A feisty American nun, the Pig, and a naïve teenager in South Africa …what could go wrong?

A Nun and the Pig is a rich cocktail of ripping yarns, poignant stories and rollicking tales written in the style of a Bill Bryson title. It should appeal to enthusiasts of travel, modern-history and adventure writing.

Based around Nelson Mandela’s hometown of Umtata, in the 1980, this book describes how as a naïve teenager, from suburban England, I found myself oscillating between moments of obscenity and absurdity, as I struggled to accept the constraints and challenges of apartheid.

In 1980, Nelson Mandela was a persona non grata in his home region of Transkei.  By 2020, he was openly celebrated, particularly in Mvezu, his village of birth.

My companion for many of these adventures was a feisty American nun, and her temperamental VW Beetle, or the Pig, as it was affectionately nicknamed. Life was seldom dull in the company of nuns in this little-known area of Africa.

 Leaving behind my mundane job as a milkman in the leafy villages of Surrey, I soon found himself smuggling handicapped black children out of South Africa, under the noses of the border officials, so they could receive better care at a mission school in the black homeland, or Bantustan, of Transkei. When South African security personnel, at a hospital for black patients, barked over a tannoy that they wanted to question me, I was grateful to find that two nuns came to my rescue, sneaking me out of the backdoor and speeding me off before I caused more trouble.

A former milkman and naive teenager, from the leafy suburbs of Surrey, about to find himself confronting the obscenities and absurdities of apartheid South Africa.

Confidence and belligerence were dangerous bedfellows in the politically charged atmosphere of 1980’s South Africa. Before long, I found things nearly escalating out of control as I smuggled Communist black liberation literature from of the newly created state of Zimbabwe into South Africa. My movements, however, aroused the deep suspicions of the truculent Afrikaans border officers. They smelt a rat. A nice juicy one. But the rat was never found. Nearly, but not quite. That scrape had been way, way too close.

A Nun and the Pig offers readers many lighter moments too. I describe, using humour, the time I unexpectedly found myself with a microphone thrust in my hand, acting as the Master of Ceremonies at a hotly contested black beauty pageant. What was a badly groomed white hippy-sort doing judging at black beauty contest? How did that happen?

South Africa
Transkei was an oddity, a pseudo-independent country, devised by apartheid as a Bantustan for Xhosa people. (A Nun and the Pig: Tales from South Africa, Amberley Publishing)

On another occasion, after being duped by the mischievous American nun, I ended up the only white person dancing with and in front of seventeen distinguished Thembu chiefs.  The nun looked on giggling, as I reluctantly and clumsily flew the flag in the interests of Anglo-Thembu relations.

The reader is also treated to a bit of old fashion adventure, in which I seldom appear to be in control and often oblivious to the risks. Whilst getting lost in the foothills of Lesotho turned into nothing more than a bruising but jolly escapade, things turned a great deal more serious in the Zambian bush. Here, near one of Robert Mugabe’s freedom fighter camps, I was warned, in no uncertain terms, to make himself scarce or face the consequences. How did I get away? What else did the Zambian bush hold in store that day? Why were the locals so keen to talk about help from the Russians and Chinese?

With the aid of numerous contemporaneous photographs, illustrating the book from beginning to end, I attempt to offer an intimate and sensitive insight into the life of the black rural and urban communities in the pseudo-independent state of Transkei, a dumping ground for people categorised as Xhosa. Sometimes, I appear to have the confidence of the local Xhosa people I meet, as friendships are forged. The reader gets to see me on the local township at drinking sessions, meeting the tsotsis (bad boys) and exchanging alcohol for region’s highly sought-after marijuana (dagga).

South Africa
In the town or country, malnutrition was constant risk to the old and young in Transkei. (A Nun and the Pig: Tales from South Africa, Amberley Publishing)

But life in these parts was precarious, particularly for the young and old, where malnutrition and disease were prevalent. When I step away from my frippery and adventure, I try to show the reader, in visceral fashion, the fate of the vulnerable, and the compassion of my friends, the nuns.   

And then there is the elephant in the room. Nelson Mandela. Absurd as it may seem today, the region’s most famous son, was seldom mentioned. Even then, you chose your company carefully. He was largely a persona non grata in his hometown of Umtata. Why was this great statesman, a leader of the black liberation movement so ignored while apartheid still dug its claws in? Why were his cousins, the Matanzimas, the talk of the town instead?

A Nun and the Pig will have you laughing and crying on consecutive pages.  The tales come full circle in the final pages when I return to Umtata and the new Rainbow Nation, forty years after my adventures, to reunite with old friends; some alive, others taken by time and deeply tragic events, that are so typical of modern South Africa.

Treive Nicholas's new book A Nun and the Pig: Tales from South Africa is available for purchase now.