Bury Me at The Marketplace

Sharing narratives

I am inspired by travelling narratives, by moving stories, and by forms that take root from a place of communal sharing than individual enjoyment. I am a student in the literatures, and have found that novels and other books constantly require retraction from community—in that you would have to go sit lonesome on a bench or in your room quietly to read—perhaps making this a core reason why most people, in my country (?), don’t read. In most of our cultures, the art of storytelling is communal, inclusive, and accessible.

I am inspired by narratives that boast their own dialects, that burst with local intonations, and by stories that move with the rhythms of their music. The English literature departments in postcolonial Africa are a point of contention—the term ‘English’ points not only to a language, but to a culture and geographical space. Most of my people would not take easily to a novel that opens with a scene on the banks of the Thames River… This is why my academic research thus far has solely focused on literatures that speak of our own landscapes, cultures, languages, and traditions.

I am moved by the idea of travelling narratives, of newly packaged forms and styles that are accessible to all that traverse its landscapes. Literature has mostly been an elitist art form, perhaps the most inclusive and aristocratic, mostly enjoyed in closed halls of high brow entertainment. I am excited by the notion of breaking down those barriers and setting stories free; liberating narratives to reach spaces previously unthought-of. I find worth in depleting the traditional literary form; tradition is a dying hallmark of culture. Culture is fluid and malleable in the 21st century.

I am happy to reveal that I am officially shooting a documentary on South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile’s lifework. I am not satisfied with investing energy and time with researching his work and sealing it in libraries of the ivory tower. His story is one that must be released from the exact traditions which he sought to be liberated from. His story must be packaged to move in unsuspected places. It must be, like his very life, a travelling narrative. It must move to the rhythms of his Setswana, his jazz, his mbaqanga, and dance freely to the baseline of Johnny Dyani the maestro (they collaborated in 1977 at FESTAC, Nigeria).

Narratives of our own people should be liberated from the high pillars of air-conditioned libraries; stories must be accessible and inclusive, as opposed to Exclusive (Books) to all whose character and cultures it speaks of; literary forms must find their ways into taxis, street corners, chisa nyamas, parties, and general meeting points. Storytelling is dependent on an audience, and on a communal appreciation from various positioned listeners. Let us fervently take up the challenge to evolve our various art forms for the benefit of those whom they are intended to speak, mostly of, but also to.

Sharing stories

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Century of the Self

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For anything of value to come out of our lives, for any fulfilling and deeply enriching experiences to ever manifest in our lives, we must disassemble, dismantle, and deplete the current ‘world’, to rebuild what makes sense to our hearts. A whole world has been constructed on brutality, difference, and skewed notions of truth; and it should be our personal projects to deconstruct and reconstruct a world of our making. This applies to all of us, as I had initially thought of it in the context of South Africa, but I now do realise that we are all tainted by the large sweeping brush of history.

My argument is that we are too preoccupied with difference—religious, racial, gender, sexuality—that we totally disregard the nitty-gritties of life as they present themselves before us. Because of brutal histories of slavery, holocaust, colonialism, apartheid, and world wars, amongst other atrocities, we have to firstly be suspicious of the very positions we hold on difference; we have to secondly be suspicious of the language we use to communicate our realities; and thirdly be weary of the dominant ideologies that create an illusion of unity between us.

Let me elaborate. In the West, in Elizabethan times in Europe, there was a consensus that there was a realm outside of human cognition where you would find truth if you worked hard enough, where you would find God, where you would find evil, and essentially human nature. Yes, that was the dominant ideology rooted in a deeply theocentric society: one absolute truth, one God, a devil, and an essentialism that pointed to the bond holding humanity together (rooted in questions of morality).

ImageAfter the enlightenment era, and more recently the deconstructionists, it became very clear through experience that most of the atrocities perpetrated on human beings were because of that notion of absolute truth, God, and human nature. I will give you examples. Slavery and colonialism were based on the premise that there is a higher race that God favours and another that is essentially inferior. I won’t go much into the history of that. Apartheid was modelled on both those brutally oppressive structures, on the same basis of a “highly favoured” race over another. That is why black people were called ‘kaffirs’—heathens.

The holocaust emerges out of the “death of God”, and science where—after the demise of a theocentric society, where God is essentially questioned and even obliterated—human takes control of his own life and, through science, remodels his own truth. Hitler was one such lad, who looked to the history of the Aryan race to find his own superiority over other societies/races, of course also driven by fascism. The “death of God”, as evolutionary as it was (given the atrocious nature of medieval societies), collapsed the conceptual framework that informed the notion of truth and human nature, leading to a deeply alienating individualistic approach to humanity.

That was Europe and the West. In Africa, religion, the notion of God, came to sub-Saharan Africa as a colonial tool of enlightenment—bringing light to a dark continent, and civilising ‘barbarians’—in a brutally violent manner, it has stripped us on our own notion of God, truth, and humanism. The history of African philosophy points to the metaphysical realm—ancestors on a transcendental realm, and connections with the solar system, the animals, and plants, to begin with—to an inherent human bond, as witnessed in concepts like Ubuntu; and from those connections that root one within historical trajectories, one could shape one’s own truth.

Fast forward to today, and I would argue that since we are all tainted by history, we need to be suspicious of just suckling on someone else’s notion of truth and God. We cannot be content with lack of brain activity around these issues. We must be involved in the project of dismantling and disassembling the answers that have been modelled for big questions on spirituality, morality, humanity, and metaphysicality; in order to shape a truth that makes sense to our hearts. We need to be suspicious of the very language afforded to us to shape that truth, and we need to, where necessary, even dismantle that language to make it carry our truth.

It is the century of self. Have no fear…

I have written here about African societies’ relationship with the animals, plants, moon, stars, sun, and other sentient:

https://uhurumahlodi.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/holy-cow/

And here I wrote about how we start to dismantle language:

https://uhurumahlodi.wordpress.com/2013/10/30/thrive/

The title of this post comes from enlightening series of documentaries with the same title. They have subtitles like ‘There is a policeman in our heads’ and ‘The engineering of consent’. Do check them out. Some are available on YouTube.

Slavery or Symbiosis?

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The English language is on an ongoing quest to soften the blows of reality. You might be in the plane and hear, during safety procedures, the hostess talking about “in case of a water landing”; or police might get an order to use “concomitant force” against protesters; all of which in reality are talking about death with such softly cushioned words. Police used concomitant force against the Marikana miners much to the detriment of our fledgling democracy; and, let’s just say, the brace position doesn’t prepare anyone for the ensuing carnage during “water landing”.

Language has the power to disempower—it may function to numb our conscience and evade any misgivings we have about situations. Think about labour force in South Africa. When the empowered mine bosses gave the less empowered police force an order to use concomitant force against the invariantly powerless Marikana miners, language marred the horrid nature of that order. “Get rid of them! Shoot them! Kill them; we don’t care, just make sure they go away”, is what they meant. And they readily cleaned their hands of that mess through the language employed in that order. The language created a soft cushion for the very hard blow that order would deal to the bereaved families and consequent national consciousness.

Now let’s take another example within the labour force: the very contentious issue of helpers/maids/ausis who take care of our households by cleaning after us and taking care of our children. What is the name that befits them? Well, it all depends on how you treat them. Using a fancy name will not clean the mess off your hands. Some of these women are still maids—as in, they are enslaved in your homes with no basic labour rights that inform clearly defined working hours, salaries, and benefits. They are maids because just like under apartheid they are not allowed visits from their children and families, lest this steals away from their not-so-clearly-defined working hours. They are maids because they are treated as second class beings who are neither part of the family nor outside that family. They endure an unequal relationship reminiscent of master-slave, and live in perpetual fear of crossing not-so-clearly-defined boundaries. They live in perpetual nervous condition.

The names we give these women are similar to the orders we give: they are cushioned, in their magnitude of inequality, firstly by the unequal relations created by class, and secondly, by language. The orders, no matter what tone they are uttered in, are sanctimonious and pious because they function within a complex mesh of power rooted in an age old capitalist system. Now how do we solve this seemingly impossible conundrum (that the relationship between the helper and the host is mutually beneficial)? How do we evade the capitalist disposition of commodifying labour? By dismantling the power relations that are at the core of this complex relationship.

Once we acknowledge and take seriously the undeniable fact that the relationship between the helper in your home, and you, is mutually beneficial, then we will strive to make it symbiotic: equal and satisfactory to both parties concerned. On a power level, there is no hierarchy. Both are on the same level as one is a service provider and another is seeking service. There is no excuse not to pay the service provider a rate that matches their qualifications and expertise (our flawed labour laws don’t take into consideration the size of individual homes, the distance between said home and home of the helper, and many other consequent particularities like pets/cooking duties/gardening/weekend or holidays hours, etc—be honest and pay up. Create a safe situation where these are tabulated in an invoice-like fashion and mutually agreed on); and there certainly is no excuse to use (passive) aggression and condescending tones against them.

On a relational level, if we consider and take seriously our humanist moralities and philosophies, then we will measure the manner in which we approach sensitive and sensible issues: how do you scream at someone and then leave them in your house with your children all day/week(end)? Yes, sometimes the service provider doesn’t meet your expectations, but they should not be infantalised, patronised, vilified, and dehumanized as if they are some disposable machine. These are members of our families who help with the upkeep of our strong ties, lifestyles, principles, and sanity. Soften that language. If you cannot possibly do all of this, then refrain from seeking help and take care of your own mess (the physical one and the one in your soul).

The English language softens the blows of reality. Think before you talk in these particularly complex relationships. When you discuss an anomaly, money matters, leave days, unsatisfactory service, overtime, or anything of the sensitive nature, be very cautious of your use of language. You do not want to perpetuate the same kind of slavery whose ripple effects we are still trying to mangle and survive. It is our responsibility and reasonability to exercise sensibility in these complex power relations. Exercise a considerable amount of agency to cut the vicious cycle of the slave-master grand narrative. There is no excuse for hiding behind fancy terms for your helpers/maids/ausis—it all boils down to your treatment of them. Sing a new mantra of giving these women the respect and love they very well deserve. Viscerally. Let’s put the days of slavery behind us.

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Have we internalised centuries of unequal power relations and injustice to an extent that we privilege from it at the detriment of basic human rights?