Reality and Fantasy in the Contemporary African Experience: An Analysis of Sello Duiker’s The Hidden Star.

HOW TO CITE THIS ESSAY: Adeojo Mosunmola Omowunmi- ‘Reality and Fantasy in the Contemporary African Experience: An Analysis of Sello Duiker’s The Hidden Star’. Retrieved from;

An essay written by Adeojo, Mosunmola Omowunmi



Since she found the stone everything has become strange, out of the ordinary, like an ever-changing story that never ends.’

In Madan M. Sauldie’s ‘The Prisoners’ of God, the author believes that, ‘…there is a constant tug of war between the inner world and the outer world- the inner one intrinsically strong but stout challenged by the even stronger outer one.’ In lieu of this, if one is to discuss reality and fantasy in the contemporary African experience using K. Sello Duiker’s The Hidden Star, one will undoubtedly note that fantasy is a realistic part of the African existence. What Africans see, live by and over generations have imbibed may to science and the Western world be illogical. However, they form an integral part of the African system so much that this stronger outer world influences the introspective of a typical African.

Reality in literature is a reflection of the society in a literary work in terms of issues, the ills, as well as the events. One may ask if discussing the salient issues, like apartheid in South Africa is what reality in the South African novel is all about. Sello Duiker takes a different turn in discussing the South African society through the eyes of little children in a communal setting; this will be further addressed in the essay. Writers of early contemporary South African novels like William Plomer discussed ‘race relations’ as in the novel Turbott Wolfe (1925), Alan Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope (1953), etc. Like J.M. Coetzee, Sello Duiker breaks away from, ‘South African tradition of realism and naturalistic description.’

It is important to perhaps look at certain issues surrounding the contemporary African experience; issues that reflect that the modern African is not far torn from his ancestral roots and beliefs. These beliefs include life after death, the circle of life, birth, death and rebirth, supernatural being as well as supernatural forces. Also, Africa is known as the Third world because of the intense poverty eating away its essence and this is a part of us we are battling with as developing or underdeveloped states. The advent of the Europeans is one similar to African nation-states but also similar is the religious practices and culture which has been dubbed ‘paganism’ and ‘traditional religion’ by ignorant whites. Despite the fact that we had no written literature before the advent of the Europeans which made us to be referred to as cultureless, drama, a genre of literature is said to have jointly originated from Greek and African religion.


In order to understand this discourse, one must discuss some salient words. Fantasy is, according to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary simply, ’a pleasant situation that you imagine that is unlikely to happen.’ It further states that fantasy is ‘a product of your imagination.’ Ultimately, fantasy is something illogical, inapplicable to science and a product of our imagination. However, in the African society, and with regards the novel in question, fantasy is a pigment of imagination with a totality of reality and believability. Despite the porous and corrosive effects of technology, the contemporary African has continued to thrive on the ‘illogicality’ of his culture and beliefs. Another salient word is ‘reality’ which is according to the aforementioned work, ’the true situation and problems that actually exist in life, in contrast to how you would like life to be.’ Evidently, reality contrasts with the dictionary meaning of fantasy. It is not what one wishes for or imagines but what actually happens in a real world, whether one likes it or not.

Experience can be defined as ‘events or knowledge shared by all members of a particular group in society, that influences the way they think and behave.’ This probably is the best definition of the word in relation to the topic. With regards Sello Duiker’s The Hidden Star, a particular group who share the same experience is the children. Perhaps it is because of the innocent nature of children and their untainted heart that causes them to be the only qualified party to be able to speak with and hear animals speak.

‘Only children are supposed to hear animals talk…

First, one needs address the concept of reality in the contemporary African experience. The question, ‘what is reality to the modern African?’ should be asked. Reality is him waking up each morning to the realisation that he is an ex-convict of the British colonial experience. Reality is him being reminded of his ‘cultureless’ past and his poignant present. Reality is him knowing each day that his society is one of the poorest in the world. Therefore, one will see how the theme of poverty is discussed in the novel.

As in Hard Times, Phola is a place whose very existence reflects poverty. It is like the Coketown in Hard Times where,’ Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in…’(pg 67) and brick would have been red if smoke had allowed it. Perhaps, the author is not as raw as Dickens in describing the poverty in the society but, it is evident that the people in Phola are at the far end of the ladder of success. Shanties and not houses is where people reside,’…the tiny homes’ as they are called by the author. Even the animals are affected by the poverty- ridden society. As in Sizwe Bansi is Dead where cats who are supposed to eat mice eat insects because the mice are eaten by the people, the dogs are, ’thin and their coats are mangy…’ The people are not left out, Nolitye for one needs to save candles to use at night, ‘because the candle is about to burn out and it is their last one.’ Also, her lunch at school is always peanut butter sandwich and sometimes, they; she and her mother have to eat bread with, ‘hot sugar water.’

From the foregoing discussion, it is obvious that the living condition of the people is unfavourable. The fact that they have to use candles every day shows that the issue of power is something they have to deal with as in most African nation-states. Furthermore, their habitation is unhealthy and hazardous, thus, when there is a fire in one shanty, others have to beware of their belongings,

’Everybody knows what to do when they hear ‘Fire! Fire! ‘- save their clothing and bedding first.’

The effects are disastrous as ,’…six families are homeless and a cloud of smoke hangs above Phola.’ Power outage is obviously a point of concern in Third World countries of today and the novel relays this. In another sense, the author seems to posit that light is a constant part of man, one he cannot live without. Therefore, the fact that the people have to depend on candle lights shows that their situation is pitiable. They are in a state of total flux. Their night is day in the underworld; a presumably cheerless place;

‘It is morning in a remote, boulder-strewn valley…they look around silently, in awe of the valley’s beauty.’

One may ask if there is any hope for a people living where the underworld is better and whose nights are spent with only a flicker of light- the candle.

According to a critic, it would be boring for the same issue to be discussed by the same people in different ways for several generations. In the same vein, K. Sello Duiker’s The Hidden Star is a South African novel not discussing the apartheid. It is a novel based on magical realism. However, we are able to feel the society of the South Africans that filled with poverty, class- structured but with an impoverished people living communally. These proletariats work for people in ‘The City of Gold’. Phola is a region in Johannesburg, so is Siswe Street. The difference between both places i.e. Phola and Siswe (where the Zwanes live) is glaring, the first being,

‘…a place with nothing to brag about except that all the shacks face the morning sun and the inhabitants for the most part live together in peace.’

And the second simply,

‘…unlike the streets in Phola.’

In Phola, their only source of joy and hope is in the morning sun they bask in but as each night arrives, they have to endure the painful flickers of candle light and looming darkness.

The communal sense of the people is seen in their readiness to protect each other from evil and villains. From Nolitye’s point-of-view, her friends Four Eyes and Bheki stick together with her during fun times as well as perilous times. Their relationship seems to propagate the saying; a friend in need is a friend in deed. Again, when there is fire, the community helps the families to quench it despite the fact that those families are left homeless. The novel graduates from a simple children’s tale of triviality to a story of serious issues presented in folklore manner. We see the discourse of search for identity, struggle for survival and evil versus good. The involvement of adults brings into the novel some seriousness.

HOW TO CITE THIS ESSAY: Adeojo Mosunmola Omowunmi- ‘Reality and Fantasy in the Contemporary African Experience: An Analysis of Sello Duiker’s The Hidden Star’. Retrieved from;

The search for identity is an issue popular in contemporary African literature as our experience of colonialism has caused us to be a hybrid of both systems. This is in the sense that the African is torn between what he is, what his background is and what colonialism has made him to be. In works like Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead; Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood amongst others, this theme has been discussed. In relation to the text, we see an African who believes in the supernatural, witches and wizards, magic, black magic, birth and rebirth, retribution in life, life after death and so on. All these contrast with Western civilisation which sees these issues as barbaric and illogical. Sello seems to posit that Westernisation cannot affect the beliefs of the African like the young educated African man in Death and the King’s Horseman. Thus, the novel’s plot and certain themes show that the author is not ready to acclimatise with the logical world but to delve into the spiritual.

In this Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, Nolitye struggles to find a balance in the magical world and the physical world. She is torn between believing her ‘dead’ father and mother over the woman who she lives with, shares emotions with and who she believes is her mother. From the author’s point-of-view, there seems to be an overpowering of the spiritual, that ultimate truth can only be found in this, ’illogical’ reality and not in a tainted physical world.

‘Nolitye feels tired. She never imagined that there were so many different powers at work in the world, some good and some evil, some evil but in the guise of good.

Here, Nolitye obviously has to take a stand. In later parts of the novel, one finds out that she accepts the superiority of the spiritual and the fact that good and evil exists though with a thin line in between. This will lead to the discussion of good and evil.

The novel’s stand on the issue of good and evil is seemingly to say that there is no ultimate bad or good. One can also conclude that, as aforesaid, good will always triumph over evil despite the fact that life is not black and white but several shades of grey. With respect to this, one can see the magical stone as both a tool of good and evil. Nolitye uses it to get more fatcakes to sell and make money for her mother. Taking a close look at this, one can say it is extortion of ignorant people who unknowingly buy fatcakes not prepared by man. Another question to ask is if these fatcakes are not magically taken from someone else. Also, although Rotten Nellie causes trouble in class, Nolitye has done badly by making them croak like frogs. Despite the fact that she is punishing them for their prior wrongdoings, the action may be seen as selfish. Therefore, she makes up for the bad;

‘The good must cancel out the bad, she learns; also a balance between good and bad is part of the responsibility of having the stone.’

Furthermore, the characterisation of characters further elucidates this point. The characters are in a world where evil and good interplay. On the one hand, MaMtonga is a reflection of the black that makes up the several shades of grey; she is the reverse of the senility that constitutes old age as she is full of black magic and the most powerful of the Night Riders. Nolitye has to use magic to fight the evil represented by MaMtonga and the Mean One; similar to the villain in Harry Potter called You-know-who. Perhaps, we can at this point note the universality of the human experience. The stone is to be used for the good of mankind by a little girl; an adult however desperately craves for it for selfish and disastrous needs. Nolitye becomes a ‘marginalised child’ trying to balance reality with fantasy.

Before discussing the novel as a magic realism, it is important to address it from the point of view of quest literature. Quest literature is about a hero who is on a journey or quest with the sole aim of victory. This was prominent in Romance literature of the romance age and in the mediaeval times of Geoffrey Chaucer as is seen in Canterbury Tales in The Knight’s Tale. In contemporary England, it is noted in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness although, it is adulterated. The heroine, – although the question of the presence of a hero and not a communal hero can be asked- Nolitye (The Keeper of Stone) is destined to save the world from evil. This quest is not the damsel-saving one but involves a supernatural girl on a journey in a world different from her own. Although like other children who can talk to animals, she is able to communicate with Nomakhosi, see the green-eyed snake in MaMtonga’s keep, visit her parents in a ‘dream’ and meets with Noka, ‘Queen of the River Spirits…’ who shows herself to,’ …only deserving people.’

According to M.H. Abrams, magic realism is a weaving of,’ …an ever-shifting pattern, a sharply etched realism representing ordinary events and detail together with fantastic and dreamlike elements, as well as materials derived from myth and fairy tales.’ On the one hand, the novel is a romance as it presents life as we would have it be in a picturesque and vivid manner. On the other hand, it is a realistic novel, presenting the world as it is. Happiness is as in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge; ‘…an occasional episode in the general drama of pain.’ Unfortunately, this is life as we know it, a world of pain and problems. These problems need to be solved by the main character, Nolitye who lives in a shack; a realistic place.

It is important if the novel actually presents life as one would have it or manipulates romance literature. The presence of fairies or nymphs like Nomakhosi, and of fiends like Zim show that the novel plays on the rational mind. But, this mysterious aspect of life plays side by side reality. The question of what reality really is can be asked as Nomakhosi tells Nolitye,

’Life is full of mystery. Don’t be fooled by what you think you see.’

One may also ask if fantasy is so distinct from reality because although Nolitye believes people may think she is crazy if she tells of everything that has happened to her, the fact remains that a thin line is what separates fantasy from reality. Like in the movie Merlin the underworld is a hole on the face of the earth in the novel. This significantly shows that the physical and spiritual are interchangeable. Therefore, Nolitye is able to travel in her dream as Alice does in Alice in Wonderland.

Through the plot, elements of fantasy can be noted. Animals like dogs and donkeys talking are reflective of ‘fabulative’ literature as in Animal Farm. This is obviously not a natural phenomenon but could actually be seen as a didactic move by the writer to show the innocence and purity of children. Also, the talking hare, Vlunda seems to remind one of the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. During her meeting with the Queen of the River Spirits, her clothes remain dry despite being in water. Again, the hippopotamus helps her cross the river and even communicates with her, this is obviously fantasy. The stone, an inanimate object also speaks to her; this is not feasible in real life.

In this novel, ‘magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment.’ With reference to an online source, Professor Matthew Strecher believes that magic realism is, ’what happens when a highly detailed realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.’ The novel is set in the simple Phola,’…a very ordinary place to live.’ where a hole leads to the underworld. There, they encounter Zim,’…a large hairy man-so tall that he has to stoop to fit in the hut…’ she also sees her mother, who is kept in a giant egg,

‘Nolitye’s mother sleeps, curled up like an unborn baby.’

And her father who has been turned into a large baobab tree is saved by her. All these seem quite hard to believe.

Some characters in the story violate the rules of nature. As in MaMtonga who takes the form of Four Eyes’ Aunt Vera and Sylvia who takes the form of Nolitye’s mother, Thembi. They turn into their real selves when their real name is mentioned. Also, Nolitye floats in the air with Nomakhosi when she goes to spy on the gathering of the Night Riders. Lastly, she uses the stone to make more fatcakes so as to get more money for her ‘mother’. Although Thembi, the ‘mother’ of Nolitye is like a normal person living in Phola and working in the city, she is actually a transformed Night Rider whose real form is later discovered.

Furthermore, in relation to magic realism, the novel draws,’…upon the energies of fable, folktale and myth while maintaining a strong contemporary social relevance.’ By implication, the novel can be seen as a contemporary novel with an ancient undertone. For instance, the myth of ‘The Healer of the Road’ otherwise known as dung beetle is mentioned. Its role is significant in that it helps Nolitye and the others find their way back home. A folk song is sung for it called, Unqonqothwane. Also, Vlunda the hare tells a fable of ‘why crocodiles bury their eggs…’ and the famous fable of the hare and tortoise is ‘acted’ out by Nolitye and the hare, Vlunda. In the end, Nolitye wins, just like the tricky tortoise with her smartness. Also, the mention of the elephant graveyard reminds one of an Elephant Graveyard in the movie; Lion King, it is depicted as in the animation, a desolate place, devoid of reasonable life. In page 78 to 79 of the text, what would be considered as the ‘myth’ of the Stone is told to Nolitye. She is acclimatised with this ‘truth’ in order to be able to understand the nature of the quest. Therefore, the essence of folktale and fables in the African setting is depicted; the novel draws reference from these ancient intricacies of the African setting.

One must align with the fact that like Gabriel Garcia, one of the premiers of magic realism, does in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the magical aspect of the world presented in the novel is revealed. The supernatural world is made to blend with the natural familiar and realistic world. A ‘sharply etched realism ‘is employed to relay ordinary events together with ‘dream-like’ or unrealistic events. Thus, in page 56 of the text, there is a vivid example;

‘On the outskirts of Phola some waste disposal men are loading four mobile toilets…Nolitye and Bheki are on their way to Bheki’s house with the magic stone.’

Set in a patriarchal society, the novel tries to draw on the superiority of the womenfolk. In essence, the powerful people although some are good and others bad, are females. The males are presented as power drunk, using power to oppress like Ncitjana and Zim; the ordinary men described as irresponsible, knowing of great things but incapable of doing anything( as is the case of Ntate Matthews and Xoli who cannot save himself.)

According to a critic, man’s life is filled with unhappiness; this is the reality he deals with. Happiness is illusory, fallacious; ’…is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain.’ ;with reference to Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. In relation to the text, the people of Phola are an unhappy people living in a place bereft of happiness. One may ask if happiness is real as the children, whenever they hold the magical stone have joy. Evidently, their joy is momentary as they have to confront the Spoilers or the evil forces in guise of Ncitjana, Zim and MaMtonga. Momentarily, they gain happiness in the purple stone; what does this tell of the world? In the end, the happiness and peace they seek for their world is found in the stone. Through the return of the stone to its original place, light overtakes the underworld;

’ A burst of light shoots up from the sacred stone like a comet.’

‘Knowledge that has been obscured, like a hidden star, has been restored to you. But those dark days are to be no more,’

Through vivid description, which displays gothicity, the author is able to discuss the fantastic aspect of the novel. However, the author is not intrusive; this is according to a critic, authorial reticence. There is no credible explanation of the events described, neither is there an expression of views by the characters in the novel. This is also an element of magic realism. The story is told from the perspective of a young girl but in a third person narrative; it is omniscient but not intrusive, rather, the narrator is indifferent to the events in the novel. Rather than comment when illogical and fantastic things happen, the,’…story proceeds with ‘logical precision’ as if nothing extraordinary took place. For example, when Ntate Matthews hears dogs speak, the dogs are rather cool about it and Ntate states; ‘it was nice meeting you all.’ rather than be in a bewildered state.

Again, the novel is a criticism of the society presented. It criticises a society of social imbalance as in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. This is evident from the prologue where it is stated that Phola is far from the society of the rich, ‘…far from the quiet suburbs where one knows one’s neighbours by name and never sees them.’ It is instead a place filled with labouring parents, working in the City of Gold, slaving for a few selected rich. The essence of communalism is however something the Bourgeois lack. People in Phola know themselves, they care for each other, share their fears and problems together and in time of need, they are not far to reach. This is reflected in Ntate Matthews’ action in looking for the lost boy, together with other men of the neighbourhood after the fire incident. This is further imbibed by the children as is evident in their joint effort to help Nolitye.

As aforesaid, Sello Duiker’s The Hidden Star is partly a romance literature. It thrives on,’ the relatively far-fetched, implausible and escapist prose narrative.’ There is also a ‘…struggle between realism and romance…’ as from the novel, the reader is accosted with wonder which is an inevitable fact in romance literature. However, the romantic aspect is parallel to the realistic part of the novel, none overrides the other. In contrast to the underworld where Nolitye and the rest arrive from, the real world,’ …the township with its dusty streets…’ is what they miss. Despite the insurgence of poverty and unkind social conditions, ‘They’ve missed the township, because it is home.’ Home is reality; it is the place they know, no matter the deprivations abounding in it. Although the underworld is blissful after the power of the stone is wrought, they cannot stay. It is not reality, it is not viable. Home, Phola to be exact is not comfortable but, since man according to the existentialists defines life and gives meaning to life, by implication;

…home is never far away when you believe in it.’

HOW TO CITE THIS ESSAY: Adeojo Mosunmola Omowunmi- ‘Reality and Fantasy in the Contemporary African Experience: An Analysis of Sello Duiker’s The Hidden Star’. Retrieved from;



Abrams, M.H. (2005) A Glossary of Literary Terms U.S.A:Wordsworth Cengage Learning

Dickens Charles (2004) Hard Times Barnes and Noble Classics

Fugard Athol Sizwe Bansi is Dead

Trevor, James (1986) English Literature from the Third World New York: Longman York Press

HOW TO CITE THIS ESSAY: Adeojo Mosunmola Omowunmi- ‘Reality and Fantasy in the Contemporary African Experience: An Analysis of Sello Duiker’s The Hidden Star’. Retrieved from;