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Ngugi at 85: a reflection

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On 5 January 2023, I learnt that writer Ngugi Wa Thiongo was turning 85 and that he was still writing.

I got through his son, Nducu Wa Ngugi’s Facebook page.

Apparently Nducu Wa Ngugi is also a writer and in that particular Facebook post, the elder Ngugi is watching his son, Nducu, signing copies of his own books.

Father and son are at peace with each other. Ngugi is holding Nducu by the shoulder as if to say, “go on, son.”

Altogether his sons — Tee Ngugi, Nducu wa Ngugi, Mukoma wa Ngugi and daughter Wanjiku wa Ngugi are all published authors, showing the father’s influence on his family.

Ngugi has always been an immense inspiration to many writers and scholars in the African continent and beyond.

It was in my early high school days in Centenary District, northern Zimbabwe, when I first came into contact with the Kenyan writer through his iconic novel, The River Between. My soul was immediately touched.

Our English teacher, may his soul rest in peace, used Ngugi’s book as supplementary reading for our class but for me, it went beyond all that.

My imagination was fired. The hills, the rivers, the elders in Ngugi’s Kenya were reminiscent of nearly everything in the northern part of my country.

My teacher held The River Between and read from it, pacing up and down the classroom.

The opening chapters were especially tickling:

“The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life. Behind Kameno and Makuyu were many more valleys and ridges, lying without any discernible plan.

“They were like many sleeping lions which never woke. They just slept, the big deep sleep of their Creator.”

My teacher read on, excited, “A river flowed through the valley of life. If there had been no bush and no forest trees covering the slopes, you could have seen the river when you stood on top of either Kameno or Makuyu.

“Now you had to come down. Even then you could not see the whole extent of the river as it gracefully, and without any apparent haste, wound its way down the valley.

“Like a snake. The river was called Honia, which meant cure, or bring back-to-life. Honia River never dried: it seemed to possess a strong will to live, scorning droughts and weather changes.

“And it went on in the same way. Never hurrying, never hesitating. People saw this and were happy.”

When he came to the river, my teacher’s voice became deeper: “Honia was the soul of Kameno and Makuyu. It joined them. And men, cattle, wild beasts and trees, were all united by this life-stream.

“When you stood in the valley, the two ridges ceased to be sleeping lions united by their common source of life. They became antagonists.

“You could tell this, not by anything tangible but by the way they faced each other, like two rivals ready to come to blows in a life and death struggle for the leadership of this isolated region.”

I felt like I was in that Kenyan terrain myself, seeing the similar valleys and ridges of our land through the classroom window.

The familiarity was exhilarating. Listening to the African Gikuyu names; Kameno and Makuyu rang a bell because Gikuyu strangely felt like Shona, my mother tongue.

My classmates and I were mesmerised too by the proverb: “Kagutui kamucii gatihakago ageni” — the oil skin of the house is not for rubbing onto the skin of strangers.

We sang out the proverb in the titillating Gikuyu in the school yard at break-time, just for the fun of it!

We were simply happy to have discovered a writer who came from a faraway place that, nevertheless, felt and smelt like ours.

Little did I know that I had unconsciously been led to realise that the names of men and women in my community could also appear in serious pieces of writings! I would write about my people as they are!

As time passed, I began to read more from Ngugi’s works on my own and through the syllabus, as I went further in my own schooling career.

I recall that I easily related with the set up in Ngugi’s play with Micere Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Khimathi.

I related easily especially with characters from the guerilla war of Kenya in the 1950’s captured in this play.

It was easy because I grew up seeing guerillas interacting with the peasants in Northern Zimbabwe during our long war of independence from colonialism.

The scene in which the colonial soldier searches a Kikuyu woman who is actually on her way to feed the Mau Mau guerrillas in the forest, was very familiar to me as I had seen women in my family hiding food in baskets in order to feed the guerrillas.

As I read the play, I smiled at this: “A woman is seen walking across the stage.

Between 30 and 40, she is mature, slightly built, good looking with a youthful face…”

She is a simple peasant woman who is beautiful, strong, clever and undeterred, like my own aunts were in support of the guerillas in Zimbabwe’s war of independence.

The play is based on Dedan Kimathi (1920-1957).

Belonging to the Gikuyu ethnic group, he was one of the most influential and charismatic leaders of the revolutionary struggle for independence.

Kimathi was well educated and spoke Gikuyu, Kiswahili, and English fluently.

He taught at the Karunaini Independent School in Nyeri, before becoming a freedom fighter.

His fellow soldiers gave Kimathi the titles of Field Marshal and Prime Minister.

In 1955, during the State of Emergency, the British, recognising his growing influence, offered a bounty for his capture.

He was hunted down (October 1, 1956) by British officer Ian Henderson, followed by a “fake trial” where ironically, rather than accusing Kimathi of leading the armed revolution, he was charged with carrying a firearm.

He was executed at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, the same prison where Ngugi himself was held without charge decades later.

Kimathi’s legacy was obscured for years, thanks to the British propaganda (he was buried in an unmarked grave) until only recently when Kimathi has been honoured as a significant architect of Kenya’s independence struggle.

I must admit that of all Ngugi’s works, I was most mesmerised by his novel, A Grain of Wheat. I was touched by the intense personality of Mugo, particularly his loneliness and the overriding feeling that he has something to hide!

His development, just like his movements are as gradual as the movement of an ant. His hesitation is warm and often intriguing.

That he turns out to having been a betrayer not a hero is the most painful part of this novel.

My countryman, Charles Mungoshi, who was also intrigued by this novel, translated it into the Shona language as Tsanga Yembeu.

It is now available to people at schools and the villages in their own language.

For me, probably the most startling thing in the Ngugi story was Ngugi’s detention without trial in 1977, in an independent Kenya!

This came as a result of his and Ngugi WaMirii’s Gikuyu play, published in English as I Will Marry When I Want.

It was felt that he wanted to politicize ordinary Kenyans through this play, especially when it was used in the community theatre at Kamiritu.

In his book, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, Ngugi describes his times at Kamiti Maximum Prison in Kenya, the purposeful degradation and humiliation of the political detainees, the neglect and casual cruelty that undermined their health, the debilitating tension and tedium that marked each day in prison.

In a series of reflections he is able to consider his own writings, the nature of imprisonment and the way forward for the people of Kenya.

This very elaborate testimony by Ngugi, is confined to the periods between 31 December 1977 and 12 December 1978, during his incarceration. Ngugi says in the preface to this book: “I have, therefore, tried to discuss this issue not as a personal experience between me and a few individuals, but as a social, political and historical phenomenon.

I have tried to see it in the context of the historical attempts, from the colonial times to the present, by a foreign imperialist bourgeoisie, in alliance with its local Kenyan representatives, to turn Kenyans into slaves and of the historical struggles of the Kenyan people against economic, political and cultural slavery.”

The book is a window through which one could understand the extent to which human beings find strategies to survive under very inhumane conditions.

But it is not enough to write about Ngugi without indicating his position on the importance of the use of African languages in African literature.

This runs through most of his essays and particularly his book, Decolonising the Mind.

Central to Ngugi’s key position on language is his narration of what took place between and among the African writers and critics who gathered at Makerere in Uganda in June 1962 at the famous conference called: “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression.”

The conference faced the fundamental question of determining who qualified as an African writer and what qualified as African writing.

Was African literature only the literature produced in Africa or about Africa?

Could African literature be on any subject, or must it have an African theme?

Should it embrace the whole continent or South of the Sahara, or just black Africa?

Should African Literature be only literature in indigenous African languages or should it include literature in Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans, and so on?

In his book of essays called Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Ngugi describes the damaging effects of colonialism on African literature, education, and culture.

Ngugi describes the conflict between the economic effects of imperialism, still present in Africa, and the need for economic and cultural independence for African people.

Ngugi views language and literature as playing a central role in this struggle.

He asserts that language is essential to people’s self-perception and to their view of the universe.

He laments that despite his former status as only a student with one major publication, at the time of the Makerere meeting, he was invited, while all the prominent Gikuyu writers were not.

He describes the ways in which the colonial education system changed African perception of their language, and by extension, of themselves.

He recounts the divide that he and other African children experienced between the languages of their home and the language of schooling.

He retells his experiences of severe punishments that were inflicted on African children for speaking their native tongues in school. Some of the most brutal instances, which Ngugi recounts, include corporal punishment, humiliation, and fines.

As a result, Ngugi declared that he would return to writing only in Gikuyu.

The debate raged over the elimination of the English department from the university and its replacement by the Literature department.

After his release in December 1978, he was not reinstated to his job as professor at Nairobi University, and his family was harassed.

Due to his writing about the injustices of the dictatorial government at the time, Ngugi and his family were forced to live in exile.

Only after Daniel arap Moi, the longest-serving Kenyan president, retired in 2002, was it safe for them to return.

Ngugi has continued to write expressing his views on the place of Africa in its relations with the countries of the West and his ideas have influenced various paths thought in African literature.

Ngugi Wa Thiongo is best known for his first novel Weep Not, Child. His other novels; The River Between, A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood, confirmed his stature as one of the major African writers of our time. Ngugi is currently a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.

Memory Chirere

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Start with the fallen fruits

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By the way, as a follow up on last week’s opinion piece, one of the points that I mistakenly omitted was that the new RFP administration is starting to make sloppy mistakes.

We call them “rookie mistakes” in American slang. Kindly Google search what a “Rookie Mistake” or “Rookie” is.

There is nothing in the world that irritates me like when you write a letter to someone and they fail to just write a single-paragraph letter to acknowledge receipt. For example, I hereby acknowledge receipt of your letter dated blah-blah. What is difficult to string a letter as simple as that?

Why do I raise this point? I’ve written three letters to the new RFP administration to brief it on a project that has a potential to revolutionise the education sector. However, there hasn’t been any acknowledgement of receipt, almost six weeks later. No guys, come one!

These are the type of things we disliked in the previous administrations, where people would act with impunity.

To me, failure to acknowledge receipt of a letter or e-mail, simply says, ha ke u foke, as MP Machesetsa Mofomobe would eloquently put it. Let’s correct this mistake as a matter of urgency. Asseblief!

Let’s talk about something serious. Tell me if I’m wrong but in my view, the new RFP administration is starting to show signs of being overwhelmed. No, honestly, tell me if I’m wrong and you are more than welcome to pen a counter-opinion piece and send it to the managingeditor@thepost.co.ls

The situation that the new RFP admin is in could be likened to a situation where a guy punches above his weight. What do I mean about this?

You know, we have those kind of guys that love big things. In Soshanguve, they would say ba rata dilo. These are the guys who would join a boxing match and head straight to the heavyweight ring yet they are categorised in the feather-weight class.

When we were young, there were those guys that would approach ladies that are way above their league. Ladies that are sorted.

She has her own car, a house (let’s say at Masowe 4), a stable job and a bit of cash and investments. But my brother who is a security guard will still insist and try their luck. Well, I’m not insinuating that there’s anything wrong with being a security guard but…. You get my point.

However, you find this guy (the security guard) ‘jokingly’ submitting an application to the lady and betting on luck. And, by a miracle and not ‘chance’, the proposal gets a nod. The lady says ‘yes, let’s give it a try’.

After the lady says, “yes, application accepted”, that’s when reality hits that the security guard only earns M2 500 and now this lady demands a new weave from Brazil, occasional lunch or dinner at Peri-Peri Restaurant, movies in Bloemfontein (because Lesotho doesn’t even have one movie-theatre), an occasional weekend away in Sandton (for shopping at the diamond walk) and a compulsory holiday in Cape Town at Camps Bay. Damn!

As I said, this guy only earns two-thousand five hundred Maloti. Would the poor guy suddenly feel overwhelmed once reality hits home? Exactly my point!

Now, how would the poor guy sustain such a relationship? If he were smart, option one would be to quit his job and go into tendering.

This is a predicament that the RFP currently faces. It is overwhelmed by the demands of the nation.

But there is an easy way of solving this predicament and one of them is to start with the fallen fruits. I once made this analogy but I will highlight it once more. When you pick apricots in the summer, where would you start?

Logic will tell you to start picking the fallen apricots first. I mean you would discard the ripe apricots on the ground and go chasing the ones up on the tree. The ones that are still green and out of reach? No, you start with the juicy ones on the ground.

By the way, now that I raise this topic, when was the last time you ever saw an apricot tree in Lesotho? It’s been a while. What happened? Is it a matter of climate change or a lack of interest by farmers to plant those trees? They used to thrive and had this beautiful lush green colour. But you don’t see them anymore.

As a matter of fact, some people even went as far as having a meal made up of papa with apricots from the tree. Yes, papa ka mampolokoso (applekoos). What happened to us?

So, as I was saying, start with the fallen fruits, the ones on the ground and this is exactly what the RFP needs to do. Go for the easy-pickings on the ground. What are those, you may ask?

Why don’t we start by privatising the roads in Lesotho? I mean, we can all see that the government is overwhelmed by the state of roads. But there could be an easier solution to this problem.

What if a private company (possibly a multinational) says, “Yes, I have an ability to raise money to build new roads, I also have an ability to construct and maintain new roads. Only if I would go into a concession agreement with the Lesotho government”.

What does this mean? The government of Lesotho would say, design and build a road according to specification XYZ. Then cost the new road and go seek funding in the markets.

As the government, we’ll under-write the loan. Because you are building quality assets for us as the government. This is where the significance of the Loti Fund comes in. In terms of underwriting the loans.

The question may then be: how will you pay us, as the government? What is the source of funds? The answer is: possibly through petrol levies (20c per litre).

Or by means of toll-gates (pay-per use). No, modern electronic toll gates. Or a levy when renewing a car disc.

So, you can even say to the private sector, “build the toll infrastructure and introduce a billing system”. Yes, I’m well aware of the e-toll quagmire in Gauteng, South Africa, but there are ways of resolving these issues and have worked well in other countries.

As a matter of fact, I once packaged a project to propose a new commercial border post named the Berea Bridge Development to be developed near Mokhethoaneng. Talk to me if you need solutions!

This project was inspired by the PPP development currently taking place to upgrade the Beitbridge border post in Zimbabwe worth about US$300 million (R4.4 billion then), with a 17-year-concession agreement. Google search it.

Construction of the Beitbridge upgrade is well underway and the private sector found creative means to source funds and to pay for the project in a sustainable manner. Another successful concession model is the N3 concession road to Durban.

Construction of roads and bridges has the potential of generating jobs on a mass scale. It’s not only the roads that need to be upgraded, but the PPP concession models could be applied to an upgrade of Moshoeshoe 1 International Airport.

‘Mako Bohloa

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Writers’ views on SA literature

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I came across a very fascinating journal on African literature edited by Bernth Lindfors. It puts together various presentations from the proceedings of the Symposium on Contemporary South African Literature held at the University of Texas at Austin from March 20 to 22 in 1975.

The panel called South African Fiction and Autobiography produced particularly exciting and instructive papers.

Although the symposium was held way back in 1975, the statements made then are still critical to current serious scholars of South African writing produced during apartheid.

I have randomly selected passages from various presentations made by writers who have become household names in their home countries and globally.

These excerpts will, no doubt, provoke the reader’s mind.

Emmanuel Obiechina, a Nigerian writer and scholar on the difference between South African writing and West African writing: I must say that South African fiction seems to me to stand at the opposite end of a spectrum from West African fiction…

The South African fiction is so different from the West African situation that each situation tends to create its own dynamic, which is reflected in the prose work produced in that area.

You can’t read the works of Alex Laguma and Chinua Achebe without being fully aware of this difference in tempo, in language and in the type of sensibilities expressed. I think such differences are caused by the social situation.

What Zeke has called the tyranny of time and place operates so strongly on the South African and so little on the West African.

Certainly anybody who reads Things Fall Apart cannot fail to be impressed by the differences between Achebe’s rhetorical resonance and the racy, vital, almost journalistic language of South African prose.

What has always intrigued me is the fact that the South African writer is the most urbanised and most deracinated of African writers, a fact which might explain the almost total urban base of his writing.

This is not so in West African writing, where the writer is himself a modern product of the rural as well as the urban situation.

Ezekiel Mphahlele, a South African scholar and writer on the identity of South Africans: Since we are talking about South Africa, we need to know that we are talking about African people rather than about ethnic groups, rather than about tribes.

Many people who meet me ask me, “What tribe do you belong to?” And I get very offended.

I often say, “We don’t have things like that in South Africa.” And then they are puzzled and I say, “Well, if you want to know what language my mother tongue is, I could let you know, if it is only of importance to you. We are all just Africans.” In my view the word tribe does not have any meaning.

If ever it had a meaning at all when it was used by the really old guard anthropologists, it referred to a group with a political organisation adequate to itself.

Today we have national governments to which all ethnic groups are answerable, so the concept of tribe, if ever it meant anything at all, does not exist.

Apart from that, there are groups of people, language groups or ethnic groups…I don’t like talking about tribes…I use other words…

Ezekiel Mphahlele on the early black novels of South Africa: If we look at two early novels, Chaka which was written originally in Sesotho, and a subsequent novel written in English, Mhundi by Sol Plaatje, we see that these are two novels based on historical events.

There is something in them that tells us that these writers wanted to grapple with historical material because history showed the ways in which they and their whole communities had changed. . . it resounds, recalling historical personalities and historical events of tremendous moment.

That gives the story resonance. So is Achebe’s Arrow of God; Ezeulu’s grandeur of speech has in it an element of song.

Ezekiel Mphahlele on the latter day South African novel: My point is that we find resonance in these two early South African novels, Chaka and Mhundi, in a way that we do not find it in South African novels today (the 1970’s).

There is a different kind of sound in contemporary South African fiction.

The reason is this: when you get to Alex Laguma, Peter Abrahams and writers like Bloke Modisane, the field narrows down to a single melody.

The orchestration of the novel is more in visual terms. Look at any of Laguma’s novels and you will find an impressionistic cluster of things that you see and feel. . .

A single melody is brought about by the fact that one is constrained to give definition to the physical and mental agony of a man in a situation like the South Africa one, where a common event might be a criminal offence, a chase, a shooting, an arrest, or a hanging.

This is what narrows it down to the single melody. The novel in South Africa almost becomes a long short story because it is so compact.

It seems like the counterpart of a poem in prose because it has a singleness of melody, a singleness of point.

It does not sprawl all over; it works in flashes. Just a flash here and there will illuminate the truth.

This is how it approximates the poem so much. . . The South African novel will work that way.

There is always the inevitability at the end. The choices are few because the society is what it is. If there are no choices in a society, the fiction will represent that, will show that.

If you have a small minded people such as the Boers, the fiction will never be big. It’s small; it’s tiny; it’s parochial; it’s way down at the bottom; it has never grown up, never matured because the people are small minded — they’ve all got blinkers on their faces. How can you expect any broad vision from people like that…

Ezekiel Mphahlele on black and white relations in South Africa: There is a big barrier between us (blacks) and the whites.

We are looking at each other through a keyhole all the time. I don’t want to write about white people because I don’t know them that well.

If I write about them at all, it’s as adults, because I know them as adults and I don’t know them as young people.

I only see their children playing around in the park; when I was a boy, I saw them riding around on their tricycles or motor cycles in the streets.

I don’t know how they are born. I don’t know how they grow up in their homes. I don’t know how white people get married except what I see in the movies or what I read in books. I don’t know how they court, or how they make love. . .

If you are born in South Africa, you never forget you are black. Nobody ever lets you forget you are black. You have these pressures on you day after day. You are harassed.

You come back to your ghetto life exhausted, and you may take it out on your children or your family or you may not, but there is always this constant fight for survival…

Peter Nazareth, Ugandan writer and academic’s responds to Ezekiel Mphahlele’s views on South African Lit: First of all, I don’t think it is completely correct to say that there is no music in South African writing.

Rather, we should say it is not the kind of music we like to listen to. You have the music of sirens, knuckles, and boots, and you have heard it coming through South African writing for a long, long time.

While some of us were emerging from colonial rule in east and West Africa and going through this process…

When we looked at South African writing, we found that it was dealing with a specific situation and yet raising issues which came to confront us later and still confront us today.

Peter Nazareth on South African Literature and setting: First, the question of setting. Do you deal with your immediate environment or do you try and escape it and deal with man?

It is quite clear the answer is that you can only be universal by being very specific. Peter Nazareth on South African literature and language: Then allied to the question of setting was the problem of language.

How do you deal with a violent situation and yet create a language to communicate that violence in art?

In other words, you have the reality which is violent, but the language itself has to come to grips with it. Some of the solutions that were found to this language problem were remarkable.

For example, Alex Laguma writes in a style that looks very journalistic, but actually he selects details very carefully and has a kind of counterpoint underneath.

For instance the ubiquitous cockroach in A Walk in the Night. When the cockroach comes to perform his act again, as the rat does in in one of Richard Wright’s novels, it is not journalistic anymore.

It carries a significance, and it carries a sense of violence as well because when you stamp on a cockroach, you are stamping on something that has found a way of surviving.

Peter Nazareth on the question of the individual and the community in South African literature: As I said, in East Africa we were being told that you had to deal with the individual, but here was South African writing insistently dealing with the community, because under this system of extreme oppression, people could only survive as a community.

They suffered as a community and they could only endure their suffering as a community.

When you look at the best of South African writing, you find a dialectic process: you find oppression ramming people down, seeking to dehumanise them and actually dehumanising some, but then you find the counterforce of the community still surviving in spite of everything.

It is a kind of dialectic force.

Here again was a lesson for us: the writer should not be concerned only with the individual, he should be concerned with the whole community and its problems of survival…

Mongane Wale Serote, South African poet on the writing environment in South Africa during apartheid: The only way I can describe black South African writing is to say it is a very tragic thing in its own way because of what is happening in South Africa.

The writing seems to have no continuity; usually when we talk about black South African writing, we start around the 60s, but I think it started long before then. . .

When I started writing, it was as if there had never been writers before in my country. By the time I learnt to write, many people – Zeke, Kgositsile, Mazisi Kunene, Denis Brutus — had left the country and were living in exile.

We could not read what they had written, so it was as if we were starting from the beginning.

Oswald Mtshali, a South African poet on what he terms his level of South African literature: A black man’s life in South Africa is an endless series of poems of humour, bitterness, hatred, love, hope despair and death.

His is a poetic existence shaped by the harsh realities and euphoric fantasies that surround him. Every day is a challenge in survival not only in the physical sense but also spiritually, mentally and otherwise.

It is hard for people who live in “free societies” to comprehend a black man’s life in this strange society. If you do not share my environment and my culture, it is hard to understand what I am talking about. . .

Memory Chirere

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The mental health crisis in Lesotho

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It is common, if not traditional to start a mental health column with the definition of health. How about we adopt a non-traditional approach and explore what fails to happen that ultimately results in mental illness and/or disorders.

In true Basotho culture, there are provisions and response strategies regarding suffering.

Elders have shared that people consulted with ‘Ngaka tsa Sesotho’ in attempt to ease their suffering. People would seek guidance from family members, the chiefs and their counsel, appease the ancestors, pray to Tlhatlha-macholo, etc.

Nonetheless, life would continue with or without these problems that individuals were faced with.

It is significant to highlight that suffering for people that reside in the same context or environment can be similar or different (we will circle back to this).

Not paying any attention to years and dates, colonialism happened and with it came a new way of doing things. As part of the colonial regime, Lesotho was introduced to the missionaries.

There was introduction of new systems e.g., nursing schools through the Catholic Church.

This presented a new way of doing things through the introduction of medical/clinical care.

This would later be regarded as the ‘formal type of care’ in the Mountain Kingdom.

There was also Christian religiosity that promised salvation, blessings, as well as abundance if one turned to God, and they denounced their pagan belief systems. Basotho would get introduced to a new way of life, one that summoned angels and God’s mercy to ease suffering.

Bear in mind that this is not about religion, spirituality, or colonialism.

By now, the reader is aware that in all these eras, one thing that has been constant is that human beings experience suffering at one point in their lives.

With that said, we see phenomena like religion, spirituality and clinical care existing within one context, Lesotho.

Based on how the clinical and religious forms of care were introduced, the traditional care offered by traditional healers was at an all-time disadvantage.

Unbecoming labels would belittle what was once a way of life for Basotho. Obviously, this led to an unintended consequence of purposive action.

A bit of indulgence, there was once a sociologist by the name of Robert King Merton who gifted the world the “Unintended Consequences Theory.”

Merton went on to share his learnings that purposeful action is taken by humans every day, in small and large ways, which influence the trajectory of our individual lives and our civilisation.

He asserted that our actions have unintended effects which are as impactful and probable in our history as the ones that are desired.

Merton identified five causes of unintended consequences namely: Ignorance, Error, Short-termism, Dogmatism, and Self-defeating prophecies.

The above causes are merely starting points. Unintended consequences are the end. We see the introduction of a new system during the colonial era, the approach was somewhat ignorant and had error.
The new way lacked knowledge in what constituted social suffering and what response techniques looked like for Basotho. Consequently, there was a dissonance.

The colonial systems, much like the Basotho traditional systems lacked the repertoire to describe mental suffering.

For church goers it was the work of evil spirits, for traditional healing seekers it was the result of witchcraft. For both, anything pertaining to mental suffering was bad and undesirable.

Asylums became the norm during those years. They were what made sense during that era. Thankfully, human beings and ways of existing evolved, culture shifted, and modern approaches came about.

The psychiatric model and diagnostic approaches would reign. Many schools of thoughts would rise from studying human behaviour, the human mind, social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behaviour. This is the intertwine alluded to earlier.

Ever heard of that saying that change is inevitable, it would ring true here. Contemporary approaches in the form of clinical mental health, psychology, psychometric testing, wellness were born.

Now, the crux of it all is that for us to fully understand mental health, it requires us to be mindful of the people, the context, the culture, forms of care in that given context, and tailor make mental health with these factors in mind.

You wonder where the mental health stigma comes from, refer back to how introduction of new systems during colonialism disfavoured the traditional ways of understanding it.

You wonder why anyone would let outsiders come uninvited and dismantle their systems?

There was close to no option to resist, as that resulted in punitive action from the said colonisers.

You wonder about the language and terminology used to refer to those living with mental illnesses, yes refer back to history books for these were lesser important people in society.

Ones who had to be hidden from mainstream society, ones that were bound by chains because their wrongdoing was being “a little off” as compared to everybody.

Now, with this unsolicited lesson of sociology and psychology, ask yourself, what is mental illness? What is mental disorder? What is mental care? An informed answer is one that is cognisant of Basotho’s acculturation process.

This brings us to concepts of sameness vs individualism within one group. Basotho are similar- Basotho are different.

Acculturation implies that some Basotho subscribe to the church, while others adhere to traditional methods.

Basotho’s view and understanding of mental illness is consequential of the aforementioned systems.

To produce solutions to mental illness, we first have to start by fully comprehending the people that mental health programmes are being designed for.

You design a 12-step AA programme for Basotho to sit in a circle and admit to their powerlessness over alcohol…good luck!

Why the best wishes? Because, in true, the Basotho belief is monna ke nku ha alle (Old ways).

It does not start with getting people to talk, it begins with raising people’s awareness about the importance of talking (New ways). How can traditional practices like khotla ea banna le pitiki ea basali inform therapeutic approaches for improved mental health outcomes?

Do not let naysayers and their use of the word evidence-based dissuade you. All approaches were ideas until tried and tested. Let us backtrack a little, we are not shunning any model.

We are growing our understanding for improved outcomes in that the 12-step AA model is culture specific. How can it be modified to suit the needs of a culture for which it was not primarily designed?

This will answer why most interventions fail in the African context. In psychological assessments, there is what is called validity and reliability.

This is too technical and requires its own column, but the two concepts are measured using a sample population (n).

We are basically saying Test A produced constant results when administered to males and females aged (16-19), racial background was this and that, the sample population has a 6th Grade reading level, for example.

What this means is that if that test was administered to someone without a 6th grade reading level, special consideration has to be applied when interpreting their results. Right!

The same logic applies to modification of approaches to respond to the needs of a given group/population in a specific context.

Questions we should be asking are, “what is going on in your life that is disturbing your peace,” “what is this that is weighing you down and taking your joy away?”

Ask someone if they are okay and the response is almost guaranteed to be a definite: Yes.

It would seem in the context of Lesotho, we are asking the right people wrong questions pertaining to mental health.

So, I ask you what is mental health in Lesotho? Are we ready to put our individual beliefs about mental illness aside (bias) and engage with those that are facing mental illness in a meaningful way?

Are we skilful in navigating topics surrounding suicide and depression when our go-to is, “Life is showing all of us flames my love.”

Are we ready to swim in these unknown waters where mental suffering looks so different for people?

Do we possess the literacy to tackle mental health issues?

When we have answers to these questions, we can have intentional conversations about: “What is mental health and what does it look like for Basotho?’’

I challenge you to think about what mental health is for you. Not self-care, mental health.

● The author of this article works as a Psychotherapist. She holds a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology.

She has certifications in Global Health Delivery, Policy Development & Advocacy in Global Health, Leadership & Management in Health, as well as Fundamentals in Implementation Science.

Her views are independent and not representative of her professional roles. She is ambitious about equitable health delivery, health policy and decolonised mental health approaches.

‘Makamohelo Malimabe

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