An honest and compassionate look at post-apartheid South Africa
Vusi, an eleven-year-old Zulu boy growing up in poverty in rural South Africa, is enchanted by the helpless puppy he finds in the bush. He names it Gillette for its razor-sharp teeth and hides it from his mother, who disapproves of bush dogs as pets. His devotion to Gillette only grows stronger after the puppy is mauled by a leopard and loses a leg. But as boy and dog play carefree games, storm clouds are gathering over Vusi's family - ruthless rival taxi owners are trying to drive his father out of business. While Vusi and Gillette learn to hunt together, they meet the daughter of a neighboring white farmer. Gillette becomes the catalyst for their unlikely friendship, which has a decisive impact on the fate of Vusi's whole family - and the larger community.
A starkly realistic story set against the backdrop of the country's tortured racial history, Zulu Dog holds out the hope that a new generation of South Africans can create a better future for their land. Zulu Dog is a 2003 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.
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Anton Ferreira was born in Zambia and grew up there and in South Africa. He has been a foreign correspondent with Reuters for the last twenty years, and this is his first book. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
CHAPTER 1THERE IS NO BETTER TIME to be alive than in the hour before dawn in Msinga, when a full moon lights the raw African landscape of craggy hills, flat-topped thorn trees, and flowing water in the heart of ancient Zululand. Later the fierce midday sun of early January will bake the rocks here along the banks of the Tugela River, driving man and beast into the shade of the acacia trees, but now the air is cool and invigorating. The star-filled southern sky dazzles this part of the earth where no city lights cast their glare. The night pulses with the lives of nocturnal creatures--a giant eagle owl hoots from the tall trees along the river, and a sudden bawl of alarm echoesacross the valley from a distant tribe of baboons woken by a prowling leopard.A dozen mud-and-thatch huts are grouped on the bank of the river, the kraal of the Ngugu clan, who trace their roots back to Shaka, the legendary warrior king who forged the Zulu nation in eastern South Africa nearly two centuries ago. Clan patriarch Walter Ngugu is snoring, his two-hundred-twenty-pound frame rising and falling gently under the blankets. The whole family is still asleep, but outside, just beyond the treeline at the edge of the kraal clearing, something is stirring in a burrow dug years ago by a porcupine and then abandoned.Sheba, one of the kraal dogs, crept into the hole the previous evening, heavily pregnant and driven by instinct to find a safe, isolated lair. All night she circled and turned impatiently in the confines of the burrow, scrabbling at the walls to make more room and spreading the sand to form a bed. Now, with the sky lightening in the east, she is ready.
TEN DAYS AFTER THE BIRTH of the puppies, Walter Ngugu's eleven-year-old son, Vusi, is putting the finishing touches to a toy he is making for himself. His brow is furrowed in concentration as he bends bits of discarded wire coat hangers this way and that. He hasbeen working on it for days, and now the toy is all but complete: a scaled-down version of the taxi van his father drives every day to earn a living for the family, about twenty inches long and half as wide. Vusi has shaped wire strands to define the boxy shape of the van, securely fastening the framework to axles fixed to the metal lids of old jars that spin like real wheels. Each joint in the wire skeleton has been painstakingly made so the toy is sturdy enough to withstand the bumps and ruts of the kraal clearing. The final touch is a long piece of wire that stretches from the driver's position and ends in a circle--the steering wheel. Vusi grasps the wheel and triumphantly runs around the kraal, pushing the toy taxi before him as he yells at the top of his lungs."Coming through! Coming through! Brrrrrrm brrrrrrm, wake up, old man! We haven't got all day! Out my way, out my way! Beeeeep, beeeeeep!"Vusi makes a turn at the edge of the clearing, then catches sight of a movement in the bush. He drops the steering wheel and goes to investigate, moving carefully because the long grass is full of snakes and other lurking dangers. The spot where he saw the movement is empty, but he notices tracks in the sand. He snorts in disappointment--just a dog. He follows the track anyway, practicing what his father has taught him inpreparation for the day when he becomes a man and must prove himself as a hunter.Within fifteen yards Vusi comes upon a porcupine burrow, with a series of dog tracks leading in and out. He sinks to his hands and knees and listens with his ear at the opening. He hears the low murmuring squeal of the puppies as they jostle each other, waiting hungrily for the return of their mother. Vusi lies on his stomach and stretches his arm into the hole as far as it will go until his fingers connect with soft fur. He grabs the squirming bundle and pulls it out.Half a dozen dogs live in and around the kraal, but this is the first time Vusi has seen a newborn puppy. Its eyes are barely open, and its fawn skin seems far too loose for its pudgy body. It grabs Vusi's finger in its tiny mouth and sucks, hoping it has found a teat. Vusi shrieks with joy and runs back to the clearing with the puppy, his toy taxi temporarily forgotten. He puts the puppy down and watches it struggle to its feet, then stagger toward him. He steps backward, and the puppy lurches after him. Vusi picks the puppy up again, cradling it in his arms."Vusi!" There is an impatient edge to his mother's voice as it echoes across the clearing, an edge that means there are many chores that need doing. Vusigrabs the puppy in both hands and runs to where his mother is preparing the midday meal."Mama, Mama, look what I found!"Prudence Ngugu's eyes open wide in horror as she sees what her son is thrusting up at her."Rubbish! Throw it in the bush! Those things are dirty, Vusi, full of germs, and you want to bring it here where we are making food! Where do you learn such nonsense? Never touch a dog! Take it away, then come back here and eat. But wash yourself first, very carefully."Abashed, Vusi walks away with the puppy, back to the hole where he found it. He leaves it at the edge of the burrow, then backs off a few paces to see what it will do. The puppy sits down and squeals in despair, thrusting its nose in the air to try to find a familiar smell. As Vusi watches, Sheba emerges from the burrow, throws the boy a quick look, seizes the puppy in her jaws, and returns with it into the den.
CHASTENED BY HIS MOTHER'S DISDAIN for the puppy, Vusi initially resists the temptation to go back to the burrow to play with it again, to feel its soft fur under his hands and offer it a finger to suck on as it squirms in his grasp. His mother's anger is a powerful force,and he has no wish to provoke it. But as the days pass, Vusi's curiosity about Sheba's den grows stronger. His mind wanders off during his school lessons, and when he is home, his games seem to take him closer and closer to the burrow. At last, he can no longer resist the urge to play with them again. If I just go over and take one quick look, it can't do any harm, he tells himself.So one day when his mother is out collecting firewood, Vusi saunters out of the clearing and into the bush, whistling casually in a way that he hopes will give anyone watching him the impression he has nothing at all on his mind. Once in the cover of the trees, he stealthily works his way around to where the puppies are. Arriving at the hole, he lies down to reach into the den. But as he does so, Sheba gives a low warning growl from the depths. Vusi sits back and considers this. He hadn't thought she might be there, and he doesn't want to have his hand bitten. His mother has warned him that a dog bite means certain death from rabies.A solution occurs to him. He runs to the kitchen hut, checks to be sure no one is around, and opens the black cast-iron pot full of the stiff corn porridge that is the Zulu staple food. He digs out a handful, dips it in a pan of meat gravy standing nearby, and dashes backto the burrow. Squatting at the entrance, he waves the food around to tempt Sheba with the smell. She quickly slinks out of the hole, her caution overcome by an empty stomach, holding her head low in submission, her tail curled between her legs. Vusi scatters the porridge on the ground, and the dog snatches up the lumps as if she has not eaten for a week. She hardly bothers to chew the pieces before swallowing.Vusi sees her hunger, and the way her ribs push through her skin, but thinks nothing of it. Kraal dogs are always hungry.Sheba, one of the best hunters among the Ngugu family's dogs, sniffs the ground for any remaining crumbs of porridge. While she is preoccupied with scavenging, Vusi turns to the porcupine burrow to pull out the puppy. But there is no need--the four puppies have scrambled by themselves up to the lip of the burrow, where they peer around for their mother. Vusi recognizes the one he played with before because it is the only brown one. Two are brindle, and one is white with large brown patches. He lifts his puppy up to his chest to cradle it as he has seen the women do with their babies. Then he holds the puppy at eye level and gazes at it."What are you called?" he asks it. The puppy wrigglesand licks at Vusi's hands. Tiny teeth emerge from its gums like ivory needle points, and Vusi eases his little finger into the puppy's mouth to feel how sharp they are. The puppy closes its mouth on his finger, and Vusi gasps in surprise at the pain.As he sucks at the pinprick of blood, Vusi recalls the last time he tested something for sharpness, when he ran a finger across his father's razor blade. He cut himself that time, too."Gillette," he announces. "That is your name. Gillette."Over the next weeks Vusi plays with Gillette every day, being careful not to let the adults see him. The puppies are increasingly independent of their mother, and Sheba quickly comes to accept Vusi's presence at the den. The boy still brings her food, though, because he realizes she needs to keep her strength up while nursing the litter. He cuts reeds down at the river, then weaves them into a seat in his toy taxi so he can put the puppy in the toy and push it up and down the paths through the bush. Twice a day he searches Gillette for ticks, which infest all the kraal dogs. He gently rolls the puppy on its back, carefully pulling off the parasites so their heads do not remain embedded in the skin to fester and spread infection. To end the grooming session,Vusi sends Gillette into a blissful doze by softly rubbing the puppy's tummy.
LIFE UNFOLDS SLOWLY on a Sunday in the Ngugu kraal. As the first soft yellow light brightens the treetops, the rooster that ranges freely around the yard during the day with his harem of hens lifts his head and crows, but uncertainly, as if he is not sure that dawn really has broken or if he is just dreaming it. His call quickly fades to a volley of bad-tempered clucking, then he puts his head under his wing and goes back to sleep. The hens around him ruffle their feathers and shift their weight from foot to foot on their perches, but they don't bother to wake up.The rooster's gargling call stirs Beauty, a young female dog stretched out on her side on the hard-packed dirt of the kraal clearing. She opens an eye, notices light in the sky above, and slowly rises to her feet, the stiffness of the night still tight in her joints. She yawns, looks around, sees that nothing is moving, then stretches long and slowly, her front paws pushed straight out in front, her haunches up in the air. She holds the stretch, then reverses it, pushing her front legs vertical, craning her twitching nostrils toward the smells of the bush and flexing her rump down toward the ground. Beauty gives afinal shake and pads over to where one of the other dogs, Lightning, is lying and collapses on the ground next to him. Lightning, a lithe, brown male dog, twitches in his sleep but does not wake.The other male dog of the pack, Spear, is curled up some distance away. Spear, Lightning, and Beauty all resemble Sheba with their slim, whippetlike builds, but the fourth dog, Charcoal, sleeping now with one paw over her nose, is smaller and stockier. Pitch-black but for a white blaze on her throat, she is barrel-chested with a blunt muzzle, as if she had Staffordshire terrier blood in her.Charcoal lifts her nose and sniffs the wind, catching the faint scent of antelope moving through the bush. But her senses tell her the impalas are far off and moving away. They never come close enough to the kraal to make it worthwhile for the dogs to try to catch them. She gets to her feet, shakes herself, and walks over to the remains of last night's fire.When the weather is clear, the Ngugus eat dinner outdoors, under the stars, sitting on thick tree trunks around the cooking fire. Charcoal sniffs around the tree trunks for dropped food and finds nothing. But closer to the cold ashes, she is rewarded with a charred bone. She grabs it and trots off to a spot far from the other dogs, so they will not try to take it from her.She's not afraid of Spear or Beauty, but Lightning would challenge her for the bone and attack her if she refused to give it up.Charcoal chooses to lie with her bone behind a hut at one side of the clearing, near the trees ringing the perimeter of the kraal and some way from the other huts that circle the cooking fire. This is the hut of Grandmother Ngugu. If she has another name, no one ever uses it; she is always "Granny" or "the old woman," uttered in tones of solemn respect.She is the first of the Ngugus awake this morning, as usual. For her, there is no difference between Sunday and any other day of the week. She has a routine, and she likes to stick to it.She leans on a stick as she hobbles to the kitchen hut, then bangs pots and pans as she rummages for the kettle. She takes the remaining five pieces of wood from a pile near the door, stacks them in the wood stove, and lights them with trembling fingers. She fills the kettle with water and puts it on the cast-iron stove, grumbling all the while that there is probably not enough wood in the firebox to boil the water for her coffee. Her eyes are no longer sharp, and the dark interior of the kitchen hut makes it hard for her to see. She peers around carefully, to check if there is a stash of firewood that she has missed. But there is none. It was all burned onthe fire last night, and no one bothered to cut more.The old woman picks up a long metal spoon and a frying pan and makes her way stiffly to the hut Vusi and his three sisters share. She pushes open the door, made from salvaged planks of different shapes and sizes, leans against the doorway for support, and clangs the spoon against the frying pan."Wake up! Wake up!" the old woman says. "It's late! Why are you all still in bed?" Cries of protest greet the racket."Granny, it's Sunday," says Lindiwe, Vusi's sister, who is thirteen and two years older than he. Vusi and Lindiwe share the hut with their twin sisters, Mandisa and Tendeka, who are eight. "We don't go to school today," Mandisa mumbles groggily. "We can sleep late.""No, no, you must get up. Come on. There is no firewood. You must go and get some. Come, come, quickly." Grandmother Ngugu clangs the frying pan again for emphasis.The children mutter and groan, but it's no use trying to go back to sleep. Reluctantly they climb out of their beds, their eyes still heavy with sleep, and pull on their clothes.
BY THE TIME THEY RETURN to the kraal, loaded down with dead branches they have found in the bush, therest of the family is stirring. Their elder brother, Petrus, who is nineteen, is doing stretching exercises, barefoot and dressed only in shorts. Because he has entered manhood and will soon be looking for a wife, he has a hut to himself.With his limbs sufficiently loose, Petrus picks up his kierie--a stick about four feet long, with a knob carved at one end--and starts practicing his stick-fighting moves. He raises his right foot straight out in front of him so his leg is almost parallel with the ground, then swings it in fast and stamps it in the dirt, sending a tremor through the ground that the children can feel where they stand twenty yards away. He grunts a challenge to an imaginary opponent and repeats the kick with his left foot, scattering dust. The shock waves from the impact of his feet slamming into the ground travel up his body and send quivers across his flat abdomen...
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