Dira Bereng: farewell gentle giant

Dira Bereng: farewell gentle giant

At the confluence of many rivers they built the largest dam in Southern Africa, and the term ‘confluence’ stuck more than all the other words about the construction of the largest hydroelectric dam project deep in the Maloti Mountains of Lesotho.
The man, the most eloquent tourist guide I have ever come across, delivered details of the dam with the finesse of the cognoscenti, imparting to me and a throng of other schoolchildren from various schools salient knowledge on the construction of the Katse Dam reservoir.

They were laying the foundations then but already the site was a hub of activity as construction trucks crawled up and down the steep sides of the gorge. The noise, however, could never drown the voice of our jovial guide: Ntate Dira Bereng, the gentle guide that that taught a teenage boy and his peers of the meaning of the term ‘confluence’.
Our lives are rivers, and the knowledge we gather shall be pooled into large dams if we are as open-hearted as we should be, and it shall form mere puddles and ponds if we do not share it as generously as we should, or, as the guide I first saw in the mid 1990’s imparted it to the armies of simple children from mere church schools and those sophisticated ‘kids’ from kindergartens and private schools in a manner so unbiased that we could all equally taste of the waters from the well of knowledge spewing forth his gentle lips.

Lesotho was a changing country back then, and the tourist guide from the Katse Dam project was one of the leading drivers. Complex terms and words mysterious to a village boy such as tunnels, reservoirs, retainer walls, hydroelectric and other such engineering terms made one aware of the changes in the air, for the trips to the dictionary became an oftener affair after that initial meeting with Ntate Dira Bereng.
He showed us a window into the future of the kingdom, well before global warming and water scarcity became household terms. Now we understand because he was willing to share the nitty-gritty details of the changing world with all his being.

I was too young or not born yet when he recited the Lithoko of his father, DCT Bereng, on national radio in the 1970’s, but those he blessed with those morsels of his father’s raving laments and mirthful melancholies remember (very well) the voice of Mor’a monna oa ka Masite (the Son of the Man from Masite — his father David Cranmer Theko Bereng) on the programmes. For reciting the poems of his father, he became the darling of the audiences of Basotho that came to listen to the radio programmes he graced with his sonorous voice.
Well versed in the art of public speaking from his stint on radio, it is that same voice that spoke to the throngs of students, tourists and members of the public on tour at the Katse Dam project that would be coaxed into knowledge and understanding by his gentle but firm tone when describing the various aspects of the complex hydroelectric project deep in the mountainous Thaba-Tseka district of Lesotho.

A child of war in a sense, for he was born in 1943 two years before the Second World War ended (in 1945), the tale of the life of Ntate Moholo Dira is intertwined with that of his father DCT Bereng who was a Regiment Sergeant Major amongst the Basotho contingent of more than 21 500 gallant men that served in the Second World War.
Forced to come home in 1942 to get reinforcements for the Basotho contingent hard at battle on the frontlines in North Africa and Europe, it was in this brief period that his father DCT Bereng met and fell in love Nkhalika Lerotholi to gather more men for the Commonwealth Nations’ effort against the armies of Hitler’s Third Reich.
The first child of their holy union, Dira, was born the next year on 29 May 1943. In a sense Ntate Dira is the son of the Khohola Koqo, that big Pitso where the Queen of England begged for more men to join the war effort going on in the frontlines of Europe and North Africa.

In another sense, the tale of his birth and that of his father are similar, both were born to the sound of cracking rifles and booming cannons, the older Bereng (his father DCT) having been born circa 1899 when the Anglo-Boer War that ended in 1902 was going on just across the Mohokare River in South Africa.
The younger Bereng was born in the middle of the Second World War where the nations of the Commonwealth were united in a concerted effort to rid the world of Hitler’s Nazi menace of racist policies.
It would seem that his life would follow to a great extent the wishes of his father who would come back from the war a progressive individual that understood very clearly the necessity of the African black embracing the realities around him or her.

A member of the Basutoland National Council (BNC), the older Bereng was aware that Basotho stood at a disadvantage because they did not speak or understand Afrikaans, a language they had to deal with daily since the beginning of their migrant journeys to the mines of Kimberly and Johannesburg in the mid 1800’s.
Suggesting that Afrikaans be made part of the curriculum to put the Basotho migrant labourers at an advantage, his wish was however snubbed by peers in the BNC. He decided that he would send his son to school in South Africa where he would be taught in both Afrikaans and English. And thus the journey of his son Dira began.
In the brief meeting I had with him just about a month before his passing, Ntate Dira recounted memories of his life as a student in Koppies in the Orange Free State where his father had sent him under the care of Moruti Hlauli Culvert Monne of the African Methodist Episcopal church (AME). He came back to Lesotho after his Standard VI for the first time in a long while.

There had been visits by his father to check on his progress whilst at school in South Africa, and one gets the feeling that the meetings between father and son were fruitful in terms of the sharing of the lores and the poetic process of the Basotho.
All of his father’s sons recite Sesotho poems with pride and fluency, however modest their personal outlook may be.
This shows one aspect in the relationship between their father and his progeny: they were taught (by rote) never to forget their cultural origins, never to be away from their Bosotho, and this fire of words was kept alive in the poems of their father which they can recite off the cuff.
It is through this brief talk with Ntate Dira Bereng that I came to understand another side to his father, David Cranmer Theko Bereng, and this is the quality of the teacher-poet, the keeper of the lore and the customs through oral tradition.

It was Sehlabathebe that became his first point of arrival upon reaching Lesotho after the many years at school in South Africa. His father had been sent to Sehlabathebe by the regent Queen Mantšebo Seeiso to avert the rampant cattle raids by Xhosa marauders.
From the classroom to the cattle-post, from modernity to the oriental, this seems to have been the journey of the young man that would later go on to become the voice at Radio Lesotho, the guide at Katse Dam and many other noble pursuits in between as the years progressed.
His father must have been aware that the African could never actually be divorced from the West, thus his decision to ensure that his eldest son was well in touch with the customs and the traditions of both worlds.
One could tell that he was well travelled, had seen the world for what it is and was selfless in the sharing of the experiences and the feelings they came with.

From Koppies in the 1950’s to Basutoland High School and, thence, Hermitage Training College in 1965 to 1966, followed by his first employment as a teacher at Mashai’s St. Theresa Mission in 1967, a stint at St. James Primary in Maseru and OB Collins Primary at Rothe in 1969, to the early 1970’s, one sees the life of an individual who, having grown outside the borders of Lesotho, was inspired to seek an understanding of the country of his forebears at a level deeper than the average individual experiences in their lifetime.
The average Mosotho does not see as much of his or her country in one lifetime. He or she often lacks the will to travel and to see new spaces and places.

This seems not to have been the case with Ntate Dira. Travelling for him came very early in his life, from Mashai to Maseru, to Koppies, to Matatiele, to Qacha’s-Nek, to Maseru, to Mashai, and then the entire breadth of the Mountain Kingdom in the latter years of his life. His father’s cluster of seven villages in Mashai seems to have always been close to his heart, for that is where he spent most of his sunset years before illness forced him back to Maseru.
Could it perhaps be that there are three sides to every man’s life: his parents’ house closely linked with life in the community within which one grows, under the umbrella of life in the wider world? It would seem that Ntate Dira fulfilled all of the three spheres of life and kept in constant touch with all of them in the years of his brief pilgrimage in this world.

Ever humble, forever jovial in the eye of the mind of the schoolboy that first saw him over 25 years ago on that school trip to Katse Dam, it is with a content heart that one at least had the opportunity to meet him in a man to man talk in discussion on the life of his towering father; even if it was only for a short while.
The brevity of the moment we met does not count, what matters is the fact that one got to bask in the warmth of the flame of the poetry of his father in its last flickers. There is no forgetting the grace of his demeanour despite the obvious pain he was experiencing in his last days.

He bravely recounted not only his tale but that of his father’s life which has become my preoccupation these past four years. Through gritted teeth he gave one a brief glimpse of who his father was and, thanks to that, there is a clearer picture of who the father was through the eyes of the son.
It is more than enough in the eyes of the schoolboy who is inspired by the memory of one of the greatest poets this country ever gave birth to.
One cannot forget the fire with which Ntate Dira delivered his father’s poetic praise of his horse, Lako (Largo), on the last day we met. I know no dirge better than Dira’s father’s fluid poetry of love for his trusty steed, and it goes:

Hela Lako ee! (Hey Largo)
Ha u ea Lako u siee lemao, (When you go to Largo leave your clasp)
Banana ka Lako ba tla u qhoaela (The girls in Largo will chain you)
Ke molooelooe o thebe e khoaba, e khubelu (It is a meandering shield of reddish streaks)
Oa ‘nehe thebe ea me, ke ea tsamaea (He of the give me my shield, I’m leaving)
Hela tsela ee! (You road!)

A ntekeletsane tsela ea leholimo, banna! (Ah! the long road to heaven)
Hoja Leholimong koana poso e ea ea (If there was a post office up in heaven)
‘Na nkabe ke ngolla marena teng (I would write to all the kings up there)
Ke ngolla Peete le Mokhachane, ke ngolla Thesele (I would write to Peete and Mokhachane, I would write to Thesele/Moshoeshoe )

Ke ngolla Nkiri le Mabefola (I would write to Nkiri and Mabefola)
Ke li ngolla kaofela Lianakoena (I would write to all the children of the crocodile)
Ke re li ke li tle ka Leqooa (Calling them to come to Leqooa)
Li tl’o bona motlathomo ha o ulubanya lipheo (to come and see the gallant bird flapping its wings)
Ha o ts’ela Senqu o fata seretse ka oto la morao (Crossing the Senqu and tearing mud with the rear hoof)
Ke lebone la marena le khanya, (It is the shining lantern of kings)
Leseli, leo mafutsana a shoeleng a le luma (A ray of light the poor died yearning for)

There is nothing but the poetry the son of the battle can be remembered with, he who was born when the world was united as one against a mortal enemy, he who came to teach throngs of the Basotho across generations. Ride your father’s steed to heaven, and there you shall find them, and there we shall meet again. Dira Bereng died on April 22, 2019. Robala ka Khotso Mokuena

Tsépiso S. Mothibi

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