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Heritage and social points of union

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When the old man on a horse pointed to the village I was going to, I could only see faint wisps of smoke in the far (far) distance. In between me and my destination stretched at least 12 kilometres, and as I earlier heard there are only two trips per day to the village I had to walk to, very high on the mountainsides of Lesotho and very far from the madding crowds of the city where I spend most of my days.

This is the kind of place I had to visit in the days when I was still only half-high to a maize stalk, and I used to love visiting because the meat was always plenty, and in the rainy season my grandmother would collect wild mushrooms for us from the forest if there had been a thunderstorm on the previous day. It was a sweet life, very simple and sedentary, peaceful and relaxed, and exactly the kind of life a writer’s mind would be most fecund in owing largely to the lack in noise and an abundance of the silence one needs to pen the best pieces of work.

I walked the twelve kilometres to my grandfather’s village, over hills, and across two streams, and for the first time in a long time crossed a single river at two points. I was going to my grandmother’s funeral and up here in the Mountain Kingdom, funerals are perhaps the only occasions where one can get to reunite with their kin and long-lost friends. I was walking not to a funeral but to a family reunion, for that is what the passing of a family member means on an ordinary day.

Points of union in society are not often clearly visible, and they are unlike those western-style occasions where the nuclear family is the common social structure. The extended family is the structure we have here, and it is made up of individuals that come from different clans that have over time intermarried and it is therefore not surprising for one to find that their extended family is made up of members whose clans may have been thought to be different in terms of tradition and custom.

We pour the soil together into the grave, we discuss matters in preparation for the send-off, and we share tales of the days when we were growing up together and we reminisce about the member of the family we are about to send on the final journey. I am never exactly sad at funerals, for the reality of death is an accepted occurrence in my mind, and I am actually more interested in meeting the living with whom we share the duties related to the funeral.

Due to their ‘sad’ nature, funerals are not often acknowledged for their true role as points of family reunion. I spoke of the need to practise rememory as an exercise to help us as a nation and the best occasion to practice this is when life’s sad moments come and we have to gather to share the pain. The family is a microcosm of society, and society itself is a miniature version of what the nation is. Gathering for different purposes is a timeless human practice that has been in existence from time immemorial.

Whether it be for mirth, as will soon be when we get together to celebrate the King’s Birthday, the definition of union finds its meaning in the individual that influenced it and the other individuals congregated in his name or to answer his call. Mirth needs to be shared, sadness too needs to be shared and sometimes, one has to travel miles to extend a helping hand or to grace the occasion with their presence, for presence is what really counts far more than coins and gifts.

Whilst we are at it the secret is to remember to unite for a good intention, not to shine brighter than the others gathered or to be disconnected from them based on assumed status. Gatherings mean that there is one who counts more than the others, and the others present rally for and behind such a figure to find or to rediscover their true selves. As I have learnt over the years, one’s family often extends far beyond the boundaries of family and reveals to one that their idea of what a family looks like is myopic.

The family is a complex unit made up of many different individuals whose customs and traditions may at first seem different but which upon close analysis reveal themselves to be common in more ways than one. The Western outlook is that our clan names mark “division” but the truth of the matter is that they denote our “roots”. That one is a Mokuena does not mean that they are any different from a Motlokoa, for the reality of our history is that members of the ‘different’ clans married at a certain point and became common.

I could see this as a reality as I met the different mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and cousins at my grandmother’s funeral. It is at this occasion where I began to understand how the baton gets passed on. We are not a haphazard nation, we are actually an ordered people who clearly understand the essence of hierarchy and who understand its significance in the maintenance of the continuity of the salient characters of our society’s customs and traditions.

This is one of the main reasons why everyone has a title and is honoured according to their title and their role. The title matches the role, and if it does not, then there is surely something wrong with the way things are run. I am still a junior, but the customs and the lores of my people are being passed on to me and my age-mates by the elders, for there is a very clear reality that we too shall be elders some day soon. Sometimes, one is forced to assume the role before it is expected because someone passed on unexpectedly.

Death is often the matter in such cases, and the family comes in to clarify issues that are core to the assumption of a given role to the concerned individual. There is the natural fear that comes with the associated responsibilities, but it is a path one as an individual should never worry about for there is guidance that is sure to come with it. The current tendency is to be tempted to veer away from the old path, to follow the simpler faster way because it seems easier.

The reality however, is that the faster way means one loses some of the core meanings salient to the understanding of who one really is in the light of the wider reality formed of other individuals that make up the family and the community. This truth dawned on me as I was walking down the steep mountain road and my group of travelling companions for the day was made up of ladies who were going to a funeral about halfway to my destination.

They volunteered to show me the way, and were patient enough to tell me the name of every mountain I could see. In this wide valley, every mountain and hill has a name and obviously, I could not have gotten to know the name of every mountain, hill, or stream had I been ‘fortunate’ enough to get a ride in a taxi or other kind of modern transport. I took pictures and noted the names, feeling fortunate that the land through which I was footing Morena Mohlomi fashion was becoming familiar with each step forward.

I did not regret that I had to walk that long distance for with each step towards the destination, those wisps of smoke that I saw from afar actually turned into plumes in front of my eyes. Those faint outlines of houses that had seemed miniscule from a distance took clear shape and form as I approached and I could tell what it they were in real form. This looks like the description of a journey, but I guess it was a lesson on walking towards the true understanding of what heritage really is; a walk from a point of little understanding to true understanding. We sometimes have to take long walks to understand who we really are.

On this walk with my companions on the day we met a figure riding a strange vehicle, a bicycle covered in plastic that looked like one of those motorcycle taxis one sees in movie scenes shot in India or Thailand. Here was a man who chose to fashion his own all-weather bicycle inspired by the immediate circumstances in his environment. Transport is scarce, and one has to think on their feet if they want to make their life experience more tolerable, and from the manner in which I conversed with the wise man on a bicycle, I could tell that he had lost none of the courtesy that is paramount to the character of the Basotho.

Polite, genuine, and welcoming, he let me take pictures of him and his ride (after I had politely asked, as is the true rule of non-invasive photography which is unlike the unprofessional photography of your now common photographer-for-social-media-purposes), and I realised that there exceptions that with time and acceptance may actually prove to be answers to prevalent problems. I wish his neighbours can come to understand the wisdom of his valour and follow his example.

When the originator of Honda affixed a lawnmower engine to his bicycle, many thought he was mad like I could hear some of the comments from watchers of the bicycle-man. Honda is now a nation’s symbol of progress and heritage, I hope the bicycle-man shall come to be seen as such with his bicycle-car with two solar panels on the roof. He is a green revolution stalwart in my books, a clear example that mountain people could benefit from motorbikes than having to depend on cars for their travel needs. Heritage needs not jealousy or selfishness to render progress.

It merely needs acceptance, tolerance, and acknowledgement of its importance to reveal its true potential. Far often than less, one is confronted with cultures from other regions of the world and the choice to take the decision to adopt them as part of their heritage or to reject them. There are common points between cultures as I discovered in my B.A. Honours research on the relationship between mythology and the literature of the world. There are those aspects of our different cultures that are very similar, and I believe those are what we should learn to adopt.

Those aspects that teach us that we are different should be thrown out for they are cultures of division and not unity. I frankly do not believe in cultures that set one individual above others, cultures or beliefs that make individuals to think that they are more right than others and end up influencing them to believe that their word is more right than those of other equally intelligent and equally human individuals. Walking that long road to a relative’s funeral, I met people that showed me how simple I really am, that I am not smarter simply because I come from the city and they from the village.

I may know the streets better than they do, but they are closer to the earth of our land than I am and therefore understand it better than I do. My street smarts have no sense in the open valleys and high mountains of the land of my forebears, only my humility and its associated virtues and qualities carry a meaning that can be understood by all.

I remember to greet politely beginning my greeting with the words “Khotso (Peace)” because it is a word all individuals across the land understand. And I have learned not to forget to remember to attend the funeral of a neighbour or a family member because such occasions connect one with their wider being. They are the points of shared heritage that ensure that at no point in the future will I forget who I really am, for I Am a Mosotho and I am as common as the humble people and the high mountains of the land which gave birth to my forebears who in turn gave birth to me.

The roads to reaching common points in my heritage may at times seem impossibly long, but I will brave them and reach the kraals where all unite to remember who they really are. Even if only for a short while, even if for only a minute: it is all worth the effort in terms of physical and spiritual reward, in terms of reminding us that we are the children of one king who showed us that we are one despite our different clans and cultures.

Re bana ba Moshoeshoe, kaofela re chabana sa khomo…

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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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