In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting a book written and illustrated by female artists, The Ultimate Safari. The book is currently featured in our exhibition, Artists’ Books and Africa, which is open until September 2016 and is located in the National Museum of African Art.
The short story “The Ultimate Safari,” by Nadine Gordimer, was originally published in 1991 in Jump and Other Short Stories (London: Bloomsbury). This new edition of The Ultimate Safari is distinguished by its illustrations: twelve lithographs drawn by Aletah Masuku, Alsetah Manthosi, and Dorah Ngomane. Mark Attwood at The Artists’ Press initiated and produced the book in collaboration with Tamar Mason, co-director of the press.
Mason was instrumental in this book project, having previously done research among the refugees in the Kruger National Park area. Through interviews Mason learned of the perilous journey— the subject of Gordimer’s “ultimate safari”—and shared the information with Attwood. Coincidentally, Attwood had recently read Gordimer’s “The Ultimate Safari” and the idea for the book emerged.
Mason selected Aletah Masuku, Alsetah Manthosi, and Dorah Ngomane to illustrate the book. Although not artists, they had actually made the dangerous journey through Kruger National Park, the subject of The Ultimate Safari. When Mason read the story to them, they were surprised and quite moved at the accuracy of the story Gordimer told; it was as if she had taken the journey herself.
The Ultimate Safari: The Story
Written in the first person, this story tells a ten-year-old girl’s wrenching story of her family’s flight from Mozambique to South Africa, escaping violence in their home country. Set in Mozambique, Kruger National Park (on the border of Mozambique and South Africa), and a refugee camp in South Africa, the story addresses the plight of displaced people who have left their homes in neighboring countries to find better lives in South Africa.
In The Nature of Heritage: the New South Africa, Lynn Meskell explains this reality: “The desire to find work in South Africa remains desperate, and today increasing numbers of illegal immigrants from Mozambique and Zimbabwe have fled their homes and braved the park in an effort to escape war and poverty. . . The novelist Nadine Gordimer has written emotively about the ordeal of one desperate family making the perilous journey. . .” Gordimer had first-hand knowledge of the plight of refugees in the Kruger Park area from an earlier assignment there with the BBC.
Meskell, in The Nature of Heritage, discusses the plight of Mozambican and Zimbabwean refugees who cross Kruger National Park to enter South Africa. “One can scarcely imagine the desperation that causes people to navigate such landscapes. Few refugees return to their homelands to recount their ordeals and many relatives wait years, even decades, for any word concerning these border crossings. It is a grim situation that South Africa, and more specifically Kruger, consistently acknowledges yet does little to ameliorate.”
Throughout Gordimer’s story, the young narrator’s naïve perspective and honest voice emphasize her uncertainty and disorientation during her ordeal and heighten the reader’s connection with her.
That the drawings are similarly youthful, done in vibrant colors by untrained artists, adds an emotional visual element, perfectly complementing the affecting story.
About the Artists
Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991. She was involved in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle for decades and used her writing as a window through which the people of South Africa could see themselves. As a result of her efforts against apartheid, many of Gordimer’s works were banned in South Africa, but she refused to leave the country and lived and worked there until her death.
The three women who made the illustrations are not trained artists and do not work as artists. Masuku, Manthosi, and Ngomane now work as seasonal laborers on farms near their homes in Welverdiend, outside Kruger National Park’s Orpen Gate. The book includes a short biography of each woman, detailing her own journey from Mozambique through Kruger National Park into South Africa. None of the three has returned to her home country, and each experienced some tragedy or trauma along the way. A man in Manthosi’s group was lost in the Park, and she carried his three-year-old daughter for the remainder of the journey. Ngomane and her family were arrested near Phalaborwa Gate and jailed in Mozambique (they eventually came into South Africa via Swaziland). Masuku recalls how her uncle’s daughter fell prey to a lion in the Park.
The life stories of the three women refugee-artists amplify the irony of title, “the ultimate safari.” Gordimer’s story together with the artwork of Manthosi, Ngomane, and Masuku are powerful expressions of this desperate immigration story.
There is a poignant postscript to the production of this book: colorful wrist watches decorating the end pages. Why? Alsetah Manthosi loves wrist watches. When she was in Johannesburg to work on the book, she took the opportunity to buy some wrist watches. She then made the print of watches, which Attwood and others could not resist using even though it was extraneous to the story. “The watches are aspirational objects of desire and a marker of time, making it the perfect beginning and end to the book.” 
The Artists’ Press. “The Ultimate Safari.” http://www.artprintsa.com/the-ultimate-safari.html.
DNAIndia. “Gordimer on her Ultimate Safari.” http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/1204999/report-gordimer-on-her-ultimate-safari
Meskell, Lynn. The Nature of Heritage: the New South Africa. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
New Internationalist. “The Ultimate Safari by Nadine Gordimer.” http://newint.org/books/fiction/caine%20prize%2010%20years%20chapter%20one.pdf
Dorah Ngomane working on her illustrations, The Artists’ Press website
 “The Ultimate Safari” short story, http://newint.org/books/fiction/caine%20prize%2010%20years%20chapter%20one.pdf
 DNAIndia, “Gordimer on her Ultimate Safari,” http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/1204999/report-gordimer-on-her-ultimate-safari
 Meskell, Nature of Heritage, page 85.
 Meskell, Nature of Heritage, page 86.
 The Artists’ Press, “The Ultimate Safari,” http://www.artprintsa.com/the-ultimate-safari.html.
 The Ultimate Safari, artists’ biographies.
 Mark Attwood, personal communication, August 6, 2014.