De-colonising African Literature: Lessons from Mosotho writer Thomas Mokopu Mofolo

By Lineo Segoete (@lineothefeline)

Lineo Segoete, organiser of Lesotho’s Ba re e ne re Literature Festival, weighs in to the debate on decolonising African literature currently happening in South Africa’s literary world. She draws lessons from the transition that the Mosotho writer Mofolo made from his debut novel Moeti oa Bochabela to his third work Chaka.

A woman is being hunted down for witch-craft in Lesotho. The story (according to the media) goes: following a dispute which broke between a deceased man’s two wives over burial rights, the second wife sought the services of the witch doctor in order to have her way. The result was that the man was buried in two different places simultaneously. A bunch of friends and I marvelled at the complexity of the story and wasted no time giving due recognition to the natural-science aspect of our heritage. Whether true or not, we agreed that the story would make for a stunning work of fiction, if not only for the skilful storytelling expressed in the recounting of events. This had me thinking how, African Literature at its genesis, earned its place in the global landscape through its defiant loyalty to acknowledging mysticism in relation to the natural world in spite of western imposition in the form of missionaries.

Thomas Mokopu Mofolo (who in my books still ranks with African Nobel laureates Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, and Naguib Mahfouz) was the poster-child of a perfect convert as far as the Paris Evangelical Mission Society missionaries stationed in Lesotho in the early 1900s were concerned. When Mofolo wrote his first novel Moeti oa Bochabela (Traveller of the East), he used language which represented Basotho as savages consumed with darkness and in need of salvation. His depiction earned him approval from the western missionaries who gladly published it. When he changed his tune in his third project Chaka, based on the great amaZulu king Shaka kaSenzangakhona and completed in 1912, it would only get published 13 years later. He penned it at a time when he’d begun distancing himself from the missionaries and their belief systems, to the extent of sometimes openly criticizing them and their schools in his political talk pushing toward nationalism.

About Chaka, an essay in Contemporary Authors, explained that “Although they acknowledged the novel’s extraordinary qualities… the missionaries expressed grave reservations about the book’s likely influence. With those opposing publication fearing that the volume’s depiction of a traditional Africa, as well as its heroic portrait of the Zulu leader, would draw indigenous readers back to a non-Christian way of life and perhaps even inspire anti-Christian sentiments.”

The novel ended up getting published thanks to Mofolo’s supporters mounting pressure on the Christian publishers who were against it, and only after the publishers had deleted and re-adjusted the parts they were most uncomfortable with.

Mofolo was not only the first Southern African to get published,  he was also the first to rebel against conditioned writing which favoured a negative portrayal of pre-missionary African living and tradition. On top of everything else, he was obligated to abide by a financial arrangement designed by the missionaries that stipulated that the publisher purchased a manuscript in its entirety. This meant that even if it sold well, its author would receive no royalties save for the initial transaction.

His literary excellence enjoyed favourable endorsement when his publishers could use it as a tool for conversion, yet he was confronted with resistance and censorship when he steered his writing in the direction of his liking. Noticing the hypocrisy and fed up with the frustration, Mofolo quit his writing career. Over a hundred years later, this reality still resonates with many contemporary African writers.

Ba re e ne re, the literary organisation I manage, aims to revive a culture and appreciation of creative writing in Lesotho and the response so far has been motivating and inspires us to do more. The challenges we face however, range from de-stigmatizing literature in Sesotho as many young people complain about the difficulty experienced when reading the language, to poor access to publications as distribution is very limited. People are more likely to access books recommended in schools than those aimed at reading for pleasure.

To address the language issue, renowned Sesotho Scribe Mpho Mampeke Makara, for example, announced at last year’s Ba re e ne re Literature Festival that, although she is not a big fan of writing in English, she is working toward publishing in it. Her move should influence many more others to follow suit, either by writing in both languages separately or combined. On the other hand, she will help promote those who have works in English out that have received poor publicity. This will help us a great deal as Ba re e ne re when we are marketing Sesotho Literature to the rest of the world.

Nonetheless, censorship, obscene publishing deals and stereotypical cultural depictions are still agendas driven by some of the major publishing houses who claim to have an interest in African literature. Furthermore, mass distribution is often guaranteed mainly if one is signed to a publishing house which has a long or at least reputable history.

Should a writer opt to self-publish, depending on their target audience, they must be prepared to deal with backlash or slow-sales because his books are priced slightly above the average in order to recover expenses. More awful, is the fact that very few writers on the continent can live on writing alone. Many complement their calling with jobs as teachers, lecturers or consultants, etc. as writing barely makes any money even though it is one of the most popular art-forms around.

It is also troubling that African Literature has been historically governed by European or American literature history. Many writers, regardless how talented, conform to principles and styles of writing as old as Shakespeare himself. Ironically, the Southern-African writers who tell stories in their own language using English as a tool tend to gain the most popularity. Niq Mhlongo for example, uses what he calls “Zunglish” (Zulufied English) in his novels, a master-stroke which has earned him a great following especially among young people in the region. It is his prerogative as an artist who uses language as his medium to do so. One might even garner the boldness to say that Africanising the English language is a form of de-westernising our literary culture because it means writing in English yet using our indigenous voice.

De-westernising African literature is not limited only to altering cultural representation, censorship, or even the use of language. It also means debunking our perceptions toward African civilization. We tend to view ourselves based on the western-gaze and therefore reject valuable material engrained in our African heritage. Why should a story about cars that can transform into massive robots be perceived to be more interesting than one about a witch-doctor who had one corpse in two places at the same time? Would we have gained any relevance without our distinctive and diverse traditions and histories? As a literary festival organiser in the region, I am always looking for something exceptional and awe-inspiring because there is no joy in regurgitating other cultures’ literary gospel.

Lineo Segoete serves as Director of Ba re e ne re, a Lesotho-based literary organisation. She led the 2014 Ba re e ne re Literary Festival production is a long-time creative writer who is part of the movement spearheading creative industries and art events in Lesotho. She is also communications coordinator for the Gender, Entrepreneurship/Empowerment and Media (GEM) Institute. She holds a B. Bus (Honours) in International Business from the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology.

  1. Hmmmm…


    Funny how we queue to buy Harry Potter books and DVDs because the stories “transport us to another world”, but African mysticism is dismissed as evil and nonsensical.

    My pen is capped


  2. I still say that we need to have more African literature, written originally in African languages. My friend and I are creating a library for her two year old daughter, and in our quest for African literature, we struggled and still continue to struggle to find literature written in Sesotho, IsiZulu amongst others for her. I mean I still remember a lot of books that I read in school when South African languages were introduced. Authors such as K.P.D Maphaala and Thomas Mofolo have written great works in Sesotho, but I cannot find the books anywhere. We need to write our stories in our languages.

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