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Es’kia Mphahlele: Father Come Home

(Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1984)

Es’kia Mphahlele believed that the regeneration of African consciousness is essential to real African development and progress. African consciousness arises from the norms and values inherent in the traditional way of life. These values were marginalised under colonialism and apartheid when African people were forced to adopt Western norms and values. As a result they developed a divided consciousness and became spiritually and psychologically weakened.

In order to regain the pride, dignity, strength and independence of the African spirit, it is necessary to return to traditional values. As African people have lost the context that gave rise to these values, regeneration of the African consciousness now depends on the formal articulation of traditional values. And this is what Es’kia Mphahlele has provided in his philosophy of Afrikan Humanism. In his articles he sets out the tenets of Afrikan Humanism and in his stories and novels illustrates the struggle to maintain African values. A study of his writings, therefore, will lead to an understanding of a humanism that is essentially African.

And his novel, Father Come Home, in presenting a community clinging to vestiges of African spirituality and culture and struggling to assert its dignity and self-esteem in the face of exploitation and prejudice, provides the reader with an opportunity to learn about Afrikan Humanism. Through the protagonist, Maredi, Mphahlele presents a boy’s struggle to restore within himself the pride, dignity, independence and strength that is his true legacy as an African.



Afrikan Humanism


Two Main Tenets


1. Belief in the Supreme Being and the Ancestors


The interdependence of the individual and the group, the glue that holds the community together, is reinforced in:


  1. i.belief in the Supreme Being and the ancestors.

In his essay, “Notes Towards an Introduction to African Humanism,” Mphahlele writes:


We believe in the Supreme Being. But because we are

closest to our ancestors, we have reverence for them.

They are our intercessors. They know the pain and joy

of living, so they are our main point of reference in our

relation to the immediate world around us. The Supreme

Being is a poetic conception whose presence we take for

granted, but which exists as an all-pervading vital force

in the mountains, rivers, valleys, and the plant and ani-

mal kingdoms. African oral poetry is also witness to these

forces, to this interconnectedness of human, animal, plant

and inanimate environments and the cosmos.[1]


In Father Come Home, the Mashite people, who still retain the traditional culture, believe in “a Supreme Being, whose presence they felt where human relations were harmonious, in animal life, in plant life, in the mountains and valleys and in the elements: water, air, light – everywhere.” (36). And for the Mashite, the ancestors are intercessors to the Supreme Being. “They believed that their ancestors – kinfolk and ancient leaders – were always living and present to guide them into the paths of decency, of goodness, of harmony among people. They prayed to the Supreme Being through the ancestors” (36)

Mashabela, the poet-sangoma in the novel declares, “I feel the ancestors around me and through them I feel the crush of the wisdom of the seasons and feel an almighty presence in the air in everything that grows and breathes, everything on the surface of the earth and above, whether it seems to have life or not.” (40)


  1. ii.rituals and worship bring the community together at times determined by human and natural events. “For their way of worship, the people of Mashite had no church, because they had no church-day like Sunday.” (36). All the land was sacred and they conducted their rituals among trees, at rivers and other natural spots.



2. Family and Social Relationships

Afrikan Humanism emphasises the interconnectedness of human beings living together in groups – family, community, society – in order to share and care for one another. It is this sharing and caring environment that helps one to grow into the person that one becomes. The group is the matrix out of which the individual develops and in harmonious groups the aims and goals of the individual are one with the aims and goals of the group.  


The African begins with the community and then determines

what the individual’s role should be in relation to the com-

munity. These are features of African humanism. It is a

communal concept, and there are no individual heroes within

the world it encompasses. Man finds fulfilment not as a sep-

arate individual but within the family and community.[2]



In Father Come Home, the emphasis on kinship is inherent in:


i. Terms that indicate connection, e.g., “Child of my brother, (3), ‘my nephew, his son, (18) mogadibo (wife of my brother) (46) ‘My brother, son of my father!’ (82)

Even where there is no blood connection, people in the village refer to one another in terms of kinship. They call one another sister, brother, mother, father, daughter, son, etc. The poet-sangoma, Mashabela, refers to Maredi as ‘our son’ and ‘a son of the people’ in his song of welcome. (76). The community is the extended family.


ii. Support that members of the community provide for one another.

Africans did not develop separate welfare institutions because they believed in their responsibility for one another’s welfare. Uncle Namedi takes responsibility for Maredi, Dineo and Hunadi. (17); Strangers help Maredi on his journey to find his father (60 – 70)


iii. Sharing of suffering and joy, e.g. the community’s celebration of Maredi’s return to Sedibeng, the feasting, singing and dancing (75 – 77)


iv. Dance and song that foster community spirit.

“Fired by both morula wine and the spirit of the hour, male dancers formed a circle and did their steps to accompaniment of whistle blowing and drumbeats. Women did their own dancing too in another part of the homestead.” (78)


v. Oral literature, poetry and praise songs that bind the community together, e.g., Mashabela’s poem-songs tell of their history (20-23, 76-78) Hunadi’s song (55) and other songs are communal ways of sharing experiences and attitudes. (20-23)


vi. African idioms and expressions e.g.  

  • Aretse
  • Do not come into my mouth (Don’t interrupt me) (47)
  • there was a bad smell somewhere in his behaviour (he is guilty of something) (58)
  • child of my brother has been vomited by sleep and if sleep spits you out that means you have quarrelled with it. (Maredi’s bad dream gets him out of bed early) (3)