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The ‘dude in distress’

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I have come to notice that literature is awash with boy characters in distress. They seem to be the norm ever since I started reading. This is in sharp contrast with the concept of the damsel in distress, which I pick from all around me. I hear that what I am talking about is actually called “the dude in distress.”

Actually much mainstream literature in all languages across the world, across ages, is about boys or young men who wake up early in their lives to find that they are caught up in very difficult circumstances.

For example the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of Mark Twain’s best-known and most important novels in American literature. The novel takes place in Missouri in the 1830s or 1840s, at a time when Missouri was considered a slave state.

The novel tells the story of Huckleberry Finn’s escape from his alcoholic and abusive father and Huck’s adventurous journey down the Mississippi River together with the runaway slave Jim.

At one distressing point, Huck’s father Papa goes out, he locks Huck in the cabin, and when he returns home drunk, he beats the boy. Tired of his confinement and fearing the beatings will worsen, Huck escapes from Papa by faking his own death.

Huck is running from his father while Jim is running away from slavery. Jim’s escape is prompted when Miss Watson considers selling him off to a slave trader despite the fact that Jim has served her well and knows that such an action would separate Jim from his family.

It is a life of hide and seek and offers a great measure of distress for the two male characters, Huck and Jim.

Think about Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, which is for a great deal a story about a boy’s distressful upbringing.

This is the story of Pip, an orphan boy adopted by a blacksmith’s family, who has good luck and great expectations, and then loses both his luck and expectations. Through this rise and fall, however, Pip learns how to find happiness. He learns the meaning of friendship and the meaning of love and, of course, becomes a better person for it.

The well-known novel opens with the narrator, Pip, who introduces himself and describes a much younger Pip staring at the gravestones of his parents. This tiny, shivering bundle of a boy is suddenly terrified by a man dressed in a prison uniform.

The man tells Pip that if he wants to live, he’ll go down to his house and bring him back some food and a file for the shackle on his leg.

Then Oliver Twist, another of the novels of Dickens, explores the worrying squalor and poverty of the London of his time and at the centre of the story is the other distraught boy, Oliver.

It is said that Charles Dickens was well versed in the poverty of London, as he himself was a child worker after his father was sent to debtors’ prison.

Oliver, an orphan since birth, spends much of his childhood at a “child farm” (orphanage) with too many children and too little food.

Oliver is accused of asking for more gruel after a meal. To ask for more is unacceptable! Oliver is punished by being sent to work as an apprentice to an undertaker.

After ill-treatment, Oliver escapes into the crime rich heart of London where children are taught pick pocketing and burglary.

Oliver suffers arrest, assaults, shooting, kidnapping and many other ills and his is a tormented childhood.

Sometimes I think that perhaps Ikemefuna of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the most pathetic and distressed child character in African literature. In a settlement with a neighbouring tribe, Umuofia wins a virgin and a 15-year-old boy.

Okonkwo takes charge of the boy, Ikemefuna, and finds an ideal son in him. Nwoye likewise forms a strong attachment to the newcomer.

Despite his fondness for Ikemefuna and despite the fact that the boy begins to call him “father,” Okonkwo does not let himself show any affection for him.

Ogbuefi Ezeudu, a respected village elder, informs Okonkwo in private that the Oracle has ordered that Ikemefuna must be killed.

He tells Okonkwo that because Ikemefuna calls him “father,” Okonkwo should not take part in the boy’s death. Okonkwo lies to Ikemefuna, telling him that they must return him to his home village. Nwoye bursts into tears.

As he walks with the men of Umuofia, Ikemefuna thinks about seeing his mother. After several hours of walking, some of Okonkwo’s clansmen attack the boy with machetes. Ikemefuna runs to Okonkwo for help.

But Okonkwo, who doesn’t wish to look weak in front of his fellow tribesmen, cuts the boy down despite the Oracle’s admonishment.

Nwoye, Okonkwo’s own son who had grown fond of Ikemefuna is the most shocked and wrecked person on instinctively learning the fate of the boy whom he had grown to know as brother: “As soon as his father walked in, that night, Nwoye knew that Ikemefuna had been killed, and something seemed to give way inside him, like the snapping of a tightened bow. He did not cry. He just hung limp.”

From the very beginning, Ikemefuna is the ultimate victim; his fate is completely out of his control since he is taken away by his family so early in life for a crime which he had no part in, had any knowledge of.

In his new life, Ikemefuna is subject to the whims of his new father and the Umuofia elders, in whose hands his fate ultimately lies.

Do you know that in times of war, the boys grow very fast even when they are tense and unhappy? They become both adults and boys in a very special way.

In Pepetela’s Nguga’s Adventure, Ngunga is a boy growing up in war times. Ngunga who feels that he has lost everyone around him during the war of liberation of Angola decides that he must just travel across Angola and become part of the war. Ngunga’s quest is very unique.

Ngunga is a 13-year-old orphan. One day, when they were working in the fields, his parents were taken by surprise by the enemy. The colonialists opened fire.

His father, already an old man, was killed immediately. His mother tried to run away, but a bullet went through her chest. Only Mussango was left, and she was caught and taken to the army post.

Four years had passed through that sad day.

Ngunga had remained in the village and he becomes enamoured in the mores and life of the MPLA structures and its guerrillas who work from among the people as they fight against the Portuguese settlers.

However, one day Ngunga looks around himself and makes a very critical evaluation: “It was so good here sitting on the sand, his feet in the water. Why should he leave this place? Nobody was waiting for him in the kimbo, nobody would be worried if he was late or even if he didn’t come back. He could sleep in the bush. . . Nobody would ask the question, ‘but where is Ngunga?’’

Ngunga continues with his sad reflections: Who would leave guarding their cassava to look for Ngunga? Who, on seeing him naked, would even find him the bark of a tree? The distress is overpowering.

Then there is Mpho’s Search by Sandra Braude, a young people’s novel based on a quest by a 12-year-old boy, Mpho. He moves from Witbank, Transvaal, to Johannesburg, in search of his long lost father, Paulus Mapanga, who is thought to be working in the mines. The distress is palpable.

As the story begins, Mpho is being fired from baas du Toit’s farm for failing to look after the white owner’s sheep.

The grandmother who Mpho has been staying with died just six months back. Grandmother had cared for Mpho, fed him and looked after him when he had been ill.

She had talked to Mpho and told him about his own mother and father whom he had never known, related stories to him and read to him from her tattered Bible. Mpho’s mother had died when Mpho was a baby.

Mpho’s father had left when Mpho was very young, to go and work in the mines.

That was the only way Paulus Mapanga could earn money and send it home. Mpho could hardly remember his father.

Armed with R500, Mpho sets off to look for his father in Johannesburg, not really knowing the hazards in front of him and the near impossible task of finding a man in the mines.

Mpho rides to Johannesburg and puts up in a squatter camp in a space owned by an elderly woman. He is caught up in the violence that goes on between various violent groups of people in the squatter camp, until he runs away in the middle of the night.

He runs into Hillbrow, where a Good Samaritan shelters him for the night, giving him a free lift into central Johannesburg the following morning.

Soon Mpho realises that it was not easy to find a man whose address you don’t know in a place like Johannesburg. He becomes a street dweller, learning from other city children how to beg and how to pilfer from supermarkets. He meets sex perverts, who take him home and try to abuse him.

He runs away and one day, he meets another Zulu boy called Themba, who teaches him about making money through offloading goods from trucks for shops and shining shoes for passers’ by.

Eventually, Mpho and Temba, who are now a formidable pair, get to a Catholic-run shelter house where they put up during the night and with the option to return to school.

They also team up with a notorious boy called Stephen who intoxicates them with drugs and teaches them to break into shops in search of guns, knives and other things until Mpho is arrested when he has not committed crime yet.

The Catholic safe house secures a lawyer for Mpho and as soon as he is discharged, he bumps into his father’s long-time friend, a Dr Nkosi. Nkosi indicates that Mpho’s father is apparently abroad, studying and has sent him to search for Mpho!

Then there is that fast growing writer, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma of Zimbabwe who has a novel of 2012 called Shadows. There is another Mpho in there, a boy in distress. As Tshuma’s novella begins, Mpho (the narrator) is already steeped in being who he is; a man on a sharp decline.

He can never go up. His very first wish, which is the first sentence in this book, is: ‘I want to be alone.’ But he cannot be alone in a populous and seething Bulawayo township.

Mpho does not and may not know who his father is. Mpho does not love his mother; an ageing-nearly-out-of-business and sickly prostitute. Sometimes he watches through the key hole as she is being laid.

He has already taken his mother’s prostitute friend, Holly to bed (during a freak sexual storm). Holly cannot wait to have some more from Mpho. This symbolically incestuous act stays with Mpho up to the end.

He is going out with Holly’s daughter, Nomsa, whom he beds at will. He desires her the way one desires to perform an irresistible ablution. Mpho drops out from a prestigious Chemical Engineering degree at NUST after a students’ riot.

Mpho smokes dagga and only when he is like that, does he see more clearly the political and spiritual degradation of his country. He writes very desperate poetry and uses his brush to paint pictures of death and doom.

Mpho has no political ideals besides wishing to be happy. He attends both ruling party and oppositional party rallies interchangeably (for the abundant food and T-shirts).

That makes his subsequent arrest and harassment misplaced and unjustifiable.

The only release available to him towards the end is the hope to meet his dead mother ‘in dark places.’

At some point, he leaves behind his mother’s decomposing corpse in the morgue and skips the border into South Africa. Unlike the other Zimbabweans who take this archetypal route, Mpho is not in search of a job. He is only after Nomsa, the love of his life.

He cannot work. Mention of a job riles and makes him bitter. He eventually learns, like the other stock characters, in Christopher Mlalazi’s Many Rivers and Brian Chikwava’s Harare North, that whilst Zimbabwe is in inimitable turmoil, there is necessarily no sweetness abroad for the unwanted Zimbabweans.

Mpho eventually returns home to be hounded relentlessly by both the incognito spirit of his mother and the police. Rasta, the dagga-intoxicated artist at the Bulawayo gallery summarises it all: “I am coming my man…Forever coming. I never reach the place where I am going. And this is the whole point. To be forever coming.”

The writers pick their boy characters to show how treacherous the world can be.

I think they choose the boys because it is the boy and the young man who traditionally goes out to hunt or to work for the family.

He becomes the so-called dude in distress. His experiences necessarily become our experience. He is a typical character under typical circumstances.

Memory Chirere

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Conclusion

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Last week I was talking about how jokes, or humour generally, can help get one through the most desperate situations (although it’s like taking a paracetamol for a headache; a much, much stronger resort is faith). I used the example of how Polish Jews, trapped and dying in the Warsaw ghetto, used humour to get them through day by day.

A similar, though less nightmarish, situation obtains in today’s Nigeria. Conditions there are less hellish than those of the Warsaw ghetto, but still pretty awful. There are massive redundancies, so millions of people are jobless. Inflation is at about 30% and the cost of living is sky-rocketing, with the most basic foodstuffs often unavailable. There is the breakdown of basic social services.

And endemic violence, with widespread armed robbery (to travel by road from one city to another you take your life in your hands) and the frequent kidnapping for ransom of schoolchildren and teachers. In a recent issue of the Punch newspaper (Lagos) Taiwo Obindo, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jos, writes of the effects of economic hardship and insecurity on his people’s mental health.

He concludes: “We should see the funny side of things. We can use humour to handle some things. Don’t take things to heart; laugh it off.”

Professor Obindo doesn’t, regrettably, give examples of the humour he prescribes, but I remember two from a period when things were less grim. Power-cuts happened all the time — a big problem if you’re trying to work at night and can’t afford a generator.

And so the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) was universally referred to as Never Expect Power Always. And second, for inter-city travel there was a company called Luxurious Buses. Believe me, the average Lesotho kombi is a great deal more luxurious (I can’t remember ever having to sit on the floor of one of those).

And because of the dreadful state of Nigerian roads and the frequent fatal crashes, Luxurious Buses were referred to as Luxurious Hearses.

Lesotho’s newspaper thepost, for which I slave away tirelessly, doesn’t use humour very much. But there is Muckraker. I’ve always wondered whether Muckraker is the pen-name of a single person or a group who alternate writing the column.

Whatever, I’d love to have a drink with him / her/ them and chew things over. I like the ironic pen-name of the author(s). Traditionally speaking, a muckraker is a gossip, someone who scrabbles around for titbits (usually sexual) on the personal life of a celebrity — not exactly a noble thing to do.

But thepost’s Muckraker exposes big problems, deep demerits, conducted by those who should know and do better — problems that the powerful would like to be swept under the carpet, and the intention of Muckraker’s exposure is corrective.

And I always join in the closing exasperated “Ichuuuu!” (as I do this rather loudly, my housemates probably think I’m going bonkers).

Finally I want to mention television satire. The Brits are renowned for this, an achievement dating back to the early 1960s and the weekly satirical programme “TW3” (That Was The Week That Was). More recently we have had “Mock the Week”, though, despite its popularity, the BBC has cancelled this.

The cancellation wasn’t for political reasons. For decades the UK has been encumbered with a foul Conservative government, though this year’s election may be won by Labour (not such very good news, as the Labour leadership is only pseudo-socialist). “Mock the Week” was pretty even-handed in deriding politicians; the BBC’s problem was, I imagine, with the programme’s frequent obscenity.

As an example of their political jokes, I quote a discussion on the less than inspiring leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. One member of the panel said: “Labour may well have a huge lead in the polls at present, but the day before election day Starmer will destroy it by doing something like accidentally infecting David Attenborough with chicken-pox.”

And a favourite, basically non-political interchange on “Mock the Week” had to do with our former monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever one thinks about the British monarchy as an institution, the Queen was much loved, but the following interchange between two panellists (A and B) was fun:

A: Is the Queen’s nickname really Lilibet?
B: Yes, it is.
A: I thought her nickname was Her Majesty.
B: That’s her gang name.

OK, dear readers, that’s enough humour from me for a while. Next week I’m turning dead serious — and more than a little controversial — responding to a recent Insight piece by Mokhosi Mohapi titled “A reversal of our traditions and culture.” To be forewarned is to be prepared.

Chris Dunton

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Insight

Reading, writing and the art of reflection

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There is a close thread that runs through what you reflect on, what you read and what sticks in your mind. It’s almost a cyclic process with regards to how all these processes unfold. Today, in this installment we focus on the thread between reading, reflection and writing.

This appears a bit cumbersome to explain. But let’s simplify it. Let’s begin with a beautiful poem which encompasses what we have so far spoken about. Here we are! The poem is penned by “Tachibama Akemi.” It goes:

It is a pleasure
When, rising in the morning,
I go outside and
Find that a flower has blossomed
That was not there yesterday.

Seemingly, the poem is simple. But, on close analysis, it reflects very deep reflection and thoughtfulness.

The persona, in an existential fashion, reflects all about the purpose and meaning of life and his place in the overall matrix of life.

The persona carefully reflects on nature. This is what makes all this poem rustic and romantic.

The persona thinks deeply about the blossoming flowers and how the process of the growth of flowers appears almost inadvertently.

It is a poem about change, healing, the lapse of time and the changes or vissiccitudes in the life of a person are reflected creatively through imagery and poetry. We all go through that, isn’t it? We all react and respond to love, truth and beauty.

So far everything appears very interesting. Let’s just put to the fore some good and appealing thoughts. Let’s enlarge on reading, writing and reflection.

Kindly keep in mind that thoughts must be captured, told, expressed and shared through the magical power of the written word.

As a person, obviously through keeping entries in a journal, there is no doubt that you have toyed about thoughts and ideas and experiences you wish you could put across.

Here is an example you can peek from Anthony. Anthony likes writing. He tells us that in his spare time he likes exploring a lot. And, more often than not he tells us,

“I stop, and think, and then when I find something, I just keep on writing.”

So crisp, but how beautiful. Notice something interesting here; you need to stop, to take life effortlessly and ponderously, as it were; observe, be attentive to your environment; formulate thought patterns and then write.

To some extent, this article builds on our previous experiences when we spoke at length about the reading process.

But how can you do it? It’s not pretty much different. I can help you from my previous life as a teacher of English Languge.

The most important skill you must cultivate is that of listening, close listening. Look at how people and events mingle.

What makes both of you happy; enjoy it. I am sure you still keep that journal in which you enter very beautiful entries. Reflect about Maseru, the so-called affluent city. So majestic!

How can you picture it in writing!

I am glad you learnt to reflect deep and write. Thank you very much. Kindly learn and perfect the craft of observing, reflecting and writing. Learn that connection. Let’s meet for another class.

Vuso Mhlanga

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Part One

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Don’t be put off by the title, esteemed readers; what follows has nothing to do with the Batman films. As you will be happily (or unhappily) aware, I am a big fan of jokes. There’s a common understanding that a joke is ruined if you have to explain it, and this is true, but some jokes do need a bit of background explanation. Anyway. I like jokes and I like thinking about how they work.

Many of my favourite jokes have to do with language and the way we use it. For example: “I just bought myself a thesaurus. I similar it very much.”

Other jokes have to do with human behaviour and here it is important, out of respect for others, to avoid jokes that perpetuate stereotypical ideas about gender, race, nationality, and so on. I’m afraid the following joke does depend upon a stereotype (I’ll come back to that), but here goes, after a bit of background information.

In Lesotho you have an insect called a praying mantis — stick-like, bright green, and with great bulging eyes. They are rather lovable, despite the off-putting fact that the female practices insect cannibalism; after mating, she consumes the male. So, now you’ve had your zoological primer, here goes.

Two praying mantises are getting up close and personal. The female says to the male: “before we have sex and I bite your head off, could you help me put up some shelves?”

Apologies to female readers, because, as I said, that joke perpetuates a gender stereotype, namely, that women are good with a vacuum cleaner or a dustpan and brush, but hopeless with a hammer and nails.

There are many jokes that are, as it were, much more serious than that. As I rattled on about in a couple of earlier columns, many of these are satirical — jokes that are designed to point a finger at human folly or even wickedness. In another column, titled “Should we laugh?”, I explored the question “is there any subject that should be kept out of the range of humour?”

Well, apparently not, if we take on board the following account of the Warsaw ghetto.

Historical preface first.

The Warsaw ghetto represents one of the worst atrocities in modern history. In November 1940 the genocidal Nazis rounded up all the Jews in Poland’s capital and herded them into a small sector of the city, which they euphemistically, cynically, dubbed the “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw.”

Here nearly half a million Jews were in effect imprisoned, barely subsisting on tiny food rations. An estimated quarter of a million were sent off to the death camps. An uprising against the Nazi captors was brutally crushed. Around 100 000 died of starvation or disease.

Not much to laugh about there, you might say. But then consider the following, which I’ve taken from the New York Review of Books of February 29th this year:

“In the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1941 Mary Berg, then a teenager, wrote in her diary about the improbable persistence of laughter in that hellish place: ‘Every day at the Art Café on Leszno Street one can hear songs and satire on the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, [on the latter] in a veiled fashion. The typhoid epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is not our only weapon in the ghetto — our people laugh at death and at the Nazi decrees. Humour is the only thing the Nazis cannot understand.’”

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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