The Mermaid Woman in the 21st Century
This study explores the way oral narratives concerning the mamlambo, a seductive, perilous mermaid woman, said to be able to grant wealth at a terrible price, have developed and changed in twentieth and twenty-first century South Africa, shaped by their shifting historical, socio-political and economic contexts. The focus of this study is the Transkei, the most economically deprived region in the Eastern Cape, the poorest South African province. Thus, accounts of the mamlambo and the practice of ukuthwala, a powerful medicine for wealth said to involve entering into a pact with the mamlambo, have acquired a particular resonance in this area. This paper investigates the influence this specific regional, historical, socio-political and economic milieu has exerted on perceptions of the mamlambo and, consequently, on stories describing her nature and role in individual's lives. Specific oral narratives concerning those said to have entered into a pact with the mamlambo are analysed, particularly those concerning the medicine man Khotso Sethuntsa, a renowned seller of ukuthwala, who was closely associated with the mamlambo. In conclusion, this study evaluates current South African attitudes towards the mamlambo and ukuthwala.
Keywords: Mamlambo, The mermaid woman, Oral narratives, First peoples, Indigenous knowledge systems, Socio-political and economic contexts
Prof. Felicity Wood
Senior Lecturer, English Department
Other research interests include literary explorations of the socio-political, which is connected, in part, to her interest in aspects of South African oral narrative. She has published articles dealing with this issue and her PhD was also on this subject.
Felicity Wood has had a number of her own short stories published and she is the Fort Hare English Department's Creative Writing course co-ordinator. She is also interested in poetry teaching at first year level. (This often involves teaching poetry to students who have never studied a poem before.) She has co-published a book on this subject with Dr Brian Walter, formerly of Fort Hare.