Senkatana- Part 1

Senkatana- Part 1

SOME weeks ago I reviewed two volumes in
the African Pulse series, a groundbreaking
project by Oxford University Press giving
us new translations into English of classic
southern African literature.

I reviewed the poetry anthology Stitching
a Whirlwind and B M Khaketla’s novel
She’s to Blame; now I am turning to S M Mofokeng’s
play Senkatana, which is the only
drama text in the series of eight volumes
(six of them are novels).

Sophonia Machabe Mofokeng was a South
African Mosotho, born in Fouriesburg. He
published only two volumes (the play and a
collection of short stories) before his death
from tuberculosis in 1957, aged just 34. A
collection of his essays was published posthumously.
Like Khaketla, he was a public intellectual,
a member of the New African Movement,
a term used to describe the interventions of
African intellectuals and creative artists in
the construction of modernity in southern
Africa, a project that necessitated successful
outcomes in the anti-colonial and antiapartheid

Senkatana has as its starting-point the
legend of Kgolumolumo, the people- and
animal-devouring monster who is slain by
the young hero Senkatana, thus releasing
all the humans and creatures the beast he
has swallowed, who are still alive. A standard
telling of the legend (which I have lifted
from “A book of creatures” on the Internet)
reads: “Senkatana had to avoid cutting the
people imprisoned inside. He first accidentally
injured a man. . . . Senkatana went on
to become a great chief, but the man he had
inadvertently stabbed continued to bear a
grudge. The resentful man and others jealous
of the hero attempted to assassinate him
multiple times, until Senkatana, weary of
the hatred of mankind, allowed himself to
be killed.”

Now, readers (and my long-suffering editor),
I know you expect a weekly column
from me and not (as one friend put it recently)
an academic bloody essay, but I want
to make a couple of points about the telling
and reception of the legend.

First, I have enormous admiration for the
African Treasury Series — it is a great initiative,
beautifully executed. (I’m not at all
sure whether follow-up volumes are planned
before the eight already published; I do hope
so, especially as I have two suggestions for
volumes from Sesotho literature). Nonetheless,
I’ve had a few queries and points of
criticism to make on different volumes in
the series.

Regarding Senkatana what I’m faced with
is not so much a criticism as a conundrum.
Oxford UP have prefaced their edition of the
play with a re-telling of the Kgolumolumo
legend taken from S M Guma’s book on

“Traditional Literature” in Sesotho, which
account omits the vital detail of Senkatana’s
having accidentally stabbed one of the men
he is trying to free.
This might leave the later hostility towards
Senkatana as seeming unmotivated

But then Mofokeng also omits that detail,
providing an alternative package of motivations
for hostility towards the hero. This
alteration will surely be noticed by Basotho
readers who are familiar with the legend.
Perhaps the best thing would have been for

the publishers to reprint a more complete
version of the legend, with an editor’s note
explaining how Mofokeng takes things in
a different direction, for his own purposes,
which are profound and thought-provoking.

Another matter, now, and this is a point
I shall come back to next week, there have
been attempts to link Senkatana’s self-sacrifi
ce at the end of the play with that of Christ
—which one could protest are a way of taming
the legend (think of the early Morija
missionaries’ objections to the fi rst draft
of Mofolo’s Chaka!) or of putting it to service
in the interests of the faith. (As I write
this the UK is under lockdown on account
of the plague, and libraries are closed, so I
can’t check whether the Lesotho missionary
Jacottet does this in his Legends and Tales
of the Basotho).

I have absolutely nothing against the benign
work of the Church — far from it — but
one could argue that identifying Senkatana
as Christ is an act of cultural expropriation.
Let things stand as they are. Except that,
as the play proceeds, the parallels become
pretty explicit. More on that issue to come.

Mofokeng’s play opens with two aged
Seers discussing time. Here’s a sample: “the
[time unit] of tomorrow and the next day,
/ The one of the day before yesterday and
yesterday, until today: / All these are contemporaries
of time, which does not change,
/ They are the same because the humanity
in them is one. / Today’s mistakes are the
same mistakes of tomorrow and yesterday.”

This gives an idea of how nimble Mofokeng’s
mind is, but also of how wordy Senkatana
can be. Try as I may, I can’t quite see
this scene coming off in a staged production;
I can imagine the audience immediately getting

In Mofokeng’s play Senkatana is the son
of a woman who had escaped Kgolumolumo
before it swallowed everyone and everything
else in sight. Senkatana resolves to rescue
the trapped beings and Mofokeng depicts
his mother, Mmaditaolane’s, anguish — will
she now lose him? Here’s a point at which
the parallel, Senkatana as Christ, is plausible,
with his mother as Mary: “I would be in
agony if I saw agony on his face. He would
rather die carrying out his goal, sacrifi cing
himself and dying in the attempt to free all.”

There are other echoes, later on, for example
when the Seers — who act as a chorus,
like in an ancient Greek tragedy — comment
“Your reward does not belong here.
/ Here you are despised, you are mocked. /
Simply persevere my brother, persevere!”
To be continued

chris Dunton

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