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A tool for change

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It is pretty interesting to try and go into the finer details of anything and to discuss the core issues that form its main components in terms of description. This exercise becomes even harder with an individual whose mind is not on par with the teacher. It is a fact that all that needs definition oftentimes needs to be presented in terms that are familiar to the audience.

A fine line to tread however, presenting the full definition of any entity demands in the first that the teacher be cognizant with the knowledge systems of the given audience. Failure to adopt this type of attitude on the part of the teacher is at least suitably complemented by respectable acknowledgement that the sanctity of what is sacred to the audience shall be preserved for the sake of their sacredness to the given audience.

Failure to know or at least to acknowledge the wisdom of other individuals leads to misunderstanding, for then, a  man consumed by his own opinion cannot see the error of his ways and shall soon fall into a pit because he then begins to put himself in the shape and countenance of a demi-god. This is the countenance and attitude of the plutocrat gone and forgotten the sad hard paths he has walked as explored in the works of literary writers like Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.

The plutocrat is the type of figure that keeps honourable men in bondage, one that would willingly send an aristocrat into serfdom just to keep the few caesarean pieces of metal in the fold of his torn pocket; and the world and its unfolding circumstances at this point have given room to the power of the plutocrat: those who have can actually hold the world at ransom because they have the means to counter the effects of what is unfolding at the given point. This is literature in its infancy, an exploration of the events unfolding in the moment and a look into the relationship between Marley and Hitler, Marley and Cesaire, Dennis Brutus and William Edward Burghardt Du Bois and whoever may be the trending figure at the given point in time.

One first has to understand the oneness of the variety despite its seeming scatteredness. One has to understand the everyday through the different ages of man and to understand the interconnectedness of what goes on in the everyday with what goes into the annals of time and books of history as has been seen and read or heard through the book that recount the story of time through the ages.

Considered an honourable profession only by those that have gone through its process, dwindling in terms of curricular support, and phased out in certain schools, the study of literature is not done enough or hasn’t been done enough in the last few years that it has reached a point of insignificance. It is as if that however vital literature is to the study and understanding of life’s unfolding scenes, it is has reached a point where it is deemed incongruous with the process of progress.

The field’s significance in the progress games of the world may seem to those that are working hard to phase it out seem irrelevant, but the fact is that this outlook is erroneous: literature will never be irrelevant, thus the reason why it forms part of every field of study.

The critics of literature should understand that the understanding of true literature is as scattered as the knowledge systems of this world. The basis of any idea or plan and strategy finds its roots in aesthetic sense and appeal, that is, it can never be understood enough to be put into action if the imaginary side to it cannot be presented in written form as literature.

Jules Verne presented submarines and space travel well before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969. The literature of any society is the guiding ethos with which what is wished can be given face to enable science and other fields to bring it into reality. Well before George Lukas fashioned Star Wars, it took Erich Von Daniken and other space age writers to trigger the thought of a space age franchise in the minds of future scientists and screenplay writers.

He that approaches literature should do so with caution, it is a field that demands utter selflessness, extended patience, and a humble type of attitude when dealing with its understanding. Meja Mwangi did not just pen Going Down River Road out of the blue. A psychedelic type of fantasy ride in the lives of two construction site ‘boys’, Ben and Ocholla, the tale’s meanings however go deeper than just the entertaining but imaginary sight of two drunks wobbling (and staggering) to their sleeping quarters after a busy night at the Karara shebeens with their jostling masses of people trying to get rid of the day’s problems at the speakeasies.

This was the tale of everyone in those days and could be read after a long day to while away time. The old tale is still relevant and similar to the now common scenes of the nightlife many of the construction workers that come to the concrete jungles of Africa and the rest of the world. Such scenes have however now got an ‘update’ in the prevailing faster world of worldwide web, their social media websites, and multimedia files shared on different platforms at stratospheric real-time speeds.

This means that the unfolding scenes of literature of the people at the current moment in time do actually go far more than the analysis of past literary experiences penned in novels. One may actually be tempted to think that they do not count in the midst of the COVID-19 war ongoing at this given moment in time.

They do however count for the different experiences of the people in the midst of a pandemic need to be recorded in one form or another for the sake of future generations. We have the need to understand that our situation is not particular or peculiar to only us in the history of time: what is has been before, and will come to be again in the future.

I came across a beautiful volume of literature on one of those journeys I have to take from time to time. Interestingly thrown into a storm ditch, The Heritage of Literature Series volume of short stories by then modern writers was suitably covered in a ‘War Emergency Binding’. Upon reading and turning the pages across the different authors that were part of the volume from Richard Garnett to O. Henry, Ernest Bramah to G. K.

Chesterton, the volume proved a worthy companion to the last short story by H. E. Bates. A collection of short stories published in the middle of World War Two in 1942, the collection proved to me the timelessness of some of the then explored themes by different writers in the field of literature in that period.

Another factor that proved quite interesting was the relevance of tales written almost a century and a score years ago to the now very fast life of the modern day. From The Rewards of Industry to Roads to Destiny, the reading of the volume revealed one fact about literature that the sceptics of time often misplace on its true essence; literature reveals the ever-changing facets of life in all their diverse forms and this fact alone is uncomfortable to those whose professions thrive on having something to hide or for those that are in the comfort of such issues as complacency.

Simple in description and mundane in terms of expression because of its understanding that it should be easily and mentally consumed by the ordinary man in the street, good literature is written for the sake of its being relevant to different individuals on the different rungs of the social hierarchy. Good literature can never be possessed because it demands to be shared due to the beautiful portraits it paints of the changing scenes in life that are often familiar to the reader or at least good enough to trigger the imagination of the reader to the point where they can fashion a personal image of what is being spoken about in the written words of the literature.

The distant shore never before seen by the boy living in the rural villages far from the sea can be painted so clearly in the imagination that the waves breaking on the rocks vividly described by the writer that includes such scenes in his story cannot only be seen, but the salt in the breeze on the coast can be smelt and tasted. This is one of the effects of well-written literature, the reading of a work not only becomes a sight experience but also encompasses the other four senses of the body. Reading in that sense not only becomes an encounter but an experience to be remembered for a lifetime.

What the writer feels inside or outside his or her skin is a sensation felt only by the individual feeling it, what the writer  sees is thus seen as viewed from his or her perspective and not the next individual’s, what he or she tastes can only be described as tasted by the individual tongue, what he or she hears goes only into their auditory senses and however loud, cannot be deemed to have been heard by all in spite of their proximity to the source of the sound heard, and the smell of the wild rose reaches only the individual’s nasal nodes and affects each person that comes across the thorny plant on a level individual.

Processed and interpreted in the individual brain; what is seen, tasted, smelled, touched, and heard carries only a certain level of meaning applicable only to the individual. It is only after it is passed on to the next individual in the form of words spoken, scribbled, or signalled as literature that it begins to make sense to those that themselves have a certain level of understanding of that which I am trying to describe.

Without the understanding of that which is being described, the process of interpretation out of which meanings are drawn is rendered temporarily impossible, as the transmitter is forced to find similar entities in the immediate environs to try and describe that which they are trying to pass on in their words.

African and other literature finds its root in the word and stems from somewhere. It is inspired somehow by something, some occurrence at first not clearly understood, but with the passage of time unravels and its meanings in their full magnitude are defined by the words written about it. Common knowledge as expressed in literature is penned somewhere in the

subconscious of the utterer that in simple terms ‘speaks’ it (for the term is in its basic definition related to the act of communication, passing the message on and receiving it via various senses).

The word then is what becomes the nexus of the act of communication, a bridge that connects the dots in the act associated with connecting the human and animal and plant races of the world; the word is on its own the core of the process of communication, the definitive element that gives the act of communication its character and meaning: for without the word communication is non-existent. In many shapes, scents, colours, sensations, flavours, and other stimulants words have their form; and they are thus used to serve the one primal purpose of connection in the world: communication through literature written for and relevant to the unfolding moments in a given era.

I have always held the view that literature as a tool of communication should always be in touch with the real-life situations of the audience. This means that it should adopt a real-time approach most of the time or at least find common points in history that are familiar to the audience. The literature teacher should always find some common points at all times to aid the student in terms of gaining enough understanding to have the requisite knowledge to  then interpret a work of literature.

Out of touch with the real-life experiences at the present moment, literature then loses one of its basic purposes that aimed at communicating life experiences and share them with the audience. Communication exists only if the entities associated with the words are familiar or have familiar relatives from which meanings can be drawn.

Without the simple element of familiarity present in an episode of communication, the whole episode is non-effectual in terms of the basic purpose of the episode of conversation between the two or more parties involved; because then, the two parties involved might as well be talking to rocks or staring at the sun, and the only meanings they can draw out of the whole episode are drawn out of what is little understood or instinctively understood.

Literature thus has to be in touch at all times for it to be an effective tool inspiring change or instilling a sense of resolution and resilience to a people going through a certain uncomfortable experience. We have to tell the tales of the now through the only medium available: literature.

Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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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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