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“We Will Meet Again, PRIN-CI-PAL!” – Read Part 2 of an Extract from Nkosinathi Sithole’s Debut Novel, Hunger Eats a Man

Hunger Eats a ManNkosinathi Sithole’s debut novel, Hunger Eats a Man, is set in the village of Ndlalidlindoda – “Hunder-Eats-a-Man”, and tells the story of Father Gumede, aka Priest, who loses his job as a farm worker.

The loss of income and ability to provide for his family leaves Priest enraged and he swears to cut off all ties with the church and the community, determined to make a living by any means necessary.

In the previous extract, Priest marched to the school to give the principal a piece of his mind, after his 15-year-old son told him that all the children must bring R50 to school to pay the privately paid teachers and the security guards.

In the following excerpt, shared by Penguin Random House South Africa, Priest confronts the principal and a conversation about rich and poor ensues.

Read Part 2 of the extract:

* * * * * * * *


He knocks violently at the door and makes his grand entrance after he is invited in by a voice that disapproves of the way he has knocked. Seeing that it is Priest, the principal feels remorse for the way he has shouted at the representative of God and begins to apologise.

      “I came here not as a priest but as a dissatisfied citizen. I came here as an unhappy taxpayer,” Priest says in a voice that the principal does not recognise.

     The principal directs a surreptitious glance at the man in front of him and sees a priest all over. He sees an embodiment of the colour black. He sees Father Gumede. But who has just spoken to him? The principal looks again and realises that there is nobody else. Whoever has spoken to him has used the respectable voice of Father Gumede. He tries to figure out what the matter is, but to no avail. So he decides to start from the beginning, as he knows it. “Good morning, Father Gumede.”

      “Yes. A good morning indeed, Mr Hadebe,” Priest responds in a grim tone and the principal realises that one way or the other, he has displeased the gods.

     It pains the principal to consider what wrong he may have done. He can find no answer. He feels like someone who was too drunk the previous day to remember what wrong he may have committed. He soon realises that whatever the fault is, the only way to find it out is by asking Priest.

      “Can I help you, Father Gumede?”

     Priest is still busy trying to organise his words. There is too much to say and last night he did not sleep for trying to rehearse his speech. Now all his words have deserted him. But prepared or not prepared, he has to speak: “There is too much crime and unemployment is rife in this country. Why should common people suffer like this when those on top have everything? Hhe?”

     The noise the children are making, the teachers loitering around not doing their work, all come between the two of them. The principal is frightened. His weak mind seems to have stopped working. But his memory is better, so he still recalls what Priest has said. “Yes, that is true. There is too much crime and many people are without employment.” He feels inferior as he speaks.

      “I happen to be one of those who are unemployed,” Priest says triumphantly, as if being unemployed is the best thing that can befall any human being.

      “Yes. Let’s hope things will change for the better. It can’t go on like this.”

      “This is not a matter of hope, Principal.” Priest’s voice is high. “It is too serious. Maybe you do not know that, because you are working and have money to take care of your family and yourself.”

     Priest’s words hurt the principal. It is true: he has a good job and is able to support his family. He also knows that leading a healthy life among people who do not is sometimes viewed as some kind of weakness or betrayal. But what is he supposed to do? Must he quit his job and add to the statistics?

      “Now, these children you are teaching here,” Priest starts after a little hiatus, “where are they likely to find employment?”

     The principal wishes he could take this question as a rhetorical one, but it is not intended to be so. A look in the visitor’s eyes tells him that an answer is needed. “You said you did not come here as a priest?”

      “Yes. I’m nothing but a dissatisfied citizen.”

      “But still I want to ask you a question that may require your biblical knowledge.” The principal does not give Priest a chance to respond, “Do you think that God loves everybody equally? The rich and the poor, the leaders and the led?”

     Priest is taken aback by this question. He wants to leave God out of this. What does he know about God? What does he know about anything any more? Yet he cannot say that to the principal. So he decides to misunderstand the question. “Are you asking that because you are rich and I am poor?”

      “No,” the principal stammers, “I was just … I was just … asking.” He wishes he could withdraw his words. “I’m sorry.”

      “Do you know how it is to be poor?” Priest shouts.

      “You know,” the principal starts sadly, “I am not very rich myself. I know how it feels when you want something and you cannot afford it.”

      “But you want us to pay for unnecessary things like the security guards and the privately paid teachers? Where do you think we will get the money from?”

     Only now does the principal realise the reason for Priest’s surprising and disturbing visit and, now that he is aware of the cause of his predicament, he begins to feel better. “The security guards and the privately paid teachers are very important, Father Gumede. There is a shortage of teachers and the government cannot afford to pay for all those we need.” The principal feels strong again. He begins to feel again the clothes he is wearing, something he ceased to do as soon as Priest came in.

     ”But how do you think we will pay if we do not have the money? Why don’t you tell the poor souls to go home, plough the fields and wait for God to bring rain?”

     The situation is tense in the principal’s office. Priest is getting angrier and angrier while the principal is now less afraid to speak his mind. This is Father Gumede, who knows nothing about how the school is managed.

      “You were not in the meeting where we agreed about this. Now what do you want me to do?”

      “I want you to tell me where am I supposed to get the money to throw into the water?”

      “I think it’s better for you to leave now, Father Gumede. We have wasted a lot of each other’s time and it looks like our conversation is taking us nowhere.”

      “I’m not satisfied yet. I’m not leaving until I am satisfied. I am still as unhappy as when I came in here.”

     Priest’s refusal to leave makes the principal realise that he must take drastic measures if he is to free himself from this man who is so keen on torturing him. As he is busy thinking about the way out, the bell, which marks the end of the current period and the beginning of the new one, rings. The principal takes some papers and prepares to leave, intimating to Priest by a motion of his hand that he should do likewise.

     Priest contemplates the practicality of refusing to go and decides that it would be in vain. He stares straight into the eyes of the principal with such doggedness that the other man flinches. Priest is happy to see that. He is making his point.

      “We are not finished yet!” he says grimly. “We will meet again, PRIN-CI-PAL!”


* * * * * * * *

Read the first half of the excerpt:

Book details

Extracted from Hunger Eats a Man by Nkosinathi Sithole (Penguin)


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