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The artist and the moment

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However great a work of art is, it initially comes to the artist at a particular moment in his life and is inspired or triggered by something.
Every painting, poem, novel, song, drawing etc is a product of that special initial moment of inspiration in the life of an artist.
I agree with Wayne Shumaker who said, “In the lives of some poets, however simple or various, the works grow naturally out of the recorded events, or are in themselves simple events…”

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by famous African American poet Langston Hughes is a case in point. It is considered to be one of the most amazing poems from the black world which was instigated by one identifiable moment in the life of the poet.
It is said that Hughes wrote this brief poem in just about fifteen minutes, with a shivering hand in July, 1920 when he was aged 17. He had just graduated from high school, and was on a train heading to Mexico City where he would spend just over a year with his father, a man he barely knew.

Hughes says that he was crossing the Mississippi just outside of St. Louis when inspiration struck. The poem came to his mind and heart after looking down into the muddy water of the Mississippi which was turning golden in the sunset. The poet suddenly turned the memory of the history and survival of his people into brilliant lines.
In that breathless poem, Hughes traces the critical historical moments in the lives of the black people. He indicates that black people have always been around and they are, in fact, as ancient as all the major rivers of the world.

Hughes shows that the Negro has always been around the great rivers like the Euphrates and the Congo. The Negro participated in the construction of the pyramids of Egypt along the Nile. The Negro was involved in both the founding of the US and the American Civil war:

“I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi
when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,
and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn
all golden in the sunset.”

In that poem, Langston Hughes finds the black man rooted and original as he continues to write:

“I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

Hughes honours the wisdom and strength which allowed African-Americans to survive and flourish in the face of all adversity, most particularly the last few centuries of slavery. This poem was first published in June 1921 in a magazine.

Langston Hughes is a famous African American author and poet, who lived from 1902 to 1967. He wrote in a modernist style during the time he was an author, which was from the 1920s to the 1960s. The Harlem Renaissance inspired him a lot and he became one of the key voices of this movement.

Jorge Rebelo, is the great Mozambican poet who participated in the war of the liberation of Mozambique in the 1970’s. He and others wrote poems during that war. Rebelo will most likely be remembered for his poem titled “Poem.” A work of genius, “Poem” is important for arguing on why and how revolutionary poetry should be simple and useful. Jorge Rebelo said he would “forge simple words” that “even children can understand and:

“Come, tell me all this, my brother.
And later I will forge simple words
Words which will enter every house
like the wind
and fall like red-hot embers
on our people’s souls.
For in our land
bullets are beginning to flower.”

In the poem, Rebelo was responding to why his poetry seemed simple and rather pointed. He said it was the war itself that gave birth to such a literary tradition.
Written on the move or at the spur of the moment and between battles, there was the pressure to record a thought, a philosophy about the struggle. Yet the seeming simplicity and innocence of Rebelo’s poems were the diamond-hardness of his poetic vision.

When Rebelo says “in our land, bullets have beginning to flower,” he probably means that the revolution is now beginning to bear fruit and that victory was certain. He also means that the war is now all over Mozambique.

Talking to a journalist in 2007, decades after the war that inspired that poem, Rebelo said he wrote the poem when he was still an activist and leader in the information, policy and propaganda unit of the liberation movement called Frelimo. Through Frelimo, the guerrilla fighters managed to push the Portugues to grant self rule to Mozambique.

Rebelo’s actual words were “We used to have a tradition, to send end of the year messages, and this year we sent cards where I penned this poem. I reflected on the struggles of the past year and this was the outcome. Later some comrades translated it into English. In the recent past, I have published other poems of mine in Portuguese, called appropriately, Messages.”

Considered as one of the greatest novels to come out of Zimbabwe, Charles Mungoshi’s Waiting for the Rain, published in 1975, is a book that was saved by a moment in the life of the writer. This novel is a story about Lucifer Mandengu who has been to mission school and is now considered elite and very educated. He has just been offered a scholarship to go abroad and train as an artist. Before he leaves, he boards a rural bus towards home to bid his people farewell.

Mungoshi says when he began writing Waiting for the Rain, he actually had a short story in mind “about Betty and her unwanted pregnancy and her understanding brother, Garabha. It was all in a once upon a time tense. When I brought in the other characters, the story kept on expanding and before I knew I had over 100 pages of script on A4 on my hands.” And yet, at some point, Mungoshi felt the short story was dull and he actually abandoned it for some time until one crucial moment that pushed him back to the story.

Mungoshi says: “Then one day I went to my local beer hall and there I watched that Jerusalem drum expert and the people. Looking at them, I was suddenly touched by – the sense, their feeling of being family, and seeing each of them with his or her problems and the drummer trying to assuage these with his unifying drum… Anyway, through them at that moment, I had found out that this story was as urgent as the message of the drum…”
Mungoshi continues about the moment of inspiration: “The landscape, the physical life of the book became much more alive, much more present because I was living it as I was writing it and I have never felt as blessed as I felt writing (or re-writing)Waiting for the Rain.(I do not think I revised –not much, any way – this second version.)”

The essence of this prize winning novel is about grappling with the issues of home, identity and belonging in the changing times. Through it, Mungoshi is constantly asking key questions: Do we truly belong to this land? Is it possible to belong here and elsewhere? What must we change and what exactly must continue and why? Is there any space for the individual in our quest for collective glory? Are we right? Are we wrong?

Then there are also two interesting cases of inspiring moments and situations between two black American writers; Lawrence Dunbar and Maya Angelou. This is a story about how one’s moments of anguish as a writer could cause another writer to respond to the first work, lighting a fire downstream!
‘Sympathy’ is an 1899 poem written by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. He was one of the most prominent African-American writers of his time. He wrote the poem while he was working under unpleasant conditions at the Library of Congress.

Dealing with the dust and must of books in a hot, closed space was unpleasant for the tubercular Dunbar and that strained his health. This may be reflected in an October 26, 1898, letter to Young, in which Dunbar notes an ongoing illness that kept him from the Library for two weeks and requests a leave of absence.

As a result of reflecting on this, Dunbar wrote the poem that is often considered to be about the struggle of African-Americans. The iron grating of the book stacks in the Library of Congress suggested to him the bars of the bird’s cage. The torrid sun poured its rays down into the courtyard of the library and heated the iron grilling of the book stacks until they were like prison bars in more senses than one. During such a moment he wrote

‘Sympathy’. Parts of the poem go like this:
“I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats its wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!”

On the other hand, Maya Angelou’s poem entitled “Caged Bird” was inspired by Paul Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy.” The major theme of both poems is freedom.
Just like Dunbar’s, Angelo’s poem is famous for its intimate description of freedom, and for the role of personal voice as a true element of it. In the ‘caged bird’ Maya Angelou talks about how a free bird wastes her time and wallow in her freedom.

She says a free bird flies everywhere daring both the wind and the sun in its flight. But she writes that a caged bird can seldom see through the cage because its wings are clipped and its feet are tied and all the caged bird can do is sing while in the cage.
That kind of a bird sings about its desires for freedom. Meanwhile the free bird gazes at the lawn and the trees where she can go at will. The caged bird’s voice goes across the hills and plains because she wants to be free:

“A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing…”

Maya Angelou, born in April 4, 1928 as Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, was raised in segregated rural Arkansas. She was a poet, historian, author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director.
The cases above demonstrate that some artists actually seize the unusual moment in real life and transpose it into art.

Memory Chirere

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Conclusion

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Last week I was talking about how jokes, or humour generally, can help get one through the most desperate situations (although it’s like taking a paracetamol for a headache; a much, much stronger resort is faith). I used the example of how Polish Jews, trapped and dying in the Warsaw ghetto, used humour to get them through day by day.

A similar, though less nightmarish, situation obtains in today’s Nigeria. Conditions there are less hellish than those of the Warsaw ghetto, but still pretty awful. There are massive redundancies, so millions of people are jobless. Inflation is at about 30% and the cost of living is sky-rocketing, with the most basic foodstuffs often unavailable. There is the breakdown of basic social services.

And endemic violence, with widespread armed robbery (to travel by road from one city to another you take your life in your hands) and the frequent kidnapping for ransom of schoolchildren and teachers. In a recent issue of the Punch newspaper (Lagos) Taiwo Obindo, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jos, writes of the effects of economic hardship and insecurity on his people’s mental health.

He concludes: “We should see the funny side of things. We can use humour to handle some things. Don’t take things to heart; laugh it off.”

Professor Obindo doesn’t, regrettably, give examples of the humour he prescribes, but I remember two from a period when things were less grim. Power-cuts happened all the time — a big problem if you’re trying to work at night and can’t afford a generator.

And so the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) was universally referred to as Never Expect Power Always. And second, for inter-city travel there was a company called Luxurious Buses. Believe me, the average Lesotho kombi is a great deal more luxurious (I can’t remember ever having to sit on the floor of one of those).

And because of the dreadful state of Nigerian roads and the frequent fatal crashes, Luxurious Buses were referred to as Luxurious Hearses.

Lesotho’s newspaper thepost, for which I slave away tirelessly, doesn’t use humour very much. But there is Muckraker. I’ve always wondered whether Muckraker is the pen-name of a single person or a group who alternate writing the column.

Whatever, I’d love to have a drink with him / her/ them and chew things over. I like the ironic pen-name of the author(s). Traditionally speaking, a muckraker is a gossip, someone who scrabbles around for titbits (usually sexual) on the personal life of a celebrity — not exactly a noble thing to do.

But thepost’s Muckraker exposes big problems, deep demerits, conducted by those who should know and do better — problems that the powerful would like to be swept under the carpet, and the intention of Muckraker’s exposure is corrective.

And I always join in the closing exasperated “Ichuuuu!” (as I do this rather loudly, my housemates probably think I’m going bonkers).

Finally I want to mention television satire. The Brits are renowned for this, an achievement dating back to the early 1960s and the weekly satirical programme “TW3” (That Was The Week That Was). More recently we have had “Mock the Week”, though, despite its popularity, the BBC has cancelled this.

The cancellation wasn’t for political reasons. For decades the UK has been encumbered with a foul Conservative government, though this year’s election may be won by Labour (not such very good news, as the Labour leadership is only pseudo-socialist). “Mock the Week” was pretty even-handed in deriding politicians; the BBC’s problem was, I imagine, with the programme’s frequent obscenity.

As an example of their political jokes, I quote a discussion on the less than inspiring leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. One member of the panel said: “Labour may well have a huge lead in the polls at present, but the day before election day Starmer will destroy it by doing something like accidentally infecting David Attenborough with chicken-pox.”

And a favourite, basically non-political interchange on “Mock the Week” had to do with our former monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever one thinks about the British monarchy as an institution, the Queen was much loved, but the following interchange between two panellists (A and B) was fun:

A: Is the Queen’s nickname really Lilibet?
B: Yes, it is.
A: I thought her nickname was Her Majesty.
B: That’s her gang name.

OK, dear readers, that’s enough humour from me for a while. Next week I’m turning dead serious — and more than a little controversial — responding to a recent Insight piece by Mokhosi Mohapi titled “A reversal of our traditions and culture.” To be forewarned is to be prepared.

Chris Dunton

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Insight

Reading, writing and the art of reflection

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There is a close thread that runs through what you reflect on, what you read and what sticks in your mind. It’s almost a cyclic process with regards to how all these processes unfold. Today, in this installment we focus on the thread between reading, reflection and writing.

This appears a bit cumbersome to explain. But let’s simplify it. Let’s begin with a beautiful poem which encompasses what we have so far spoken about. Here we are! The poem is penned by “Tachibama Akemi.” It goes:

It is a pleasure
When, rising in the morning,
I go outside and
Find that a flower has blossomed
That was not there yesterday.

Seemingly, the poem is simple. But, on close analysis, it reflects very deep reflection and thoughtfulness.

The persona, in an existential fashion, reflects all about the purpose and meaning of life and his place in the overall matrix of life.

The persona carefully reflects on nature. This is what makes all this poem rustic and romantic.

The persona thinks deeply about the blossoming flowers and how the process of the growth of flowers appears almost inadvertently.

It is a poem about change, healing, the lapse of time and the changes or vissiccitudes in the life of a person are reflected creatively through imagery and poetry. We all go through that, isn’t it? We all react and respond to love, truth and beauty.

So far everything appears very interesting. Let’s just put to the fore some good and appealing thoughts. Let’s enlarge on reading, writing and reflection.

Kindly keep in mind that thoughts must be captured, told, expressed and shared through the magical power of the written word.

As a person, obviously through keeping entries in a journal, there is no doubt that you have toyed about thoughts and ideas and experiences you wish you could put across.

Here is an example you can peek from Anthony. Anthony likes writing. He tells us that in his spare time he likes exploring a lot. And, more often than not he tells us,

“I stop, and think, and then when I find something, I just keep on writing.”

So crisp, but how beautiful. Notice something interesting here; you need to stop, to take life effortlessly and ponderously, as it were; observe, be attentive to your environment; formulate thought patterns and then write.

To some extent, this article builds on our previous experiences when we spoke at length about the reading process.

But how can you do it? It’s not pretty much different. I can help you from my previous life as a teacher of English Languge.

The most important skill you must cultivate is that of listening, close listening. Look at how people and events mingle.

What makes both of you happy; enjoy it. I am sure you still keep that journal in which you enter very beautiful entries. Reflect about Maseru, the so-called affluent city. So majestic!

How can you picture it in writing!

I am glad you learnt to reflect deep and write. Thank you very much. Kindly learn and perfect the craft of observing, reflecting and writing. Learn that connection. Let’s meet for another class.

Vuso Mhlanga

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Part One

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Don’t be put off by the title, esteemed readers; what follows has nothing to do with the Batman films. As you will be happily (or unhappily) aware, I am a big fan of jokes. There’s a common understanding that a joke is ruined if you have to explain it, and this is true, but some jokes do need a bit of background explanation. Anyway. I like jokes and I like thinking about how they work.

Many of my favourite jokes have to do with language and the way we use it. For example: “I just bought myself a thesaurus. I similar it very much.”

Other jokes have to do with human behaviour and here it is important, out of respect for others, to avoid jokes that perpetuate stereotypical ideas about gender, race, nationality, and so on. I’m afraid the following joke does depend upon a stereotype (I’ll come back to that), but here goes, after a bit of background information.

In Lesotho you have an insect called a praying mantis — stick-like, bright green, and with great bulging eyes. They are rather lovable, despite the off-putting fact that the female practices insect cannibalism; after mating, she consumes the male. So, now you’ve had your zoological primer, here goes.

Two praying mantises are getting up close and personal. The female says to the male: “before we have sex and I bite your head off, could you help me put up some shelves?”

Apologies to female readers, because, as I said, that joke perpetuates a gender stereotype, namely, that women are good with a vacuum cleaner or a dustpan and brush, but hopeless with a hammer and nails.

There are many jokes that are, as it were, much more serious than that. As I rattled on about in a couple of earlier columns, many of these are satirical — jokes that are designed to point a finger at human folly or even wickedness. In another column, titled “Should we laugh?”, I explored the question “is there any subject that should be kept out of the range of humour?”

Well, apparently not, if we take on board the following account of the Warsaw ghetto.

Historical preface first.

The Warsaw ghetto represents one of the worst atrocities in modern history. In November 1940 the genocidal Nazis rounded up all the Jews in Poland’s capital and herded them into a small sector of the city, which they euphemistically, cynically, dubbed the “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw.”

Here nearly half a million Jews were in effect imprisoned, barely subsisting on tiny food rations. An estimated quarter of a million were sent off to the death camps. An uprising against the Nazi captors was brutally crushed. Around 100 000 died of starvation or disease.

Not much to laugh about there, you might say. But then consider the following, which I’ve taken from the New York Review of Books of February 29th this year:

“In the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1941 Mary Berg, then a teenager, wrote in her diary about the improbable persistence of laughter in that hellish place: ‘Every day at the Art Café on Leszno Street one can hear songs and satire on the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, [on the latter] in a veiled fashion. The typhoid epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is not our only weapon in the ghetto — our people laugh at death and at the Nazi decrees. Humour is the only thing the Nazis cannot understand.’”

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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