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Two key women’s novels



Today I will dwell on two female authors who have become dominant whenever people look for African writers who write about the complex conditions of the African woman in changing times. These two are Mariama Ba and Tsitsi Dangarembga.

Senegalese writer Mariama Ba’s novel called So Long a Letter is the most vicious attack on polygamy that I have ever read. It is written in the voice of a depressed Muslim woman, Ramatoulaye, who is a school teacher in Senegal. It is a series of letters addressed to her friend called Aissatou, who lives in America. Aissatou has long rebelled and left.

Ramatoulaye gradually and objectively reflects on her marriage to Modou, from beginning to end. She tries but she cannot fully understand what leads a man to lose interest in his wife of twenty five years and marry his daughter’s best friend, a young school girl called Binetou. Ramatoulaye cannot understand why men even think about taking a second wife. “Was it madness, weakness, irresistible love? What inner confusion led Modou Fall to marry Binetou?” Ramatoulaye pines.

She goes on: “And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over, I carried his child….In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially…” The more she tries, the more Ramatoulaye fails to understand why men go for second wives.

But Ramatoulaye’s husband sends his male friends and relatives to alert her that he has taken a second wife. The reason for that awkward new marriage is flatly given, quoted around fate and destiny and there are no regrets: “Modou sends his thanks. He says it is fate that decides men and things: God intended him to have a second wife, there is nothing he can do about it. He praises you for the quarter of a century of marriage in which you gave him all the happiness a wife owes her husband. His family, especially myself, his elder brother, thank you…”

Ramatoulaye is wounded by what she thinks is deep betrayal, but she hides it from her guests. She does not even ask for the name of her co-wife. Then finally the grapevine indicates that it is Binetou, her daughter, Daba’s friend, who used to come to the house with Daba!

Roumatoulaye wonders if she must walk out of this marriage and humiliation and her thoughts are dreamy and gradual: “Leave? Start again at point zero, after living twenty-five years with one man, after having borne twelve children? Did I have enough energy to bear alone the weight of this responsibility, which was both moral and material?”

Eventually she is unable to leave a man who has humiliated her because, as she says, she has not known any woman who has been happy for leaving a man after a huge fallout. Ramatoulaye remains in limbo. She is unlike Aissatou, who moved out of a marriage when her husband married a second woman.

This novel is a psychological quest on the sins of African men, the changes they go through as they move from one point to the other in life. At some point, Ramatoulaye realises that it is very possible, and even normal that her husband’s love and passion for her had naturally died: “I no longer interested Modou, and I knew it. I was abandoned: a fluttering leaf that no hand dares to pick up, as my grandmother would have said. I faced up the situation bravely…” But the more she registers this, the more she comes to terms with who she is.

Around the time that Ramatoulaye marries Modou, her friend, Aissatou, marries Mawdo, a medical student and overall model citizen. The two were greatly in love. However, Mawdo is of noble birth, while Aissatou is merely the daughter of a goldsmith. Mawdo’s family — in particular his mother, Aunty Nabou — objected to the union.

In an effort to undermine the marriage, Aunty Nabou travels to her ancestral hometown and convinces her brother to relinquish one of his daughters — Aunty Nabou’s namesake — to her care.

Aunty Nabou proceeds to raise and preen young Nabou. Then, when the girl was of proper age, Aunty Nabou begs Mawdo to take young Nabou as his second wife. Mawdo, fearing that his mother would become distressed and fall ill if he declines, agrees to marry young Nabou.

Mawdo clearly accepts that his second marriage is not for love but he is not prepared to forgo it.
Mawdo assures Aissatou that he does not love young Nabou, but he also has children with her. Aissatou cannot accept this and divorces Mawdo. Assiatou focused on her education, received a degree in diplomacy, and moved to America to work in the Senegalese embassy.

Where Ramatoulaye hesitates and remains in limbo, Aissatou takes action and leaves the man who humiliates her. Ramatoulaye has a measure of conservatism as a strict Muslim. She remains in her situation when people around her, including her daughter Daba, think that she should revolt or take an action that shows disapproval of Modou’s action.
In both cases, one also realises that elderly women in the family are involved in fighting fellow women during their oppression. Mawdo’s mother rejects Aissatou because she is a mere blacksmith’s daughter.

Modou’s mother and Modou’s sisters reject Ramatoulaye too. They would prefer choosing a bride for Modou. Even Binetou’s mother encourages her to take over Ramatoulaye’s husband because she is in search of prestige and material things. There is no solidarity between the women.

But Ramatoulaye remains consistent in a rather baffling way. She refuses to fight Binetou over Modou. She refuses to go see recommended marabouts who give charms to women who want to win back their men. She says: “No I would not give in to the pressure. My mind and my faith rejected supernatural power…I looked reality in the face.” Even after the death of Modou, Ramatoulaye’s childhood lover, the rich politician Daouda Dieng, offers to marry her but she refuses.

Ramatoulaye’s argument is: “Esteem is not enough for marriage, whose snares I know from experience. And then the existence of your wife and children further complicates the situation. Abandoned yesterday because of a woman, I cannot lightly bring myself between you and your family.

You think the problem of polygamy is a simple one. Those who are involved in it know the constraints, the lies, the injustices that weigh down their conscience in return for ephemeral joys of change…”

The only point that moves Ramatoulaye is when she finds her own children engaged in acts of rebellion like smoking cigarettes and having sex. It is the acts of rebellion in others that give her a kind of thrill. She is solid and gradual, moving only after very careful consideration.

Nervous Conditions, a novel by Zimbabwean author, Tsitsi Dangarembga, first published in the United Kingdom in 1988 was the first book published by a black woman from Zimbabwe in English. Set over a period of about ten years, from the 1960s to the early 1970s, Nervous Conditions takes place in Zimbabwe before the country had attained independence from Britain and while it was still known as Southern Rhodesia or simply Rhodesia.

The novel centres around the experience of several female characters as they either challenge, or come to terms with, the colonial society and the traditional patriarchal structure of their society. The young narrator, Tambu, must show great determination as she overcomes all the obstacles to her progress in life. She also has to learn how to understand, largely through the difficult experiences of her cousin Nyasha, the negative effects that British colonialism has had on her society.

“Nervous conditions” is a statement from the radical and revolutionary Franz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth. The original statement is that the condition of the native is a nervous. In that very critical book, Fanon explores the psychological behaviours of people who happen to have been once colonised. The systematic behaviour includes an inferiority complex in the native and the resultant tendency to accept wholesome the coloniser’s culture and world view at the expense of native culture.

In that regard, Nervous Conditions is about women’s troubled conditions in an African patriarchal setting that has itself been overtaken by colonial modernity. These women have to deal with colonial oppression and with the predicament of being women in a colonised modern African society. They carry a double burden. The key women in this novel occupy a variety of social positions and have different perspectives on how they should deal with forms of oppression in their lives.

Tambu’s mother, despite her material poverty and lack of western education, is very conversant and well educated about her role in the family and she has no opportunity to romanticise. For her, womanhood is “a heavy burden.”

She knows that womanhood brings with it the inevitable role of bearing children, thereby reducing one’s room for social maneuver. In addition, she knows that womanhood is made worse by “the poverty of blackness.” She defines womanhood within the basic framework of wife and mother. When both her children are taken from her to be empowered educationally, she views it as her disempowerment and also as a process of giving them new and strange values.

Although Amaiguru, is very educated, with a Master’s degree, she remains surbodinate to her husband, Babamukuru. She also continues to uphold traditional family values. She defines herself by her marriage and not her education.

She tells the other women that she is only a daughter-in-law and therefore a foreigner amongst the Sigaukes. She is aware of many things she could have achieved outside male authority. Her education, however, provides her with relative material freedom and cushions her from poverty, unlike Tambu’s mother. That Amaiguru once picked a fight with Babamukuru, escapes to her brother’s place and eventually coming back to Babamukuru’s oppression, suggests that she fails to live outside male authority.

Lucia seems to be wayward and living outside male authority. But a closer consideration shows that Lucia would actually be happier with a man and a family of her own. She perceives her being non-attached to a man as a misfortune. Much as she would quarrel with anyone, she is aware of being in the Sigauke territory and it is them who offer her space, sex and in the end, a job. She is only frank, clever and cunning but not free.

Nyasha is a child of two worlds. She is African by birth and English by association and the struggle between the two is embodied in her. That struggle cannot be won by either of the two. That struggle destroys Nyasha’s body as the story progresses.

Nyasha represents the failure by both worlds to strike a compromise. Her parents have made her English but will not allow her to practice full Englishness. In her psychological trauma, she goes to the heart of the matter as she points out that first, “They have done it to me.” Second: “They did it to them.” Third and final: “They have deprived you of you, him of him, ourselves of each other.”

Tambu, on the other hand, smoothly negotiates the changes from rural dirt and poverty to Babamukuru’s modernity, learning, hygiene and relative comfort. Her strength is that while she acknowledges that Babamukuru’s world is comfortable, she does not break away from her people in her rural home. She is going the Amaiguru route and her final entry into a white school is her final test of character.

Babamukuru is intriguing! He is humane in so far as he sticks to the traditional African communalism. He maintains his role of the eldest son and father figure. However, he insists that the source of authority is western education and he embraces it uncritically.

In the process his children, Nyasha and Chido, lose their native language and experiences. He educates them away from their identity. Babamukuru imposes a white wedding on his brother and that farce is lost to him. Babamukuru is some kind of colonial authority in the traditional family.

Mariama Ba and Tsitsi Dangarembga have brought fame to their respective countries through writing works that explore the challenges faced by black women in an African set up that is fast changing.

Memory Chirere



An open letter to President Hichilema



Your Excellency,

I am certain that you are wondering where and/or how I have the temerity to write to you directly, but a recent post you put on WhatsApp piqued my interest; your meeting with His Excellency the Prime Minister of Lesotho, and his delegation. The delegation came to introduce to you and your good office the candidate of the Government of Lesotho, for the post of Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Joshua Setipa.

Let me set off by stating that I have a friendship with Setipa, for over 50 years, so I may not be the best person to give an objective appraisal or opinion of him; this I will leave to the government.

Further to that, as a citizen of Lesotho, I may embellish the information that I would provide on Lesotho, thus I will as far as possible keep to information that is contained in books. This is not a research report, but more a simplified literature review of what I have read. I shall not quote them, or reference them, thus allowing others the space to research this matter further.

First, let me state my surprise at the alignment of time that I see; Commonwealth Day in 2024 is on the 11th March, the day we celebrate a life well lived, that of Morena Moshoeshoe.

Further to that, this year also starts the 200th anniversary of the move by Morena Moshoeshoe and his followers from Menkhoaneng to Thaba Bosiu. They arrived at Thaba Bosiu in winter, circa 1824.

Next year, 2025 will also be the 100th anniversary of the ‘plenary’ that saw the birth of this Commonwealth of Nations. A handover from the bi-centenary, to the centenary celebrations.

We are all aware that the Commonwealth was started at the Imperial Conference of 1926, but it had what I call a plenary in 1925; this happened in Maseru, Basutoland. It was held at the ‘secretariat’ building on Kingsway. The building was used as the Prime Ministers’ office after independence, more recently, and to date as the Ministry of Defence.

When King George came to visit Lesotho in 1948, to thank the country and her citizens for their participation in the Second World War, High street as it was then known, had its name changed to Kingsway.

At this plenary Britain called the ANZaC states, Australia, New Zeeland and Canada, together with South Africa. It had been only 13 years (1912) since the Basotho monarch had been asked to attend the formation of the South African National Native Conference (SANNC), whose aim was to preserve African land. The SANNC was the forerunner to the African National Congress (ANC).

With the formation of the Union of South Africa, the union wanted to engulf Bechuanaland (Botswana) Swaziland (eSwatini) and Basutoland (Lesotho). This had been unsuccessful.

Next they came up with the Native Land Act of 1913, to remove African land rights. So, the conference that brought about the birth of the SANNC was a pre-emptive response to this act; an attempt to keep African land rights and traditions intact.

I would like to point out that the founding document of the Imperial Conference that brought about the Commonwealth states that all member states are autonomous and not subordinate to another.

At the time of the plenary, Basutoland was subordinate to Britain. But in a masterstoke became what I believe to be one of the founders of the Commonwealth.

Despite her subordination, Basutoland had placed so strong an objection to the presence of a representative South Africa in Basutoland, that South Africa’s invitation had to be withdrawn, and South Africa did not attend. This was the first ‘anti-apartheid’ shot, made in the world; what is more important is that it was made by an African country.

No matter how one looks at it, she may not have been a ‘founding member state’, but Basutoland was part of the founding fabric of the Commonwealth.

One just has to imagine the anger of the South Africans and their government: Dr. D. F. Malan, the first Nationalist Prime Minister of South Africa, was a minister responsible for housing at that time.

Had Basutoland’s lead been followed, spatial apartheid might never have happened. The Commonwealth would take till the 1960’s, and the formal legalisation/legislation of apartheid to remove South Africa from within her fold. A matter that Basutoland saw as far back as the 1920’s.

As shown, at the conceptualisation of the Commonwealth Lesotho was not just there, but an active and formidable participant; though one has to look further to see her relationship with Great Britain/the United Kingdom.

Basutoland/Lesotho’s history is strange, to say the least. The first Europeans to arrive here in 1833, were French Missionaries. At this time Europe was embroiled in wars, which inevitably included the French and English.

But it is these same priests, most notably Casalis, who helped steer the country to Britain, and British protection. Casalis acted almost as a foreign secretary/minister of foreign affairs at that time.

The first treaty between Basutoland and England was the Napier Treaty of 1843, though it took till 1866 to solidify this treaty into a protected land.

The history of the cavalry in Lesotho, the only African cavalry south of the Sahara, is quite long. It starts in about 1825, when F. D. Ellenberger in his book ‘History of the Basutho’, states that Morena Moletsane had come across gun powder quite by mistake.

They had been raiding a missionary’s home and came across a strange powder, which they found useless, so they threw it into a fire, which ‘exploded’. Thus, to his people called European style housing, ‘Ntlo-ea-thunya’, a house that shoots. But after having his people ravaged/savaged by Mzilikazi, he sent his best warriors to work on Boer farms, and with their remuneration purchase arms and horses.

We are often told of a ‘battle of/at Berea’. My answer is that it was not a battle but a cattle raid. Its importance is not just in the battle, but in democracy. The British called Morena Moshoeshoe ‘paramount chief’, a first amongst the others. The time before Berea shows something slightly different.

As Casalis writes in ‘My life in Basutoland’, the British had demanded 10,000 head of cattle, for stock theft. A great ‘pitso’ was called and all eligible men, those who owned land, were called.

At the end of the pitso, after many votes, the citizens refused to give their cattle to pay the demand of the British. The significance herein is that there was a plebiscite, a vote. Morena Moshoeshoe lost the backing of the people and thus the vote; the British then attacked to ‘collect’ the cattle themselves.

Both Morena Moshoeshoe and Morena Moletsane were heavily involved in the ‘battle’ which was won by the strength of the Basutho cavalry. Looking forward to the gun wars, it was most fortuitous that Morena Moshoeshoe’s ally, Morena Moletsane would outlive him, till the end of the gun wars.

After annexation in 1866, in the mid 1870’s the British, citing distance and as such expense, ceded Basutoland to the Cape, which was what the Basotho had been fighting against for a long time; they wanted direct British rule. They wanted to be ruled by Mofumahali Queen Victoria.

The first, and most critical mistake that the Cape made was, not so much in attacking Morena Moorosi, accusing his son of cattle theft, but in beheading him.

So, when some years later they wanted to disarm the Basutho, and they found those of the south of Basutoland who knew of the beheading, reluctant to go with the plan. The Cape decided to go ahead with disarmament forcefully and met equal if not greater force.

The Basutho were better armed, more knowledgeable on the terrain and better supplied. Helped by his father’s long-standing ally, Morena Moletsane, Morena Lerotholi was able to field a well-armed strong cavalry, which inflict great pain to the Cape.

This led to the Cape defeat. Together with the number of other wars that the Cape was fighting, there was fight fatigue among her people.

So bad was it, that they did not come and collect their fallen troops; in Mafeteng there is a cemetery called ‘mabitla-a-makhooa’, or graves of the white men. The SA Military History Society has a ‘roll of honour’ for some of the dead, as not all were buried in Basutoland.

There are two significant outcomes of the war. In his book ‘The Mabille’s of Basutoland’, Edwin W. Smith states that there was a fact-finding mission to Basutoland by members of the Cape parliament, including Rhodes. Their conclusion was that the Basutho should be handed back to Britain for direct rule; which was the original wish of the Basutho.

As Whitehall was reluctant to take this role back, Basutoland spent a period of close to two years of self-rule. Thus it became the first African country (only?) to unshackle itself of colonial rule. And became the first African country to get the colonial rule it wanted; and re-shackled itself to Britain.

The second is how Britain agreed to go back and rule Basutoland. In his book, Rhodes Goes North, J. E. S. Green shows how the Prime Minister of the Cape went to Britain to sue for peace, and eventually agreed to give Britain 20 000 pounds per annum, of her import tax revenues to govern Basutoland.

Whilst not a founding member of the Commonwealth, Basutoland has carried her fair weight in the battle to save both the Commonwealth, and together the rest of the Commonwealth, the world at large.

Whilst SA will hype the losses during the maritime accident of the SS Mendi in the English Channel, Lesotho is less inclined to speak of the losses on the SS Erinpura. The Erinpura was sunk by German war planes in the Mediterranean Sea. Though I should say that, the prayer of the men on the Mendi would resound so well with those who lost their lives on the Erinpura.

When British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill said; never was so much owed by so many to so few, I am certain he was speaking not just of the people of the British Isles, but the broader community within the Commonwealth, that stood together at this time of international need.

But having heard Sir Winston, there is a special bond of Basutoland within, and with the Commonwealth, that I would like to highlight. Apart from the ANZaC countries and South Africa, there were no air squadrons from other Commonwealth countries that I am aware of; except for Basutoland that is.

They paid for 12 or so Spitfire aircraft that would form the 72nd Basutoland, which flew in the Battle of Britain. No moSotho actually flew (in?) them, but they had been financed by the Basotho.

For all the prowess of a moSotho man with arms, in his book ‘Basotho Soldiers in Hitler’s War’, Brian Gary not only writes about the gift of aircraft that fought in the Battle of Britain, he also shows that Basotho soldiers, who were hauling various ordinances through the Italian Alps, were allowed to carry arms.

Aircraft and carrying arms for an African in World War II; Lesotho is not just a pioneer member of the Commonwealth, but a beacon.

As Lesotho many of these pioneering attributes continued. Whist South Africa was banned from sports and entertainment, Lesotho filled the gap for her. Exiles like Hugh Masekela and Mirriam Makeba were hosted for sell out concerts in Lesotho. South African interracial sports, with matches between the likes of Orlando Pirate, Wits University, Kaiser Chiefs, to name those I remember, started in Maseru.

I have touched on politics and war, sport and entertainment; let me go to superstition. It would go against what is expected of me not to go without anything superstitious.

Britain has given the world three major sporting codes. Rugby, which is dominated by the big three of New Zeeland and South Africa. Cricket, which expands from the rugby three to include India, Pakistan, most of the Caribbean states and a few African counties.

These sports are obviously ‘Commonwealth Sports’, as they are dominated, or played predominantly by Commonwealth countries. They have also given us football. This is a truly global sport, the largest sport played across the world, on all types of surfaces, with all types of round looking objects. We can’t call all of these footballs.

The last time a Commonwealth country won the World Cup it was England in 1966; the year Lesotho gained her independence.

The next World Cup is in 2026, the millennium celebrations of the Commonwealth; who will head the Commonwealth then? Will a Commonwealth team have the necessary ‘juju’ to make it?

Your Excellency, this is but a brief note on Lesotho, and it is my way of using the words attributed to Morena Moshoeshoe, when asking for protection from Queen Victoria that say; take me, and all the lice (those that are symbiotic to me) in my blanket. I do hope that these words will be of use to you as seek consensus on Lesotho and her candidate for the post of Secretary General of the Commonwealth.

Yours truly

Khasane Ramolefe

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Culture quibbles



A few weeks ago these pages carried a substantial piece by Mokhosi Mohapi titled “A reversal of our traditions and culture”, written in the form of an open letter to the government of Lesotho. The first sentence of Mohapi’s article took me by surprise, as he stated: MPs and Senators’ primary role is to protect and preserve the traditions and culture of the Basotho people. I would have thought the primary role of MPs and Senators would be to ensure that Basotho are secure (being protected, for example, from criminals), that they have adequate access to social services such as education and healthcare, that the economy is sufficiently stable to offer citizens some chance of employment, and so on. Fat chance, you might scoff.

But then I realised that Mohapi had a more specific contention in mind, as he stated: The Laws of Lerotholi were set to protect social order, traditions and culture of Basotho. Mohapi’s immediate concern is with the 2024 Estates and Inheritance Bill, which proposes radical changes to the existing order of things. (See the article in last week’s thepost, “MPs bulldoze through Inheritance Bill”, which gives a good idea of the background).

I’m aware that this Bill has provoked considerable controversy, and that is not my topic in this article. Nor do I wish to contest what Mohapi was saying in his piece — this is by no means a case of Dunton v Mohapi. But I did take note of the way the phrase “traditions and culture” kept resounding in Mohapi’s article, rather like a cracked bell, and what I want to do is open up those terms for examination.

Please bear with me as I slip aside for a moment with a little academic stuff. Back in 2006 I published an article titled “Problematizing Keywords: Culture, tradition and modernity.” For those of my readers with a scholarly bent and who might want to hunt it down, this was published in a journal called Boleswa Occasional Papers in Theology and Religion 2:3 (2006), pages 5-11. There I made a number of points I want to bring up in what follows.

The first fallacy I tackled in that article was the tradition/modernity binary — the notion that in Africa there was tradition and then, wham!, the white man arrived and there was modernity. Are we seriously to believe there were no great cities in Africa before the white man landed, that the peoples of a whole continent lived entirely in villages? Nigeria tells a different story.

Are we to believe there were no great libraries? Mali and Ethiopia tell a different tale. No writing systems? No medicine? I’m not saying that if I’m in pain I don’t prefer a dose of oramorph to an infusion made from some leaves picked off the slopes of Thaba Bosiu, but the point remains: the tradition/modernity binary is crude and crass and it’s demeaning about Africa.

We cannot get very far with simplistic ideas about where we are coming from and where we are at. And yet of course we do come from a past. I’ll quote — or, rather, paraphrase from memory, as I don’t have the work to hand — an observation made by T.S Eliot in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: We know so much more than those who came before us. But they are a large part of what we know.

But of those who came before who is it, exactly, that we know? When Mohapi repeatedly uses the phrase “the traditions and culture of the Basotho people” I take it he is thinking of the Basotho as constituted under Moshoeshoe I and the descendants of those generations.

For how much do we know about the “traditions and culture” of the various Sotho-speaking groups let’s say two hundred years before Moshoeshoe gathered them together to form the modern Lesotho state? Isn’t it likely there were significant differences between the “traditions and culture” of these groups, differences that were later rationalised or homogenised?

Two points here. First, we mustn’t forget what an extraordinary innovator Moshoeshoe was —and I guess that might be said also of Lerotholi, whose laws are the chief focus of Mohapi’s article. Second, culture is not static, it is not immutable. It evolves all the time.

For example, for how long has it been the case that adherence to the Christian faith could be said to be part of the culture of Basotho? (Or, for how long has football been part of the culture of the English? We are credited with the invention of football, but that doesn’t mean it’s been part of who we are since time immemorial).

That brings me to my next point, or a string of points, moving from England back to Lesotho. When I was a schoolboy I bought myself a copy of the book Components of the National Culture (1968) by the great British Marxist Perry Anderson. One of my schoolmasters — one of the few who didn’t like me — caught me with it and said “just the sort of book I’d expect a troublemaker like you to be reading. Just don’t show it to anyone else!”

The significant term in Anderson’s title is “components.” Culture is put together — it is an assemblage — and its components may have different sources.
That leads me on to the invention of tradition, and an example for Basotho.

I guess all my readers know Qiloane, the sandstone pillar at Thaba Bosiu the distinctive peak of which is said to be the inspiration for the shape of the traditional Basotho straw hat. Well, that notion is dubious to say the least; there were hats of the same shape from elsewhere in the region long before the Basotho got hold of the design.

Does this really matter? Well, no, because even if a tradition is invented, it still has the persuasiveness of a tradition. It’s just that knowing this might dissuade us from making big claims about the unchangeable nature and sanctity of tradition.

And the same goes for culture. I leave you with a quotation from the Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (it’s from his terrific book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers): We do not need, have never needed, a homogenous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron.

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

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The Joker Returns: Conclusion



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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