A thought on chronicling Lesotho’s woes…

With everything that has been happening recently in the beautiful Kingdom in the Sky—motions of no confidence, abrupt closure of parliament, heads of trusted individuals rolling, and innuendoes about the military leadership–I have been rather worried.

And why wouldn’t I, with our uncomfortable history of instability? Personally, I hear there is much ado … I pray it better be about nothing, and if it is about something, it better be about the welfare of Basotho and not about protecting interests of individuals. I also pray that should anything happen, Basotho will have the wisdom to stand together in unity like Teyateyaneng (TY) folks when the city went up in flames: theirs was a remarkable story at so many levels that include the fact that this is where ‘Black Jesus’ hailed from.

Black Jesus was a real living human being–political, complex and controversial. He is worth at least a chapter in a book that chronicles the instabilities in Lesotho post military rule.

As a citizen of this era, if I were tasked with writing such a book, I would start deliberately with BBC’s transcript of an interview with ntate Qhobela, Minister of Foreign Affairs, when His Majesty plunged Lesotho into the first of the many crises that awaited her post the military rule.

Ntate Qhobela was asked a question along the lines: “So, Honourable Minister, what can you tell us about what’s happening in Lesotho?”

“The young boy woke up one fine morning and walked to the wireless station to topple a democratically elected government”, was pretty much his response.

Shell-shocked, the reporter asked, “Honourable Minister, are you really referring to His Majesty as a young boy?”

Ntate Qhobela sounding ever so defiant responded as follows: “I say … this young boy walked to the wireless station to topple a democratically elected government”!

The reporter attempted again to get ntate Qhobela to withdraw his words, but failed and moved on with the interview.

Sadly, I can’t recall what came next, in part, because that bit didn’t make the cut in creating a ‘sound bite’ that was to be repeated over and over again–when giving a report on the latest happenings in the small Kingdom, surrounded by its single neighbour, South Africa, which had but just had its first elections.

The ‘sound bite’ without doubt served its purpose. It stirred very interesting debates around the question: what really … really was ntate Qhobela saying?

This is a question that opened my eyes to the intercourse that exists between language and politics–both with a capital and small ‘p’.

His Majesty at that time was unmarried. Culturally speaking he was a young boy, if at all he was not born into the royal family. I put emphasis on ‘if’, for in my opinion, it is the ignoring of the conditional that proved problematic.

But to a level of causing anyone to be shell-shocked and left totally exasperated…? This, I am uncertain of. I know there is infantilising language, but there is also context.

In ntate Qhobela’s response, there was an embedded ‘we are from a different generation’ message. He made it perfectly clear he was part of thee generation: the last standing generation taught by teachers who learnt Latin extensively. Or if you like, the purist generation that cannot bring itself to utter words like radio and fridge. But most importantly, a generation that defines the concept of respect differently.

So, while indeed it might not have been proper to call His Majesty a young boy, I would argue the reference was made at a level of merely getting us to engage with a question of what it means to be born a royal in a country founded by a minor chief, who was far from the apex of aristocracy. Basically, how do we make sense of the privilege that is so profoundly linked to democracy?

In all probability, at that point of the book, I would leave the question unanswered. Instead, I would ease myself to the 1998 moment, where Basotho went to their father, the King, Rabasotho, for refuge. In narrating this moment, I would attempt to make visible yet again the intercourse between language and politics. I would explore at some length what caused a respected leader, Thabo Mbeki, to assert that the truth was being prostituted with gay abandon. What was the truth? And why the need to use words laced with sexuality?

Anchored in the idea of the truth, I would fast forward to this current moment of uncertainty in search for the truth. And here, I mean any other truth except that there are no permanent enemies in politics!

I am not sure how that book would end; all I know is that the truth as a central theme might prove to be stranger than fiction. I suppose because at the moment I feel, there is the truth, and the truth behind the truth. And the only way to disambiguate is to read between the lines or wait patiently for the real truth–for apparently in the end there is but one truth, hence the saying “nnete e mokoka”! Hmmm…but really?!

Bokholoa Monologue!

Ao chehe …kea bots’aba bokholoa! Ke ne ke lumetse e le kannete hore ha e le ‘na ha ke lekholoa la puo. But to my utter shock and dismay, it does seem like I am a “foreigner” when it comes to language—my mother tongue language. I have lost that easiness of navigation and articulation of what could be expressed even in sleep. Hmmmm… if my understanding is not lacking, then I must belong to a group of those otherised individuals known as “makholoa”—the people, who after being away from their native land for ages, are sometimes laughed at for making incredulous remarks about the changed (or unchanged) landscape of what was once familiar to them at an intimate level.

Lekholoa? ‘Na taoana ea lihlaba le lithaba tsa eena Thesele, ruri ha ke lumele! Ke hlapanya joalo ka majakane hore hona ke toro—toro ea Fako! I am/should be a dual citizen—or, if you prefer, a proper bilingual. So, what went wrong? Ke fihlile joang moo molepellaneng1? Ke bua ka oona molepellane oa ho ts’oana le oo libali-bali, matjelo-tjelo2, a o rehileng “fiscal cliff”. Ke re: ke fihlile joang ho iphumana ke lutse leralla leo ke sitoang e le kannete ho fumana mantsoe ka puo ea ka a ho itoloka ka botebo hore le haeba lebitla le ne le se le ahlame, Seokamela thapeli ea ka a e utloe?

Ha ke na karabo empa le ha ho le joalo e re ke hakanye feela. Morero ha se ho nyela lehala kapa hona ho luka metsi a liliba tse etseng hore kajeno e be ke thope ea ho ts’oarisoa teu3—hoba chehe, ke ithutile “ho lema” fats’eng la bokholoa hore ke tsebe ho ikemela le ho ja ka mofufutso oa phatla ea ka. Potso-kholo ke hore: na ha metso ea puo e fokola, ke tla hola ho le ho kae? Kapa bo-nkhekhe ba fositse ha ba re puo ke mmetla-tsela oa boitsebo? Clearly, this can’t be!

I am here with poor roots stemming from soil fertilised with love. This is the undisputed truth: ‘nete ea ‘mamaruri. Taba-tabelo e kholo ea baholisi ba ka e ne e le hore ke be le lenyora la ho noa selibeng sa thuto: seliba sa maphetlaka libuka oona matjelo-tjelo! I am here because their quest and sacrifice to ensure that I have a bright future came at the expense of compromising my potential to grow in my own language, ergo cultivate a strong sense of identity rooted in my own Sesotho culture.

I wrestle with the language just to be nuaced enough to tell my truth without being insulting or disrespectable. But, I really shouldn’t wrestle with Sesotho: I should be able to use the language in a powerful manner that even allows, if needs be, to address royalty as peers in a formal setting—and, more importantly, get away with it! Invoke a simple idiom like “e khotjoa e le maoto mane”, or daringly declare: “ngoana o nyela kapa ho rotela ‘ma’e a mo pepile; haeba ke fahlile ‘muso ka lehlabathe, thupa shapa fats’e boo!”. As it stands, it seems I can potentially be expressive at this level in English not Sesotho; even though, for reasons I still cannot articulate, I had assumed that I possessed reasonable command of both languages.

Senyesemane se re: “it’s never too late”. So, instead of wasting more precious time thinking up reasons of why you are deficient in Sesotho, taoana ea thaba, namame e ts’ehla, just work hard to increase your proficiency. Hoba ruri ha li na motloha-pele. U noele, u bile u futse lefats’eng la bokholoa, joale e fihle nako ea ho fula hlabeng sa puo ea heno. E fihlile nako ea hore: “khomo boela haeno o holile”!

  1. steep downward hill
  2. Batho ba bohlale –the clever people
  3. “handle” of ox drawn plough

Translation Woes …

Recently I was engaged in a brief translation task aimed, in part, at promoting multilingualism in our society. On the surface—despite the embedded politics, which I shall attempt to avoid—the task seemed easy. There was but a single expression to translate: “a proud service co-creator”!

The expression in question is the new tag line for the project I research under: Siyakhula Living Lab project. Living Labs operate under the philosophy that to create (or build) meaningful services or products, end-users have to be involved actively as innovators together with those who will provide or develop the services or products. To highlight this partnership between users and providers, words like “co-creator” and “co-innovator” are typically used.

Using the above as context for translating the tag-line into Sesotho, I crossly underestimated the dynamics of the language. I attempted to create a more or less direct translation: “moetsi-mmoho ea motlotlo oa lits’ebeletso”. This translation is not flawed, but from what I gathered, “moetsi” as a representative word for creator, brought a degree of confusion. Of course, I found this a bit surprising given we do have idioms in the day-to-day Sesotho that suggest “moetsi” is a familiar word that can be understood in context; the most popular idiom being “moetsuoa ha a lebale” (the victim never forgets) and by implication “moetsi oa lebala” (the perpetrator forgets).

As always, I took the criticism in my stride. And through the help of those who speak the language, I began to interrogate how the simple idea of working in partnership is communicated in Sesotho, particularly in a context of trying to emphasise the individual. As I re-engaged myself to the task, one thing was clear: anything with “ts’oarana ka matsoho” (holding hands) would be a lazy translation—precisely because the expression is popularly used and I didn’t want to take part in reinforcing a prevailing and very misguided idea that our African languages lack the capacity to serve the knowledge society.

Driven by my ‘politics’ and, of course, the desire to see the task to completion, I generated a number of translations. Ironically, many of these translations stemmed from attempting to run away from the holding hands metaphor. Some were literally centred on how the word ‘hold’ is used to convey different kinds of participation in collaborative work.

As an individual, I can communicate, in at least three ways, my role in collaborative work: 1) “ke a ts’oarisa”, 2) “ke a ts’oarisana” or 3) “ke a ts’oarisoa”. The first two expressions are similar in that I would (supposedly) be defining my role as one of helping (lending a hand), but in a manner that may suggest differing levels of commitment. In the third expression while the idea of teamwork is not lost, I am not necessarily being coy about my role and that of others in performing the task at hand: I am the lead and others are the supporting act. If you detect a hint of militancy, then it means you grasp the depth of the language; you appreciate that such an assertion is occasioned by circumstances that deviate from the norm—circumstances that warrant clarity on whether we are all in this (work) together as equals—“re Makaota, mmoho ts’ebetsong na?

Again, I should stress that Living Labs operate under the ethos of ‘perfect’ partnership. That some animals may be more equal than others is a taboo.

With the above in mind, the following translation won hands down (or should I say hands out of the picture): “Tjaka ea tlama-thata kahong ea lits’ebeletso”!

In my (not very humble) opinion, this translation brings some oomph to the tag-line. “Tjaka” (used often as a synonym for “seithati”) embeds pride at a level that is dependent on how one chooses to interpret the word: epitome, role model, heroine or hero are a few possible candidates. The translation then becomes: A role model for building services in tight-unison!

An intersection of mathematics and politics

The past Saturdays I have been volunteering as a Maths tutor for the Upstart Youth Development Project. As far as many of my beloved learners were concerned, Maths wouldn’t reside in a planet designated for languages. Maths would reside in a different and very distant planet with a hard to pronounce name— I would imagine, to banish it properly from the memories of people.

I found this disappointing but not entirely unexpected. So, in a slightly determined fashion, I decided one of my key priorities will be to help the learners locate Maths within the language planet. And, of course, allow them to gradually come to terms with the fact that another planet for Maths is as non-existent as Pluto.

In pursuit of this priority, I found myself in an unusually happy space where my politics intersected with Maths. We were discussing functions, which naturally one can’t discuss without establishing an understanding of relations: for a function is but a special relation. Different examples were given to describe multiple everyday relations. Most of these examples were not very exciting until we explored a relationship between Dr. Jacob Zuma and Mr. Mbogeni Ngema. Both men are polygamists and whether or not they have gone on record as pro-patriarchy is detail we suspend. I asked my beloved learners whether a polygamous relationship qualified as a function.

First, there was a reasonable pause in the classroom, as the learners work out whether such a relation qualified as a one-to-many or many-to-one relation. Then, we proceeded to do the obvious, represent the relation on the board, like as shown below:


Almost feverish with excitement, I realised that we had proven mathematically that polygamous relationships are not functional. And, of course, I used the moment productively. I brought into the discussion the idea of “contexts” as sensitively as I could, to explain why the two relational sets may not be swapped around. I argued (without using the term patriarchy) that the instinct to put the male set before the female set defines a very particular context to understanding polygamy as a cultural practice; a context in which a man is defined, for example, as the head of the family—ergo not an equal partner to a woman. I stressed that their instinct was tied to that context, as such, swapping of the sets will lead to a contradiction.

These are high school learners who are familiar with topics like ratios; so it really wasn’t difficult to leverage on this familiarity to cement my point. I simply reminded them that in ratios, the ratio of males to females in the classroom is different from that of females to males —a fact that has been drilled into them by their teachers and one I may need to revisit later with them.

With my learners reasonably convinced that the sets could not be swapped, the conclusion stood: polygamy, expressed in English, is not functional despite what the patriarchs may think!

I remain delighted by the conclusion. In entering what I regard as my political space, I managed to communicate, in subtle ways, how concepts are incrementally developed in Maths such that it eventually becomes possible to bring the idea of contexts to answering questions. I also found the language to communicate the embedded ethics in Maths. As a result, I was even able to dutifully explain the rationale I (and many other beautifully minded Mathematicians) use in marking:

You present me with just an answer and no work (or context to appreciate your thought process)…I will give partial marks on paper but I will certainly give full marks in my heart. Not in my (beautiful) mind but in my heart because that will be a loving act of instilling the value of labouring for your rewards.

This Saturday I will be playing around with the idea of restricting the domain of functions, I hope the idea of contexts will become even much more clearer. In the meantime, I am just looking forward to finding more “inspired” examples that may be useful in concretising concepts and the view of Maths as a language of variables, sets, functions, etc.

Mother tongue delight

To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.- Frantz Fanon

Today, as proclaimed by UNESCO, is International Mother Language Day. This is the day that each one of us is to delight in their mother tongue language: “to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism”.

I shall delight myself by exploring the potency of naming in Sesotho. As we all know, names are intended to convey a message. The question is why would anyone, for example, name a road curve “moqato khaola”? Moqato, if I grant myself permission to be reductionist, is akin to that string in g-string. In the past, when men used to wear that ‘loin garment’ called ts’eea, we referred to the string holding the garment together moqato. So, translated in context, moqato khaola simply communicates how dangerous that particular curve is. It is so dangerous that it can break (khaola) that vital string, which when broken can shame a man. Notwithstanding the dangerousness of this curve, what delights me, particularly as a feminist that I am, is that this confirms to me that indeed women are the best drivers! Otherwise why are they not told to heed the danger?!

Moving right along. If my point is truly to demonstrate the potency of naming, then I think it is fitting to explore names given to some alcoholic beverages in Lesotho. I hope through this exploration, it would be evident why I find the subject of naming delightful. Below is a table with a few of my favourite names given to locally brewed “beer”.

NameLiteral translationInterpretation to the translation
Hata-butle-nchanyanaStep slowly my boy.Drink this but remember to take it easy ... nice and easy my boy or fall you shall.
Ithoballe-nchanyanaGo to sleep my boy.Drink this, it's lights out my boy... the question of home or not becomes mute.
Lebitla-le-ahlameThe grave is open.To drink too much of this beverage is but to make an appointment with death.
Qhoma-o-checheJump and take a step back.Drink this and you might just feel light on your feet: you will walk with a bounce but it might just be a case of "moving two steps forward and one step backward".
Sekipa-se-ntekaneT-shirt is enough for me.Drink this and suddenly it gets so hot ...you might just start stripping and possibly leave your blanket behind; blankets are expensive so this is not desirable at all.

Birding: An Inspiration for Courtship

What do I know about birding? Very little, indeed! Still, since I have already entered the realm of birders in my last posting, I thought one additional flight wouldn’t possibly hurt.

However, to ensure that I don’t overstep on any boundaries, I will confine my flight to the courtship zone. This zone appeals to me for a number of reasons, but mostly because it gives me a rare insight into the minds of the men from my part of the world.

I come from a world where birding is an activity that is generally enjoyed by members of the opposite sex, especially those who have herded and cared for livestock as young boys. I suppose this can be explained by the fact that herding typically happens in the wild where mother nature happily provides her lessons while inspiring most of the entertainment for the lads. Naturally, I could be wrong to assume there is a connection between spending time in the wild and having an affinity for birding. But frankly, my experience as a “supposed bird” suggests otherwise.

During courtship, I have been enthralled by prose filled with awareness of nature (the environment including the birds) from those with herding experience. They have proven to have an ability to spin a mundane expression like “nonyana e ts’oaroa ka menoto”, which suggests that a bird is ‘captured’ by its legs, to flatter a star like Tina Turner and mortal like me.

Of course, given the magnificent legs of Tina (that apparently go on forever), the prose used would liken her to a mystical secretary bird — yet to be seen, even by twitchers of note. This mysticism, in my opinion, is possibly conveyed by a spirit of another bird that can satisfy a deep yearning for reciprocity. My guess would be a bird in the sparrow hawk family. Apparently if you ask really nicely, “seotsanyana, nkopele” 1 (sparrow hawk, flap your wings for me), it spreads its wings and hovers in the air as though to say: “happy to delight you”.

Unlike with Tina, for me attention would be on something else, perhaps the colour of my feathers (personality). The legs wouldn’t play much of a factor. The legs would be mere instruments for grabbing hold of me — or to be precise, my attention, so I don’t escape before considering the prospects of nestling the would-be beautiful babies that my suitor and I could have.

On this ‘nestling’ note, let me gracefully land and/or end my flight. I hope the view has been spectacular. And to a degree, I hope through my courtship experience(s) I have managed to provide a small insight into some aspects in my language and/or culture that I am yet to find the words to fully articulate ;-)!

  1. This comes from a traditional (folk) song, which was perhaps popularised by the late Sefatela at the turn of this century.

Vuka and Spruce up the Language!

Vuka, awake! A season of rebirth or new beginnings has arrived. For many people, including myself, it is a season for de-cluttering our emotional, intellectual and physical environment. A season in which we are inspired by nature itself to create space for new ideas, people and things.

As we de-clutter, we ask ourselves a number of critical and reflective questions to rid ourselves and our environment of certain things, while we keep or protect those things that we cherish. The question is: do we ever remember to ask questions that may allow us to value language in the context of our environment? I don’t just mean in terms of using language to send positive vibes in our environment; I mean in terms of truly reclaiming ourselves, and connecting deeply to our environment and heritage!

Indeed, I am well aware of the increasing and commendable efforts by many countries and individuals to protect their environment and heritage. But when it comes to dealing with language, I feel the spirit of lumping together the protection of the environment and heritage is lost.

Otherwise put, although language is central to heritage, I think we have done a poor job in framing its importance within the context of the environment and its protection. As such, I think people still have difficultly in seeing the extend of the overlap between issues of the environment and that of heritage (cultural or otherwise). They fail to see the embeddedness of issues of heritage within the broad set of issues of the environment. Mathematically speaking, they fail to conceptualise heritage issues as but a proper subset of environment issues.

In my mind, without this conceptualisation, being connected to the broad vision of the country, continent or planet would remain a challenge. At the moment, though saving the rhino is as important as saving my Sesotho language, I sometimes forget this truth. While this is an embarrassing admission to make, with the arrival of spring, I hope to wake up permanently from a slumber that sometimes denies me of this truth.

Happy spring to all. May the beauty brought by the season inspire us to spruce up our views on language … to see beyond its functional use … and be moved to find ways in which we (re)enchant its use to (re)connect to the richness of our heritage and the environment as whole!

Came for a Reason

Africa without any boundaries is my home. However, once in a little while I meet someone who makes me question whether South Africa is my home.

South Africa is my temporary domicile (until my studies are complete). As a proud Lesotho citizen, I have all the intentions to go back home and when that time comes, no one will have the benefit of saying to me: “khomo, boela hae u holile”. This literally translates to: “cow, go home you have grown”.

In the meantime, to anyone who is intent on making me feel like this is not my home, I came here for a reason. My reason is not to play a game like morabaraba (a strategy driven board game); my reason is to get a dose of knowledge. So please listen to my plea (captured poetically below) and let me be!

Moleko, tloha ho ‘na!
Ha ke ea tla morabarabeng.
Ke tlile ngakeng:
Ke tlisitse sebono eteng.
Ha ke ne ke tlile morabarabeng,
Ke ne ke tlare:itekanye mesikaro!
Ke namane e ts’ehla;
Motho a ka thiba ka ‘m’ae,
Kapa a thiba ka monoana!

Moleko, haeba o na le litsebe, libule,
Haeba o na le mahlo, le oona a bule,
Le kelello haeba e teng, e sebelise!
Hoba ke namane e ts’ehla;
Ha ke rore feela, ke ea loana!

Translation of the above, without getting into the depth of the language is as follows:

Evil one, get away from me!
I didn’t come here for morabaraba.
I came for the doctor:
For my arse to be injected.
If I had come for morabaraba,
I would say to you: weigh your “capabilities”!
I am a yellow calf; 1
A person could defend with their mother, 2
or defend with their finger!

Evil one, if you have ears, open them;
If you have eyes, have them open as well;
And if you have a brain, use it!
For I am a yellow calf;
I don’t just roar, I can fight!

The bold part of the translation is arguably inaccurate. Doctor is ngaka in Sesotho. Ngakeng refers to any place that a doctor practices his/her craft e.g. hospital or sangoma’s chambers. People go to these places to see doctors; hence, my translation. Actually, to be exact, they go there for cure. Just to be indulgent, in the above context, the disease that needs cure can be regarded as either poverty or ignorance. Its all a matter of interpretation!

  1. Yellow calf is a term of endearment for a lion/lioness.
  2. The potency of this statement is lost in translation.