to learn about Afrikan Humanism. Through the protagonist, Maredi, Mphahlele presents a boy’s struggle to restore within himself the pride, dignity, independence and strength that is his true legacy as an African.



Afrikan Humanism


Two Main Tenets


1. Belief in the Supreme Being and the Ancestors


The interdependence of the individual and the group, the glue that holds the community together, is reinforced in:


  1. i.belief in the Supreme Being and the ancestors.

In his essay, “Notes Towards an Introduction to African Humanism,” Mphahlele writes:


We believe in the Supreme Being. But because we are

closest to our ancestors, we have reverence for them.

They are our intercessors. They know the pain and joy

of living, so they are our main point of reference in our

relation to the immediate world around us. The Supreme

Being is a poetic conception whose presence we take for

granted, but which exists as an all-pervading vital force

in the mountains, rivers, valleys, and the plant and ani-

mal kingdoms. African oral poetry is also witness to these

forces, to this interconnectedness of human, animal, plant

and inanimate environments and the cosmos.[1]


In Father Come Home, the Mashite people, who still retain the traditional culture, believe in “a Supreme Being, whose presence they felt where human relations were harmonious, in animal life, in plant life, in the mountains and valleys and in the elements: water, air, light – everywhere.” (36). And for the Mashite, the ancestors are intercessors to the Supreme Being. “They believed that their ancestors – kinfolk and ancient leaders – were always living and present to guide them into the paths of decency, of goodness, of harmony among people. They prayed to the Supreme Being through the ancestors” (36)

Mashabela, the poet-sangoma in the novel declares, “I feel the ancestors around me and through them I feel the crush of the wisdom of the seasons and feel an almighty presence in the air in everything that grows and breathes, everything on the surface of the earth and above, whether it seems to have life or not.” (40)


  1. ii.rituals and worship bring the community together at times determined by human and natural events. “For their way of worship, the people of Mashite had no church, because they had no church-day like Sunday.” (36). All the land was sacred and they conducted their rituals among trees, at rivers and other natural spots.



2. Family and Social Relationships

Afrikan Humanism emphasises the interconnectedness of human beings living together in groups – family, community, society – in order to share and care for one another. It is this sharing and caring environment that helps one to grow into the person that one becomes. The group is the matrix out of which the individual develops and in harmonious groups the aims and goals of the individual are one with the aims and goals of the group.  


The African begins with the community and then determines

what the individual’s role should be in relation to the com-

munity. These are features of African humanism. It is a

communal concept, and there are no individual heroes within

the world it encompasses. Man finds fulfilment not as a sep-

arate individual but within the family and community.[2]



In Father Come Home, the emphasis on kinship is inherent in:


i. Terms that indicate connection, e.g., “Child of my brother, (3), ‘my nephew, his son, (18) mogadibo (wife of my brother) (46) ‘My brother, son of my father!’ (82)

Even where there is no blood connection, people in the village refer to one another in terms of kinship. They call one another sister, brother, mother, father, daughter, son, etc. The poet-sangoma, Mashabela, refers to Maredi as ‘our son’ and ‘a son of the people’ in his song of welcome. (76). The community is the extended family.


ii. Support that members of the community provide for one another.

Africans did not develop separate welfare institutions because they believed in their responsibility for one another’s welfare. Uncle Namedi takes responsibility for Maredi, Dineo and Hunadi. (17); Strangers help Maredi on his journey to find his father (60 – 70)


iii. Sharing of suffering and joy, e.g. the community’s celebration of Maredi’s return to Sedibeng, the feasting, singing and dancing (75 – 77)


iv. Dance and song that foster community spirit.

“Fired by both morula wine and the spirit of the hour, male dancers formed a circle and did their steps to accompaniment of whistle blowing and drumbeats. Women did their own dancing too in another part of the homestead.” (78)


v. Oral literature, poetry and praise songs that bind the community together, e.g., Mashabela’s poem-songs tell of their history (20-23, 76-78) Hunadi’s song (55) and other songs are communal ways of sharing experiences and attitudes. (20-23)


vi. African idioms and expressions e.g.  

  • Aretse
  • Do not come into my mouth (Don’t interrupt me) (47)
  • there was a bad smell somewhere in his behaviour (he is guilty of something) (58)
  • child of my brother has been vomited by sleep and if sleep spits you out that means you have quarrelled with it. (Maredi’s bad dream gets him out of bed early) (3)



Connection to the Land


As African people saw themselves as integral part to the land on which they lived, just as all God’s creatures and natural objects are, their beliefs and culture arose out of their connection to the land.

African languages are rich in figures of speech – similes, metaphors, personification – derived from their natural surroundings, e.g.

  • ‘Your papa will come back, as sure as that sun always returns.’ (4)
  • ‘The strike spread eastwards like a veld fire.’ (24)
  • ‘His knowledge and understanding crosses rivers and mountains and valleys.’ (23)
  • ‘He folded up his trousers, as they say, and entered an unfriendly river as if he were going to cross a ford.’ (30) (Making light of a big challenge)


African people did not believe in ownership of land because they were of the land like trees and animals. Consequently they did not need documents to prove ownership. Ownership was a foreign concept and when colonizers laid claim to the land and declared ownership that was something that was not comprehensible to them. That is why it was so easy for colonizers to deprive them of land,   “… and people now wandered not as in the past to venture into new pastures, but because there was no more land and because they were told to move ....” (23)


Because African people did not just live on the land, but belonged to it, were part of it and moved freely over it, when colonizers enclosed it, African people lost far more than places to live.

    • They lost the vital source of their spiritual and cultural being.
    • They were cut off from ancestral spirits and sacred environments.
  • They lost the freedom and independence of existence.
  • They lost economic independence.

“ Mother, aunt, uncle – why did they not seem to have full control of their lives? Why did it seem that their lives were in someone else’s hands? Not only his people: all the villagers around. They all seemed to be waiting for someone to come from the cities, the mines, to feed them or increase their supplies … One just heard that orders had come from the Native Commissioner, and something had to be done or undone or prevented from being done.” (58)

    • Their families broke up. Men migrated to the towns and cities and left women to eke out a living on small plots. The title of the novel, Father Come Home, indicates the loss of husbands, fathers and sons from the villages.
    • Subjected to an alien culture, they lost their connection with the land and consequently their belief in themselves. They were made to feel inferior and developed a sense of shame.
    • They converted to Christianity, adopted European ways and became divided in their understanding of who they were. Were they Black or White?

In Chapter 4 of the novel, “Into Forbidden Forests,” Mphahlele illustrates the divided consciousness in the division between the people of Mashite and the people of Sedibeng.

The Mashite retain traditional culture but the people of Sedibeng have adopted Christianity and a mixed culture.

In Sedibeng, community spirit has been weakened; people are forgetting about kinship and becoming selfishly individualistic. Hunadi’s husband and son have abandoned her. Maredi is restless, sees himself as a misfit and does what he wants without consideration for his mother’s feelings.


When African people lost the land, they lost their African Consciousness.



African Consciousness


In Chapter Four of Father Come Home, Mphahlele describes the way of life of the Mashite, the traditional way of life that exemplifies deep appreciation of the interdependence of individual and community and reverence for the land. The Mashite are a joyful, independent, moral people who care for and share with one another and are sustained by their belief in the Supreme Being and the ancestors.

The Mashite children “did not attend modern school. The elders taught them, from one stage of growth to another. Their school was out there in life itself, surrounded by Nature, where everyone learned to survive. They had abundant knowledge of how things grow, of the rains, of how to take care of livestock which was a gift from the ancestors. They knew the responsibilities of man and woman when they were married.” (36)

The Mashite children, educated in the traditional way, are prepared for a meaningful life. They do not write examinations but what they learn enables them to live and work in the community. And they are willing to learn because they understand the purpose of their education and can see its value in concrete terms.

Being true to African spiritual and cultural values, the Mashite have retained an African Consciousness, unlike the people of Sedibeng who have become Christians, have adopted white customs and live with a divided consciousness. The Mashite, secure and confident in their identity as Africans, are amused at the Christians who look down on them and discriminate against them.  

Though the Christians believe they are superior because they have adopted the white man’s religion, Christianity does not have the kind of pull on them that traditional religion had. Christianity, being an externally imposed set of beliefs, does not arise out of the life experience of the Sedibeng community so its members cannot commit to it fully. “Maredi’s people belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church. They were indifferent church-goers, and neither his mother nor his aunt desired to push or drag Maredi to church on Sundays” (37).

And the people of Sedibeng, in their heart of hearts, still yearn for traditional ways. This becomes apparent in a conversation between Hunadi and Maredi after his visit to the forbidden forest in Mashite territory. (41– 44).


It is only when people are able to look back at their origins, all their customs and traditions, without a sense of shame that they can stand as equals with their oppressors and withstand attempts to denigrate them. Belief in oneself is the means to overcome the debilitating effects of racism. Without a confident recognition of one’s own worth, one will always be a divided self, and therefore weak and vulnerable, always hankering after a false identity and prone to crass individualism, i.e., thinking only of oneself and forgetting that one owes one’s personal