The legacy of Thomas Mofolo

The legacy of Thomas Mofolo

Tsepiso

Sesotho is a language full of beautiful proverbs and idioms of expression, and among them is the quintessential:

Monna ke ‘mokopu’ oa nama (A man spreads like the tendrils of a pumpkin)

Excuse the pun but the figure I am referring to this day bears the name ‘Mokopu (Pumpkin)’ and his influence on the literature of the world has spread to all the corners of the world. His work has been translated into more than seven languages, and there are more translations of his work than any other author in Southern Africa, and he has been given the rightful title of “The Father of the African Novel”. I guess that there is one thing that a lot of us Basotho lack; the right spirit of giving respect where it is due, that is, acknowledging the contribution and impact the arts in this country have in influencing the minds of the citizens and informing the politics of governance in this kingdom.

More times than less, we honour authors and artists from other countries than we do our own and, what we seem to forget is that this mountain land gave birth to some of the best minds and pioneers in different fields of study and the pursuit for knowledge. A man noted by the world as the pioneer of the African novel should by right be taught in schools from primary level, but due to a spirit of iconoclasm and a penchant to destroy images of individuals sacred to the history and the progress of this land, many vital names and individuals whose lives served as beacons for the masses are forgotten.

This occurs until some stranger from a foreign land comes across such a forgotten figure and rekindles the flame that lit the fire in whose warmth those children of the past who are mothers to the present generation used to bask in.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the promotional presentation of the release of the publication ‘Translating Mofolo’ edited by Professors Chris Dunton of NUL and Antjie Krog of the University of the Western Cape.

Present were the members of the Mofolo family, Ntate Stephen Gill who serves as the Morija Museum’s curator, Ntate Gerard Mathot of Family Art and Literacy Centre, Professor Chris Dunton of NUL, Dr Limakatso Chaka of NUL, Ntate Percy Mangoaela who proved to be an exceptional Master of Ceremonies, dignitaries from Alliance Franḉaise where the presentation was held, Ntate Meshu Mokitimi, and a host of other scholars, artists, teachers, creative individuals, and respectable Basotho from varied spheres and occupations. All of us had come to witness the re-kindling of the spark that lit the flame which grew into a roaring blaze and, as the caption on the invitation programme states:

A Trophy or Living Legacy?

Literary icons and other famous persons are not of great value to a nation (or the wider world) if they are merely placed on display as one would do with a trophy; rather, each generation must deeply engage with and re-assess the contribution which such figures have to the broader legacy. As Basotho celebrate 50 years of their re-emergence as an independent nation this year, it is appropriate to remember and honour icons such as Thomas Mofolo who pioneered new forms of literature. We do so in the hope that valuable lessons will be learned, and that others may be inspired to similar greatness.

Mohale o tsoa maroleng.

In the words of one of the leading figures in the project, Professor Chris Dunton from the National University of Lesotho, the main motivation lies in a question raised by Professor Antjie Krog of the University of the Western Cape, in which she raised the paradoxical statement, that is, ‘talking about not talking’ borrowed from C. Booth’s Listening Rhetoric which in a lot of ways I believe borrows from the philosophies of tolerance as lived by King Moshoeshoe I.

The professor revealed the significance of translation and how it at the end of the day helps world communities to build understanding. We live in a world where circumstance or choice force us to live next to individuals or communities whose languages we do not understand, and this issue of misunderstanding causes a lot of problems when it comes to dealing with conflicts that naturally come up where people are neighbours.

Of significance in his speech as well was the mention that Thomas Mofolo was revered by such great American figures as William Edward Burghardt du Bois and Gertrude Stein both of whom held him in high regard. Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka remains one of those books that have been translated into many languages and have been cherished by readers from days long gone to the present day.

Doctor Limakatso Chaka’s presentation (titled New Insights into Mofolo’s 2nd Novel, Pitseng) largely focused on the beauty of Mofolo’s language and its multiple layers of meaning in the novel Pitseng, and it covered such aspects as the autobiographical nature of his (Mofolo’s) novels, the landscape narratives he wrote which were largely patriotic in nature, and which to a large extent revealed elements of economic progress, individual independence, and women empowerment, his role in Leselinyana la Lesotho, and the love narrative in Sesotho.

One found in the Doctor’s presentation the exposition of those elements about this great author that the reader would easily miss if they are not made aware of them. In the paper she read, one realises that it would indeed be a loss to this generation and the next if the meanings in the works of Mofolo are not revealed to their full complexity in terms of the salient themes explored. That we have been independent for 50 years means that we should transform into people who value their past greats.

In Pitseng, there is a feeling of progress, a movement forward from the old into the new era of colonialism. Post-colonially speaking, there should be a movement forward into a new era where the works of pioneers should be given their rightful places on the pantheons of heroes. That the writer taught the world the first words should be noted and the meanings thereof should be explored for all to understand them.

That he was a great penman and jack of all trades and master of all of them came to the attention of every member of the audience when Ntate Stephen Gill (Curator at the Morija Museum & Archives) took the floor. In the presentation titled The Man, the Writer and His Contexts pointed to the fact that the quest to understand a writer is a process that demands the understanding of his background, and as is the case with Ntate Mofolo’s story; understanding the writer’s clan and ancestral roots helps one who comes as a critic or analyst to fully know him.

The writer’s daughter fondly known Rakhali ‘Mapheko was introduced to those present, and from that point on, Ntate Morojele revealed the multiplicity of the talents of Thomas Mofolo. From teacher to astronomer, carpenter to editor, labour recruiter to being a political activist, the list of the professions Mofolo the quintessential Mosotho writer occupied is long and endless. Mofolo is an author respected even by the Communist Party in the days of the old Soviet Union, due to his multiplicity of talent and occupation; he was a figure they respected as ‘the man for all seasons’.

In essence, the skies he watched as Abraham did were in every way what came to influence the generations of writers in Africa and the world that came to read his work and translate it into their own languages. His words would go on to develop into many languages from the original one he wrote in, and in real terms, his success internationally is of Abraham proportions.

Associate Professor P. V. Shava and Lesole Kolobe’s paper The Mofolo Effect and the Substance of Lesotho Literature in English covers such salient issues as the reciprocal and symbiotic nature between the author and the traditions within which he is socialised. It went further to show the uniqueness of Lesotho literature as a national literature and as an integral part of African literature. Having been translated by such greats as Leopold Senghor in works such as Chaka, the form and the sensibility of Mofolo’s literature in English has carved distinct niche in world history; and though erroneously classified as South African, Lesotho literature has its own element of uniqueness.

It is perhaps the earliest literature of its form in Africa, the autonomy stemming from the fact that the socio-political contexts within which it was birthed mark it as different from the other literatures of the world. Notably influenced by the French missionaries who gave the Basotho the first orthography (officially registered in 1906, and many years older than the Bantu version of South Africa which was registered only in 1959 by the Apartheid government) with which to transcribe words, the first lessons into Western education, and the publishing of the first newspapers and works of literature by giants like Thomas Mofolo.

There are constant transnational and cross-border interactions between the Basotho and their other Southern African fellows, but it seems, the words of Thomas Mokopu Mofolo have gone on to constitute what can be deemed as an ‘effect’ on the psyches and consciences of writers across the world such as Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and others. The professor and his fellow writer’s words go on to make a wish that the current generation cultivates a more active and dynamic reading culture in appreciation of the precedent fictive role played by Ntate Mofolo. That the novel is dying as a mode of literature should be curbed, that is, we should work hard towards reviving it, so plead the two scholars, one from Zimbabwe, and the other from Lesotho.        

After the words of thanks by Ntate Mofolo’s granddaughter, the MC, Ntate Percy Mangoaela, capped the day with a plea to all the youth to rejuvenate the literature and the arts. In his own words he thus spoke, “We need our language now more than we did in the past… because we have come to a point where we are polarised as a nation.” This wisdom is further fortified by the MC’s suggestion that an institution to promote the arts and the literatures of Lesotho should be established, and also that the division in the two Sesotho orthographies should be addressed. With those words we parted ways, but before doing so, signed our names and left our contact details after a successful first presentation of The Mofolo Edition, Tydskrif Vir Letterkunde (a journal published by the University of Pretoria) organised by Friends of Morija Museum & Archives hosted at Alliance Franḉaise Hall, Maseru.

The pumpkin spreads, and when its season passes, it leaves behind seeds that will grow into other pumpkins that will spread far and wide even in fields foreign and far away from the original field it sprouted from. And in dedication, I pen a translation from a brief poem inspired by the reverend Thomas Mokopu Mofolo:

Nama Mokopu, rakalla Motaung! Leraka ha le shoe, le namalla feela, le re siela lithotse morao re leme! Se thoasitse selemo, ha re uteng Mokopu mobung… (Stretch out your legs Mokopu, spread far Motaung! The climbing tendril dies not, it merely prostates itself, and leaves seeds behind for us to sow! The spring has sprung, let us sow seeds of Mokopu into the soil…) 

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