Yes, now you will narrate and tell others what you saw on the road: pleasant and painful things.Sophonia Machabe Mofokeng, ‘The End’
How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?Georges Perec, ‘Approaches to What?’
Recently translated into English by Nhlanhla Maake under the title In My Heart (2021), Sophonia Machabe Mofokeng’s Pelong ya Ka (1962) is a collection of twenty short essays that circle around the quotidian whilst using the heart as a point of departure, of reference, and as metaphor for talking about events, encounters and experiences. All the essays are interconnected because they all reference the heart and its role in social relations. The book is the third textual installation in the Elsewhere Texts series edited by Gayatri Chakravotry Spivak and Hosam Aboul-Ela, the other two being Towards a History of the National – Popular in Bolivia, 1879-1980 by Rene Zavaleta Mercado (translated by Anne Freeland) and The Production of Local by Luis Tapa (translated by Alison Spedding). According to Spivak, in the general introduction, the chief objective of the series is to ‘translate theoretical material operating outside the Euro-US, not readily available to metropolitan readership. . . [P]resent texts from different national origins to the US readership. . . [T]o point out how each is singular in the philosophical sense, namely, universalizable, though never universal.’ In addition to this admirable ambition, what resonates with me the most in Spivak’s introduction is her insistence on valorising theoretical thought in different styles and guises. Spivak, in other words, invites readers to recognise that theoretical thought cannot be circumscribed into the stifling enclave of academic aesthetics and uniformity. Neither is thought an exclusive privilege and province of the Euro-US American tradition.
Mofokeng’s straightforward and unpretentious prose style demonstrates that one can theorise about concepts and contribute to thought without resorting to the often pretentious and elitist language of the academy.
In My Heart indeed offers an alternative to what Spivak calls the ‘European model’ of knowledge production.
Before I attend to Mofokeng’s text, I presume it is imperative to cite a couple of things I find invaluable in Spivak’s general introduction, and in Simon Gikandi’s introduction, in regards to both the goals of the series and Mofokeng’s translated literary offering. At the centre of the series there appear to be a series of questions that challenge the Western bias against non-Western practises of theoretical thought:
Who gets to do legitimate ‘theory’?
What method or style is acceptable?
And why is this so?
Put differently, the series exist to demonstrate how theoretical thought is expressed and how it reads (both in content and style) outside the privileged and dominant Euro-US American tradition. In the opening pages of the general introduction, Spivak prefers to use the Greek term theorein, which is explained as ‘seeing or making visible correctly,’ in place of the much-contested derivative term ‘theory.’ In the case of translating and publishing Mofokeng’s collection of essays the intention is quite clear: having read Mofokeng’s essays, I accept the usage of the term theorein and put an accent on it in relation to Mofokeng’s meditations and observations – interpreted through the lens of his Sesotho worldview – as opposed to the heavy-loaded and contested term ‘theory’ in its strictest and widest sense.
Theorein appears to me as an apt description of Mofokeng’s short essays, for they are an attempt to make each subject, experience, or event he tackles, intelligible to ordinary readers.
Moreover, Spivak argues that the reader must not simply and naively rely on the translation, or uncritically receive it as substitute for the original. Spivak maintains that such a reliance and reading practice ‘closes doors’ of reading, debating, and discussion, and I suspect, puts the text to sleep, shutting down other possible interpretive alternatives. Spivak is not only addressing the task of the translator, but is directly speaking to the duty of the suspicious reader. Alas, since I consider myself a sceptical reader I am distressed that I am not proficient enough in the Sesotho language to test the translation against the original.
We know from reading Walter Benjamin that translation itself is a form, and all translations are subjected to be tested against the original, for this invites regenerative contentions and contestations. I predict this is partly why the translator’s note is always important, for as with the case with Maake, who, in the translator’s note, takes us through his tireless years of reading, quizzing, and discussing the text with undergraduate and postgraduate students in the classroom, we get to hear the ‘background noise,’ understand the politics that inform the process of translation, the linguistic nuances, complications, compromises, and sacrifices that had to be made in order for Pelong ya Ka to be born into the English language and become In My Heart.
In his introduction to In My Heart, Simon Gikandi gives the reader a short historical, biographical, and cultural background of Mofokeng – the first South African scholar to obtain a PhD in Sesotho – as well as touching upon his work, his education, and his achievements. Gikandi situates Mofokeng in larger and wider – though not expansive and exhaustive – African contexts of writers who wrote and produced literatures in African languages, though they remain largely ignored and are not admitted into the ‘postcolonial institutions of interpretation.’ He cites a few names of these ‘colonial renegades,’ from Daniel Fagunwa, Magema Fuze, Gaakara Wanjau, Ham Mukasa, to Sol Plaatje and Thomas Mofolo. Gikandi argues that these writers are, and this includes Mofokeng, ‘untutored intellectuals,’ not because they were not well-educated, but because they were educated yet remained untainted by academic conventionality and found alternative modes of being or self-expression and ‘operated outside the rules and practises that governed the production of African knowledge within the authorised institution of the colonial university.’ Bearing this in mind, Gikandi attempts to restore Mofokeng’s work to its rightful place: that of a central figure in the history and making of African literature and literary criticism, like Es’kia Mphahlele and others.
Regrettably, however, while Mphahlele’s MA thesis ‘The Non-European Character in South African English Fiction’ (1957) is available to an eager readership, Mofokeng’s MA thesis ‘A Study of Sesotho Folktales’ (1951) and his doctoral dissertation ‘The Development of Leading Figures in Animal Tales in Africa’ (1954), which are his earliest works of literary criticism, remain lost and forgotten. What contemporary readers are left with is the responsibility to asses and appreciate his talents based on his two collections of essays Pelong ya Ka (1962/2021), Leetong: On Pilgrimage (1957), and his play Senkatana (1952). Gikandi laments that Mofokeng’s work has been neglected. This critical neglect, as we know, characterises almost all literatures produced in our South African indigenous languages.
One may cite an endless list of important thinkers and writers whose contributions have been relegated to the doldrums, surviving in the shadow of the Anglophone literary machine.
For those of us who have never read the work of Mofokeng until now, Gikandi’s introduction is no doubt enriching and informative. Where we part ways is when Gikandi tries to pit Mofokeng against W.B. Vilakazi and A.C. Jordan, claiming that, unlike with those two, Mofokeng’s work was in conversation with the untutored, the ordinary street folk, as though Jordan’s work – from his imaginative fiction Ingqumbo Yeminyanya (1940) to his posthumous and untranslated collection of stories and essays Kwezo Mpindo Zetsitsa (1974) – was not addressing, or in conversation with, the ordinary reader.
I suppose a case against Vilakazi can be made based on his poetic catastrophe Inkondlo kaZulu (Zulu Songs, 1935), but Jordan’s case is different, for Pelong ya Ka and Kwezo Mpindo Zetsitsa display technical and thematic similarities. There are convergences in conceptual contact points: both books employ the same stylistic strategies in attending to their subjects, the anecdotal storytelling mode mixes with the reflective essay form, the constant references to biblical and cultural imagery, the adaptation of age-old idioms and proverbs to speak to the contemporary condition or in order to drive particular points home. Even better, both books attempt to speak about the everyday in a language that is grounded in their respective linguistic and cultural spheres and poses a challenge to the rigid division of past and present. I invoke Kwezo Mpindo Zetsitsa to counter the claim that Jordan wrote strictly for the intellectual elite. Rather, reading Kwezo Mpindo Zetsitsa alongside Pelong ya Ka reveals two writers in conversation who dealt with similar subject matters and engaged in similar literary modes that are inflected with the techniques and aesthetics of the oral.
Mofokeng’s collection itself is conceptually straightforward. The meditations and observations in each essay are self-contained, making it obvious that all the subject matters Mofokeng explores are themes that are dear to his heart. The predominant narrative strategy Mofokeng employs is what I call the autobiographical anecdotal mode, a method that Mofokeng seems to treasure, for the reader would be hard-pressed to go through any essay in this collection without encountering an hilarious or heart-breaking autobiographical anecdote or litany of everyday events and experiences.
The essays explore a variety of topics, including loneliness, death, change, friends, time, money, and marriage. In the first essay, titled ‘The Heart,’ Mofokeng explores the heart as both an organ and metaphorical term. For instance, he emphasises how the Basotho people think about the heart and have invented idioms and sayings that use and treat the heart beyond just being the human organ that pumps blood:
The heart is powerful. That is why we Basotho talk about it so much. When a person is eating, and the food does not go down well, when he feels nauseous, he says: ‘This food does not go down well. It is sitting on my heart,’ or ‘My heart is bilious.’
Perhaps you are wise, have advices because your head is functioning; in Sesotho, we are not bothered about that head, even though it is actually the head that functions. We simply say: ‘What a wise-hearted person,’ or ‘what a soft-hearted person,’ when you are sympathetic; or ‘What a hard-hearted person,’ when you are cruel.
Mofokeng never forgets to emphasise that this is the way the Basotho people see and think about things, institutions, events, experiences, human relations and so on.
Yet the intention of the writing is not to retrieve an antiquated tradition, but to ‘remix’ the inherited so that the proverbial phrasing and power is attuned to the contemporary moment.
Mofokeng is referring to the social role of the heart (‘That is why we Basotho talk about it so much’) when he writes that for Basotho the person and the heart are one entity: the heart is the person. Understanding this, he reminds us that it is no revelation that in Sesotho a person’s character is defined by their heart. In the second essay, ‘Botho’ (transl. ‘Character’), the philosophy of a person being defined and determined by their heart is taken up again. The essay reads almost like a continuation and elaboration of the first one, with certain minor differences in examples and metaphor. Mofokeng is thinking about the heart in relation to ‘Botho’ when he writes:
Every person’s deeds come from his or her feelings, they come from his or her heart. We do not know what is in the depth of his or her feelings, we cannot see it, but we know and also see the works and deeds that are born from that depth. We are thus able to read what is in the deep by observing what comes from there.
In ‘Loneliness,’ the main theme – which is also to say the cure for loneliness – is the importance of community, the importance of communication, the avoidance of being alone when one is inflicted with troubles. Mofokeng emphasises the importance of gathering, of getting together, of not allowing pain to isolate a person. Thinking about the ill who exaggerate the pain and the insistent cynicism of awaiting eminent death, when there is no-one visiting, when the ill are feeling abandoned and alone, Mofokeng opines that ‘When people arrive, loneliness vanishes; they chat, and they laugh.’ The essay topics are about common things, objects and events we are familiar with, but might not have thought about in ways Mofokeng is attempting to think about them. The experiences and events are as ordinary as the people that populate the pages of Mofokeng’s book. This gesture of thinking about things that people take for granted works well for Mofokeng as he reflects about these themes from unexplored perspectives while providing practical and relatable examples.
Mofokeng, then, is the essayist of the everyday who discusses common things like paper in unique and illuminating ways. In fact, his meditation on ‘paper’ is really a commentary on the endurance, importance, and immortality of the written word:
‘That is the way of the paper. It is your eternal voice that continues to speak even when you are in the cold earth, when the tongue has turned into worms. Through it you speak even when you are dead.’
Like the piece ‘Paper,’ essays such as ‘The Hospital’ and ‘The River’ stand out for their memorable moments and epiphanic insights. ‘The End,’ the final work, reads like a metacommentary on the length of this short collection of essays: ‘A very long book discourages us. We become lazy to start reading it because we see that its end is very far. What might encourage us is when it has chapters that are not too long, because they may deceive and make us forget its length, and think instead about the beginning and end of every chapter.’ Indeed, In My Heart is a book with chapters that are short and straight to the point, based on personal experiences and observations.
There are no unnecessary superfluities and meanderings. Mofokeng has no time for belabouring. What we have in this collection is not necessarily a systematic theory on things, but observations, reflections, exhortations, impressions, and maxims. And the essayist is making sure that the reader is seeing all of these things correctly. The essays open up a space in which readers are invited to think with Mofokeng’s perceptions, meditations and moments that are filtered through his own cultural background.
Whether Mofokeng is discussing death, horse racing, friendship, the river or the sea, he is narrating and telling the reader about what he has seen and noted, for, as the proverbial saying goes: to walk is to see.