Ancient Egyptian Animal Fables. Tree Climbing Hippos and Ennobled Mice (Brill, 2022), Jennifer Miyuki Babcock | A Review by Caroline Janssen


A humble corpus of seventy-nine limestone flakes – ostraca – and four papyri lies at the basis of this book, a study of what Jennifer Miyuki Babcock understands to be visual representations of Ancient Egyptian animal fables. The author is a professor of Art History and Archaeology in New York, and specializes in the visual arts and narratives of Ancient Egypt, an interesting combination of fields, as the book demonstrates.

As for the corpus, as a writing material, papyrus was expensive and ostraca were cheap; the latter were used for a variety of purposes. Some were ‘textual’ – letters, inventories, receipts, work journals, …- while others were ‘figurative’ and contained drawings and sketches. Many of the ostraca were ex-votos, offerings made to deities to fulfill a vow, some may have been created for educational purposes or perhaps even out of boredom, as the author suggests. A small but interesting group depicts animals acting like people – wearing clothes, playing board games, banqueting, playing music, … – and these are the focus of this investigation. The most popular animals, for this purpose, are cats, mice, canines and caprids, but there are also birds, hippopotami and lions. Jennifer Miyuki Babcock chose to exclude most pictures with primates (with the exception of the motif of the baboon and the cat), because, as she argues, their activities could be the result of animal training; they usually appear in the company of people, not in anthropomorphic animal settings like the others.

Animals play a big role in Egyptian culture, religion and daily life. In representations, they are symbols of danger, strength, power, etc. In the hieroglyphic script animal-shaped signs can carry both literal and metaphorical meanings. On paintings, they appear in real-life conditions, crying out in pain, galopping, … and even their odor can be expressed by using symbols. But the ostraca are a group apart, as the animals here engage in human behavior. This is what animals in fables do. However, linking them to specific stories is not self-evident. The original drawings are not accompanied by explanatory texts and most drawings are not backed up by a recorded story. Jennifer Miyuki Babcock leaves no stone unturned to overcome this problem.

Let the reader be warned (but not deterred): this book is a reworked dissertation, which is still palpable, and it is not an easy read. It is based on original source materials that are hard to interpret. Before one can enter the world of tree climbing hippos and ennobled mice, one is deeply immersed in academic debates. What a reader not too familiar with Ancient Egyptian history might miss, at times, is a concise historical framework before these debates start, something I would have added because this book is of interest, not only for Egyptologists, but also for other people interested in fables and story-telling in other parts of the world or other temporal settings. There are a few flaws in the register which could have been avoided – e.g., the entries hippopotami, hippopotamus and hippotamus (sic!), hippotamus and crow but no crow as an entry, … – but on the whole this is a good work. In terms of methodology, the author is a guide, who presents complex theories in an accessible way and uses them eclectically. In the course of the book we find reflections on terminology and definitions; when different interpretations of materials have been suggested pros and cons are duly weighed, conclusions are drawn after consideration, the author shares her doubts and provides tentative explanations, it is up to the reader to agree or disagree. The author argues that in order to analyze the pictures one has to contextualize them and this becomes the key to their interpretation.

The book has six chapters, each of which opens up a new perspective:

  1. Introduction to the Materials
  2. Artists and Audience: Deir el-Medina and Its Inhabitants
  3. Understanding Ancient Egyptian Aesthetic Value
  4. Constructing Visual Narratives in Ancient Egypt
  5. Animal Fables and Their Purpose
  6. Contextualising the Egyptian Imagination: Concluding Thoughts

There is an Appendix of 84 pages, with colour photos of the papyri and ostraca, a few drawings, detailed descriptions and references. Not only is this catalogue fun to browse through, it also allows the readers to see the evidence with their own eyes. This catalogue is a most valuable instrument as the materials are not easily available otherwise. Beside all the rest, this book tells us a story of archaeological evidence that was dispersed over so many museums and private collections that studying them, today, requires an odyssey. As a result of historical power relations, many small artefacts have left Egypt, and are now in the US, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, … The whereabouts of some of the materials cannot be traced anymore, in which case a modern drawing is all that remains. Writing this book required a lot of patience and dedication, even on a material level.

Missing: the archaeological context

Sadly, an utterly relevant context was lost in modern times. The ostraca and the papyri had once belonged to the vestiges of an ancient civilization, like the remnants of temples, houses, streets, tombs, skeletons, plant and animal remains. It seems that ostraca of different kinds were found in various contexts, such as the ‘Great Pit’, houses, tombs, streets, … but no one took care to note which one came from where so that we cannot know whether those with anthropomorphized animals came from a specific context, as a group or in groups, or were found in different settings. It is believed that all of them came from Deir el-Medina, the ‘Valley of the Artisans’, near Luxor, which can be ascertained for many of these, but not for all, and that is as far as one can get. The animal drawings can hence not be linked, by their archaeological context, to domestic, funerary or religious contexts, let alone to specific owners, their houses, graves, or other possessions, contexts that could potentially have contributed to their interpretability. Had they not been robbed of this context, because of 19th century looting and substandard excavation reports, all of these vestiges could have told their story in unison. The damage done is irreversible.

Deir el-Medina and its artisans

As for the makers of the ostraca, Deir el-Medina was not a run-off-the-mill village, as the author explains. Its artisans were the ones who excavated and decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and that of the Queens. They were highly skilled and exceptional workers who also decorated tombs in their own village, with delightful scenes from every-day life. They were visually literate and educated people. Although the concept of art in contemporary European and American context has undergone a semantic shift – it now conjures up a world of individual expression, something almost transcendental, as the author explains – Jennifer Miyuki Babcock defends the position to call the products of Egyptian ‘craftmanship’ art. Artistic quality was something that was highly sought after and no one can doubt the artistic skills of the painters of Deir el-Medina.


While in search of their meaning, the author notes that the anthropomorphized drawings on the ostraca reflect elite themes and that there are recurrent motifs. One of these, that of the cat and the vulture, can be successfully connected to the myth of the “Distant Goddess”: in this story the god Thoth appears in the shape of a baboon, while the goddess Tefnut has assumed the form of a cat. The former tries to convince the latter to return to Egypt by telling her a story of a cat and a vulture. Depictions of a baboon and a cat, or of a cat and a vulture (or other birds), are thus identified as depictions of fables. The author tentatively connects the story-telling and the ostraca to celebrations during festivals for the Distant Goddess. She points out that although materials from Deir el-Medina have been found in Amarna, no such ostraca were found in the city of Akhenaten (Akhnaton), an absence that she links to the pharao’s religious reforms. The fact that the connection with the Distant Goddess myth can be ascertained, means that other motifs which include anthropomorphized animals in story-like settings, are most probably also connected to animal fables. Some depictions are very specific, such as the hippopotamus sitting in a fruit tree with a crow climbing a ladder, or a hippopotamus and a crow sitting on opposite sides of a balance. These images raise so many questions that it would be easy to convert them into story lines (how did the hippo end up in the fruit tree? why does the crow not fly but use a ladder? is he crippled and if so, whose fault was that? …). Corroborating evidence that these are indeed animal fables, not just funny pictures, is that there seems to be ‘a stock of characters and motifs’ which, as the author states, include:

  1. Elite Animals and Offering Scenes
  2. Chariot Riding
  3. Religious Scenes
  4. Agricultural and Food Production Scenes
  5. Animal Musicians
  6. the Distant Goddess and the Cat/Vulture Fable
  7. the Boy, the Cat and the Mouse
  8. the Hippopotamus and the Crow
  9. Unclear/Miscellaneous


The reconstruction of narratives based on sequences of images found on the papyri turns out to be a challenge, since the materials do not seem to have been organized in a linear way. In ‘Constructing visual narratives in Ancient Egypt’ the reader is introduced into the conceptual world and theories of narratology and their application to visual materials. The author argues that we should look beyond the modern bias, that narratives should be presented in a linear sequence. To investigate how stories are presented in the visual arts of Ancient Egypt, she looks into paintings in tombs which depict the road to afterlife. She incorporates the idea of Assmann, that myths are organized around ‘nuclei’ (larger themes) which could be combined into ‘narrative constellations’ in oral story-telling, and wonders whether the ostraca were ‘icons’ that could be arranged and rearranged, during performances. Tentatively, she points out that in the 18th century, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, lukasa memory boards were used by story-tellers (boards with beads, shells and metal) as a mnemonic device. Could the ostraca have had a similar function? The world of the Ancient Egyptian story-tellers is another lost dimension, but the author, as said, leaves no stone unturned to find relevant contexts and ideas which help us imagine how the texts might have functioned.

Interpreting the social implications of the fables is another topic that is covered, and here too we see how the author gains information from contextualizing the materials. Several ostraca reverse the roles of preys and predators, e.g., they depict mice who are being served by cats. Interpreting such scenes is not unambiguous and the author shows us a range of possibilities. Is role reversal a sign of rebellion against the existing social hierarchy? Not necessarily so, according to Jennifer Miyuki Babcock. She argues that the population of Deir el-Medina had more direct ways to express their dissatisfaction if needed; as evidence she adduces the fact that the first recorded strike ever was a sit-in near the mortuary temple of Ramasses II. She also denies that the pictures with the human-like animals are satirical or blasphemous representations of religious ceremonies. She points out that in the Book of the Dead, mice are presented as divine; the priest is a jackal. Blurred boundaries between humans and animals are omnipresent in Egyptian religion. It is by comparison with other materials from Egypt (Prophecies of Neferty, Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage) and near-by regions such as Mesopotamia and Greece that she finds reason to believe that stories about social upheaval and chaos could well end in a restoration and celebration of existing power relations.


The ostraca and papyri are silent witnesses of the history of human imagination. To unmute them the author contextualized what she saw. The patience and dedication that was put into this scholarly work has paid off; she has definitely shed light on the interpretability of these images and there is a lot to discover in this book. Although the study is focused on a better understanding of Ancient Egyptian materials, it is relevant for a variety of readers. It shows us a road that lies ahead, one that runs in two directions. For one thing, it reminds us that research in fields like Assyriology and Egyptology that helps us interpret drawings on limestone flakes also urges us to deconstruct the myth of the Greek miracle, of Aesops who appear out of the blue. ‘Unmuted histories’ that are the results of archaeological, anthropological and textual explorations, are starting to shed light on the relations between cultures and on captivating literary networks. Historical power relations have created disbalanced views of the past. Contemporary research tells us to revise such views. Meanwhile, creativity and imagination keep doing their work, because subconsciously, when reflecting on this need to bring more balance in the reconstruction of the fragmented history of humanity, the image of the heavy hippo and the light-weighted crow, who struggled to find a balance, comes to my mind. An ancient fable whose original context is clouded is trying to rewrite itself in a contemporary setting, which is what fables do.

For all these reasons I recommend this book.

Caroline Janssen (Ghent University)

Interview with Noo Saro-Wiwa on her recent memoir Looking for Transwonderland | by Elizabeth Olaoye

Noo Saro Wiwa is a Nigerian- British Travel writer who Condé Nast Traveler Magazine listed as one of the 30 most influential women travelers. She was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and raised in England, where she attended King’s College London and then Colombia University in New York. She has contributed book reviews, travel, opinion, and analysis articles for The Guardian newspaper, The Financial TimesThe Times Literary SupplementCity AM, Chatham House, and The New York Times, among others. Although her genre is non-fiction, the keenness of her vision and her ability to look at ordinary everyday realities with an artistic vision makes her travel memoir, Looking for Tanswonderland: Travels in Nigeria, a great reference point in the discussion of narratives set in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. I discovered this memoir while writing my dissertation on the gendered portrayal of Lagos in contemporary narratives and find it fascinating. I asked if Noo would answer some questions on the text, and she agreed. I’m excited to share some of her responses here:

To what extent is Looking for Transwonderland a non-fictional work? Are there fictional elements in the narrative? If yes, can you give examples?
The book is 100% non-fictional. I take great pride in reporting my experiences faithfully. Real life is more interesting than fiction, especially in places like Nigeria. The only times I tweak names or details is to protect someone’s privacy, particularly for safety reasons.

Did you have to change names to conceal identities?
Yes, see above.

I know you write travel narratives. Have you tried or considered fiction?
I’ve considered it, but I find it much harder than non-fiction. Maybe one day.

The idea of a Transwonderland is fascinating, especially considering the linguistic possibilities in the word. Moreso, an amusement park in Ibadan has a name close to that. What exactly did you mean by transwonderland?
Transwonderland is the name of the dilapidated amusement park in Ibadan. My book title is a metaphor for my search for that touristy side of Nigeria, which I wanted to explore as a way of disassociating from the painful memories of my father’s death at the hands of the military regime. But I found that the touristy side, such as Transwonderland amusement park, was often rundown: neglected natural reserves and safari parks, etc.

The memoir says that, “being Nigerian can be the most embarrassing of burdens.” This statement is about Nigerian travelers’ cacophony at Gatwick Airport. Can you discuss this further? How often do you experience this burden? Is it physical or psychological? Has this something to do with the physical location or the attitude of the people?
Nigerians are constantly embarrassed by the failures of our government. Our diaspora contains some of the most successful immigrant groups in countries like the United States. We have so many smart, talented people, yet as a nation Nigeria is not worth the sum of its parts. Decades of poor governance has led to poverty, a lack of education, an increase in criminality, and a mistrust of authority (the latter demonstrated by that cacophony at Gatwick airport). Unfortunately, that’s the image of Nigeria in the eyes of the world. When you tell people you’re Nigerian you can often see the hidden disdain, or at least lack of admiration, in people’s eyes.

I noticed that the extreme religiosity of Nigerians repeatedly features in your memoir. Do you see this as a kind of agency for Lagos’s powerless people or a manifestation of sanctimony ecstasy?
The extreme religiosity is a result of economic failure caused by perennial corruption and structural adjustment policies in the 1980s. Nigerians began to import the ‘prosperity gospel’ from the United States (white Americans invented it) as a coping mechanism. Every society, be it in Europe, the Americas or Asia, responds to poverty in its own way in order to survive financially and psychologically.

Do you think it’s paradoxical that you refer to yourself as a tourist in your own country?
No, tourists can be domestic or foreign. I would say most people haven’t seen the beauty spots in their own countries, which is a shame.

Would you travel to Lagos again? Why or why not?
I touch base with Lagos at least once every two years as I have friends and family there.

What do you detest most about Lagos?
It’s too noisy. Constant music everywhere you go; you can’t escape it. There are almost no public spaces to enjoy quiet contemplation or meditation.

What do you love most about the city?
Like all major cities, it’s big and full of energy. There’s lots going on, always new developments (architecturally, culturally, etc.). Things are always changing.

Taiye Selasi describes Afroplolitans as Africans of the world. Recently, scholars have been knocking heads on the privileged position that tempers Afropolitan narratives. A travel writer fits that description. Do you view yourself as an Afropolitan?
If the definition of an Afropolitan is an African who owns a passport and does a job that enables them to travel easily to other countries, then yes I’m an Afropolitan. There aren’t many such people. Having a British passport puts me in a very privileged position, and I never taken it for granted. I know the struggles that Nigerian passport holders have. It affects their ability to work, study or simply explore different parts of the world.

Are there potentials in Lagos that are not being harnessed right now?
Yes. Every human being has potential, and if the government is not investing in them (through education) then their potential is not being fulfilled. In Lagos – and Nigeria as a whole – there are millions of potential entrepreneurs, astronauts, teachers, lawyers, journalists. But instead they are living parallel lives as impoverished, struggling citizens.

Do you think that the spatial structures of the city (Lagos) are not neutral? Do you think it would have been easier to navigate the city as a man? How does Lagos treat women?
To be honest, it’s hard to answer this question as I don’t live there. I find Lagos easy to navigate as a short-term visitor with dollars in her pocket and an Uber app on her phone. Living there, however, is another matter.

Have you visited any other place that created the same feelings that you had in Lagos? Did any other city present similar precarious situations?
Lagos is pretty unique. I’ve been to massive cities like Manila and Cairo, but their infrastructure always seems slightly better than Lagos. But maybe that’s only because I haven’t seen their poorest areas.

What do you think about the presence of the supernatural in the African psyche as manifested in our movies and literature?
It’s important that literature and movies reflect our psyche – it’s what makes it authentic. The supernatural can be confusing and inaccessible to non-African audiences when production values are poor, but when such themes are explored by talented artists like Akwaeke Emezi, Wole Soyinka or Nnedi Okarafor it’s great.

Elizabeth Olaoye
Idaho State University

Chinua Achebe and the Igbo-African World: Between Fiction, Fact and Historical Representation (Lexington Books, 2022), Chima J. Korieh and Ijeoma C. Nwajiaku (Eds.) | A Review by James J. Davis

During the 1991-1992 academic year, the Division of the Humanities of the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard University, with grant-funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities, restructured its two-semester core course entitled “Introduction to Humanities I and II”. The overall goal was to revise and expand the course content to include in the Humanities curriculum non-western literary historiography and cultural trajectories. Howard, like some other North American universities, quickly decided to include Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as the exemplary novel to represent the wide expanse of African literatures written in English. Project administrators purchased a copy of Lindfors’ Approaches to Teaching Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (Modern Language Association, 1991) for the faculty who would teach a section of the Humanities course. I was one of them. While there is no explicit reference to that work in the volume reviewed here, this reviewer believes that, in many ways, it is a comprehensive sequel to that publication and to the proliferation of other published scholarship heretofore on Achebe’s work.     

After a quite engaging introduction by editors Korieh and Nwajiaku, the volume is divided into three parts. Part I “Chinua Achebe and Igbo-African Realities” includes 6 chapters (essays); Part II “Chinua Achebe and the Politics of Representation” includes 4 chapters; and Part III “Achebe, History, and the National Question” comprises 5. The editors offer the following rationale for the division: “The rationale behind this division is that, although some aspects of the Igbo experience can be addressed in their relationship to African and Nigerian culture, unique contextual circumstances warrant such division” (p. 4). The 15 essays are authored by scholars representing a variety of fields in the humanities, social sciences, theology, and communications. This gives way to different hermeneutical approaches and to a variety of sometimes conflicting interpretations of Achebe’s perception, presentation, and representation of historical facts, hence the subtitle of the volume: Between Fiction, Fact and Historical Representation.  

By all accounts, this volume is indeed a welcome and timely addition to studies on Achebe’s literary works and persona because it takes us from chapter to chapter to a deeper understanding and fresh and new-fangled analyses of his work. Achebe’s efforts to unveil artistically the social, political, religious, male-female relations and the general psychological environment of the Igbo people are lauded, but they are examined critically and comprehensively to offer varying ways of reading and appreciating his artistry. In general, this volume makes a gargantuan contribution to African Studies, Igbo Studies, and cross-cultural literacy. The novice student as well as the seasoned scholar of African Literatures and Cultures will gain invaluable insights from reading the thought-provoking introduction and the 15 elucidating chapters followed by an excellent index of names, topics and themes.

James J. Davis (Howard University)

Eye Brother Horn (Catalyst Press, 2022) Bridget Pitt | A Review by Beverley Jane Cornelius

Eye Brother Horn (2023) by Bridget Pitt, is the story of two brothers who, though devoted to each other, are at odds with the world, each in his own way. Daniel and Moses are the sons of an English Reverend at a Christian mission station in Natal[1] in the mid- to late-1800s. While Daniel, the biological son, experiences debilitating sensitivity to the natural world around him because of a painful empathy with the animals he sees hunted, Moses, the adopted son, feels torn between two cultures without a sense of belonging to either. Both boys dream of travelling to England where each hopes to become his own man. But their patriarchal benefactor challenges their bond and their aspirations.

The novel begins – in Part One 1862 to 1864 Bhejane – with a clash between hu/man and nature when the baby, Daniel, and his carer, Nomsa, survive a close encounter with a rhinoceros: “Two tons of bone and muscle hurtle towards the women gathering grass for weaving. Their grass bundles fly up as they flee screaming” (Pitt 2022:1). Nomsa, with the baby strapped to her back, trips and falls leaving her and the baby helpless with the rhino looming over them. But having lunged at them three times, the rhino retreats. Daniel is unharmed yet forever affected, with “a look of strangeness in his eye, as if he’d been lost in distant worlds” (1).

This opening scene foregrounds not only the tension between hu/man and nature but between all the disparate forces at play here: at Umzinyathi Mission there is an intersection – sometimes a melding, sometimes a clash – of culture, religion, language. For example, while Daniel’s father, the reverend of the mission station, calls their survival of the rhino encounter a miracle, there are other theories amongst the local inhabitants, “including witchcraft, ancestral intervention, and good luck” (2).

These events at Imzinyathi occur within the greater context of British colonialism. The positioning of this local scene within the broader frame of colonialism is illustrated by Cousin Roland, a character who epitomises colonial ideology with his words and deeds, while illustrating – through his mobility between India, Africa, and Britain – the range of the British Empire at the time.

The author forestalls a dominating coloniser’s narrative, however, by foregrounding language from the outset. isiZulu is seamlessly blended into the narrative, beginning with Reverend Whitaker’s moniker, “umfundisi, the teacher” (2) and the way that the boy, Daniel, is spoken about following the incident with the rhino: he is thereafter known as “inkonyane likabhejane: the Rhino’s child” (2). Throughout the book, though explanatory phrases in English at times follow the use of isiZulu, the reader (if not familiar with isiZulu) is left in most instances to infer the meaning without explanation. Thus, blended language is seamlessly incorporated in the novel, giving the narrative an authentic context, a sense of place, time, and culture; as well as making prominent the inevitable entanglement of language and culture, and the formation of a transcultural and/or liminal space in a colonised place. In this context, though, there is disparity and conflict; the novel examines, with this story of brothers, the oppositions inherent in colonial discourse, which “at the very least, […] creates a deep conflict of consciousness of the colonised” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin 2007:37).

The boys are inseparable in their early youth, only becoming aware as they grow that there are differences between them: one is a biological son, the other adopted, one is white and English, one is black and Zulu. This brings into sharp relief in the novel, the division at the time between the white Englishman and the colonial subject, the illogical disparity and inequality, the foundations of which are the “[r]ules of inclusion and exclusion [of colonial discourse that] operate on the assumption of the superiority of the colonizer’s culture, history, language, art, political structures, social conventions, and the assertion of the need for the colonized to be ‘raised up’ through colonial contact” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin 2007:37).

Ultimately, these ‘rules’ will force the boys apart, but not because they are binary opposites of each other; rather, because neither Daniel nor Moses can live by these prescribed rules, each with his own reasons for subverting his expected role. Thus, the novel explores the theme of the ‘in-between’ space, which is occupied by ‘hybrid’ characters in a cross-cultural situation, by deviating from expected or cliched characterisation.

This is signaled early in the narrative – in Part Two 1871 The Python and the Gun – when the word ‘birthright’ “erupts between [Daniel and Moses], like the sudden blast of a trumpet, like a call to arms” (50) in a childish squabble about their 13th birthday presents.

Though Daniel uses the word ‘birthright’ in the argument, subsequently he in fact subverts his role as a colonial Englishman: instead of assuming the guise exemplified by his missionary father or landowner uncle, he clings instead to his ‘birthright’ as a young man born and raised on the continent of Africa. He has an affinity with his natural environment, rejecting patriarchal, colonial culture. He is emotionally sensitive and spiritually curious. Moses is more pragmatic; he is fascinated with science. As the boys grow older, the divide between the adjacent worlds they straddle becomes more apparent: on the one hand there is a traditional African existence with the environment, on the other there is the modern emphasis of change and ‘progress’ that is being imposed by the colonising force.

This divide is brought into sharp focus – in Part Three 1871 to 1876 Evolution – on a visit (with the church) to King Mpande. Here, Moses is immersed in Zulu culture, experiences the heritage he has been denied through his upbringing; he confronts the notion that he can never feel a sense of complete belonging to either the mission station or to the Zulu nation. Instead, he puts his faith in science, eschewing local customs and spiritualities.

Thus, with the goal of pursuing a scientific education in England, Moses withstands great hardship – in Part Four 1877 to 1978 The Silence – while Daniel, contrastingly, is crushed by the injustices of their lives. Through the boys’ respective responses to their mission station upbringing, the novel (reminiscent, perhaps, of Lewis Nkosi’s (1986) Mating Birds, and Farida Karodia’s (1991) A Shattering of Silence) examines the impact of Christian colonial mission stations in southern Africa. Contrasted with their father Rev Whitaker’s zeal is his cousin Sir Roland’s attitude that “the real world is a little different from a mission station” (177). When Roland attempts to break the bond between the two boys, at pains for Daniel to understand that Moses is not his brother, Daniel emphatically clings to his belief that “Moses is [his] brother everywhere,” not only when they are at the mission station (212).

These tensions mount in Part Five 1878 My Brother Everywhere: between the two brothers, between them and Sir Roland, between the various thematic forces in the novel (for example, religion vs African spirituality; coloniser vs colonised; hu/man vs environment). The brothers’ bond is tested by the choice to either give up or go on: to return to their father’s mission station or to continue under Sir Roland’s patronage and eventually acquire an education in England. Moses is prepared to endure saying, “[i]f this farm has taught me anything, it’s that there’s no place in this colony for me. The AmaZulu think I’m a peculiar black umlungu, and the abelungu think I’m an impudent over-educated native” (232). For Daniel, though, endurance becomes impossible. He is in physical agony while on the hunting safari, in Part Six 1878 The Black Imfolozi, because of his empathy with animals whose fear and pain he feels – physically – when they are hunted and shot. Here Pitt juxtaposes magical realism, African Knowledge Systems (AKS), and African spirituality: Daniel describes his “body-jumping” (72, 134, 263, 307), during which he seems to enter and feel the animal’s pain, as something almost unbearable. He seeks help from a powerful sangoma. He is predisposed to accept the intervention of African spirituality from the ‘mystic’, having witnessed his mother’s healing through traditional medicine when he was a child (she was cured with the leaves and bark of the isibhaha tree). This particular sangoma is a specialist who, he is told, is “a doctor who enables the ancient spirits to speak to you with the whistling voices of the birds” (272). She explains how Daniel could free himself of his ability/affliction through ritual. Ultimately, overwhelmed by pain and injustice, Daniel takes matters into his own hands – in Part Seven 1879 Eye Brother Horn –with devastating consequences.


In tracking the boys’ trajectory from childhood to early adulthood, while highlighting the effects of colonialism and of Christianity in the region, there is also a mapping of the ecological effects of colonial land use.

Pitt’s environmental concerns are the golden thread in this text. Though not overt, the environment is the dynamic backdrop to this bildungsroman.

Throughout the novel – from the opening scene where women gathering grasses are accosted by an angry rhinoceros, to the final paragraphs in which a dog chases a sandpiper, and the gift of clay animals is given – elements of the natural environment are a touchstone. The “more-than-human” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin 2007:71) is considered from multiple perspectives to show the effects of colonial enterprises on the landscape, and the subsequent effects on traditional, indigenous lifestyles.

As they travel across Natal to reach Sir Roland’s sugar estate, for example, they witness how much of the land is under crops of “coffee, cotton, and sugar cane” (194) where “[y]ou can almost hear the march of the sugarcane as it consumes ever widening tracts of grassland and forest to grow more sugar,” (194). They come across small traditional villages – umuzi – with “rising mounds of beehive huts surrounded by small fields of corn and vegetables” that are affected by the “pressing of the English farmers around them” and where there is the worry that, “[s]oon there will be no more place to graze our cattle” (195).

Felling trees to make way for sugarcane on Roland’s estate, Daniel considers how “the stumps and brush will be burned, the land will be ploughed and all traces of that chattering web of former lives will sink beneath the sugarcane” (210). He wonders: “does this stump remember being a tree […] does the earth remember the feel of the elephants’ feet?” (210).


Eye Brother Horn is a compelling examination of the effects of colonisation on people and the environment, that is, on the human and the ‘more-than-human’; as well as an exploration of the life-changing impact of Christian missionary interventions in Natal. With its portrayal of brothers whose fates subvert stereotypically expected roles, it questions the in/ability to intervene in human and ‘extra-human’ lives and is a call to more conscious and empathetic interactions.

Bridget Pitt (2022) Eye Brother Horn | Catalyst Press | ISBN 978-1-946395-76-4


Beverley Jane Cornelius is a lecturer at University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).


Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, Tiffin, Helen. 2007. Post-colonial Studies: The Key Concepts (second edition). New York: Routledge.

Karodia, Farida. 1993. A Shattering of Silence. Johannesburg: Heinemann.

Nkosi, Lewis. Mating Birds. New York: St Martins Press.

Pitt, Bridget. 2022. Eye Brother Horn. El Paso: Catalyst Press.

[1] Natal is today known as KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), a province of the Republic of South Africa.