On Wilma Stockenström’s “Expedition to the Baobab Tree”

On slaveholding and language

In Wilma Stockenström’s novel, Expedition to the Baobab Tree, we meet a woman who has no language of her own. Captured as a young girl and sold into slavery, she can identify neither with the fractured “worker’s language” of her fellow slaves nor the Afrikaans imposed on her by her owners, instead becoming alienated from both groups. Since the languages we speak provide us with internalized values and systems of categorization to understand and locate ourselves within the world, Stockenström’s protagonist’s lack leaves her disoriented and struggling to construct an identity. She discards the constraints of human language, culture, and systems of categorization; unraveling her conditioning as a slave, she improvises a language of her own, a vocabulary masterfully crafted in Stockenström’s prose and expertly preserved in Coetzee’s translation. Yet having internalized her worth as determined by her usefulness to her masters, she finds her solitude in the wilderness unbearable, the maddening isolation finally driving her to suicide.

The assortment of languages in the novel—from its original Afrikaans to the languages constructed by its characters to its English translation—is in a sense an inverted replay of the colonization of the Cape of Africa, first by the Dutch and then by the British. The protagonist, a slave girl likely imported from east Africa, narrates in Afrikaans, the language brought to the Cape by Dutch settlers and closely associated with the marginalization of people of color. The text is then translated for us into English, the language of the region’s second colonizers whose domination reinforced this marginalization. Within this historical narrative, the novel’s protagonist is stripped of her identity and reduced to an object without the means to resist. Like the languages and cultures of the Malaysian, Indonesian, Khoikhoi, Bantu, and other indigenous and East African peoples that originated or were brought to the Cape, her language and value system are colonized by her masters, by the author, and, albeit unwittingly, by us readers. The novel embodies the girl’s resistance: it is her attempt to assert herself as a self-possessing individual who owns her culture and decides her worth. But without a self-constructed language to make sense of her existence in the world, she cannot manage to make sense of her jumbled memories and break through the colonization of her mind; her narrative loses cohesion as she withdraws from her owners, from society and from us.

Since the arrival of the Dutch East India Company in 1652, control of South Africa has shifted back and forth between the Dutch and the British, each turnover further marginalizing the native people and descendants of imported slaves. Because authorities of the Dutch East India Company insisted on restricting contact between settlers and the native Khoikhoi people, the Dutch were faced with a labor shortage, especially as their settlement began to expand. By 1658, they began importing slaves, primarily from East Africa and Asia, many of whom ended up marrying Dutch settlers and bearing children. These children were called Cape Coloureds and inherited the Afrikaans of the white colonists, their native languages slowly being phased out. With the arrival of the British in 1795, the Dutch fought to maintain what they considered their national identity, at the core of which were their language and their assumed racial superiority. Until the end of apartheid, Afrikaans and English, though spoken by a minority of the population, were the official languages of South Africa, while indigenous languages were relegated to rural outskirts. In the last century, English has emerged as the language of politics, business, and education, with Afrikaans a close second, subordinating and threatening the survival of the other five official African languages, Afrikaans among them. This development reinforces the social and economic gaps between white and black South Africans; native African languages continue to be spoken by the country’s poorer and less educated people, while English increasingly signifies social and economic status.

Stockenström’s novel opens in the baobab tree within whose hollow trunk the protagonist has made her home. Alone in the wilderness after her final owner and fellow slaves perish on a failed trading expedition, she gropes around her new surroundings and her fragmented memory in search of a system of order to make sense of her existence. In a disordered jumble of flashbacks reflective of her slipping grasp of time, she recounts her capture, sale into slavery, life in the households of her three owners, and accompaniment of her final owner on a trade expedition. Her capture, she remembers, was swallowed up in the realm of history, her scream “a vain scream of fear. It was a small commotion in a wide forest. It drew no more attention than the noise of a troop of apes. After the interruption the birds went on twittering.” Her removal from her family and home (memories notably absent in the novel) and the subsequent theft of her language and culture precipitate the eclipse of her identity, past and future. This final scream as a free person reverberates in the disorienting narrative that follows.

At her first owner’s home, the girl finds herself in a sort of Babel where her native language is lost in a mess of others. “From far and wide we came, we spoke a variety of tongues,” she says of herself and the other slaves. “But here we got along by mangling the natives’ language and turning it into our idiosyncratic workers’ language.” Particularly desirable because she was one of the few girls captured uncircumcised, she is kept close to her owners, a proximity that inundates her with their language and culture while alienating her from her people. “I turned my back on the damned,” she says. “I was the head slave girl of the richest man here. I had more power than many a wife.” She becomes well-versed in the language of domination; instead of identifying people by name, she categorizes then within the hierarchy of master and slave, owner and property. Recognizing the value of her beauty, she develops a facility with the language of her captors, manipulating it improve her status.

“I was becoming possessed with myself…It was almost as if I were learning to talk…I learned to make my voice dove-sweet when the conversation became pointed and too many quick remarks, like slim arrowheads, were being shot of all together. I learned to laugh with abandon. Above all I learned to find pleasure in how to look desirable and in the power it was obviously supposed I could exercise to my own advantage in my benefactor owner’s room.”

While empowering in that her ability to manipulate the language of her enslavers undermines their complete domination over her, this new self-possession affirms her objectification and alienates her further from the other slaves and from herself. Even as she “laughs with abandon”, she cannot shake off the falseness of her behavior and the oppressiveness of being labeled as property. She visits a “bosom buddy” with whom she shared a similar story of capture: “I arrived in my splendid silk robe and my new quick way of talking, my precious manners, and there I stood awkward with embarrassment, confined within my affectations.”

The theft of her children proves to be a fatal blow to her identity. When her first child is born, her scream recalls that of her capture, an unrecognizable language of a fading self: “No one could or would tell me to whom I called when the child’s skull made its appearance out of me. It was a scream back to my place of birth. There it echoed. There it echoes.” When her baby is sold to a different owner, the scream becomes internal, her voice silenced: “If I could cut open my belly, draw out my guts. I looked for a knife. If I could spit myself out of myself. My heart froze.” Later, she imagines an encounter with her children, wondering if she would recognize in them some part of the self that had been stolen from her: “Would I immediately feel a glow of recognition course through me, and yearn to press him to me, meticulous identification having been rendered unnecessary by a bittersweet knowledge within me, a source of certainty warmer than the sun, like mothers are supposed to have?” she wonders. This hypothetical meeting, of course, never comes to pass and her will to live is extinguished along with her chance to be a mother. Bereft of her roots, her language, her identity and her future, she sees herself as an aimless wanderer through a life with no purpose. “For me there was no continuation, no links backwards or forwards,” she says. “There was coming and ending, a finality as if darkness were made abiding. If it had been death, I would have had certainty. Now I did not know.”

The one identification she definitively lays claim to is her ‘water spirit’. “I who come from the heart of the country bear the murmur of waters subliminally with me, a water knowledge preserved in my tears and saliva, in the blood of my veins, in all the juices of my body,” she proclaims. This inherent wisdom provides her with relief from her isolation, developing into a sense of belonging in nature that she never experiences among people. In the wilderness, she names the elements around her, finding solace in their tangibility and an order within which she can exist but not be categorized. Inside the baobab tree, she is not defined by her usefulness to her slave masters; instead, she exists anonymously among elements she can name but not be subjugated by. “When the tree blooms, then I cannot feel somber. Then I see the journey as a confusion I had to undergo, then I do not try to unravel it and make sense of it. I say the name of the tree aloud, the name of water, of air, fire, wind, earth, moon, sun, and all mean what I call them. I say my own name aloud and my own name means nothing. But I still am.”

Still, she is confined by the limitations of her experience and despite her freedom in the wilderness, she is maddened by her passive waywardness in its disorder. She tries to keep track of time but it becomes obsolete; she tries to communicate with a group of little people she encounters but she cannot understand their language; her only claim to order becomes the narration of her memories, which gradually dissolves into the wilderness that surrounds her:

“I crouched in the belly of the tree and understood the flickering train of thought in my baby who had chosen darkness over the light of life. It was an ecstasy of never being. It was the only true victory: neither death nor life had meaning. It was equilibrium. It was the perfection of non-being.”

Whereas traditionally, language provides us with structured systems of value, meaning, and communication, for the girl in the baobab tree it becomes a tool of isolation: “In godly impotence I walked among your corpses and achieved nothing,” she says. “I whom nothing befell in the shelter of the tree, I who am not from here, do not belong here, do not want to be here.” We witness her unraveling into the ordered chaos of the wilderness—the dismantling of the systems of order within which she has been taught to arrange the world, society, and herself. The farther removed she becomes from human society, the more remote she becomes from us. She gives up on language as communication accepts the senselessness of her transitory existence. Her dreams and imagination become indistinguishable from her reality and finally, her utterances cease to form words at all:

“Now I began to laugh. Half-sobs, half-laughs came from my throat. They came from my insides like moans. One after the other I forced them out like clods, and when they were out I felt like someone who had vomited. With my stick I returned to the baobab.”

This final expulsion of the languages that confine her eulogizes the meaningless existence from which she has no escape but suicide.

Just as Stockenström’s protagonist’s voice is colonized by the language of her masters, the stories of the people enslaved by the Dutch and the British are lost in the languages of their slaveholders. Doubtless the novel’s audience would have been significantly more limited if it had been written in, say, Zulu, but its original language has important implications: it tells the first-person narrative of a black girl captured from her native African village and sold into slavery in the language of her slaveholders and is translated by a white man into the language of South Africa’s second colonizers. The girl’s identity and culture are subsumed by the value systems of her owners so that the novel’s publication and translation themselves reflect the continued silencing of the native people of the Cape and the descendants of slaves imported from other parts of Africa and Asia. The novel cannot be a means for the girl to carve her narrative into South Africa’s history because her very voice is delivered in the language of her slaveholders and she is reduced to the product of a society where she has no place.


Read an excerpt from The Expedition to the Baobab Tree translated by J.M. Coetzee in Asymptote‘s latest issue here.