The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena by Elsa Joubert
By Alex J. Coyne | On January 29, 2024 | Comments (0)
The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena by Elsa Joubert has been called one of the most important novels to emerge from the African continent. Published in 1979, the book has been translated into thirteen languages and was adapted to screen for the film Poppie Nongena (2009).
Author Elsa Joubert was known for her travelogues, poetry, news features, and groundbreaking novels. She is considered part of the Sixtiers literary movement, which also included authors Ingrid Jonker, Breyten Breytenbach, and André Brink.
Here’s more about the author, and why The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena is a story about struggle more readers should know.
About Elsa Joubert
Elsa Joubert (October 19, 1922) was born in Paarl, Cape Town, South Africa. She first studied for a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree, working as a teacher in Cradock. After this, she achieved her Master’s in Dutch-Afrikaans Literature.
From 1946 to 1948, she worked as an editor for the lifestyle magazine Huisgenoot.
Her first travelogue is born from a trip to the Egyptian Nile with her husband (1948). The results of her trip were published in 1957. Joubert mentions during an interview that her initial research at the African Library in Johannesburg brought her closer to Africa and its people.
We’re Waiting on the Captain (1963) is Joubert’s debut novel, inspired by the story of a murder trial she had read about in The Transvaler. Joubert’s husband translates her next book The Die at Sunset (1964/1982) from Afrikaans into English.
The 1964 travelogue The Staff of Monomotapa explored Mozambique the book was cited as an inspiration to Nelson Mandela (2002). During a phone call to the author, Mandela would say the book was the first time he had seen an Afrikaner “who considered the possibility of a partially black-and-white government in South Africa.” Reportedly when Mandela met Graça Machel, he knew only of her homeland Mozambique from what he had read about in Joubert’s book.
Joubert continued writing full-time, becoming known for her travel stories documenting more trips, often via ocean, to Uganda, Cairo, Angola, and Indonesia.
A South African government tribute praises Joubert for “lifting the veil” of Apartheid’s difficulties and injustices with her writing. She begins the Afrikaans Writers Guild, chairing it during the mid-eighties.
Collected short stories (Milk, 1980) appeared the same year as The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena’s translation. In 1995, she published The Long Journey of Isobelle: this time, telling the 100-year story of an Afrikaans family and their own struggles. A Lion on the Landing: Memories of a South African Youth explores Jourert’s childhood.
Joubert’s last work of fiction Twee vroue (Two women) published in 2002, with two books contained in one volume. The first tale, Pampas, explores the remnants of Boer-colonies in Argentina seen during her travels with her husband in the eighties.
Elsa Joubert passed away in June 2020 from COVID-related complications. Before her passing, she wrote a letter asking the government to relax lockdown restrictions: “Humanely speaking, we are in the last weeks and days of our lifetimes. Us living in homes or institutions, however wonderful, are totally cut off from our family members.”
A New York Times obituary remembers Joubert as an “Afrikaans writer who explored black reality.”
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The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena
The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena was first published in 1979. Since publication, it has been translated into thirteen languages, with the author translating it into English herself. From 1982 to 1984, the story was performed as a stage play (co-written with Sandra Kotzé).
The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena tells the story of Poppie, who is considered an illegal citizen once her husband, Stone, becomes too ill for his job. The journey was a rare look at the circumstances and often difficulties associated with township life – including the harsh consequences of Pass Laws.
Unusually, the novel explored themes that had hardly been touched upon by other Afrikaans, white authors of the time – much more typical of the Sixtiers-movement which Joubert was considered part of.
The Longer Story of Ntombizodumo
Poppie’s story was inspired by Joubert’s domestic assistant, Ntombizodumo Eunice Msutwana-Ntsata. Joubert wrote that she started the story after, one evening, Ntombizodumo told her of “a night of terror in the townships.”(Interview, Red Roses/Rooi Rose) The real Poppie’s identity stayed hidden and was only revealed in 2009. The same year, the tale was adapted to screen for Poppie Nongena.
Elements of Ntombizodumo and her life story were intertwined through The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena. Both were isiXhosa and spoke Afrikaans, with Ntombizodumo having learned the language as a child – but was reportedly discouraged from speaking it by her own elders.
As part of Joubert’s research, she would have lengthy conversations with Ntombizodumo. She would also, according to LitNet, travel to the townships herself – and sat in during legal proceedings investigating the 1976 Soweto uprising.
According to The Citizen, surviving family members raised concerns that Ntombizodumo was not adequately compensated for the use of her life story. Her daughter Roto said, that her mother was “an unsung hero who had been humiliated by the apartheid government.”
A LitNet biography says, “Elsa gave half of her writing royalties from the sales of The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena to the woman who she heard the story from, with which the lady bought herself a home in the Transkei and gave her two children an education.”
An IOL article says that the author and publisher “lost touch” with Ntombizodumo after her death in the nineties. The story concludes by saying the movie’s producers have set up a meeting with family members to discuss the adaptation and its consequences.
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Poppie Nongena, the 2009 film
The 2009 film Poppie Nongena stars Clementine Mosimane in the titular role, with Anna-Mart van der Merwe and Chris Gxalaba in supporting roles. When Stone (Chris Gxalaba) is unable to work, Poppie becomes an illegal citizen of South Africa who must maintain her family life with much difficulty.
It has become one of the most acclaimed Afrikaans-language films to date, winning a total of twelve awards at the Silwerskerm Festival. Watch the trailer with English subtitles for Poppie Nongena here.