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Literature by writer-fighters

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There are some Africans who participated directly in the fight against apartheid and colonialism in Africa but have remained quiet and have gone to the grave with their special experiences.

But there are a few nationalists and combatants who went on to remember to write works of fiction about that crucial struggle, albeit using the cover of fictional characters.

There are many such writer-fighters in Africa, in countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique, where the struggle was bitter, complex and long drawn. Names such as Alex La Guma and Thomas Sukutai Bvuma (otherwise called Carlos Chombo) are very outstanding.

Alex Laguma’s novel, In the Fog of the Season’s End, is one of those novels that clearly explore the development and gradual evolution of the modes of fighting against the apartheid regime of South Africa, a struggle which culminated into the onset of democracy in 1994.

The novel indicates that the struggle against apartheid evolved over many years. It moved from being an underground mobilisation activity that used pamphlets and leaflets then mutating to one of open mass demonstrations and finally developing into being an armed struggle.

In this foundational anti-apartheid novel, Beukes and Isaac Tekwani start as pamphleteer nationalists. They move around incognito, spreading messages that teach people on the ills of apartheid.

They are silent preachers and teachers. Later on, these two characters and others spread messages that instigate people into open demonstrations. They become instructors and front runners.
Beukes has grown in this underground work. He is the link between the leaders who form the vanguard behind the scenes and the ordinary cadres of the revolution.

His underground movements are reminiscent of those of the early day Nelson Mandela who went round the communities organising disobedience campaigns and could go as far as Tanzania.

Beukes is described poetically:“Carrying the case, now lightened of most of its contents, Beukes stepped off the pavement and crossed the dark street.

In spite of fatigue he moved with the caution of someone grown used to hiding, to evading open spaces; the caution of someone who knew that a man alone in a street was as conspicuous as a pyramid, but that in a crowd one could become anonymous, a voice in a massed choir….”

He is a selfless fellow who has decided to set aside his private life in order to fight the system of apartheid just like what Alex La Guma and others did in real life until it was not possible to stay in South Africa.

The other very clear thing in this novel is the existence of white people as a class in apartheid South Africa thereby making it easy to target them.

This is possible because South Africa had and still has a huge white population as compared to the rest of Africa. Apartheid is designed in such a way that the whites own the capital muscle and all the other races provide merely the labour.

The non-whites such as the Africans and the coloured start to see themselves as a force that should fight against white people.

As a result, the derogatory terms and attitudes against white people are abundant in this novel.

That is the reason why the Muslim lady who is making the clothes on her machine openly declares to Beukes that she has a separate high price for whites.

In this novel, as in Gorky’s Mother, the oppressed class wakes up to the realisation that South Africa is industrial and that they relate with the system through their own labour. They can also fight the system both as non-whites and as workers.

This is possible because South Africa of this novel is highly industrialised and in such spaces, working class consciousness is possible. Elias Tekwani and the other black people leave their villages to go tothe cities to sell their labour.

Only at that stage do they become part of the politicised working class of South Africa who fight the whites who own the means of production.

As soon as Tekwani’s mother dies, it is said that Tekwani’s links with the countryside were broken and that through coming to the city, the individual, “more than ever, he had to be truly a man.”
Man is defined by labour in this novel and the fight against apartheid becomes a labour issue too.

Elias and Beukes contrast sharply with the baby minder in the early part of the novel. The good looking non-white baby minder who has been working for the white system for a long time without being conscious that while black is a class, white necessarily becomes the opposing class. She is covered by what Marxist thinkers call rural idiocy.

This novel is clearly informed by Marxism which appears to insist that revolutions may not really develop if people remain in the peasantry class.

The baby minder continues to be a peasant even when she is now in the city.

She is not fully aware that she is oppressed and unhappy. Therefore she is unable to identify the enemy and fight it.

Soon, people organise a strike by moving towards a police station and burning their pass books in front of the police.

Soon the police open fire and many demonstrators scatter and hordes of people are killed, almost alluding to the Sharpeville Massacre.

In Marxist terms, the strike represents the people’s refusal to be oppressed and exploited. Soon after you see people going further to organise a guerilla movement across the borders in the north of South Africa.

The people are moving upwards in history as the theorist and revolutionary Amilcar Cabral suggests.

In the Fog of the season’s End which was first published in 1972, is a much laid back novel whose plot does not hurry at all.

It describes people and places visually as in film. The intentions of the characters are not known until at the opportune moment. But what is clear here is that apartheid was fought by ordinary people who risked their lives in doing so.

The war is fought within their homes and public places through defying and sabotaging the system until a time when it is possible to go abroad and take up arms.

Alex La Guma was a South African novelist, leader of the South African Coloured People’s Organisation and a defendant in the Treason Trial, whose works helped characterise the movement against the apartheid era in South Africa.

The South African government banned his writings and in 1966, he and his family moved to London, where he lived in exile until 1979. He eventually died in Cuba in 1985.

He was a long time member of the African National Congress (ANC). His first novel, A Walk in the Night, was first published in 1962 and immediately banned in South Africa.

In Zimbabwe, Thomas Sukutai Bvuma’s historical novel published in 2021 is a participant’s expose of the intricacies of the fight against white settler minority rule in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

In that novel, young Masara Musamba of Sakubva, Umtali, Rhodesia, is involved in the war of liberation that gave birth to Zimbabwe as a ZANLA fighter. This is his story told under his war name – Nyika Yababa, or simply Yababa.

He quickly joins the war after beating up his white boss who had beaten him for a flimsy reason at a fruit canning factory where the boy is working temporarily while waiting to go and enroll at the prestigious University of Rhodesia.

It is a serious crime in Rhodesia for a black man to beat up a white man, for whatever reason. You would rather run before the police catch you.

So Masara abandons his job, his pay and his very beautiful girl friend, Wadiwa, and rashly clambers up the mountains on the eastern side of Umtali, crossing the border to join the guerrillas across in Mozambique by first getting to Chibawawa refugee camp in September 1976.

Masara had met some ZANLA guerillas before in his own Mutambara communal lands and had always had a romantic view of the war of liberation and the guerrillas.

He had always hoped to join the liberators one day. This historical novel is renowned Zimbabwean poet, Thomas Bvuma’s first long prose offering.

But who is Thomas Sukutai Bvuma in Zimbabwean literature? Initially, using the pen-name Carlos Chombo, Thomas Bvuma wrote the well known poem, “Real Poetry” at the height of the war in the late 1970’s.

“Real Poetry” eventually got more “visible” publication in the Zimunya-Kadhani edited post-war collection called And NOW the Poets Speak (1981). Musaemura Zimunya and Mudereri Kadhani set out to bring together poems which reflected on the Zimbabwe revolution then.

Bvuma’s “Real Poetry” defines struggle as people’s real poetry. Very reminiscent in content and form to Jorge Rebelo’s poem called “Poem,” “Real Poetry” quickly became a classic of sorts.

Zimunya and Kadhani could not “resist using (the poem) as a choric prelude to this selection.” They wrote somewhere that they also “found (in this poem) the power of the intellect, control of rhythm and style well combined and married to idea, action and reaction” and that through it, one recalls the more prominent Angolan war poet, Agostinho Neto himself.”

Zimunya and Kadhani also used a section of the poem on the blurb of the cream coloured And Now The poets Speak as the theme poem and the poem went viral.

Thomas Bvuma, like Alexander Kanengoni and Freedom Nyamubaya, wrote poems at the war front in between battles either as a pastime or a means to reflect on the war he was participating in.

He is still writing and publishing poetry long after the war of liberation and some of his key pieces constantly jog one’s mind. More of Thomas Bvuma’s poems were later published in Every Stone

That Turns (1999) almost two decades later! They are arranged in a way that sets out to capture the changing times from war to independence.

But his latest work, the historical novel called The Chosen Generation, appears to give the more elaborate materials that inform the turmoil and thought that one finds in the poem “Real Poem” and the collection of poems called “Every Stone that Turns.”

This novel fits in and tucks in real critical geographical and historical factors that have been glossed over by many writers of Zimbabwean war fiction and even those in war history.

Through this novel, places critical for training and refugees like Chimoio, including its attack by Rhodesians on 23 November 1977, Chibawawa, Tembwe and others are brought to life from the point of view of a recruit and soon to be a trained cadre. There are no sacred cows in this narrative.

The story is written from a rather laid back point of view of an ex-combatant now sitting in his house in poverty stricken post-war Chitungwiza township of the economically tumultuous 2008.

He is searching his place in all the tricky things that have happened and sometimes he thinks that his generation is not chosen but cursed. But he insists that he wants to judge them fairly.

The narratives move gradually, with ease, finding facts and fallacies, even fitting the 1970’s within the context of the world’s rebellious youths of the hippies, rock music and many other things.

The story takes you to places and decisions made outside Rhodesia and the war front. The war in Rhodesia is part of the world events and that is the strongest theory propounded by this book.

In chapters 10 to 13, which are very critical, the writer recreates Chimoio as it was in the context of the war against Ian Smith.

He goes for geographic space within historic and social context. You begin to read into the détente period, Zanla conscription methods as from 1976, the rise and fall of the Vashandi ideology, love affairs, betrayals, Zipa, Zanla-Zipra relations, the battle of Mavhonde, Tongogara, Herbert Chitepo, Robert Mugabe, Rex Nhongo and the attacks and counter attacks between and amongst people and systems.

This book is a must read for all people with a genuine interest in the emerging perspectives on Zimbabwe’s difficult war of Independence and how much it is a prelude to what took place within Zimbabwe soon after.

These two books by combatants and participants, demonstrate that writing or story telling becomes an extra front through which a war against apartheid and settler rule could be fought.

Memory Chirere

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Start with the fallen fruits

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By the way, as a follow up on last week’s opinion piece, one of the points that I mistakenly omitted was that the new RFP administration is starting to make sloppy mistakes.

We call them “rookie mistakes” in American slang. Kindly Google search what a “Rookie Mistake” or “Rookie” is.

There is nothing in the world that irritates me like when you write a letter to someone and they fail to just write a single-paragraph letter to acknowledge receipt. For example, I hereby acknowledge receipt of your letter dated blah-blah. What is difficult to string a letter as simple as that?

Why do I raise this point? I’ve written three letters to the new RFP administration to brief it on a project that has a potential to revolutionise the education sector. However, there hasn’t been any acknowledgement of receipt, almost six weeks later. No guys, come one!

These are the type of things we disliked in the previous administrations, where people would act with impunity.

To me, failure to acknowledge receipt of a letter or e-mail, simply says, ha ke u foke, as MP Machesetsa Mofomobe would eloquently put it. Let’s correct this mistake as a matter of urgency. Asseblief!

Let’s talk about something serious. Tell me if I’m wrong but in my view, the new RFP administration is starting to show signs of being overwhelmed. No, honestly, tell me if I’m wrong and you are more than welcome to pen a counter-opinion piece and send it to the managingeditor@thepost.co.ls

The situation that the new RFP admin is in could be likened to a situation where a guy punches above his weight. What do I mean about this?

You know, we have those kind of guys that love big things. In Soshanguve, they would say ba rata dilo. These are the guys who would join a boxing match and head straight to the heavyweight ring yet they are categorised in the feather-weight class.

When we were young, there were those guys that would approach ladies that are way above their league. Ladies that are sorted.

She has her own car, a house (let’s say at Masowe 4), a stable job and a bit of cash and investments. But my brother who is a security guard will still insist and try their luck. Well, I’m not insinuating that there’s anything wrong with being a security guard but…. You get my point.

However, you find this guy (the security guard) ‘jokingly’ submitting an application to the lady and betting on luck. And, by a miracle and not ‘chance’, the proposal gets a nod. The lady says ‘yes, let’s give it a try’.

After the lady says, “yes, application accepted”, that’s when reality hits that the security guard only earns M2 500 and now this lady demands a new weave from Brazil, occasional lunch or dinner at Peri-Peri Restaurant, movies in Bloemfontein (because Lesotho doesn’t even have one movie-theatre), an occasional weekend away in Sandton (for shopping at the diamond walk) and a compulsory holiday in Cape Town at Camps Bay. Damn!

As I said, this guy only earns two-thousand five hundred Maloti. Would the poor guy suddenly feel overwhelmed once reality hits home? Exactly my point!

Now, how would the poor guy sustain such a relationship? If he were smart, option one would be to quit his job and go into tendering.

This is a predicament that the RFP currently faces. It is overwhelmed by the demands of the nation.

But there is an easy way of solving this predicament and one of them is to start with the fallen fruits. I once made this analogy but I will highlight it once more. When you pick apricots in the summer, where would you start?

Logic will tell you to start picking the fallen apricots first. I mean you would discard the ripe apricots on the ground and go chasing the ones up on the tree. The ones that are still green and out of reach? No, you start with the juicy ones on the ground.

By the way, now that I raise this topic, when was the last time you ever saw an apricot tree in Lesotho? It’s been a while. What happened? Is it a matter of climate change or a lack of interest by farmers to plant those trees? They used to thrive and had this beautiful lush green colour. But you don’t see them anymore.

As a matter of fact, some people even went as far as having a meal made up of papa with apricots from the tree. Yes, papa ka mampolokoso (applekoos). What happened to us?

So, as I was saying, start with the fallen fruits, the ones on the ground and this is exactly what the RFP needs to do. Go for the easy-pickings on the ground. What are those, you may ask?

Why don’t we start by privatising the roads in Lesotho? I mean, we can all see that the government is overwhelmed by the state of roads. But there could be an easier solution to this problem.

What if a private company (possibly a multinational) says, “Yes, I have an ability to raise money to build new roads, I also have an ability to construct and maintain new roads. Only if I would go into a concession agreement with the Lesotho government”.

What does this mean? The government of Lesotho would say, design and build a road according to specification XYZ. Then cost the new road and go seek funding in the markets.

As the government, we’ll under-write the loan. Because you are building quality assets for us as the government. This is where the significance of the Loti Fund comes in. In terms of underwriting the loans.

The question may then be: how will you pay us, as the government? What is the source of funds? The answer is: possibly through petrol levies (20c per litre).

Or by means of toll-gates (pay-per use). No, modern electronic toll gates. Or a levy when renewing a car disc.

So, you can even say to the private sector, “build the toll infrastructure and introduce a billing system”. Yes, I’m well aware of the e-toll quagmire in Gauteng, South Africa, but there are ways of resolving these issues and have worked well in other countries.

As a matter of fact, I once packaged a project to propose a new commercial border post named the Berea Bridge Development to be developed near Mokhethoaneng. Talk to me if you need solutions!

This project was inspired by the PPP development currently taking place to upgrade the Beitbridge border post in Zimbabwe worth about US$300 million (R4.4 billion then), with a 17-year-concession agreement. Google search it.

Construction of the Beitbridge upgrade is well underway and the private sector found creative means to source funds and to pay for the project in a sustainable manner. Another successful concession model is the N3 concession road to Durban.

Construction of roads and bridges has the potential of generating jobs on a mass scale. It’s not only the roads that need to be upgraded, but the PPP concession models could be applied to an upgrade of Moshoeshoe 1 International Airport.

‘Mako Bohloa

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Writers’ views on SA literature

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I came across a very fascinating journal on African literature edited by Bernth Lindfors. It puts together various presentations from the proceedings of the Symposium on Contemporary South African Literature held at the University of Texas at Austin from March 20 to 22 in 1975.

The panel called South African Fiction and Autobiography produced particularly exciting and instructive papers.

Although the symposium was held way back in 1975, the statements made then are still critical to current serious scholars of South African writing produced during apartheid.

I have randomly selected passages from various presentations made by writers who have become household names in their home countries and globally.

These excerpts will, no doubt, provoke the reader’s mind.

Emmanuel Obiechina, a Nigerian writer and scholar on the difference between South African writing and West African writing: I must say that South African fiction seems to me to stand at the opposite end of a spectrum from West African fiction…

The South African fiction is so different from the West African situation that each situation tends to create its own dynamic, which is reflected in the prose work produced in that area.

You can’t read the works of Alex Laguma and Chinua Achebe without being fully aware of this difference in tempo, in language and in the type of sensibilities expressed. I think such differences are caused by the social situation.

What Zeke has called the tyranny of time and place operates so strongly on the South African and so little on the West African.

Certainly anybody who reads Things Fall Apart cannot fail to be impressed by the differences between Achebe’s rhetorical resonance and the racy, vital, almost journalistic language of South African prose.

What has always intrigued me is the fact that the South African writer is the most urbanised and most deracinated of African writers, a fact which might explain the almost total urban base of his writing.

This is not so in West African writing, where the writer is himself a modern product of the rural as well as the urban situation.

Ezekiel Mphahlele, a South African scholar and writer on the identity of South Africans: Since we are talking about South Africa, we need to know that we are talking about African people rather than about ethnic groups, rather than about tribes.

Many people who meet me ask me, “What tribe do you belong to?” And I get very offended.

I often say, “We don’t have things like that in South Africa.” And then they are puzzled and I say, “Well, if you want to know what language my mother tongue is, I could let you know, if it is only of importance to you. We are all just Africans.” In my view the word tribe does not have any meaning.

If ever it had a meaning at all when it was used by the really old guard anthropologists, it referred to a group with a political organisation adequate to itself.

Today we have national governments to which all ethnic groups are answerable, so the concept of tribe, if ever it meant anything at all, does not exist.

Apart from that, there are groups of people, language groups or ethnic groups…I don’t like talking about tribes…I use other words…

Ezekiel Mphahlele on the early black novels of South Africa: If we look at two early novels, Chaka which was written originally in Sesotho, and a subsequent novel written in English, Mhundi by Sol Plaatje, we see that these are two novels based on historical events.

There is something in them that tells us that these writers wanted to grapple with historical material because history showed the ways in which they and their whole communities had changed. . . it resounds, recalling historical personalities and historical events of tremendous moment.

That gives the story resonance. So is Achebe’s Arrow of God; Ezeulu’s grandeur of speech has in it an element of song.

Ezekiel Mphahlele on the latter day South African novel: My point is that we find resonance in these two early South African novels, Chaka and Mhundi, in a way that we do not find it in South African novels today (the 1970’s).

There is a different kind of sound in contemporary South African fiction.

The reason is this: when you get to Alex Laguma, Peter Abrahams and writers like Bloke Modisane, the field narrows down to a single melody.

The orchestration of the novel is more in visual terms. Look at any of Laguma’s novels and you will find an impressionistic cluster of things that you see and feel. . .

A single melody is brought about by the fact that one is constrained to give definition to the physical and mental agony of a man in a situation like the South Africa one, where a common event might be a criminal offence, a chase, a shooting, an arrest, or a hanging.

This is what narrows it down to the single melody. The novel in South Africa almost becomes a long short story because it is so compact.

It seems like the counterpart of a poem in prose because it has a singleness of melody, a singleness of point.

It does not sprawl all over; it works in flashes. Just a flash here and there will illuminate the truth.

This is how it approximates the poem so much. . . The South African novel will work that way.

There is always the inevitability at the end. The choices are few because the society is what it is. If there are no choices in a society, the fiction will represent that, will show that.

If you have a small minded people such as the Boers, the fiction will never be big. It’s small; it’s tiny; it’s parochial; it’s way down at the bottom; it has never grown up, never matured because the people are small minded — they’ve all got blinkers on their faces. How can you expect any broad vision from people like that…

Ezekiel Mphahlele on black and white relations in South Africa: There is a big barrier between us (blacks) and the whites.

We are looking at each other through a keyhole all the time. I don’t want to write about white people because I don’t know them that well.

If I write about them at all, it’s as adults, because I know them as adults and I don’t know them as young people.

I only see their children playing around in the park; when I was a boy, I saw them riding around on their tricycles or motor cycles in the streets.

I don’t know how they are born. I don’t know how they grow up in their homes. I don’t know how white people get married except what I see in the movies or what I read in books. I don’t know how they court, or how they make love. . .

If you are born in South Africa, you never forget you are black. Nobody ever lets you forget you are black. You have these pressures on you day after day. You are harassed.

You come back to your ghetto life exhausted, and you may take it out on your children or your family or you may not, but there is always this constant fight for survival…

Peter Nazareth, Ugandan writer and academic’s responds to Ezekiel Mphahlele’s views on South African Lit: First of all, I don’t think it is completely correct to say that there is no music in South African writing.

Rather, we should say it is not the kind of music we like to listen to. You have the music of sirens, knuckles, and boots, and you have heard it coming through South African writing for a long, long time.

While some of us were emerging from colonial rule in east and West Africa and going through this process…

When we looked at South African writing, we found that it was dealing with a specific situation and yet raising issues which came to confront us later and still confront us today.

Peter Nazareth on South African Literature and setting: First, the question of setting. Do you deal with your immediate environment or do you try and escape it and deal with man?

It is quite clear the answer is that you can only be universal by being very specific. Peter Nazareth on South African literature and language: Then allied to the question of setting was the problem of language.

How do you deal with a violent situation and yet create a language to communicate that violence in art?

In other words, you have the reality which is violent, but the language itself has to come to grips with it. Some of the solutions that were found to this language problem were remarkable.

For example, Alex Laguma writes in a style that looks very journalistic, but actually he selects details very carefully and has a kind of counterpoint underneath.

For instance the ubiquitous cockroach in A Walk in the Night. When the cockroach comes to perform his act again, as the rat does in in one of Richard Wright’s novels, it is not journalistic anymore.

It carries a significance, and it carries a sense of violence as well because when you stamp on a cockroach, you are stamping on something that has found a way of surviving.

Peter Nazareth on the question of the individual and the community in South African literature: As I said, in East Africa we were being told that you had to deal with the individual, but here was South African writing insistently dealing with the community, because under this system of extreme oppression, people could only survive as a community.

They suffered as a community and they could only endure their suffering as a community.

When you look at the best of South African writing, you find a dialectic process: you find oppression ramming people down, seeking to dehumanise them and actually dehumanising some, but then you find the counterforce of the community still surviving in spite of everything.

It is a kind of dialectic force.

Here again was a lesson for us: the writer should not be concerned only with the individual, he should be concerned with the whole community and its problems of survival…

Mongane Wale Serote, South African poet on the writing environment in South Africa during apartheid: The only way I can describe black South African writing is to say it is a very tragic thing in its own way because of what is happening in South Africa.

The writing seems to have no continuity; usually when we talk about black South African writing, we start around the 60s, but I think it started long before then. . .

When I started writing, it was as if there had never been writers before in my country. By the time I learnt to write, many people – Zeke, Kgositsile, Mazisi Kunene, Denis Brutus — had left the country and were living in exile.

We could not read what they had written, so it was as if we were starting from the beginning.

Oswald Mtshali, a South African poet on what he terms his level of South African literature: A black man’s life in South Africa is an endless series of poems of humour, bitterness, hatred, love, hope despair and death.

His is a poetic existence shaped by the harsh realities and euphoric fantasies that surround him. Every day is a challenge in survival not only in the physical sense but also spiritually, mentally and otherwise.

It is hard for people who live in “free societies” to comprehend a black man’s life in this strange society. If you do not share my environment and my culture, it is hard to understand what I am talking about. . .

Memory Chirere

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The mental health crisis in Lesotho

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It is common, if not traditional to start a mental health column with the definition of health. How about we adopt a non-traditional approach and explore what fails to happen that ultimately results in mental illness and/or disorders.

In true Basotho culture, there are provisions and response strategies regarding suffering.

Elders have shared that people consulted with ‘Ngaka tsa Sesotho’ in attempt to ease their suffering. People would seek guidance from family members, the chiefs and their counsel, appease the ancestors, pray to Tlhatlha-macholo, etc.

Nonetheless, life would continue with or without these problems that individuals were faced with.

It is significant to highlight that suffering for people that reside in the same context or environment can be similar or different (we will circle back to this).

Not paying any attention to years and dates, colonialism happened and with it came a new way of doing things. As part of the colonial regime, Lesotho was introduced to the missionaries.

There was introduction of new systems e.g., nursing schools through the Catholic Church.

This presented a new way of doing things through the introduction of medical/clinical care.

This would later be regarded as the ‘formal type of care’ in the Mountain Kingdom.

There was also Christian religiosity that promised salvation, blessings, as well as abundance if one turned to God, and they denounced their pagan belief systems. Basotho would get introduced to a new way of life, one that summoned angels and God’s mercy to ease suffering.

Bear in mind that this is not about religion, spirituality, or colonialism.

By now, the reader is aware that in all these eras, one thing that has been constant is that human beings experience suffering at one point in their lives.

With that said, we see phenomena like religion, spirituality and clinical care existing within one context, Lesotho.

Based on how the clinical and religious forms of care were introduced, the traditional care offered by traditional healers was at an all-time disadvantage.

Unbecoming labels would belittle what was once a way of life for Basotho. Obviously, this led to an unintended consequence of purposive action.

A bit of indulgence, there was once a sociologist by the name of Robert King Merton who gifted the world the “Unintended Consequences Theory.”

Merton went on to share his learnings that purposeful action is taken by humans every day, in small and large ways, which influence the trajectory of our individual lives and our civilisation.

He asserted that our actions have unintended effects which are as impactful and probable in our history as the ones that are desired.

Merton identified five causes of unintended consequences namely: Ignorance, Error, Short-termism, Dogmatism, and Self-defeating prophecies.

The above causes are merely starting points. Unintended consequences are the end. We see the introduction of a new system during the colonial era, the approach was somewhat ignorant and had error.
The new way lacked knowledge in what constituted social suffering and what response techniques looked like for Basotho. Consequently, there was a dissonance.

The colonial systems, much like the Basotho traditional systems lacked the repertoire to describe mental suffering.

For church goers it was the work of evil spirits, for traditional healing seekers it was the result of witchcraft. For both, anything pertaining to mental suffering was bad and undesirable.

Asylums became the norm during those years. They were what made sense during that era. Thankfully, human beings and ways of existing evolved, culture shifted, and modern approaches came about.

The psychiatric model and diagnostic approaches would reign. Many schools of thoughts would rise from studying human behaviour, the human mind, social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behaviour. This is the intertwine alluded to earlier.

Ever heard of that saying that change is inevitable, it would ring true here. Contemporary approaches in the form of clinical mental health, psychology, psychometric testing, wellness were born.

Now, the crux of it all is that for us to fully understand mental health, it requires us to be mindful of the people, the context, the culture, forms of care in that given context, and tailor make mental health with these factors in mind.

You wonder where the mental health stigma comes from, refer back to how introduction of new systems during colonialism disfavoured the traditional ways of understanding it.

You wonder why anyone would let outsiders come uninvited and dismantle their systems?

There was close to no option to resist, as that resulted in punitive action from the said colonisers.

You wonder about the language and terminology used to refer to those living with mental illnesses, yes refer back to history books for these were lesser important people in society.

Ones who had to be hidden from mainstream society, ones that were bound by chains because their wrongdoing was being “a little off” as compared to everybody.

Now, with this unsolicited lesson of sociology and psychology, ask yourself, what is mental illness? What is mental disorder? What is mental care? An informed answer is one that is cognisant of Basotho’s acculturation process.

This brings us to concepts of sameness vs individualism within one group. Basotho are similar- Basotho are different.

Acculturation implies that some Basotho subscribe to the church, while others adhere to traditional methods.

Basotho’s view and understanding of mental illness is consequential of the aforementioned systems.

To produce solutions to mental illness, we first have to start by fully comprehending the people that mental health programmes are being designed for.

You design a 12-step AA programme for Basotho to sit in a circle and admit to their powerlessness over alcohol…good luck!

Why the best wishes? Because, in true, the Basotho belief is monna ke nku ha alle (Old ways).

It does not start with getting people to talk, it begins with raising people’s awareness about the importance of talking (New ways). How can traditional practices like khotla ea banna le pitiki ea basali inform therapeutic approaches for improved mental health outcomes?

Do not let naysayers and their use of the word evidence-based dissuade you. All approaches were ideas until tried and tested. Let us backtrack a little, we are not shunning any model.

We are growing our understanding for improved outcomes in that the 12-step AA model is culture specific. How can it be modified to suit the needs of a culture for which it was not primarily designed?

This will answer why most interventions fail in the African context. In psychological assessments, there is what is called validity and reliability.

This is too technical and requires its own column, but the two concepts are measured using a sample population (n).

We are basically saying Test A produced constant results when administered to males and females aged (16-19), racial background was this and that, the sample population has a 6th Grade reading level, for example.

What this means is that if that test was administered to someone without a 6th grade reading level, special consideration has to be applied when interpreting their results. Right!

The same logic applies to modification of approaches to respond to the needs of a given group/population in a specific context.

Questions we should be asking are, “what is going on in your life that is disturbing your peace,” “what is this that is weighing you down and taking your joy away?”

Ask someone if they are okay and the response is almost guaranteed to be a definite: Yes.

It would seem in the context of Lesotho, we are asking the right people wrong questions pertaining to mental health.

So, I ask you what is mental health in Lesotho? Are we ready to put our individual beliefs about mental illness aside (bias) and engage with those that are facing mental illness in a meaningful way?

Are we skilful in navigating topics surrounding suicide and depression when our go-to is, “Life is showing all of us flames my love.”

Are we ready to swim in these unknown waters where mental suffering looks so different for people?

Do we possess the literacy to tackle mental health issues?

When we have answers to these questions, we can have intentional conversations about: “What is mental health and what does it look like for Basotho?’’

I challenge you to think about what mental health is for you. Not self-care, mental health.

● The author of this article works as a Psychotherapist. She holds a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology.

She has certifications in Global Health Delivery, Policy Development & Advocacy in Global Health, Leadership & Management in Health, as well as Fundamentals in Implementation Science.

Her views are independent and not representative of her professional roles. She is ambitious about equitable health delivery, health policy and decolonised mental health approaches.

‘Makamohelo Malimabe

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