• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal


A generous CounterPuncher has offered a $25,000 matching grant. So for this week only, whatever you can donate will be doubled up to $25,000! If you have the means, please donate! If you already have done so, thank you for your support. All contributions are tax-deductible.

The Last Woman on Earth

There’s something downright uncanny about Wilma Stockenstr?m’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree. But first something about the trees themselves. Often a hundred feet high and just as wide, these trees are reputed to be thousands of years old, but since they do not produce rings, that assertion is difficult to prove. What is certain is that the baobab’s root system, underground, equals its branches above ground and thus these trees can survive for months—possibly years—without rain, because the roots act as an elaborate circulatory system, retaining moisture during lengthy periods of drought. The trees are also generally hollow and indigenous to much of Africa south of the Sahara.

Stockenstr?m’s brief parable is lushly poetic, more symbolic than literal, though grounded in Africa’s dark history: slavery, strife, warfare, violence. The narrator, a slave woman, has been mistress to several men, including Europeans, borne several children (all taken away from her and sold), moved from one area to another, possibly in South Africa (where Stockenstr?m lives as a celebrated Afrikaans poet), though just as likely in a much wider geographical area. There are multiple references to the sea, to coastal cities, deserts, and cities inland, to kraals and dhows, in short enough contradictory information to suggest an emblematic story of the continent itself, rather than simply South Africa.

The narrator speaks of her treatment by slave owners as generic, denying any individual identity: “Our children taken away from us and sold while still infants, while our bodies still hungered for them, our past a past of pitiless mistreatment or the sarcasm of gifts, our present without prospect. We were all one woman, interchangeable, exchangeable. So we comforted each other and each other’s children, so we shared, so we looked for lice on each other’s scalps and wore each other’s clothes and sang together, gossiped together, complained together. Without prospect. Once someone tried to run away. She was caught and her feet chopped off. A second time someone tried. She got away. The eunuchs deserted regularly.”

Yet she survives, no doubt because of her extraordinary beauty, and is given a rudimentary education—letters and numbers. If there is any flaw in the narrative voice it is that this slave woman often talks about things about which she might not have any true understanding: art, for example. But that’s a minor quibble. What she desires more than anything else is obvious: not to be someone’s possession, to live in the comfort of old age with her grandchildren frolicking around her. But she has no clue about the fate of her own biological children.

Late in the narrative she is the lone woman, slave women, traveling with several Europeans and their enormous retinue of slaves, moving inland in search of pillage and bounty: ivory, gold, ambergris, leopard skins, tortoiseshell. The search for their Eldorado is botched from the beginning. Animals and slaves die, as do some of the Europeans, but not her master. Other forces attack them until the party eventually dwindles down to master and slave mistress and then, finally, to the woman herself. Alone, she seeks refuge inside a baobab tree, her final dwelling.

She survives in part because small people (pygmies?) leave her food and clothing, objects that she needs, though their gifts are always left without any communication. Possibly they worship her because of her height. The setting nearby is described as if it might be Great Zimbabwe, an abandoned city, but it could be other places on the continent also. That’s the intent.

And then, finally, she is all alone, after an event that I will leave for you to discover. A holocaust, a race war, a nuclear war? There are suggestions of the Cold War, which is a possibility since the novella was originally published in Afrikaans in 1981. The translation into English by J. M. Coetzee is a marvel, a gift to all of us—most of us—who cannot read Afrikaans, though the publisher also lists numerous translations into other languages.

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is a work that could only have been written by a poet.

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree
By Wilma Stockenstr?m
Trans. by J. M. Coetzee
Human & Rousseau (Cape Town), 115 pp., $17.95.

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, Washington, D.C.





More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

October 15, 2019
Victor Grossman
The Berlin Wall, Thirty Years Later
Raouf Halaby
Kurdish Massacres: One of Britain’s Many Original Sins
Robert Fisk
Trump and Erdogan have Much in Common – and the Kurds will be the Tragic Victims of Their Idiocy
Ron Jacobs
Betrayal in the Levant
Wilma Salgado
Ecuador: Lenin Moreno’s Government Sacrifices the Poor to Satisfy the IMF
Ralph Nader
The Congress Has to Draw the Line
William A. Cohn
The Don Fought the Law…
John W. Whitehead
One Man Against the Monster: John Lennon vs. the Deep State
Lara Merling – Leo Baunach
Sovereign Debt Restructuring: Not Falling Prey to Vultures
Norman Solomon
The More Joe Biden Stumbles, the More Corporate Democrats Freak Out
Jim Britell
The Problem With Partnerships and Roundtables
Howard Lisnoff
More Incitement to Violence by Trump’s Fellow Travelers
Binoy Kampmark
University Woes: the Managerial Class Gets Uppity
Joe Emersberger
Media Smears, Political Persecution Set the Stage for Austerity and the Backlash Against It in Ecuador
Thomas Mountain
Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed Wins Nobel Peace Prize, But It Takes Two to Make Peace
Wim Laven
Citizens Must Remove Trump From Office
October 14, 2019
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
Class Struggle is Still the Issue
Mike Miller
Global Climate Strike: From Protest To Power?
Patrick Cockburn
As Turkey Prepares to Slice Through Syria, the US has Cleared a New Breeding Ground for Isis
John Feffer
Trump’s Undeclared State of Emergency
Dean Baker
The Economics and Politics of Financial Transactions Taxes and Wealth Taxes
Jonah Raskin
What Evil Empire?
Nino Pagliccia
The Apotheosis of Emperors
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A Passion for Writing
Basav Sen
The Oil Despots
Brett Wilkins
‘No Friend But the Mountains’: A History of US Betrayal of the Kurds
John Kendall Hawkins
Assange: Enema of the State
Scott Owen
Truth, Justice and Life
Thomas Knapp
“The Grid” is the Problem, Not the Solution
Rob Kall
Republicans Are Going to Remove Trump Soon
Cesar Chelala
Lebanon, Dreamland
Weekend Edition
October 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Becky Grant
CounterPunch in Peril?
Anthony DiMaggio
Fake News in Trump’s America
Andrew Levine
Trump’s End Days
Jeffrey St. Clair
High Plains Grifter: the Life and Crimes of George W. Bush
Patrick Cockburn
Kurdish Fighters Always Feared Trump Would be a Treacherous Ally
Paul Street
On the TrumpenLeft and False Equivalence
Dave Lindorff
Sure Trump is ‘Betraying the Kurds!’ But What’s New about That?
Rob Urie
Democrats Impeach Joe Biden, Fiddle as the Planet Burns
Sam Pizzigati
Inequality is Literally Killing Us
Jill Richardson
What Life on the Margins Feels Like
Mitchell Zimmerman
IMPOTUS: Droit de seigneur at Mar-a-Lago
Robert Hunziker
Methane SOS
Lawrence Davidson
Donald Trump, the Christian Warrior
William Hartung – Mandy Smithburger
The Pentagon is Pledging to Reform Itself, Again. It Won’t.