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Hum If You Don’t Know The Words

The horrors of apartheid juxtaposed against a beautiful, unexpected friendship


We cannot forget the injustices that our forefathers have faced, or we are doomed to repeat them.

The setting: South Africa during the apartheid period. When racism was the norm. Where injustices favoured one human over the other, simply based on their skin colour.

If you are of the favoured colour, you’d think that the future was secured for you. Nine-year-old Robin Conrad is one such girl. She lives in Johannesburg with her parents. It is the 1970s. Racial tensions are on the rise. Nelson Mandela has been imprisoned, and the majority black South Africans are no longer happy with the status quo. They’ve been pushed too far, and are seething under the oppression of their people by the Afrikaner elitists.

On the other side of the struggle is Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman searching for her daughter Nomsa. Rumour has it that she has joined the resistance.

Why would Robin and Beauty’s lives cross? How could there be a common understanding between a nine-year-old white girl and a mature Bantu woman? Bianca Marais weaves a heart-wrenching narrative that is plausible and incredibly gripping, as she brings the two characters together.

Considering almost a hundred years had passed since the Brits and the Afrikaners tried to kill each other, the mutual hatred should’ve died down by 1976, but it hadn’t.

The context of the quote is of course in reference to the (Second) Boer War, pitting Britain against the Boers (Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans descended from the Dutch East India Company's original settlers at the Cape of Good Hope).  The Afrikaners, despite losing the war, gained a nation on relatively lenient terms courtesy of the great colonial power. But the Afrikaners carried a sense of aggrievement, which ensured that they would never be under the yoke of another.

Aggrievement, and the resulting racism is a phenomenon that is normalized again in 2017 where with the advent of the Trump era the undercurrents of prejudice have surfaced, sometimes as a virulent racism. We like to think of ourselves as superior north of the 49th parallel but that is a convenient fiction. Personally, I feel the prejudice in my metropolitan Toronto neighbourhood, more so than I’d ever felt it growing up in Kenya. Privileged neighbours who are quick to jab you with comments and actions, ensuring that you know your place in the social hierarchy.

We must be forever vigilent to not permit this as it is a slippery slope to facism. Perhaps, because I grew up living and learning about the history of colonization, I can understand and relate more than the common man. And, so injustice infuriates me more. But, it should also infuriate all of us.

In Hum If You Don’t Know The Words, where a mother, Beauty, is in search of her daughter Nomsa. One thing to note is that Beauty is not like other black people. She’s had a different upbringing. Despite being a woman, and native African, she was lucky to get an education and enjoy a `career as a schoolteacher. Most black people hadn’t had the good fortune to be educated enough to write their own name. And so, even if she is black, poor and oppressed as the rest of the native Africans, she feels judged like an outsider.

What I loved were the conversations; the slow buildup of understanding. How do you change a mindset? How do you get rid of racism when you have been brought up with that way of thinking? How do we break the cycle? Can one person really make a difference?

By reading Hum If You Don’t Know The Words, perhaps a small flicker of hope was ignited. A possibility that we could get there − one person can indeed make a difference. Not by violence but by engagement. By understanding. By listening. Bianca Marais’ writing touches on small changes that can indeed make a difference. The novel embodies a powerful message that goes beyond apartheid South Africa in the 1970s. 


Blog post by @ShilpaRaikar (Creative and Social Media strategist, decor enthusiast and book lover, who also writes for a branding blog:, as well as a lifestyle blog: T: @SukasaStyle)