Atlas, Netherlands, 2013
Prudence Mbewu always wanted to be white. White children rode buses and were given hot chocolate to drink when it was cold. “You think you are white,” Grandma would shout whenever the little girl stubbornly refused to go out in the cold to gather wood or fetch water.
Prudence Mbewu now lives in Centurion, formerly called Verwoerdburg. As far as she can see, only the name of the town has changed though. Prudence’s neighbours are white, the shop is white and the white children she teaches at kindergarten do not know how to deal with the black teacher: they ask her if she is hungry. “Would you like a bite of my sandwich? ‘
In “It’s better where the whites are,” Prudence Mbewu narrates her journey into the white world, crossing the Orange River, from the Eastern Cape. On her way she has met an array of remarkable people of all colours: from old sex-crazed ‘bosses’ to sugary smiling madams in the supermarket; from romantic scammers and real and false ‘pastors’, to comrades and careerists. All in all, even with all the difficulties, she declares she usually also finds a lot to laugh about.
(Atlas blurb, in Dutch)
Evelien Groenink is a Dutch woman who lives and works in South Africa. But that’s not what the story is about. In ‘It’s better where the whites are,’ Groenink narrates the story of Prudence Mbewu, a once poor black child who now lives a relatively successful life as a teacher and columnist.
In ‘It’s better where the whites are,’ Evelien Groenink describes the life that Prudence had in the village where she grew up, noticing at an early age that whites had more and better things. Often feeling envious of whites, and angry about the injustice she felt, Prudence did manage to face her difficult circumstances and escaped the fate of many friends who had children early and were henceforth forbidden to play or continue to go to school.
Eventually Prudence decides to ‘flee’ the village and goes to Johannesburg, where she does enter into a relationship and has a child. After her partner disappoints, both as life mate and father, she decides to go it alone and then is when, she says, her life really starts. Fighting to get ahead with a lot of energy and dedication, making a living through cleaning and house work, she accidentally comes into contact with Evelyn Groenink. This turns out to be a big advantage: in South Africa, many things are still easier to come by when you have a helpful white ‘screwdriver,’ as Prudence calls Groenink, on your side.
The special thing about the book is that it shows the interaction between black and white, but also some truths that emanate from within the ‘black’ universe. It turns out to be a pretty complex position one inhabits as a black woman in South Africa.
‘It’s better where the whites are’ is a very easy-to-read book, particularly because of the sometimes hilarious anecdotes. Above all, the book gives a special insight into the ‘real’ life of a South African, something that many people have an opinion about but do not really know. It is therefore highly recommended for people who are interested in (South) Africa.
(2theworld.nl, in Dutch)