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A plague journal

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I didn’t think I was going to write for thepost about the Coronavirus crisis. But there we are. First, a bit of writerly remorse. Over the last few weeks my column has been taken up by a piece on the joys of holding dinner parties and of eating out, in Lesotho and elsewhere. Given that you guys are now enduring one of the most severe Coronavirus lockdowns in the world, this might have seemed insensitive. Sorry for that, but just file the foody tips away for better times! In my defense, I have to point out that, unlike Muckraker and some of your other columnists, I don’t write on up-to-the-minute affairs, and so my pieces are composed and submitted to my long-suffering editor weeks in advance of publication. Food for Thought was packed off long before the lockdown was imposed in the UK, where I now live and scribble, and the lockdown in Lesotho came weeks later.

I can’t imagine what you guys are going through. Are you allowed out to shop for essentials (food, medicine), or to take exercise? How are livestock being cared for? How are you coping with schooling from home, as so many families don’t have internet? All this, and the drought, too, and the inexhaustible piles of ordure (that’s a polite word for crap) dumped on your heads by your politicians. Surely Lesotho deserves a break!

I keep up with events in Lesotho through your press on internet and through the one paper in the UK that takes your country seriously, the Guardian (a solidly socialist paper, of course). One story that intrigued me was the calling out of the army to the streets of Maseru to deal with “rogue elements.” I don’t know the background to this. It may have been, as in South Africa recently, that there was looting by people who had no food (and one bears in mind that the Republic has one of the deepest levels of economic inequality in the world). Or it could have been anti-government protests. Whenever these occur in Nigeria, they are blamed on “disgruntled elements” (“disgruntled” being Nigeria-speak for “rogue”). If Lesotho’s politics are headed down the same road as Nigeria’s, may the good Lord protect you. (As an aside, you should know that Lesotho and Nigeria are the two countries in the world I love the most. Often, Basotho or Nigerian friends ask me, which of the two countries is the better? Some weeks ahead in this column I shall be addressing that question, which is rather like “would you prefer an apple or a screwdriver?”)

But for now, back to Covid-19. As I said, I can’t imagine how you are coping. In the UK the lockdown has taught us a lot. We have a crisis in the government’s mismanagement of our superb National Health Service—but at least our leadership is incompetent and not plain evil as in the United States. Most people are behaving responsibly in respect of the social distancing regulations, and that’s remarkable given that, notoriously, the Brits don’t like being told what to do. When I go out for my daily exercise and shopping, I notice pedestrians are keeping well apart from each other, but are calling out to each other “how are you?” and “can I help you?”.

Because we are such a reserved, stuck-up lot (well, not me), greeting people in the street in this country used to be regarded as being deeply intrusive, rather like asking a handsome stranger whether he’d like to come for a drink with you. Next time I see a scattering of other pedestrians in the street I’m going to call out cheerfully “Khotso, bo’m’e le bo ntate” and see what reaction I get.

Then there is the question of how to keep oneself from going insane. Books are great, of course, though difficult to get hold of for those who have no kindle facility or cannot order through internet and where there are no libraries or bookshops (or, in the case of the UK, where our excellent libraries are in lockdown). The choice of book to get one through the pandemic can be surprising. Best sellers right now are, apparently, Albert Camus’s The Plague and Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, I suppose on the basis that to read about even more devastating scenarios than the present one is kind of cheering (in the same way that when Trump was elected, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 went through the roof). A friend of a friend has decided that this is just the time to read the eight-volume Penguin edition of Dostoyevsky, purchased by her long ago but never opened since. My reaction: Dostoyevsky is, of course, one of the world’s very greatest writers, but he is as grim as one can get. Why not set him aside for the time being and get hold of something really cheerful, such as Dante’s Inferno.

Less facetiously, the most cheering thing to come out of the pandemic is all the wonderful tales of kindness and helpfulness. And that is all over the world, because, as socialists rightly maintain, people are essentially good. I especially liked the story that came in from the Cape Flats, of a minister of the church persuading gang members to take time off slaughtering each other in order to distribute supplies to those desperately in need.

Chris Dunton

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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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