The Path Which Shapes Us is a novel by South African novelist Lazola Pambo. The book follows the life of the protagonist, Clifford Malothi, an orphaned boy that was adopted by a kind man, Edward Malothi. Clifford is a middle-class, “born free” boy, or someone born after 1994 when apartheid ended in South Africa. It is written from fifteen-year-old Clifford’s perspective, so the book is primarily intended for an audience of more or less the same age.

The book culminates with a battle between the Nasty Boys and the Street Disciples – the two rival gangs in the book. Clifford, inspired by the writings of Sun Tzu, and being ever against the use of violence and death in attaining a desired outcome, convinces his uncle to end the feud in a different, non-violent manner, setting an example of what Pambo tries to exemplify in his book.

Pambo uses his book to make various social commentaries and provides a sober reflection of life in many contemporary South African townships. In the book, he describes Clifford as struggling with the idea that his neighbourhood is no longer a safe place to live. He touches on issues of police negligence, the lack of infrastructure and maintenance in townships, bullying and the prevalence of drugs in schools. The focus, however, is predominantly on issues of gangsterism and violence. Early on in the book Clifford stumbles upon the bodies of two of his classmates that were murdered and the book develops from there to tell the tale of two gangs in Clifford’s township. Clifford gets drawn into the saga to the point where his life becomes endangered and he ends up facing a near death experience twice in one day. Pambo paints a very dark, albeit honest, picture in many instances and descriptions of a girl being kidnapped and raped to death may be very upsetting to young audiences.

The book also mentions a lighter side of life in terms of young love – again, definitely written for a younger audience – and dreams and aspirations. It speaks about small inspirations in life and living life to the fullest. The author contrasts having dreams to squandering one’s potential and getting drawn into a life of drugs.

Touching on the topic of being orphaned, the author provokes the reader into thinking about orphans on a deeper level. Clifford remarks, “Except for showing pity to homeless kids by arriving at hospitals or orphanages with sad looking faces and throwing blankets and all kinds of baggy clothes in black garbage plastic bags, I kept wondering what else we could really do for orphans.”

Through the use of simplistic language, The Path Which Shapes Us is a quick read which is hard-hitting at times. It is a potential good read for young people in school who may be faced with similar situations or someone interested in learning more about life in South African townships.

About the Author:

Lazola Pambo, a student at the University of South Africa studying Languages and Literature (Creative Writing), has been published in The Kalahari ReviewAerodromeNew CoinLitNetNomad’s ChoirIndiana Voice JournalBlack Magnolias Literary JournalAji Magazine, and BlazeVOX.

Excerpt from The Path Which Shapes Us:

“It seemed as if nobody cared about people’s lives. Nobody had an idea that I would lose Uncle, the one person I loved and cherished in the world. How could people be so cruel? Walking around school with their chests pushed out delighting themselves with death? That was what the battle was about. It was not a friendly soccer match. It was going to be a gang fight, a celebrated war that once happened in Evansdale which led to the death of sixty people. It was clear that this time the body count would rise by a larger margin. Times have changed and deadly guns have been developed. I did not need any proof for that. I saw so many modern guns at the sanctuary that an entire army battalion could be fully armed.”

Excerpt from The Path Which Shapes Us:

 Young people at large have got so much potential but the majority of us tend to waste it on drugs, drugs, drugs and more drugs. In most cases, one becomes a victim of circumstances. There are cases of growing up with violent and abusive parents, who drink away their lives. Of course this is not an excuse. One has to dream big no matter one’s life circumstances. Nandi understood that and she was not afraid to tell me. When life blesses us with rare people in our lives who see life deep into things, we have to cherish them.

“What is your dream?” I asked.

“Almost everything,” said Nandi. She paused for a moment and then laughed. “I would love to go to Greenland and chill with the Eskimos.” I could not help but laugh. I had never heard such an absurd dream. “Or become the first girl pirate, ruling the shores of the Caribbean.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Never be afraid to dream remember,” she added.