A Frank Dialogue on “Boloi”

Despite and in spite of the efforts by many people to do what is right and just, things are falling apart around us. On some level, because we are yet to make sense of boloi ba bokhooa in our efforts to decolonise ourselves.

As far as I can tell, Frank Leepa (my wise musical man) believed in having conversations around boloi we can spur ourselves into redemptive action. I surmise this from the fact that boloi was a firm theme in a number of his songs; listen to, for example, monoana, house on fire, lekhari-khari and dumela.

To Frank, boloi was more than witchcraft, as one might want to translate. Factually speculating, it was a manifestation of greed and the erasure of botho by whiteness. The song greed points us to this understanding, even though there is no explicit mention of boloi—just as there is no single use of the word greed in the song.

History is essential to cement the above understanding, which came from intricate exploration of meaning from the very first Sankomota album, in songs monoana and house on fire. The song greed, which appears in what I call his sunset album, merely crystallises why Frank knew by instinct the necessity of teaching our young in the song monoana to point at ‘witches’—supa, supa baloi!

The pointing line, in fact, is what makes monoana a memorable song. For the benefit of those who might not know, monoana is a siNtu (setho) counting song in as far as our counting is identity based first, before it is numerical. Perhaps to clarify, an illiterate man—in the Western sense of the word—does not need to know how to numerically count to determine that one of his cows may be missing: he verifies his herd through the identity and knowledge of each cow. Metaphorically, this is part of the reason that each finger (monoana) must be recognised as distinctively different from the other in teaching a child to count in siNtu.

To return back to the matter at hand, Frank in his teaching makes an effort—beyond making counting fun and memorable—to instill the agency to act against evil, boloi: at the very least, by pointing at the evil instead of pretending to not see it. Admittedly, this is not always an easy task. How do you, for instance, point at anything done under the cover of darkness? To an extend, this particular question ignited the creation of house on fire.

Although it is not easy to categorise Frank’s songs, I believe house on fire is an anti-apartheid protest song that is deeply rooted in the 9th December 1982 Maseru Massacre. This fact, however, is muted. In part, because Frank had the art of recognising the global in the particular, and as such, managed to communicate his message with some abstraction.

In my mind, one of the tells regarding the massacre lies in the tentative mokorotlo—grumblings for men to take up arms to fight the enemy—which dissipate into celebratory/prideful melody to mask the intention. Another definite tell lies in how boloi is crafted into the song: as a reminder that the killings were done during the mythical operating hours of witches i.e. from the dead of night to the early hours of the morning.

Without history and the ability to read through the silences, the above tells can, of course, be missed. And I think this was intentional: for, Frank was purported to be a perfectionist, which would mean he deliberately avoided locking the song in the particular. In my opinion, because the particular was also very close to home. His own father, Clement Leepa, was brutally killed under the cover of darkness in 1970 by forces, similar to the apartheid soldiers, that feared the existence of principled beings willing to challenge the status quo. Forces, lest we forget, that had a white man in the helm—a (cock)Roach—sanctioning the brutality.

By creating emotional distance, Frank acted to remind us that the South African questions were indeed African questions. His empathy for the families of those who lost their loved one in the massacre propelled him to point us to the evil apartheid regime, which sought to maintain its power by using soldiers that better qualified as baloi, as in: baloi ba bolaeang bana ba batho ka sehloho!

I cannot fully corroborate my sentiment, but baloi and boloi was a grammar of his expression because not only was Clement Leepa killed, standing his own ground, his corpse was apparently later shot at to convince the powers that be that he was truly dead. And the Judas of Clement Leepa, as the story goes, is alleged to have taken his liver post-mortem. If anyone understands liretlo or ritual killings, this is interesting in that body parts are deemed to have medicinal potency only if they are taken from a living body. So, the allegation itself speaks to either how much a warrior Clement Leepa was, for his liver (sebete) to have value post mortem, or speaks to how sinister Judas and the regime were to the Leepa family in purporting they returned a liver-less body for the burial—suggesting basically that they took measures to ensure in the after-life he will not be courageous, ha a na hoba le sebete. I am again undoubtedly on speculative ground here, but hopefully one can begin to appreciate the complexity of boloi as a concept, and perhaps, grasp why the song greed practically ends with a fading dialogue:

Itse ke ntse ke re ke etetse bophirima-tsatsi,
Ka be se ke utloa lioeleseng ka motho enoa hao,
Sekitiri sa motho!

Ke ne ke o joetse,
Maoba mona…
ka khalana le eena a ts’oere nama,
Nama ea sebete!

Having provided context, I really don’t feel moved to offer literal translation; I will therefore happily leave this for the reader as homework.

To finally come to an end, the take home message is that boloi is the antithesis of botho, a phenomenon erased largely by bokhooa (aka broad systems of whiteness). Thus, to regain botho, we will need to urgently have frank conversations that hopefully take us out of the paralysis of merely exclaiming, like Obierika in things fall apart, that:

The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.- Chinua Achebe

MaAfrika, it is now or never! Let’s us find the courage of the warrior Sankomota to recover what was severed by the knife wielded by the white man. Our humanity depends on it!