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Prison narratives

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Prison literature by political prisoners and detainees has become something we read and re-read. We try to get into the shoes of the prisoner, sometimes with little success. We come away from it, however, quite convinced that human beings in dire circumstances, survive through not giving up hope.

Ngugi WaThiongo is best known for his first novel Weep Not, Child. His other novels; The River Between, A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood, confirmed his stature as one of the major African writers of our time. However, his detention without trial in 1977, probably followed the Limuru production of his and Ngugi WaMirii’s Gikuyu play, published in English as I Will Marry When I Want, has left many shaking their heads.

In Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, Ngugi describes his times at Kamiti Maximum Prison in Kenya, the purposeful degradation and humiliation of the political detainees, the neglect and casual cruelty that undermined their health, the debilitating tension and tedium that marked each day in prison. In a series of reflections he is able to consider his own writings, the nature of imprisonment and the way forward for the people of Kenya.

This very elaborate testimony by Ngugi, is confined to the periods between 31 December 1977 and 12 December 1978, during his incarceration. It is divided into two main sections; his experiences and thoughts in prison and his letters from prison.

In the second section Ngugi includes another detainee, Mr A Matheenge to show that disease was used as a means of torture. The third section which is about the prison aftermaths contains narratives, letters and documents showing the collusion between the government and university authorities to deny Ngugi employment at the university where he worked before his arrest.

Ngugi says in the preface to this book: “I have, therefore, tried to discuss this issue not as a personal experience between me and a few individuals, but as a social, political and historical phenomenon. I have tried to see it in the context of the historical attempts, from the colonial times to the present, by a foreign imperialist bourgeoisie, in alliance with its local Kenyan representatives, to turn Kenyans into slaves and of the historical struggles of the Kenyan people against economic, political and cultural slavery.”

Much earlier in the memoir, Ngugi boldly declares that being at Kamiti helped him to realise that “the prison system is a repressive weapon in the hands of the ruling minorities determined to ensure maximum security for its class dictatorship over the rest of the population.”

Ngugi soon realises that at Kamiritu virtually all the political detainees are writers or composers. He looks around and sees that he is in the midst of Wasonga Sijeyo a writer of various forms of history, Koigi wa Wamwere who writes essays on politics and culture and various novels, Giceru wa Njau a Swahili novelist, Thairu wa Mutiga a poet, Simba Ongongi a composer and many others.

In a section of Detained, Ngugi demonstrates a battle of wits between himself and some of the prison warders who often come across him writing at night on toilet paper and the narrative could be both casual and natural:

“Professor… why are you not in bed?” the warder asks. To that, Ngugi experienced some relief. Ngugi answers back, teasingly, “I am writing to Jomo Kenyatta (then President of Kenya) in his capacity as an ex detainee.” But the warder is quick to say, “His (Kenyatta’s) case was different.” And Ngugi asks to know why the warder thinks Kenyatta’s case was different. The warder shoots back, “His (Kenyatta’s case) was a colonial affair.” To that the wily Ngugi answers, “And this, a neo colonial affair? What is the difference?” The warder pretends to be ignorant and says to Ngugi,

“A colonial affair…now we are independent…that is the difference.” Then Ngugi is quick to complete the circle for himself and the friendly warder, “A colonial affair…in an independent country eh?

The British jailed an innocent Kenyatta. Thus Kenyatta learnt to jail innocent Kenyans. Is that the difference?” Both Ngugi and the warder laugh.

Ngugi immediately remembers the prison notes of Wole Soyinka called The Man Died in which Soyinka aptly comments that no matter how cunning a prisoner is, the humanitarian act of courage among his gaolers has a role in his survival.

Ngugi sees that the witty warder is a good illustration of the truth of that observation. Apparently during this period, Ngugi is writing parts of a novel on toilet paper

. This is how the first draft of Devil on the Cross, which came out in 1981, was conceived and written. Ngugi had actually learnt that Kwame Nkrumah, the first African President of Ghana had also written one of his books while still at James Fort Prison.

While he is at Kamiti, Ngugi reflects on his own children and their names. He looks at the photograph of his daughter, Njooki. The name means she who comes back from the dead; or Aiyerubo, meaning she who defines heaven and hell.

There is also the other child, Wamuingi which means she who belongs to the people. Wamuingi was born on 15 May 1978, five months after Ngugi’s abduction and subsequent incarceration. When her photograph arrives in Kamiti Prison, Thairu waMuthiga had nicknamed the baby Kaana ka Boothia, meaning a post office baby.

Ngugi’s Detained: A Writer’s prison Diary is a journey in to the history of imperialism and neocolonialism. In it Ngugi makes great contributions to literary and political theory in Africa.
Jack Mapanje, probably the most well known Malawian poet to date had a brush with the government of President Kamuzu Banda in Malawi.

It was a collection of his satiric poems in Of Chameleons and Gods that landed Jack Mapanje in prison. Although the book was initially released in the early 1980’s without cause for concern, a reissue in the late 1980’s triggered his detainment by Malawian authorities for three years during which he was never charged with a crime!

Of his poem, ‘Scrubbing the furious Walls of Mikuyu Prison’, Mapanje says: “Of all the prison poems I’ve written I think this is my favourite little one. We were asked to scrub the walls of the prison to clean the place up and we saw on one wall graffiti and several prisoners refused to touch it, to scrub it out, because it was good. It was a rude statement about the country’s politics, hence this poem.”

That poem is a double poem. In one hand the persona registers the misery of seeing a cell in which an unknown prisoner had previously been kept without trial being abused and humiliated physically and spiritually. On the other, the prisoner with the cleaning brush and bucket is aware that the bloody and filthy walls are a useful evidence of all this inhumanity:

Shall I scrub these brave squiggles out
Of human memory then or should I perhaps
Superimpose my own, less caustic; dare I
Overwrite this precious scrawl? Who’d
Have known I’d find another prey without
Charge, without trial (without bitterness)
In these otherwise black walls of Mikuyu
Prison? No, I will throw my water and mop
Elsewhere. We have liquidated too many
Brave names out of nation’s memory
I will not rub out or inscribe
My own, more ignoble, to consummate this
Moment of truth I have always feared.

Mapanje is imprisoned alongside many different Malawians, teachers, [preaches, doctors, journalists and others who had been considered to have spoken or written against President Banda.There are other well known poems like ‘The Famished Stubborn Ravens of Mikuyu,’ ‘To the Unknown Dutch Postcard-Sender’ (1988) and the unnerving realities of Mikuyu Maximum Prison.

The months that key South African poet, Denis Brutus spent in solitary confinement and in prison on Robben Island, during apartheid, caused him a lot of soul searching in poetic form.

In 1963, Dennis Brutus was arrested for attending a sports meeting bent on having South Africa banned from the Olympics due to its racism. When released on bail, he fled to Swaziland and from there tried to make his way to Germany to meet with the world Olympic executive committee, but the Portuguese secret police at the Mozambique border handed him back to the South African security police.

Realising that no one would know of his capture, he made a desperate attempt to escape, only to be shot in the back on a Johannesburg street. On recovery he was sentenced to 18 months hard labour on Robben Island.

His Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison (1968) contains brief, simple statements deriving from his experiences as a prisoner. The diction is deliberately conversational and devoid of high poetic devices. Instead of seeking to express two or three thoughts simultaneously, Brutus was striving to say only one thing at a time and to say it directly.

Each poem in there is supposedly a prisoner’s letter written to a lover or a relative out there called Martha. We also access this by reading Martha’s letters. You could say that each letter is an artistic diary.

These ‘letters’ snoop into the mind of the prisoner and access all the psychology that goes with being captured and kept somewhere without freedom. In the very first poem, you learn that on being sentenced to prison, the political prisoner goes through many varied emotions running through him like “sick relief, apprehension, vague heroism, self pity…” The lines are short, the words are simple and the floor is jagged:

After the sentence
mingled feelings;
Sick relief,
the load of the approaching day’s
apprehension –
the hints of brutality
have a depth of personal meaning;

The persona is on a trip full of uncertainties. In these poetic short letters, the persona quickly learns that in prison, any sharp object is valuable as a weapon and when other prisoners wield such a weapon, all you feel is the sense of being vulnerable.

Prisoners keep sharp objects everywhere including the rectum, for use in the future when necessary.

In this environment of sexual starvation, one also comes across the dangers of being sodomised by fellow prisoners. You read on in trepidation as the persona expects to be violated. However, the rigours of prison are such that the mind loses guard and there is total annihilation of the prisoner that in some cases, some prisoners actually ask other prisoners to sodomimise them as one finds in poem/letter 7:

Perhaps most terrible are those who beg for it,
who beg for sexual assault.

To what desperate limits are they driven
and what fierce agonies they have endured
that this, which they have resisted,
should seem to them preferable,
even desirable.

It is regarded as the depths
of absolute and ludicrous submission.
And so perhaps it is.

But it has seemed to me
one of the most terrible
most rendingly pathetic
of all a prisoner’s predicaments.

In line with that, some prisoners start to parade themselves as prostitutes for favours and for security. One such prisoner is actually nicknamed Blue Champagne. He would sleep with several men in one night. He is other men’s woman. And with time, he switches over to become a man to other men.

Dennis Brutus further indicates that since little or no information is released from prison, the family of the prisoner out there struggles to survive without the breadwinner. But it is said that their biggest pain comes with not knowing what is exactly happening to their own relative inside prison. Meanwhile, the prisoner continues to hold on to anything that reminds him that he is still being remembered and cherished by his own people out there.

Indeed, Martha is being let into the confidence of the political prisoner. But at some point, the persona says prison affords the individual opportunity to realise that the company of other humans is supreme to the extent that the mind may start to work. Cut off from the outside, the only contact is with inmates and warders.

The persona that Brutus employs reveals, however, that there are occasions when even this precarious relationship can be constructive.

When he finished his term in prison, Brutus was permitted to leave South Africa with his wife and children on an “exit permit,” a document which made it illegal for him to return. He lived in London from 1966 to 1970, where he worked as a teacher and a journalist.

In 1970, he took a position as a visiting professor of English at the University of Denver for a year, after which he moved to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

In Africa, Prison literature is gathering momentum. It is a window through which one could understand the extent to which human being find strategies to survive under very inhuman conditions.

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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