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Rhodesian war literature

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There are some countries in Africa that got their independence or self-rule after well concerted armed struggles. These wars pitied white minority government soldiers against guerrillas from liberation movements. I am thinking of countries like Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau.
In these countries, there is a rich war poetry that is even read and studied in the schools and universities in these countries. It comes in nearly all the languages in each country. But, what is projected more broadly is literature by combatants from the liberation movements against very little or nothing new from combatants from the former white minority government soldiers. The discrepancy is very glaring.

Father of the Angolan war of liberation, Agostinho Neto himself was a great poet. He also had prominent colleagues from that war who were poets. The story of Agostinho Neto is almost synonymous with the story of the MPLA, which championed the struggle for Angolan independence and is the ruling party since 1976.
Aware that no one else would fight on behalf of the oppressed Angolan black race but themselves, Neto joined the war of liberation of Angola. He scribbled somewhere; a sad but hopeful farewell poem/song:

“My mother (all black mothers)
Whose sons have gone
You taught me to wait and hope…
But life
Killed in me the mystic hope
I do not wait now
I am he who is awaited.”

The poem further bites into raw flesh and gets down to capture the black white divide in colonial Angola:

“Today
We are naked children in bush villages
School less children – playing with a ball of rags
In the sands at noon.
We ourselves
Contract workers burning live
In coffee plantations
Ignorant black men
Who must respect the white man
And fear the rich…
Your children
Hungry
Thirsty
Ashamed to call you mother.”

Neto’s poems which were smuggled out of prisons are some of the best known of all Angolan poetry. These poems are also said to form the basis of many popular songs sang during the struggle for Angolan independence. They have been translated into many languages including English, Chinese, French, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croat, Spanish and Vietnamese! They are read and studied up to this day in Angola and abroad. Very little new material is read from the opposite combatants in the Portuguese supported army.

In Mozambique, the FRELIMO leader and father of the nation, Samora Machel, was a poet alongside his wife Josina Machel, so is the ex President of Mozambique, Armando Guebuza and many others. Their poems are read and studied to this day. However, very little is read from the opposite combatants in the Portuguese supported army.
In Guinea Bissau, the great thinker, theoretician and revolutionary leader, Amilcar Cabral was also a poet. He used to sign his poems by the name Larbac, which is an anagram of his last name Cabral. Parts of Cabral’s poem from 1946 reads:

“No, Poetry …
Do not hide within the inscrutability of my soul
Do not run away from life itself.
Break the invisible bars of my prison,
Open wide the doors of my being

– Come out…
Come out to struggle (life is a struggle)
The men outside call for you,
And you, Poetry, you are also a Man…”

Cabral’s poetry is read widely in his country where it has also been turned into music.
In Zimbabwe, which used to be called Rhodesia, some of the most widely studied poets are prominent former liberation war guerrillas like Freedom Nyamubaya, Alexander Kanengoni, Thomas Bvuma and others but there is a glaring gap, no new poems from the Rhodesian army combatants are as equally visible.

With that in mind, one gradually noticed a lot of old Rhodesian soldier literature all over the country; in old book-shops, old libraries, flea-markets, treasure shops, old school cupboards, former nannies and kaddies’ suitcases… Rhodesian soldier literature is everywhere and we side-step it every day as we look for bananas, flowers or brightly coloured magazines.
Jeremy Ford’s 1975 book of informative poems called Hello Soldier! is not a book you may not consider going through when you come across it. It is a ‘hastily’ written and illustrated ‘book of sketches and poems of a Rhodesian soldier’s life’ published in by Graham Publishing in Salisbury. But when you realize that this could be one of the small but useful windows into the Rhodesian Front call up, you read it for pointers and insights. The book is a thin trail in and out of ‘the bush.’

Carrying fifty-seven poems, Hello Soldier! is passionately dedicated ‘To my wife, Florence.’ It is a kind of Rhodesian soldier’s diary in poetry form. It should be remembered that able-bodied Rhodesians went to ‘Call-Up.’ Meaning that they trained and served in their Rhodesian army for specific periods during the 1970’s war which they often refer to as the ‘bush war.’ The African nationalists refer to the same as ‘war of liberation.’
In the title poem ‘Call-up’ the persona who is out on call up addresses a girlfriend back home. His reason for going to war is rather understated:

“Think of all the love we had,
Girl, sometimes think of me,
Now I’m just a soldier in
A war to keep us free.”

Free from what, you ask. The answer: free from Communism and black rule! You read on and that very contentious issue is given a soft touch in the poem:

“Girl, I am just a soldier with
A rifle and a pack,
Girl, you got to keep your heart
For me when I get back!”

To the initiated, Ford’s work lends itself to comparing and contrasting with the black nationalist guerrilla poetry by the likes of Freedom Nyamubaya and Thomas Bvuma where the war is actually “the real poetry” and the bush and struggle are “that open university.” This is a case of one war and two contrasting worlds.
For Jeremy Ford’s persona, call up is portrayed as duty, something you can go in and out of. It is a rite of passage and an initiation into manhood. It is no further than a physical experience. In ‘Fit Enough’ the doctor insists on the mere physicality of the venture and from the point of view of that poem, the war is not associated with clear-cut ideals:

“The Doctor says I’m fit enough,
They say he ought to know-
Two feet, two hands, a steady gaze
To carry on for days.”

If you are looking for the Rhodesian soldier’s ideals in this anthology beyond ‘keeping us free,’ you are bound to be disappointed. The poems are about ‘training’ only as an external experience. However, the sense of thrill such poems could instil in a boy-reader cannot be over-emphasised. As mobilise genre this book must have been very useful to the Rhodesian cause. It is a book that can drive any boy to the barrack. There is here a lot of ‘wheeling,’ ‘marching,’ ‘muttering’ in these poems and at the end of the day there is always ‘time to eat.’ The sense of picnic in the Call-Up barrack is portrayed as over-powering:

“Now Army food is not too bad
When you’ve been out all day,
For then you eat what they dish out
In lumps upon your tray.
The weight of it is quite enough
To keep a man content,
It weighs him down like many tons
Of healthy grey cement.”

There is a mixture of both the Spartan and ‘soft’ adventure. The comfort strikes a direct opposite with the hunger and disease of the ZANLA and ZIPRA camps in Mozambique and Zambia, respectively. One senses that the ‘Rhodesian war’ depended on a regular fat bill. The illustrations to this collection (by Harry Wilkingson) show young white soldiers in pretty tunic, fitting caps, barrack beds, well oiled guns and the occasional acoustic guitar.

Interestingly, there was time to write letters to ‘Dad, mum, Pete and Joe back home.’ Mum and Dad could even come visit. There was time to listen to radio Jacaranda’s ‘Favourites in the Forces,’ a programme on which girl-friends would phone in or write to tell Jack to ‘give the terrs a hard-time.’ Or one could phone in to pass ‘all my love to Frikkie du Toit – somewhere in the bush.’
One’s duty in this war was ‘timed’ and one marked the passing day on the barrack calendar. You ‘did your bit’ and went back home or to college a true patriot. This was a leisure trip and when it ended, one turned one’s back and moved on. One thought that one was only ‘a rifleman’ who received money on pay-day:

“Pay checked and found correct sir!
Is what they make you say,
And that’s enough to last you till
It comes to next pay day”
But then, throughout, you don’t find a black face in this one hundred and twenty three paged book of poems! But one knows that the cooks and care-takers in these white barracks were black. The black characters have been very unskilfully erased from the whole picture. This is however part of the well known Rhodesian lie or myth – that the black man is not worth seeing.

This is not only evident in Rhodesian literature. It is also the same case in Rhodesian paintings. In 1995 Tim McLoughlin was to write: “This point becomes clearer if we compare landscapes (paintings) by white painters like Alice Balfour and others who are fascinated by the vast unpeopled spaces which they see (and not people). Much attention, particularly in water colour painting, goes into the brush-work details of long winter grass or aloes… (and not
people), contorted shapes of branches…”
There is, in Jeremy Ford’s poems here as an excitement with the self. The none-but-ourself syndrome. And even after the training, the young soldier persona is not portrayed as properly defining his (guerrilla) enemy. At best the man on the other side is a monkey:

“We’re leaving in a week or so
To go and earn our keep
Away there in the valley where
The monkeys lie asleep.”

Towards the end of this amusing book of poems, one comes across the only contact in a poem called ‘Contact.’ You think – now I will ‘see’ the guerrillas. But the guerrillas are not given shape. There is a single guerrilla gun-shot and before the Rhodesians respond, the guerrillas disappear:

“We all skirmished forward
And sank to one knee
As they ran away through
The forest of trees.”

The guerrillas remain simply as ‘they’ and their association with the bush and darkness have been typical portrayal of black characters in white literature as far back as Peter Halket of Mashonaland. Typically, the African guerrillas rush back into the unchristian bush where they belong. The young Christian Rhodesian soldiers remain and continue to preserve their ‘freedom.’ Part of Ian Smith’s U.D.I. document does not mince words:

“We have struck a blow for the preservation of Justice,
Civilization, Christianity and in the spirit of this belief
we have this day assumed our sovereign independence.
God bless you all.”

As Jeremy Ford’s soldiers go deeper and deeper into their country, they get lost in it! They say, ‘We are miles away from nowhere.’ They miss ‘a smoke, a wash, some good hot food and a sleeping tent.’ They are stranded until an army helicopter finds them. The “bush war” remains an adventure until the young soldiers return home.
Although the Rhodesian soldier literature, music and culture have retreated from the public sphere in Zimbabwe, it is very much alive as some active websites continue to receive such poems from Zimbabwe, South-Africa, Canada, Britain, Australia and New-Zealand. There is indeed a way of reading the liberation war somewhere, running parallel to the mainstream and the earlier we allow them to dialogue, we come away more informed.

Memory Chirere

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We need a coordinated approach on youth challenges

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For a number of good reasons, all of us are concerned about problems that face Lesotho’s young people, particularly youth unemployment, and the increasing tendency towards anti-social behaviour among sections of Lesotho youth including their increasing admiration for criminality.

Not only do members of such groups admire criminality and actually commit crimes but they commit crimes without much care as to the harm and other costs that their actions inflict on immediate victims and on society-at-large.

Evidence of public concern about these problems includes the fact that within society individuals, groups and public and private institutions have all expressed concerns over problems facing the youth, with some of these parties making attempts to come up with ideas and measures to assist.

However, a number of problems seem to be emerging on, at least, three fronts. Firstly, a seeming lack of coordination in addressing problems that face young people. Secondly, lack of clarity on questions of whether (a) parties that seek to assist are basing their interventions on credibly identified sources of problems that face young people; and (b) whether any credible assessments are made to ensure that interventions such parties are proposing and implementing have potential to solve problems that face Lesotho’s young people.

There are many examples of what may seem to us, members of the general public, to be lack of coordination in approaches to solve problems facing young people. One such example may be sufficient. On January 8, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast a statement in which the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) authorities announced establishment of some army facility where Basotho young people would be taught some values, including patriotism.

The very next day, on January 9, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast another statement, this time by the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) authorities, announcing the LMPS’s plan to establish a police facility at which young people would be taught anti-crime and other values. In their essence, the LMPS’s plan sounded not totally dissimilar to LDF’s.
Apart from the LDF and LMPS’s plans for Lesotho’s youth, there are also public and private sector initiatives to nurture and support entrepreneurial talents of Lesotho’s youth with a view, among others, to fight youth unemployment and develop the country’s private sector.

Politicians have also been seen to sponsor football games for young people in their constituencies with a view, they say, to keep young people from crime and narcotics. These events cannot be criticised too much but given that they are one, or two-day events that take place during specific times, they look more like publicity stunts.

National sports federations are now complaining that politicians who sponsor these events put too much stress on sports as a means to fight crime. What federations want is that, if politicians want to help, they should stress the importance of sports as careers, and sponsor young people to develop their sporting talents accordingly.

Amidst expressions of concerns and various parties’ attempts to address problems facing Lesotho youth, public authorities that we have not heard from, or from who we do not hear enough, are those charged with responsibilities over precisely problems facing young people; that is, authorities at the Ministry of Youth.

Admittedly, we do not know if the initiatives of the LDF, LMPS, and others are carried out in consultation with or with the blessing of the Ministry of Youth.

The worry ought to be not only whether interventions of the LDF, LMPS, and others have the blessings of the Ministry of Youth. Instead, the worry should extend to the question of whether the Ministry has any national plan to address problems facing young people. And, if such a plan exists, we would expect that it identifies the LDF and LMPS as places where young place can be coached; and initiatives of these and other institutions would align with such a plan.

Without an identification of the army and the police as implementing agencies of the Ministry’s plan, and without the army and police’s initiatives alignment with the Ministry’s plan, at least two things are likely to result: duplication of effort — as seems to be the case with the LDF and LPMS plans; or, at worst, LDF and LMPS plans might contradict and undermine national plans entrusted to the Ministry of Youth.

In the worst case scenario that a national plan does not exist, we face the danger that anybody wishing to address problems facing Lesotho’s young people can do so, basing herself, or himself on a personal or group perception, and implementing plans and solutions based on such perception.

As in the case of too many people stirring the same cooking pot without coordination, undesirable consequences can be expected from a situation where just about anybody can apply a solution to a public problem.

As hinted above, a good national plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people would have two characteristics, at least. First, it would be based on our assertion of the kind of society we want to be; an investigation of problems that stand in the way of achieving such a society; how such problems can be overcome, say, through school curricula; and how, in general, from Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD), young people can be brought up and socialised in ways that ensure they will be useful members of a society we wish to be.

Any action that is not based on an investigation of the problems that stand in the way of achieving a society we want to be has little chances of success. Such action would be based on some understanding that the young who are anti-social, unpatriotic and criminals are naturally bad people.

It is, of course, not as simple as that. For example, one possible explanation for the absence of patriotism among young people may have something to do with socio-economic inequality in Lesotho: those who are closed out of, and excluded from, benefiting from Lesotho’s wealth and power cannot be expected to be patriots.

A second characteristic of a plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people is that, such a plan should identify and/or establish institutions designed — and with appropriate skills — to implement ideas and proposals that come out of credible investigations.

It is unclear whether the LDF and LMPS plans have resulted from something like considerations suggested above. While it is admitted that these institutions’ initiatives are limited to addressing problems of lack of patriotism and criminality among the young people, one clear problem with their plans and solutions is that, it might be the case that they are catching young people a little late, when schooling and general socialisation have already entrenched anti-social values that we see among sections of young people; namely, individualism and the inability to think of others.

In one word, these institutions catch these young people when tendencies towards criminality, anti-social behaviour, and lack of patriotism might have already hardened.
Perhaps the biggest hope we should have is that the army and the police will have full complement of resources necessary for providing full and wholesome mentoring to young people who undergo army and police mentoring.

Short of adequate resources necessary for achieving what the army and the police have in mind, we might end up with cohorts of young people with a faulty army and police culture that may come back to haunt us. Inserting a faulty army culture among a section of young people brought us bitter results in the 1970s and 1980s that should not be repeated.

To conclude, no one can argue against all of us being concerned with problems of youth unemployment; increasing tendencies of young people’s admiration of criminality and their participation in crime. And no one can argue against all of us coming up with ideas and proposals of how to address these problems.

However, our concerns and proposals ought to be based on:
a nationally-agreed assertion of society we want to be;
a credible investigation of difficulties that stand in the way of us becoming society we want to be;

and coordination of proposals and ideas aimed at becoming society we want to be.

As with other specific instances of socio-economic development in Lesotho, problems facing the country’s young people cry out for the long-neglected establishment of the National Planning Board, as prescribed in Section 105 of the Constitution of Lesotho.

Prof Motlatsi Thabane

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Insight

Call that a muffin?

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In Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Canterville Ghost” (1887) one of the characters says about the British, “We have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Between American English and British English there are many, many differences. Which is not to say that either American or British English are standardised; there are multiple varieties within each. As a south-western Brit I can find it difficult to fully understand what someone from Liverpool or Newcastle is saying.

I remember one year during the NUL’s International Theatre for Development project we had a student from the islands of Scotland. She was brilliant and hard-working and full of good ideas — if only one could understand the ideas when she introduced them. The NUL students grouped together and asked me: “Chris, can you translate what Kirsty is saying for us?” and I replied: “I’m as lost as you are.”

Between American and British English it’s not just a matter of pronunciation but also of vocabulary (I’ll be coming to muffins — see the title of this piece — in a while) and spelling.
In the biographical film Prick Up Your Ears British, dramatist Joe Orton shares a room with Ken Halliwell and they decide to write a novel together. Ken asks Joe “can you spell?” and Joe replies “yes, but not accurately.”

This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s a Brit. The American spelling system is far more regular and rational than the British. (Readers with laptops will have noticed that your spell-check gives the option of British or American spelling, but that doesn’t help you as in Lesotho the British system is used, so for the time being you’re stuck with it).

I mean, what can you say about a spelling system where “plough” rhymes with “now”, but “tough” rhymes with “stuff”– and “now” doesn’t rhyme with “low.” Yipes (as the Americans say). When I was lecturing in Lesotho and in Nigeria and marking assignments I was always very lenient over spelling, because I know what a mountain it is to climb (the latter word rhyming with “time”, of course).

Then there is the matter of vocabulary or denotation (a term I hope readers remember from a few weeks back). There are many examples of things that are denoted by different words in British and American English: lift / elevator; pavement / sidewalk; windscreen / windshield; petrol / gas; cinema / movie theater (and look at the American spelling of (Brit) “theatre”– a lot easier). And some of these reflect our different histories.

For example, there’s a vegetable, a kind of small marrow, the British call it a courgette (one of my favourite vegetables, in case any of you are planning to invite me for dinner). That’s a word that British English has borrowed directly from French — that is, a loan word (I’m not sure we plan to give it back).

The Americans on the other hand call it a zucchini, a loan word from Italian, which I guess reflects the size and influence of the Italian community in the USA. (Speaking of vegetables, I can’t give you an explanation for why the Brits call an aubergine an aubergine — another loan word from French — but the Americans call it an egg-plant).

Next week I’ll get around to muffins — a sore point — and I’ll move on to differences between English and French and between Sesotho and Setswana. Bet you can’t wait.

Chris Dunton is a former Professor of English and Dean of Humanities at the National University of Lesotho.

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Insight

Lessons from Israel: Part 3

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I shall round off my account of my 1995 trip to Israel by putting on my tour guide cap. Staying in Tel Aviv, most days were fully taken up by the conference, which was my reason for being there. Tel Aviv in July is scorchingly hot, so there were walks along the beach only before breakfast and after sunset. I did take a little time off to go with South African author Stephen Gray to an art gallery that had a painting he wanted to see (a portrait by Modigliani of Beatrice Hastings, whose biography Stephen was then writing).

I wasn’t especially keen on the hotel restaurant, where dinner comprised meat served by the ton (surprisingly little fish, given that we were on the coast. By contrast, I had always been surprised and happy that Maseru restaurants are so good on fish, despite the fact that Lesotho isn’t exactly maritime). But I discovered a little Russian Jewish restaurant that offered Beluga caviar at an amazingly cheap price. I suspect it had fallen off the back of a lorry, as we say in the UK — i.e. that it was contraband, acquired illegally. I just blinked innocently and enjoyed myself. I can’t think of a more delicious way of starting a meal than with caviar, freshly-made blinis and a large glass of deeply chilled Wyberowa vodka — no ice, please. (I only say all this to show you what a very cosmopolitan chap I am).

The conference ran to a packed schedule and we worked hard (no, really). Half-way through we were given a day off and taken to Jerusalem. On arrival I teamed up with an old Nigerian friend and a friend of his from Senegal and we took ourselves first to the Dome of the Rock, the main mosque, which is splendid and radiant (wow, the mosaics!) Then we saw the Wailing Wall.

Then we trudged up the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Via marks the route along which Christ was forced to carry his cross on the way to his crucifixion (dolorosa means something like “of miseries”). I had expected it to be lined with sculptures showing the Stations of the Cross (rather like the lovely ones at Fatima, near Ramabanta).

Instead it was one tourist gift shop after another. Here I came across one of the most repugnant things I’ve seen in my life. Proudly displayed for sale, a wall clock with the face adorned with the image of the head of Christ, the two clock hands protruding from his nose.

At the top of the Via Dolorosa, the fourth century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in the world for Christians, which is breathtakingly beautiful. The interior is (not visibly) divided into sections, the upkeep of each of which is the responsibility of one of the major denominations: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, and so on. I had had the impression this was an arrangement worked out under the colonial regime of British Palestine, but Google tells me it dates back to the Status Quo of 1757.

My companions had done their homework and suggested we head first for the roof, which had been allocated to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (dare one possibly suggest a tinge of racism in this marginalisation?). There we found a cluster of monkish cells, each inhabited by an elderly Ethiopian monk, at least two of whom spoke English or French. They were delighted to see us, and utterly sweet, hospitable, and in their accounts of their pastoral work spellbinding.

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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