‘She’s to Blame’

‘She’s to Blame’

Last week I wrote about Bennett Makolo Khaketla (1913-2000), one of Lesotho’s most eminent creative writers and public intellectuals. I concentrated on Khaketla’s work as a newspaper founder and editor, but I now want to turn to She’s to Blame, an English translation by J.M. Lenake of Khaketla’s Mosali a Nkhola.
That novel appeared in Sesotho in 1960; it has taken over fifty years for a translation to appear, as part of the African Pulse series initiative in making southern African literary texts accessible to those who don’t read or understand a particular language.

She’s to Blame is set in rural Lesotho, around Qacha’s Nek (the book’s preliminary pages include a nice map). Mosito, first-born of King (read Chief) Lekaota returns from schooling at Lovedale, a missionary-run College in the Cape. There is a celebration, which Khaketla depicts with deft visual detail—vivid, but not overloaded, so the story moves along briskly.
Khaketla tells us that “King Lekaota was not a Christian and had many wives but he did not despise the church.”
Lekaota instructs Mosito: “Times change, my son, and an intelligent person is the one who is ready to change along with them.”

That acknowledgment of the unstable nature of—for want of a better word—culture is key to the novel and the reason why I resist the idea (quoted in the blurb) that it has to do with “deculturation.”
As we proceed, we discover that She’s to Blame is very much a theme-driven novel, a novel of ideas. In that respect (and in respect of some of its subject-matter, for example, its concern with modes of courtship and the expression of love, and with family responsibilities) it is akin to Thomas Mofolo’s Pitseng.
But while there’s no doubt about Mofolo’s genius in handling the genre of the novel, with She’s to Blame the question arises early on, was the novel the ideal vehicle for Khaketla to explore his ideas.

There is a very firm focus on the structure of societal processes, as evident in the chapter headings: “Mosito’s marriage”, “The death of King Lekaota”, “The installation of Mosito”, “The minimizing of the courts.” We learn how Mositio functions within the community and its expectations, rather than feeling who he is.
At points the dialogue reads like a manifesto, especially—and this is the driving motor of the plot—when the British colonial administration announces plans to reduce the number of chieftaincies, a move that will have grave implications for Mosito.

On this issue conflict arises between the elders and a group of Mosito’s age-mates as to how to proceed (this has nothing to do with deculturation, but with the heterogenous strands that can make up cultural formations as they shift and take on internal contradictions). One of the elders proclaims: “When a man does not listen, kick him in the stomach by going to his wife’” (65), and the pivot of the plot will be Mosito’s wife’s attempts to bend him to the will of the elders.

A new source of tension arises with repeated references by the elders to the need for Mosito to go to an herbalist to obtain something to further his cause (retaining the chieftaincy). All Basotho readers will guess that this has to do with liretlo, a subject already broached by the time Khaketla wrote She’s to Blame in three novels by A.S. Mopeli-Paulus, one of which, Blanket Boy’s Moon, became an international best-seller. (An aside here: although Professor Lenake’s translation reads very well, I am puzzled by his use of “ritual murder” to translate “liretlo.” For years the sociologically more appropriate term “medicine murder” has been used, as in the major book on the subject, Medicine Murder in Colonial Lesotho, by Colin Murray and Peter Sanders).

As the action of Khaketla’s novel develops there are very lengthy dialogue scenes—debates, really—on the way forward for Chief Mosito, on the future of the chieftaincy, and on the controversy over Mosito’s back-and-forth placing of trust in two competing groups of advisers, the elders and his Western-educated age-mates. These sections do not sit easily with our general assumptions as to how a novel works; they seem to be more suited to a work of non-fiction.

This is not to say She’s to Blame is without dramatic momentum. The characterisation of Mosito’s wife, ’Mathabo, is powerful, even if at times she seems a bit of a cartoon villain, along the lines of Malificent. Whatever her legitimate concerns (if Mosito loses the chieftaincy, what future is there for their son?) she is shamelessly manipulative. Khaketla signposts this with frequent comments such as “She talked in a way that was meant to hurt.”

The liretlo murder is suitably horrific, and the victim’s plight achieves real pathos. Khaketla comments: “Because of how things were in Lesotho at that time, Tlelima [the victim] understood . . . what was in store for him”; although Khaketla does not assign a date to the events of his story (just “at that time”), one guesses he was thinking of the 1940s, when an upsurge in liretlo was attributed to attempts by the British colonial authorities to curb the powers of the chieftaincy (the crisis led to the commissioning of an official report by the anthropologist G.I. Jones, Basutoland Medicine Murder, which was published in 1951). Khaketla is very good at the dramatic fingernail-biting stuff, such as the consequences of the murder. There is even a mythical water-pool serpent, as in Chaka and Mopeli-Paulus’s Liretlo. But the problem remains that She’s to Blame is broken-backed, the human-interest stuff we expect of a novel constantly set aside for the debate sections.

The latter by no means lack interest and vitality, far from it. As a public intellectual Khaketla is in full command of the competing points-of-view and the writing is crystal-clear. It’s just that readers might start wondering what kind of book they’re holding in their hands.

The final chapter is occupied by another debate, on the question what is the way forward for Lesotho? The ideas come pell-mell: the chieftaincy to reform, to return to the wisdom and benevolence of Moshoeshoe; true adherence to the Christian faith, not just the lip-service of church attendance (the fact these two concerns sit side-by-side indicates what I meant when I said this is not a novel about “deculturation”, but one that explores the realities of a hybrid, multi-stranded culture); public executions as a deterrent to liretlo; the banning of traditional doctors and the training of Basotho in Western medicine; the alleviation of poverty. And—most controversially—women to reform and become guides of the nation (I shall be looking at the strong misogynist streak in Sesotho literature in a few weeks’ time when I review Mofokeng’s play Senkatana).

So, readers, this book is quite a bundle to get a grip on; whatever reservations I’ve had about Khaketla’s decision to produce a novel and not a different kind of text, I do encourage you to get hold of She’s to Blame, either in Sesotho or in the new English translation—a splendidly-produced book, by the way, a real pleasure to look at and hold. It can be obtained from Oxford University Press, Vasco Boulevard, Goodwood, N1 City, PO Box 12119, Cape Town, South Africa. Or you might try the Morija Museum bookshop or the Challenge Bookshop on Kingsway. Who knows?

Chris Dunton

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