Bheki and the Magic Light.
The big day has arrived, and Bheki's house is flooded with electric light for the first time. He remembers the time, many years before, when his father gave him a light that really did seem to be magic. The torch brought him many friends and a new status in the kraal, until its beam began to fade. Bheki's journey to bring power back to the magic light tested him to the limit but ended in magic of a different kind. It gave him a belief in himself.
At the end of the story, Bheki explains how batteries work and how electricity is generated and brought into homes across the world.
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Bheki is a grandfather now, about to show his family the benefit of finally being hooked-up to the electrical system so they can have an electric light at night instead of candles. It reminds him of something which happened to him when he was a kid. His own father gave him a magic light when he was young. It was a torch (a flashlight to US readers!), and it fascinated him. He had no idea how it magically produced a stunningly bright light which outshone, with a steady light, any candle he had ever used, and which made him a celebrity in his village.
Prior to this magic coming into his hands, he had been largely without respect and all but friendless, feeling left out of everything because he was young and small amongst Zulus who are definitely not height-challenged. He had no possessions to speak of, and no status. Suddenly, he has a light in his life – literally, and he’s thrilled by his status and the interest people show in him because of it.
But the problem with battery-powered torches, just as with wax-powered candles, is that the power source, being non-renewable, weakens and the light fades. Eventually it goes out. It’s the same with false status, isn’t it? Bheki was just as befuddled by this dying of the light (against which he didn’t quite rage, but near enough!) as he was by there being light in the first place. He did the smart thing, though – he took the scientific approach and experimented with the magic light to see if he could persuade the light to come back. Nothing that he tried worked, and once again he was back in the old position of lacking status, his popularity fading along with the light from the torch.
Bheki decides upon a course of action which a young boy has to be brave and resourceful to undertake. He’s going to find out what’s going on with the light, but in the end, he discovers something different, and more important. It’s not something about the light, but about himself, and it lasts longer than any battery.
The beauty of this gentle, but adventurous story lies not only the welcome trip outside the US which it provides, bringing us into acquaintanceship with lives which are very different from our own pampered and privileged existence. The value of the book lies also in the scientific perspective too, whereby it goes into some detail- not too much, though - about electricity, how it works and where it comes from - and how dangerous it can be when mishandled. I found that refreshing and useful for younger children. I thoroughly recommend this story. I must confess a desire for a sequel, too - you know, the one which tells us where the light goes when you switch it off…
BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN CHILDREN'S BOOK
This book was first published by Penguin Books SA. The high quality of writing and artwork make this book a treasure. It accomplishes what the best children's books do: It tells a compelling story while providing many educational details.
The book opens with Bheki as a grandfather about to turn on electric lighting for the very first time in his home. His three sons, their wives and children are all there to celebrate the event. A pot of mutton curry, bubbling with spicy aroma, is simmering on the gas stove. Janet Hurst-Nicholson describes events so well, the reader is swept up in the detail, experiencing the event vicariously while learning about the culture.
As a child, Bheki was a herd boy in South Africa. The Book Description states: "If you watched Nelson Mandela's funeral service at Qunu you will recognise the similar rural setting in the story. (Nelson Mandela was also a herd boy)".
In Chapter 2, Bheki remembers back to a time in his childhood when he thought of electric light as magic. He remembers a simpler form of electricity than the light being switched on in his home, however. His father who worked in a city factory and was sometimes away for months at a time brought him back a torch one day. This torch was lit by simply pressing a button, without the use of fire. Bheki considered this magic. Bullied by other boys, showing off the torch also brought him sudden popularity.
Bheki's father told him not to waste the light, to only turn it on when absolutely needed. Bheki gets swept up in impressing others in his village, however, after his father returns to work. To his complete horror, he quickly uses up the power in the torch. Desperate to learn what gives power to the torch, so that he can repair it, Bheki braves a wicked storm and wild animals in the dark of night to find the isangoma, or "the diviner to whom everyone turned for help." Bheki reasons that "The isangoma can ask the amadlozi, the spirits of the dead ancestors..." about the workings inside the torch.
When a young girl rushes into the isangoma's hut, desperate for help to save her little brother who's believed to have fallen into a ravine, the diviner enlists Bheki's help. Because he's small, something that he was previously bullied for, he's able to squeeze into a narrow space and save the little boy. Through this experience of becoming a hero, Bheki learns that he doesn't need a torch to feel important. Saving another's life shows him that he can be valuable exactly as he is.
In the last chapter, we move forward in time, to the same time period as Chapter 1. Bheki takes his grandson to the library to learn about electricity. Bheki explains, "Electricity only seems like magic because we can't see it...But we sometimes see the sparks which come from it." Bheki explains natural electricity in the form of lightning, static electricity, how the torch in his childhood story lit up through electricity created by a battery, and the electricity produced by dynamos. His grandson is fascinated by it all.
BHEKI AND THE MAGIC LIGHT is beautifully written. The author is adept at describing each scene in such vivid detail, the reader has a sense of history moving forward, inventions being made, and children being swept up in the wonder of it all.
Modern technology is juxtaposed with traditional rural life through the medium of this story created by a Durban author.
When Bheki, a grandfather, switches on electricity for the first time, his thoughts are transported to his rural childhood in Zululand, when his first encounter with a magic light greatly enhances his stature among his peers.
But an act of bravery shows young Bheki that his self-esteem is not dependent on the magic light.
The mystery of the magic light is unravelled at the end of the story through a detailed and informative explanation of electricity that is intended to enlighten the young reader.
Dianne Stewart, The Mercury, Durban, November 21 1996.
Electricity is not the sort of thing you want your kids to find out about the hard way, such as poking their fingers into a wall socket.
Local writer Janet Hurst-Nicholson's delightful little book 'Bheki and the Magic Light', published by Puffin Books is just the sort of book parents should be giving to their children during those years when the house becomes a place of exploration.
The story revolves around Bheki, and the torch his father gave him. This elevated the young Bheki in the eyes of the community (most of whom had never seen a torch) until the batteries run out!
The tale, which has Bheki on a quest to bring life back to the torch, ends with a good but simple explanation of the magical workings of electricity.
METRObeat, Durban June 1999.
The Big Day
"When, Grandpa?" pleaded Bheki's young grandson.
"Hush," scolded the child's mother.
Bheki Mkhize smiled, but he would not be hurried. Tonight was a very special night. He sat quietly in his favourite armchair, his tired old eyes watching for the last fiery rays of sun to fade into darkness.
His three sons and their wives sat patiently around the dining table. It was spread with a flowered tablecloth and laid with spoons and dishes ready for the celebration. Bread had been cut into chunks, and a pot of mutton curry simmered on the gas stove. It bubbled out a tempting, spicy aroma.
His grandchildren were settled in a circle on the faded carpet. They grew restless, but still Bheki waited.
When at last it had grown too dark to see across the room, Bheki finally agreed, "It is time."
Slowly he got to his feet. The children were silent as they watched the shadowy form of their grandfather move towards the door.
Bheki lifted one arm and reached out his hand. His fingers felt the smooth coldness of the switch. He pressed it down.
The room was flooded with bright yellow light. Electricity! He had waited so long for this moment. His eyes filled with tears as his grandchildren clapped and cheered.
His grandson leapt up to try the switch for himself. The light went on and off, on and off. "It's magic, Grandpa," he cried.
"Almost," agreed Bheki, and memories of the magic light of his own childhood came rushing back.