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Literature and social crisis



My simple take is that sometimes literature shows us the real life behaviour of characters that are living in communities going through high social crisis. History gives the record but literature is capable of bringing real life drama to historical events.

History intends to record events as accurately as possible, while literature interprets historical or everyday events in an imaginative way. By using the example of World War II, a novel such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five presents a more personal perspective of the cannibalistic horrors of war. The novel depicts the state of mind of a soldier fighting to survive in a prisoner of war camp during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany. In writing the satirical novel, Vonnegut drew on his own experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden.

We go to history books for the concrete events in Russia towards the end of Tsarism but we may go to Maxim Gorky’s novel, Mother, to get what it felt to be in the Russia of the early 1900’s. Gorky’s Mother presents a panoramic gallery of female characters such as Nilovna, Sophia, Natasha, Sasha and Ludmilla. Mother depicts and dramatises the emerging class-conscious revolutionary proletariat class in Russia.

The Caribbean islands were faced with very unique challenges after slavery and colonialism. Each island tended to be too small to stand alone. The islands are numerous but small in size and they speak different languages; English, French, Spanish and others. A sense of oneness is difficult to achieve in such a set up. They looked to America for leadership while sometimes looking to Africa for identity.

There is always a feeling of being marooned in the vast sea. There is a subsequent feeling of entrapment and attrition. You find this brought to life in the works of VS Naipaul, particularly in his short story book of 1959, called Miguel Street. It is set in Trinidad where the author grew up.

Although each story in Miguel Street is individualised, the setting is Port of Spain. Characterisation is one of the more effective ways to understand this collection of stories. The characters tend to be tragicomic, striving to attain some goals which are too high to be attained by them. They end up in trouble or are thoroughly disappointed. They want to escape from themselves or the island.

Bogart appears in most of these short stories. His real name remains unknown. He is Bogart, a name of an American film called Casablanca. Sometimes he is called Patience, the name of the game that he plays. Bogart dramatizes the feeling of instability and insignificants of the Caribbean people who are found aping foreign people and foreign heroes.

One day he tells his playmates that he is going to the toilet and is coming back soon, but he actually disappears for months! The boredom in Bogart’s life reflects a deep lack of purpose. The ennui around him is palpable as shown here:

“What happening there, man?” he would ask quietly, and then he would say nothing for ten or fifteen minutes. And somehow you felt you couldn’t really talk to Bogart, he looked so bored and superior. His eyes were small and sleepy. His face was fat and his hair was gleaming black. He was the most bored man I ever knew…

His “acting big” at least shows a certain yearning for real achievements which people in these post slavery societies cannot sustain. Asked by a friend why he commits bigamy, Bogart answers, “To be man, among we men.”

In the short story called “The Thing Without a Name,” Popo does not make a thing even when he is called a painter. Hidden in this situation is Popo’s desire to be creative and useful. He wants to be big, affluent and eccentric, without the means and without having to work. It is his wife who has to work for the family. Popo is eventually arrested for remodeling and selling stolen property.

Man-man is probably the most remarkable character in this collection of short stories. He wants to be eccentric, stylish and popular, but he does not measure up. Like Bogart, Man-man comes closest to his ideals through some form of drama. He can pretend that he is an English man through his accent. He can pretend to have the guts by running in an election. He can finally pretend he is Christ by asking people to nail him on the cross. When he cannot go on with the crucifixion, he comically calls to the people from the cross, “Cut this stupidness out!” You can see that this is a community with a shortage of solid heroes.

B. Wordsworth is a story that explores the idea of surpassing one’s real life in pursuit of another which is more powerful. The fake poet in that story declares that he is the iconic English poet, Wordsworth. The fake poet wants to write what he calls “the greatest poem in the world,” which he hopes would “sing to all humanity.” It would be written over a period of 22 years. He struts all over the place playing the poet. He is the Caribbean’s version of Wordsworth. Sadly, this Caribbean Wordsworth writes only one little line which goes: “the past is deep.” He is a far cry from the real Wordsworth who left behind a rich collection of poems.

There are several other artistic figures who go nowhere in this collection. There is Morgan in “The Pyrotechnist” whose fireworks do not bring success but disaster as they burn down the house. There is also Backu in “The Mechanical Genius.” He is a fake mechanic who is putting engines apart, further damaging them. There is Edward in “Until the Soldiers came” who surrenders his artistic pursuits, ending up pretending to be an American.

In the final story called “How I left Miguel Street,” the narrator finally leaves because his mother realizes that there is little to achieve on the island and he is getting too wild. Once he stays drunk for two consecutive days! At the airport during his departure, the narrator’s shadow is described as “a dancing dwarf on the tarmac.” He does not look back as he goes to the plane. He can be compared to Trumper in George Lamming’s novel, In The Castle Of My Skin, who leaves the islands in a similar fashion.

In his better known novel, A House for Mr Biswas, Naipaul explores the idea that the Caribbean is desperate for an identity and also for a roof above his head. Nevertheless, Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

At some point in his life, Naipaul declares that, “Nothing has ever been made in the Caribbean.” He is pessimistic. He invites us to laugh at the pitfalls of a people who, having slave ancestry, cannot be inspired by their past and therefore cannot inspire anyone in return. For most of these characters, exile seems to be the only salvation. The text is well known for its characters and background that breathe the life of Trinidad and Tobago in a way that no historian could have possibly captured.

Nadine Gordimer’s novel of 1981, July’s People, is a futurist novel inspired by the guerilla-Marxist-Leninist kind of Independence in neighbouring Zimbabwe in 1980. Gordimer imagines a sudden South African future of more active urban black uprising that sees the whites flee in all directions. The novel is set during a fictional civil war in which black South Africans have violently overturned the system of apartheid.

In its painstaking tone, the novel exudes a strong sense of place. Apartheid is turned on its head. The blacks are suddenly on top where the whites used to be. Apartheid is now on trial and you hear it squeak in this novel. The author goes on ahead of history and creates exciting psychological images. The whites have an opportunity to taste the kind of humiliation that black South Africans have endured under white domination.

Bam Smales, a successful white Johannesburg architect, his wife Maureen and their three children, are rescued by their servant of fifteen years, a black man called July who takes them to his rural home 600 km away in their small car.

In this novel, there is an outstanding relationship between Maureen the white madam and her black houseboy, July. One way or the other, we are tempted to look at this story in view of Lessing’s The Grass is Singing, where Mary Turner has a curious affair with her houseboy, Moses  and  Oyono’s Houseboy where the houseboy, Toundi, comes very dangerously close to the Commandant’s wife.

Taking the colonials from the infrastructural and racial comfort of urban to a distant African village, Gordimer must be playing on an experimental theory which needs investigating as it is based on clear cut and well known black white relations on the frontier.

To a great extent, Gordimer attempts to experiment with a new form of defamiliarisation. In the literature of the African frontier, the meeting place between black and white has always been the exclusively white territory, like the farm, the mine and the industrial working place, far away from the blackman’s traditional base in the villages.

Here is a reverse case where the Smales actually find themselves in unfamiliar territory.

There is a way in which the major supposition is that July and the Smales switch positions and that the Smales are at the mercy of both July and July’s village.

The village and the hut where the Smales are accommodated transform and challenge them physically and spiritually. Maureen fails to read the novel she has brought with her because she is already in a novel environment. Within weeks of settling in the African village, Maureen’s naked body becomes, “ungroomed and ungroomable” that her husband cries, Oh my God!” when he looks at it during their now fast dwindling intimacy. Without a regular bath, the privacy of the urban bedroom and the toiletry of civilization, Bam, Maureen’s husband actually looks like a “primate.” The whites are now at an equal level with the usually haggard African villagers.

With the help of the moment, July gradually stands up to his former employers. This involves July ceasing to be a houseboy. He now asks his own wife to wash the clothes for the whites instead of washing them himself as he used to do back in Johannesburg.

July can also be seen taking over the white people’s car without their permission. July can now disposes Bam of his gun and helping Daniel the Sowetan to rev it and drive it around the village. July also pleads for mercy with the Chief on behalf of Bam. He is now able to stand up to Maureen until she becomes his potential sex partner.

In such unfamiliar territory and circumstances filled with distress, Maureen is preoccupied with July’s presence. She sometimes wonders about July’s town women whom they have left behind. She wonders whether July craves her too in the manner of a jealousy lover! Maureen and July do not share a sexual experience but their private interactions are laced with conscious eroticism.

As Maureen stands nude in the rain one night, she falls into a state of transfiguration and sees and hears July. Later, when they meet to discuss who should keep the car keys, they share a certain hazy shame associated with illicit sex partners and the narrative states that they are both glad that Bam is not near them.

Removed from the public sphere of the racial city, Maureen imagines that she is in a love triangle involving Bam and July, whom she silently calls her “frog Prince and savior.”

In their third meeting, Maureen feels that it is natural that she is meeting July out in the bush. They talk about ordinary matters of the past and as July brings his right fist onto his chest, the thud sounds as realistic as the fear in her chest. This is the first time Maureen ever feels the aura of a natural man. Her husband, the text claims, is only “a presence in circumstances outside those the marriage was contracted for.”

It is interesting to note that the equality between Maureen and July only happens in phantasmagoria in territory hidden beyond Johannesburg where issues really matter. July’s wife and mother and Chief still view the Smales as the others. The story is futurist and has the tendency of fables and has an inconclusive ending too.

In this novel, the mistrust and misunderstanding between black and white South Africans are so palpable that no historian could enact them in equal measure.

Indeed, history intends to record events as accurately as possible, while literature interprets historical or everyday events in an imaginative way.

Memory Chirere

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Harnessing imagery in writing



All writing is imaginative. Every piece of writing reflects the artistry and mental resourcefulness of the writer.

Effective writing also reflects the colourfulness of the writer’s mind and heart; their ability to paint the world to the reader and their capacity or facility of taking the reader with them to beautiful mental and physical and picturesque journeys.

In this piece we focus on how we can hone our creative abilities through the use of imagery and the effect of using colourful and evocative imagery in writing. Let’s go! What if I say, “Learn to prepare wisely and meticulously in time,” you will still grasp the message in a very clear way, isn’t it? But would that be interesting and colourful?

But what if we put it in a colourful manner, “Make hay whilst the sun still shines,” you really grasp the colour and the full import of the message, isn’t it? That’s what imagery does to your writing; it allows you to feel, touch and smell what you are reading.

There is no doubt that the proverb, “make hay whilst the sun still shines” has taken you to the countryside, in a farming community. You hear the bleating of sheep and the neighing of horses.

At the same time, you visualise the good farmer gracefully at work, cutting grass which he is piling in orderly stacks, preparing fodder for his animals in the future. The sun’s rays buoy his attempts and ensure that the hay is prepared with care and colour.

Thus, the point of good imagery is to capture in full detail a world that allows the reader to grasp and enjoy using their five senses. Let me give you a small but beautiful extract which further drives home the point.

“With his machete he detached a brittle clod, broke it on a stone. It was full of dead twigs and the residue of dried roots that he crushed in his fingers.

“Look, there isn’t anything left. The water has dried up in the very entrails of the mountain. It’s not worth while looking any further. It’s useless.” Then, with sudden anger, “But why, damn it! Did you cut the woods down, the oaks, the mahogany trees, and everything that grow up there? Stupid people with no sense!”

Thando struggled for a moment to find words. “What else could we do, brother? We cleared it to get new wood. We cut it down for framework and beams for our hearts. We repaired the fences around our fields. We didn’t know ourselves. Ignorance and need go together, don’t they?”

The sun scratched the scorched back of the mountain with its shining fingernails. Along the dry ravine the earth panted. The countryside, baked in drought, began to sizzle.”

What a colourful piece! The extract aptly paints a countryside’s pulse and the rhythms of seasonal and climate change and how that affects the livelihood patterns of the inhabitants. Have you seen how the sun has been endowed with human-like features?

And the description of the earth assuming human-like features, for instance, “the earth panted.” No doubt, you have seen the earth subdued by the intensity of heat in a way that is similar to a person who is panting.

To paint excellent images the writer needs to have the gift of observation. He/she should be able to observe quite a panorama of things around him and immerse them in the soil of their imagination. Let’s see another good extract where you can discern the link between good images, excellent description and the power of observation.

“It’s in the morning, the fourth watch, to borrow from biblical discourse. It’s damp outside. I brace the slicing chilly weather to go outside. There is a drizzle, constant showers seeping deep down. I pace up at least 400 metres from my hood. I see lined-up, almost cubicle-like houses.

I keep walking, with a spring in the step buoyed by the damp aura wrought by the incessant downpours. I take a deep breath, and step back as it were.

I want to be deliberate. I want to take in everything in my environment; the colours, the diverse hues and plethora of landscape contours. I notice a woman, almost in her forties, from my eye-view assumptions. She is grabbing a basket clutched tenaciously almost close to her big bosom.

She is going to Mbare Musika, the famous agricultural market wherein she intends to buy items for her stall. Behind her, there is a big strapped baby covered in velvet. As she briskly walks, I see her jumping a poodle of water as she observes her stall. I also observe a man, clad in sportswear running trying to cure a big belly.

As I keep watching, I see a woman sweeping her small veranda. I keep walking. I see a woman, plump tending to her garden. She seems animated by the drizzle, thanks to the rains.

I hear another woman, especially her piercing voice, she is selling floor polish. Her voice fills the air. As I drown in the sweet voice, I notice a man staggering. He is filthy. He could have calloused the whole night. He is holding a Black Label quart, speaking gibberish in the air. I keep watching.”

So here were are! Writing is a matter of painting with words, carving images and allowing the reader to experience the impact of all the senses so as to fully grasp the sense of what is put across.

Vuso Mhlanga teaches at the University of Zimbabwe. For almost a decade and half he taught English language and Literature in English at high school.

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Politicians’ propensity to score own goals



Lesotho politicians are often in the habit of scoring own goals. For example, look at the circus that took place in the country at the opening of parliament after the winter break. These events remind me of the article that I wrote with the title ‘Scoring own goals’.

This article appeared in this publication dated March 18 – 24, 2021. It argued that Lesotho’s politicians had a propensity to score own goals.

Many say that education and academia should not involve themselves in politics. This belief is a fallacy. The two are intrinsically intertwined. Education and politics link in a complex way.

For instance, parliament is an organ that passes laws that govern and guide national education policies. The interconnectedness includes the curricula that educational institutions and schools teach. Now, if the National Assembly’s focus is misplaced, important legislative decisions may stall or be derailed by lack of action.

I must make a disclaimer though. I am not promoting any view about a political party. I am writing this article purely as a concerned citizen.

I revisit the own goal tendency of those in authority by assessing the drama that unfolded in politics and governance. I review the recent events that culminated in the failed vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Sam Matekane and his government.

I use arguments from research to demonstrate the fluidity of Lesotho’s democracy. Some politicians often take advantage of this fluidity for selfish gain. I contest that the Prime Minister and his government should treat their adversities as stepping stones to meeting their targets.

A constitution is a living document. Accordingly, to keep Lesotho’s constitution alive, current and relevant, parliament should regularly amend it.

However, in so doing, parliament must be careful that tinkering with the country’s constitution does not compromise the essence of democracy they champion. National and democratic principles must form the dogma that underpins the improvements and amendment exercises.

Personal aspirations, ambitions and creed must not underpin the amendments.

The recent events in and out of the National Assembly make one question the perceptions of the different roles players in the democratic playground in Lesotho have.

First, there was a vote of no confidence that the Speaker ruled to defer subject to the high court’s decision.

Second, there was the allegedly drunken MP’s own goal.

The third is the press conference led by the Commissioner of the Lesotho Mounted Police Services flanked by the head of the Lesotho Defence Force and the Director General of the National Security Services.

It is already a hat trick of own goals. Fourth, there was the statement of the Prime Minister claiming an attempted coup.

The fifth own goal is the moratorium that prevented parliament from holding a vote of no confidence against the Prime Minister before the lapse of three years of his inauguration.

The sixth is the practice of shirking responsibility by MPs. MPs often refer political matters to the national courts for decisions. The seventh, and the mother of all own goals, is the electoral system that Lesotho elected to pursue. The National Assembly has 120 MPs. There are 80 MPs representing constituencies and 40 proportional representatives.

The Commonwealth suggested that Lesotho review the modalities of the PR nominations. Sekatle and the Commonwealth agree that the PR system introduced plurality but at a cost. The cost is what scholars and commentators term minority rights and coalitions.

Also, it compromises accountability and transparency. It undermines the collective intelligence of the voters. Chief Jonathan warned against coalition governments by citing their instability. Political instability plagues Lesotho today.
Sekatle and the Commonwealth cited the overreliance on a threshold in awarding PR seats in parliament, cheapening them.

The PR system ballooned parliament unnecessarily. By comparison, Botswana had a population of 2.6 million in (2021). Lesotho had 2.3 million (2021). Botswana parliament currently has 65 seats, and Lesotho has 120.

A consequence emanating from the PR system in Lesotho is a hung parliament. Since 2012, there has not been an outright majority in the National Assembly. The results yielded chaos. Over that period, PMs constantly look over their shoulders. All these coalitions imploded.

Democracy is about the majority. Politicians must be persuasive to attract votes to achieve the majority. In other words, the PR system rewards failure.

The own goals cause stagnation. MPs score these own goals by serving their selfish interests. They waste time and energy on trivial things. And yet, they receive full-time salaries and earn allowances such as sittings and petrol allowances. How, then, would one explain that the external urging of parliament had to engage in the reforms exercise?

Today, reforms are lying latent. Politicians use the reform programme as an excuse for ensuring that they retain or access power. In the recent correspondences to SADC, the government and the opposition cite reforms and democracy to justify their actions. But as I write this article, there is nothing much that is happening along the lines of these very reforms. Why?

The starting point of any achievement is desire and definitiveness of purpose. The definitiveness of purpose is more than goal setting. It is one’s roadmap to achieving the overall objectives. Elsewhere, I took the definition of desire as explained by the author, Wallace Wattles.

According to Wattles, ‘Desire is possibility seeking expression, or function seeking performance’. All desires began as a thought. Expressing their desires through a manifesto is a means by which parties attempt to concretise them (their desires).

The starting point of an election campaign is the expression of political intentions and goals through manifestos. A manifesto is a public declaration of aims and policy by a political party or candidate. Political parties express their desires for what they will do in their manifestos.

After elections, these desires become the guiding principles and laws. Politically mature voters would then elect political candidates based on these manifestos.

Who instigated and drove the reforms in Lesotho? The contemporary history of Lesotho reveals that external forces pushed the reforms. Basotho merely reacted. They do not own the reform process. High on the list of their drivers are SADC, the US through AGOA and the European Union.

The practice contradicts Wattles’ definition. According to Wattles definition, desire must emanate from inside the individual, or in our case, from Basotho and be expressed outward through actions.

I do not want to comment too much about the involvement of the security agencies in politics. In my view, the relevant bodies, namely, the Law Society of Lesotho, the media and the opposition parties dealt with their involvement adequately.

Former PM Leabua Jonathan often described democracy as the government of the people by the people. But, the meaning of the construct of democracy is fluid and elusive, depending on the position of governance in Lesotho’s political arena.

Authors Hughes, Kroehler and Vander Zanden explain that democracy is a system in which the powers of government derive from the consent of the governed, namely the masses who vote, in which regular constitutional avenues exist for changing government officials.

The authors characterise the system as one which permits the population a significant voice in decision-making through the people’s right to choose among contenders for political office. Also, the system allows for a broad, relatively equal citizenship among the populace.

Lastly, it affords the citizenry protection from arbitrary state action.

Now, the question is whether the recent activities fit all the three criterias. Are the actions of the MPs who moved for the vote of no confidence in the PM’s government acting in line with Lesotho’s constitution and democracy?

This definition of democracy says that regular constitutional avenues exist for changing government officials. The no confidence vote exists in Lesotho’s constitution. But the PM and his security agencies questioned this. They claim the move by the members of the opposition to dethrone the government was a coup attempt.

The drama began when an MP from the ruling Revolution for Prosperity (RFP), Thabo Moea MP, sought an order from the High Court to delay the motion of no confidence against the Prime Minister until after the completion of the reforms process.

The opposition contests that the prayer by Moea stifles a democratic process for self-serving ends. Subsequently, the Speaker cited this impending case to defer the matter.

The constitution of Lesotho stipulates that the legislature is to pass laws, the executive is to approve and execute them, and the judiciary is to expound and enforce them. But a scholar, Nwafor, claims that the courts in Lesotho often intrude into the functions of the other arms of government.

Lesotho ‘s constitution confers powers on three arms of government in such a manner as would ensure cooperation and coordination in governance. The courts ought to bear in mind that the effective discharge of the responsibilities of the courts largely depends on the effectiveness of the other arms of government.

Nwafor brings up the issue of encroachment. He asserts that the powers of the different arms of government in such a manner would guarantee a coordinated discharge of government responsibilities to the nation. But, parliament overly relies on the courts to make political decisions. The practice encourages the risk of overreaching.

The PR electoral system denies Basotho the right to choose their representatives among contenders for political office. Instead, parties ‘hand pick’ these representatives in the pretext of the constituency elections outcomes. Often, these PR members are the ones who lost their constituency elections.

These are the politicians whose constituencies rejected them. They represent their parties and not the voters. They do not account to the voters.

Both the PM and the opposition made presentations to SADC. They overlooked the electorate. Why would SADC have power and not the electorate that elected the politicians to office? Running to SADC, an outside organisation, to settle Lesotho’s internal problems is not a solution. It is scoring an own goal. Lesotho, with its 57 years of independence, should be able to solve its internal problems.

Nonetheless, I have a completely different take from Mokhothu on the issue of the protest march by the RFP. It is unimportant to find the instigator of the protest march. The people to persuade are the voters, the people who put governments into power in a democracy, not external bodies such as SADC.

Napoleon Hill’s creed reads: ‘Every adversity brings a seed of equivalent or more benefit’. Any business person knows that business is a solution to an economic problem. So, the PM and his colleagues in his party who are business people must look at the adversity emanating from the opposition as a seed of equivalent or better benefit.

The government must dig deep to find how the problem may benefit them.
They must identify their failures and use them as stepping stones to success.

Elsewhere, I presented the views of an American scholar and activist, Anderson, who suggested that marginalised communities must cease granting candidates blank cheques. Instead, the electorate must draw their expectations and demand the campaigning party or candidate promise to meet them.

This practice is called quid pro quo. It enforces accountability and transparency.

You scratch my back, and I scratch yours. Quid pro quo is an example of one of the universal laws that demonstrate reciprocity. Reciprocity is the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. The universal law is the Law of Cause and Effect. It means that for every effect, there is an equal cause. You plant a seed, so shall you reap.

Both the government and the opposition ran to SADC for help. Remember, Matekane is a successful businessman. He has, on more than one occasion, explained that he wanted to use his prowess in business to take Lesotho forward. As a businessman, Matekane has faith in his ability.

Words that come to mind here include self-confidence and trust in himself. He believes in himself. Running to SADC does not display this faith in his ability to deal with problems emanating from his opposition.

Hill argues that riches, or any form of success and achievement, begin with a thought. Faith removes limitations. Matekane must apply his faith as a businessman to become a successful politician.

To summarise, the article explores the events emanating from the fiasco of the no-confidence motion. The individuals who ought to champion constitutional democracy in Lesotho betrayed Basotho by scoring hordes of own goals.

I explored the meaning of concepts that helped me unpack some of these own goals. These were democracy, faith and desire. Also, I coupled these with scholarly research views on the constitution of Lesotho.

I contest that while the opposition may argue that they are within their rights to ruffle the government, the PM must use different tactics. He must display faith and confidence in himself and trust Basotho.

The move to influence the voters to back him deserves a big WOW! He must hold more campaigns to persuade voters to support his government. Voters may make or break him.

MPs waste time in discussing trivial issues that have no bearing on the national agenda. Often, they focus on self-serving matters. The RFP promised to refocus Lesotho towards national development and improving the quality of life.

The article also shows that the PR system does not benefit Lesotho. It diminishes accountability and the principle of quid pro quo. Also, it ballooned the numbers in parliament unnecessarily. It increased political instability by forging formations of coalition.

Politicians must refrain from abusing the judiciary by making them make political decisions. Involving the courts in making political decisions leads to encroachment. Encroachment defies democracy.

In conclusion, Matekane must not allow his detractors to derail his mandate. The same is true for the opposition leaders who attempt to dethrone him. No party campaigned on removing sitting PMs.

Also, the MPs must take the responsibilities that Basotho entrusted them with. It is high time that they make the political decisions instead of shifting them to the judiciary or external bodies.

Matekane, his business associates and technocrats in his government should revisit attributes that made them successful. One such attribute is their faith in their abilities. They must remember that riches (and success) begin with a thought, and faith removes limitations.

Dr Tholang Maqutu


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Painting mood effectively



Writing is not different from beautiful artwork. Just like a skilled painter holding a brush with its broad strokes, the writer occupies the same place and vocation in life. Writing is a work of painting life’s experiences, its hues and beautiful unfolding internal journeys. In this piece we focus on mood and how it can be achieved. Many students struggle with understanding and contemplating the scope and ambit of mood in writing.
It is hard to define and frame the scope of mood in writing. What really constitutes mood? Generally, mood encapsulates the totality of the “air” or “spirit” or “aura” that a certain work of art evokes in the human mind, feeling or sensibility. There is a certain dominant feature or streak associated with a certain work of art, place or person.

There is something which is evoked in our hearts which is associated with a certain place, person or event. Every place or event or person carries or imbues with him or her a certain mood or sensibility; and there is a panorama of sensibilities; for instance, a happy or sombre or whimsical mood. We will now focus on a certain extract and discern how it paints mood.

“He quickly rights himself and keeps walking, but there is an unsteadiness to his knees. He has been given many looks in this quarter – dirty ones, blank ones, sympathetic ones, annoyed ones. For the most part, he had learned to tolerate those than can be tolerated, and ignore those that should be ignored, but the look this woman gave him is not a look one gives to humans but to flies, ticks, cockroaches, fleas…Thato feels anger, then humiliation, then something nameless. If he were in his own country he would turn and confront the woman; but now he’s hurt, wounded, a part of him wishing he were invisible. Breathing evenly, he walks with care, only lifting his eyes once he reaches his own quarters, among his own people. He proceeds to his shack. He could stop by Thapelo’s, his neighbour, where he knows that men and women are already congregated to watch videos from home. Yet, no matter the promise of good fellowship and laughter, Thabo does not join them. Watching videos is a form of forgetting; the 2008 elections, the police with batons, the soldiers with guns, the militia with machetes. Do you remember? Limbs broken. Roofs blazing. I remember.”

This extract is characterised by the intensity of feeling and evokes feelings of sadness, despair and pain. The excerpt paints a harrowing and blood-curdling account which produces a sombre, dull and subdued mood. Thato, the protagonist in the story is in a foreign land. He was impelled to leave his country as a result of political violence which saw many people lose limbs and lives. He feels lonely and unwanted in the foreign land. He feels lost and alienated.

There are sentiments of xenophobia expressed through the glances of citizens of the foreign country he is in. Even if he were to entertain himself together with his countrymen residing in that foreign land, Thato still felt a deep and nagging feeling of being an outcast. Thus, we have made very deep and broad descriptions of the circumstances in which the protagonist finds himself with a view to demonstrate how mood is created in a narrative. The creation of mood feeds into the description of the character’s circumstances, his mindset and the space and place in which he finds himself.

Mood, as we have demonstrated from the portrayal of Thato’s experience, has a link with pathos. Pathos is that streak of sadness which pervades a story and creates empathy in the reader. The aim of effective writing is to move the reader and to impel him towards certain sensibilities which are of an affective kind. Mood, when effectively created, allows the reader to grasp meaning which is not directly said in the story or composition.

Meaning in a story is an interaction between the words in a text as read together with the effect of the words, the tone used and the created mood. There are certain words in a text which do not just communicate, but etches in the reader’s mind certain thoughts, viewpoints and feelings. These words would be so evocative. One such word describes Thato’s deepest sense of alienation in the extract given above.

The word describes him as nursing a wish of invisibility, he felt or wished he were ‘invisible.’ His wish for invisibility is of great importance. It portrays how he was deeply affected by the loathing expressed in the eyes of those looking at him with hate and disdain.

So, here we are! Creating a mood is a craft which takes time to acquire and hone. But when achieved, it makes effective reading and allows the reader to get meaning which goes beyond the text.

Vuso Mhlanga teaches at the University of Zimbabwe. For almost a decade and half he taught English language and Literature in English at high school. Send your comments and questions to:

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