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Soyinka at 86 – Part 1



In 1976 Wole Soyinka became the first African to be awarded the Nobel prize for literature (he was later to be joined by the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz and the South Africans Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee). Poet, playwright, novelist and essayist, he has excelled in all genres, being prolific, provocative and sometimes hugely entertaining.

He is often considered to be a “difficult” author: witness much of his poetry and a play such as The Road, which is deep and complex—and I would argue one of the very greatest plays written in English in the second half of the last century. But he can also be straightforward and very funny, as in his satirical songs (he accompanies himself on guitar) or in a play such as “The Trials of Brother Jero”, which crops up as a schools’ set-text all over the place.

Many readers of thepost will remember his one and only visit to Lesotho, around the year 2000, when he came with the theatre company Nawao (that’s Nigerian for “wow!”) as producer of his political satire King Baabu, which was given two performances at the Conference Centre, Maseru. Both Soyinka—who can be prickly and demanding—and the actors and technical crew (from Switzerland, Germany, the UK and Nigeria) were extremely happy with the event, especially as it followed a not very successful tour of South Africa. In the Republic Soyinka had refused to give interviews, but in Maseru after the first performance he submitted to a question-and-answer session with the audience, “on any subject you like,” he said, “except for beauty contests.”

That stipulation because he was sick of a row he’d got into over remarks he’d recently made. For Soyinka is nothing if not controversial. All well and good, except that he doesn’t always check his facts. Some weeks after the southern African tour he published an article in The Scotsman newspaper in which he confused Lesotho with Swaziland. Trust me, readers, I told him off.

Soyinka has been continuously engaged in political controversy. In 1967 he was jailed in Nigeria for almost two years and spent most of the next few decades in exile. His book The Man Died is perhaps the most important prison diary to come out of Africa, and I am not forgetting the many superb works of that kind produced during and after apartheid.

At the age of 86 Soyinka is proving to be as feisty and combative as ever. One recent and very attractive example of this is his commentary on the fouling of democratic practice in the run-up to Uganda’s January 2021 Presidential election. Interviewed on this by The Guardian newspaper, Soyinka comments in a way that is both trenchant and laced with mordant humour.

In the event, Yoweri Museveni claimed victory with 58% of the vote, his main opponent, Bobi Wine, reputedly coming in a poor second. Soyinka begins his The Guardian account by referring to recent events in Washington, noting that “one casualty of the Capitol riot will be Uganda’s election; global outrage at the storming of the US Capitol risks diverting attention from repression by Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni.” A fair point, except that the world regularly diverts its gaze from abuses in Africa, witness my recent comments in this paper on its tolerance of the dictatorship in Cameroon.

Soyinka says of the youthful, brave and vigorous Bobi Wine, “To me, he represents the spirit of Africa’s future.” Yoweri Museveni is a much more difficult call. As a freedom fighter, he was instrumental in the overthrow of Idi Amin. But he has hung on to power since 1986, and Soyinka comments: “he has become in effect the very thing he fought against. Museveni’s going to fight to the end, and he’s going to fight dirty because he believes power is his natural birthright.”

Then, as he continues to lambast Museveni, Soyinka’s sense of the ridiculous kicks in: “I wasn’t impressed by his intelligence . . . I remember we were in Davos and we were on a podium and afterwards I met some of his people and I said ‘Look, just tell your man not to talk about things he doesn’t understand.’ And you know what one of them said? He said: ‘Look at you. You only had him for a few minutes. We have him all the time!’”

Far less attractive than his piece on Uganda has been Soyinka’s response to the work of two writers, Caroline Davis and Juliana Spahr, who have dug up again the matter of CIA funding for African writers and literary journals in the 1960s. I haven’t read the essays by Spahr (Davis is a historian of publications at Oxford Brookes University and I have read her book on the affair), but the fact that the CIA—directly and indirectly—provided such funding during the Cold War, in the hope of getting African writers and editors on to the side of the West, is very well documented.

One had thought the matter had been laid to rest, especially with the work of the brilliant Canadian scholar Nathan Suhr-Sytsma, who has cleared up misconceptions in earlier accounts. Davis’s book struck me as being scrupulously objective, and she accuses Soyinka of no more than carelessness or naivety in his search for funding in the early 1960s). Whatever the case, Soyinka’s reaction to Davis and Spahr is shallowly vindictive, as he threatens to pursue them “to the end of the earth and even to the pit of hell unless they supply proof of their allegation or retract what they published.”
To be continued

Chris Dunton

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Such women are a rare breed



“Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.” This a quote by Elizabeth Statmatina “Tina” Fey, a Hollywood actor influential for trailblazing women by writing and directing screenplays that showcase women supporting other women while also fighting gender stereotypes through comedy.

Last week we saw our own Tina Fey who was so dedicated to helping another woman by making sure her daily needs and that of her child’s will be taken care of for as long she will keep her business floating. I do not remember well who spotted this young woman on the northern side of the country but what I do know is ‘Mapaseka Sekantši sure proved that the spirit of botho (humanity) still exist in some women.

When people were busy shouting “ntat’a ngoana o kae” (where is the father of the child) she was busy letting people use her to better a woman’s life and help her lay a solid ground for her business. After securing a few additional items to her already existing stock she helped her get a shelter that will be her shop.

Still some people went further to shout “monna a moetselitseng ngoana o kae a tlo kokotela mok’huk’hu” (where is the man that impregnated her so he can help with the shelter) but she was very much occupied to entertain questions from social media crowds seeking relevance in other peoples misery.

Such women are rare to find and I think while we still walk this earth, we should appreciate them and celebrate them. Keep them motivated in doing the good job that they keep doing in other people’s lives.

What happened was really amazing because such acts of humanity were famous back in the olden days when our great grandmas were determined and ready to jump ship to help one another not in these modern days when women are forever ready to shame and humiliate another in the name of clout.

The spirit of botho was very much alive when women would gather in the rest room “ho fa ngoetsi e ncha maele a bophelo le matsapa a ho phelisa lenyalo la hae” (to advice a new bride so that she could have a successful marriage).

Back then when women would go extra lengths to help another lift the burden or curse of not being able to bear children because in the old days it was the woman’s responsibility alone to give children in a family. Modern day women are famous for gathering together when they are on a mission to destroy another or when they intend to rejoice on the troubles of another’s life.

Only a few of these modern day women would climb mountains to help another.

Such behaviour should change. We should look up to the women who were advocates for changing lives and copy a few humanity skills because clearly we failed to inherit them. We should stop raising humiliating questions when another of our kind is in need but should rather offer solutions.

All it takes in these social media influenced days is a post that will reach the multitudes and you will be an agent for transforming a certain life. Some women should learn to do that then maybe we can entertain their humiliating questions later if we won’t be busy with the end results. But then again the very same social media platforms had a huge impact on a lot of us in a negative way.

I would go on and on about how we can change our approach as women on certain life situations like the one that we witnessed last week, that fortunately had a happy ending.

Thanks a lot to a woman that made the right noise by reaching out to people to help another woman who needed help but couldn’t stand and say it out loud because with people these days you never know who is ready to put on their judge boots or play investigator and start asking uncomfortable questions.

Being a woman is really hard; it’s a full time job. You have got to be all systems go, literally. You have to be ready for anything that might be thrown at you at any time. You have to be very strategic and know what to say, when and where.

Sometimes being a woman can be seen as a curse because from a young age some are taught that they are vulnerable, fragile and in imminent danger just because they were born female. Talk about the need to protect these precious women against people that are determined to instil these beliefs in our young girls.

The outcome of these instilled beliefs can produce three kinds or groups of women in society. The first may be women that grow up believing what was told to them and they grow to be eggs that need to be handled with the utmost care and some become targets of hunters. I talked about hunters in my article about women’s rights.

The second group or kind may be women that have recently taken hold of the new trauma-centred feminism. The third and last may be the kind that is seen to dominate our generation. The bullies, the masters of manipulation, the non-caring insensitive ones.

They call themselves the straight talkers. This is the group that tried making fun out of that young woman’s situation who makes a living by street vending with her young girl. This is the group that instead of offering help or better yet ignoring the news about her started raising questions that were not very helpful at all.

Fortunately there are opposites of the clout chasers that were much determined to offer solutions to the problem that was already making rounds on social media. These are the agents of change, the good women that the world needs today.

I am not trying to sideline the men that contributed immensely in this life changing act, but women are the primary caretakers in the world, it’s in their nature and whenever things go wrong, they take the lead in helping adjust to a new chapter.

Bokang Masasa

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Literature and poesy



Poesy has always given literature its staying power. Poesy is that manner of writing that uses rhythm, vivid philosophic language, and often rhyme and rhythm to provoke an emotional response.

Today we recall Shakespeare’s Hamlet through his extraordinary “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. That is the height of poesy! The melancholic “To be, or not to be” is found in Hamlet: Act Three Scene One. It is the opening line of a soliloquy in what is called the nunnery scene. Hamlet is contemplating death and suicide while waiting for his lover Ophelia. He bemoans the challenges of life but contemplates that the alternative —death — could be worse:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep…”

The speech explores Hamlet’s confused mindset as he considers murdering his Uncle Claudius, who killed Hamlet’s father and then married his mother to become king in his place. Throughout the play, Hamlet has hesitated to kill his uncle and avenge his father’s death.

Hamlet was likely written between 1599 and 1601; by that time, Shakespeare had honed his skills as a writer and learned how to write introspectively to portray the inner thoughts of a tortured mind. He would have almost certainly seen versions of “Hamlet” before writing his own, as it pulls from the Scandinavian legend of Amleth. Still, the brilliance of Shakespeare’s poesy is compelling:

“The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action….”

The philosophical nature of the speech also makes it perplexing: None of us know what comes after this life and there is a fear of that unknown, but we are all also aware at times of the futility of life and its injustices. Sometimes, like Hamlet, we wonder what our purpose here is.

Some argue that Hamlet’s speech of whether to endure the tortures of life or just end it could offer insight into Shakespeare’s own thinking in his time of grief. Perhaps that is why the speech is so universally well-received — an audience can feel the real emotion in Shakespeare’s writing and perhaps relate to this feeling of helpless despair, rendered in very high language of poesy.

Poesy is the other word for the whole subject that includes making or writing of poetry. It is often said that poesy must not be drawn by the ears: it must be gently led, or rather, it must lead, which was partly the cause that made the ancients affirm that poesy is divine. It is the route of thought and wit. Poesy expresses itself through a piece of poetic writing, which is written with an intensity or depth of expression or inspiration greater than is usual in prose.

Good novelists use poesy too and through it, we find their work stunning and memorable. Imagine Thomas Hardy’s description of a popular beer mug in one of his novels. The mug was called the God-forgive-me:

“Jacob stooped to the God-forgive-me, which was a two-handled tall mug standing in the ashes, cracked and charred with heat: it was rather furred with extraneous matter about the outside, especially in the crevices of the handles, the innermost curves of which may not have seen daylight for several years by reason of this encrustation thereon—formed of ashes accidentally wetted with cider and baked hard; but to the mind of any sensible drinker the cup was no worse for that, being incontestably clean on the inside and about the rim.

It may be observed that such a class of mug is called a God-forgive-me in Weatherbury and its vicinity for uncertain reasons; probably because its size makes any given toper feel ashamed of himself when he sees its bottom in drinking it empty….”

In Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy gives an amazing description of one of the drunkards called Mark Clark:

“a brisk young man — Mark Clark by name, a genial and pleasant gentleman, whom to meet anywhere in your travels was to know, to know was to drink with, and to drink with was, unfortunately, to pay for.”

The poesy above marks a high position in English literature. It means that if you were to meet the likes of Mark Clark at any place in the world, you would immediately decide to want to know him better, for some strange reason. In this life we often meet people whom we decide to know better.

However, with Clark, you would end up sharing a beer with him and yet; the guy always had no money and it is you who would buy the beer!

Mayombe, the novel which was written by one of the major Angolan writers of fiction, Pepetela, between 1970 and 1971 but published only in 1980, is a novel of high poesy. The statements of Fearless about the revolution and love affairs are often most stunning.

In a novel that sets out to show the tensions and conflicts in a liberation movement which had people from all ethnic groups of Angola, the language is most compelling. Besides Fearless, there is a Comrade Muatianvua who represents universalism and broad minded leadership skills that accrue from his wide travel and experience.

In high language, Muatianvua says, “I was born in the midst of diamonds without seeing them…I sailed the sea for years, from North to South, to Namibia, where the desert joins the sand on the beach, as far as Gabon and Ghana, and to Senegal…in every port I had a wife, in every port I had a row…where I was born there were men of all tongues…now they want me to be tribalist!

From what tribe, if I am all tribes, not only of Angola, but of Africa too? Do I not speak Swahili, did I not learn Hausa like a Nigerian? What is my language, I, who do not say a sentence without using words from different languages?”

Muatianvua is detribalised and dreams of a united Angola in which all people live together. This novel is still relevant across Africa today because virtually all Africa continues to experience sharp ethnic and ideological differences which push people from fighting for the common good of their nations. Like Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, another work of high poesy, Mayombe anticipated even the challenges of independent Africa.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s book of 2013, We need New Names, is considered a watershed novel on migration. The main character is an economic refugee from Zimbabwe to the US. She constantly delves into various mental states, trying to make sense of her not so smooth move from Zimbabwe to the US and the neighbouring regional countries.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s language, as in the blues, is both depressing and exhilarating. Her poesy is very articulate. It invites you to laugh and cry at the same time:

“Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders.

Those with hopes are crossing borders. Those with loss are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing to all over, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce…”

And when they get to the destinations of choice, the Zimbabweans and fellow migrants find that there is no sweetness here either:

“And the jobs we worked, Jesus-Jesus-Jesus, the jobs we worked….We took scalding irons and ironed our pride flat. We cleaned toilets. We picked tobacco and fruit under the boiling sun until we hung out our tongues and panted like lost hounds. We butchered animals, slit throats, drained blood…holding our breaths like crocodiles under water, our minds on the money and never on our lives. Adamou got murdered by that beast of a machine that also ate three fingers of Sudan’s left hand… Ecuador fell from forty stories working on a roof and shattered his spine, screaming, Mis hijos! Mis hijos! on his way down”

This novel juxtaposes a tumultuous Zimbabwe against a well fed and technologically advanced America as seen by a young and impressionable Zimbabwean girl. Darling discovers that Zimbabwe and America are worlds with two very different passwords.

What Zimbabwe does not have materially, America offers but not for free! Closely looked at, America offers its own kind of turmoil to those (like Darling) who do not want to be second class citizens and who constantly claim that they have somewhere ‘my country, my people, our President, our language’ and other things.

With his first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, published in 1968, Ghana’s Ayi Kwei Armah suddenly became a household name across the world until this day.

This is one of the earliest novels in Africa to tackle the issue of African self-rule, often called “independence.” Ghana got independent from Britain and became the first African country to acquire such a status in 1957. However, in 1966, there was a coup in Ghana. The general and often simple argument is that this coup was due to President Nkrumah’s corruption.

The images of rot, dirt and corruption are everywhere and they reach both physical and spiritual proportions, through Armah’s descriptions. Ghana has become suddenly sterile and old and the man has an intense consciousness of it that borders on naturalism.

For example the main character looks at the banister in one building and reflects deeply on the dirt that is deposited on it by people who hold it as they go upstairs: “…apart from the wood itself there were, of course, people themselves, just so many hands and fingers bringing help to the wood in its course towards putrefaction.

Left-hand fingers in their careless journey from a hasty toiletry sliding all the way up the banister… Right hand fingers still dripping with after piss and the stale sweat from the fat crotches. The callused palms of messengers after they had blown their clogged noses reaching for a convenient place to leave the well-rubbed moisture… The wood would always win.”

He is also assaulted by the constant image of the overflowing bin. There are also moments to reflect on the traveller’s vomit.

Then there is the overriding presence of the occupied toilet with all its stink: “Past the big public lavatory the stench claws inward to the throat. Sometimes it is understandable that people spit so much, when all around decaying things push inward and mix all the body’s juices with the taste of rot…

Hot smell of caked shit split by afternoon’s baking sun, now touched by still evaporating dew. Across the aisle on the seat opposite, an old man is sleeping and his mouth is open to the air rushing in the night with how many particles of what?”

The rot is so overpowering that it sucks everyone to its own centre. This is the picture of corruption’s ability to be everywhere. Even the character called Krishna has his soul eaten up by worms as he meditates.
Poesy is a tool that accompanies a good writer and his task is to apply it in specific fine doses.

It shows the depth of the writer’s genius. Every time that you recall a novel or a play, remember that it is the artistry in the words that ring back in your mind. It is the poesy that remains long after the story!

Memory Chirere

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I am proud to be ashamed: a review



When you grab a copy of I am proud to be ashamed the first thing that comes to mind is “regretful decisions that groomed one into a straight man”. I am proud to be ashamed is a book that explores the real life events of Limpho Lepheana who grew up as a “taboo”, being raised by everyone of his blood relations but never his mother.

This narrative focuses on the consequences of an absent father or a male figure in a boy child’s life. Limpho Lepheana, born in Qacha’s Nek and raised in different parts of the world walks us through his journey and his story is authored by Lineo Matlakala who uses what might be referred to as the free verse style of writing.

She writes “This book is for parents raising baby boys, young men finding their place in life as well as those silently battling with life’s challenges. There is something for everyone to relate to”.

One of the issues discussed in I am proud to be ashamed is abuse; drug, emotional and physical abuse. We see how Limpho always resolved to abuse, especially drugs and assault, to escape his misery that is the void that is left by not knowing his paternal father.

How he came to know he and his two brothers ascended from two different bloodlines started when he joined them and his mother in their home when he was already eight-years-old. Issues of his paternity would constantly be thrown around until he believed them and learned of the gap between his supposed father’s death and his birth that was two years apart.

To build a relationship with his brothers and be accepted for whom he was or is Limpho started acting like his brothers, abusing drugs and sleeping around. But if he had a father to guide him none of these could have happened but as he keeps saying, “It all started when I was born”.

And to contribute to this, his mother would also not entertain questions about his father and would constantly dismiss him whenever he enquired about his paternity.

Being so desperate for a father and craving his presence, Limpho left his home for KwaZulu-Natal where he worked for Raj, his mother’s not so angelic ex-boss. He experienced life with a father and was taught everything a son would expect to be taught by his father.

But because he “behaved like a son who didn’t get his father’s traditional rituals done…” (p 238), he kept messing up the good relations he had with Raj the same way he did with every other girl he met, impregnated and forced to terminate the pregnancy.

The struggle between being a better person and staying true at it is another issue we come across in I am proud to be ashamed. In about eight parts of the book, Limpho kept trying very hard not to be his father.

He so much tried righting his wrongs but a leopard never changes its spots. We see how much he wanted to be a present father to a baby he always doubted its conception. This did not happen once but twice but because he knew the struggle of growing up without a father, he didn’t want his forced son to walk down the same path.

The tussle to escape the bad energy brought upon anyone who was not properly introduced to their paternal ancestors is another issue Limpho came across in his life. Traditionally, every new-born baby is introduced to those that walked the earth before them by slaughtering an animal as a form of a sacrifice to plead with them to watch over him and guide him throughout their journey.

Limpho proved himself to be a true traditional man at a very young age because he went extra miles to find his father which became fruitful in page 238 through a man he knew from back home in Qacha’s Nek. He met his half-sisters and vowed to be a better person because now he had found his true identity.

Limpho’s non-existing relationship with both his fathers (the late supposed father and the late biological father) shapes up much of his violent, abusive behaviour he proved in his teenage and young adult years. He wanted so much to rise above his father’s negligence and his mother’s dismissive behaviour whenever he raised questions about his father.

He associated with the bad guys and gang members to obtain a title for himself in a society that saw him struggle. He looked down on women and treated them as objects because he used them to escape his reality. He was aggressive and frequently battered his girlfriends and forced them to clean up after him.

His breakthrough came when he one day woke up from a life of massive debts way passed his pay cheque, weekends of endless drinking and numerous abortions from numerous women.

But “As it turned out, while I loathed in self-pity for two hours in the car, I missed a very important meeting with the company’s director. I was not even aware he would be in on that day. The fact that I still smelled like a bar and looked like yesterday when I met him made things worse. I was fired on the spot. That was a wake up call I had been waiting for”.

On the issue of abuse Limpho says “what I need for women to know is that a man who hits you is fully aware of what he is doing…There is absolutely nothing you can do to change an abusive man unless he truly wants to or chooses to”.

This enlightening book by a man who is a living proof of the hardships brought by an absent father, raised by a mother who denied him a chance to know his roots ends by stating “I will never know what it feels like to be a woman and have the love of my life ask me for a paternity test, however, I have heard that it is insulting.

What I am however is a man who got f*** over, twice…sometimes we are a***who freak out and deny children we know that we fathered”.

Bokang Masasa

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