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.