Zululand, in the 1870s, is about to change forever. This tale is told by Benge, a Tshanini tribesman whose clan farms, raises cattle, and sends young men to be warriors for the Zulu king, and whose home is on the southern edge of Zulu territory, bordering the British colony of Natal. Benge is a hunchback, an anomaly among his people, as deformed children are usually abandoned at birth. His deformity was accidental, however, and he was allowed to live, being treated variously as a child, a man, and at times as a magic dwarf. In Benge’s search to belong, we learn the life-cycle of the Zulu, and some of the secrets of this culture, rich in superstition and ritual. Benge’s stalking and hunting skills earn him the respect of his beloved brother, Thunzi, and assist in retrieving the beautiful Cece, an exile who has crossed the Tugela river into Natal with one of the king’s top warriors. His experiences in Wizard’s Country—an area avoided by his clan because of the powerful witch who lives there—enhance his abilities, and create an inner conflict between good and evil. When the Zulu king goes to war against the English, Benge’s personal turmoil is reflected in the battles of a culture struggling to survive. Rooke’s spare prose effectively sets the scene in this arid land and reinforces the concept of the reader (and Benge, and white men) as outsider.
First published in 1957, Wizard’s Country provided a rare non-white perspective on the demise of the Zulu nation, and brought kudos to its white author. Daphne Rooke was one of a triumvirate of mid-20th century South African women writers, the other two being Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing; in reissuing Rooke’s works, Toby Press is bestowing some much-deserved attention on this recently neglected author.