Duma's birth in the middle of a terrible draught is seen as an important omen in the traditional tribal environment where his parents and grandparents have been living. It heralds the departure of his grandparents, who bring him up in the absense of his deceased mother and father, from the simple and uncomplicated rural Ndebele lifestyle and environment. The family move to a township on the outskirts of a city, where Mabena, the grandfather, becomes a link between the past and the present, the rural and urban realities. He tries to keep the values of the past alive, while his grandson Duma is intrigued by urban life, and modern music in particular. On one level Maduma, a strong and convincing character, and Duma, a young boy who has to fight for recognition, represents the old and the new in Africa. Although it is never directly mentioned, their story is also set against the introduction of the homelands policy of the apartheid regime. In essence then, the novel is about a traditional African community undergoing change: two important forces render this community unstable - firstly and visibly, a draught, and secondly and less visibly, the forces of modernity and political change.
In the end, the family returns to the land of the Ndebele. The death of the grandfather there spells the end of a proud and uncompromising but outdated way of life. Duma has to face the future on his own.
Johnny Masilela is currently a senior journalist at Sunday World in Johannesburg. He is the author of Deliver us from evil - Scenes from a rural Transvaal upbringing (published by Kwela in 1997) and various short stories included in collections such as At the Rendezvous of Victory, and Crossing Over.