Thomas Mokopu Mofolo: A pioneer of Sesotho literature
Chaka, authored by Thomas Mofolo in 1925, remains one of the most widely read Sesotho books. The Journalist this week reflects on the life of a literary giant whose works were translated in many languages. Some missionaries were of the view that his celebration of African culture would ‘drive Africans back to Satan’.
Genius is a fitting description of Thomas Mokopu Mofolo’s literary excellence, particularly present in his last offering of the three works he ever produced.
Chaka (1925) became a subject of scholarly reviews and critique, simply because it departed from Christian missionary education ideology. Chaka is a marvel to read, it has outlived its writer and remains one of the most widely read Sesotho books, translated to multiple languages – French (1940), Afrikaans (1974), English(1981), German (1988) and many more.
It was not until Mofolo’s popular fictionalised composition of the Zulu conqueror, that there was a celebration of the 19th century Zulu King in literature. Chaka had been a character in fables and tales as though he was never a historical 19th century legend.
Although fictitious, using Chaka not only as a character but as a representative of a complex community, Mofolo cleverly records the pre-colonial, and pre-Christian life giving value to the African paradigm, idiom and nuance, a far cry from the book’s two predecessors. Chaka did not win him much favour with the missionaries as there were sentiments that, its celebration of African culture, and belief in superstition would reverse the gains made by missionaries with Africans. It would drive them back to ‘Satan’.
First Sotho Novel
His Moeti oa bochabela (1907; The Traveller of the East), the first ever Sotho novel was a result of encouragement from his missionary employers at Sesotho Book Depot, in Morija, Lesotho, where he worked as a manuscript reader, proofreader and secretary . He was educated in the local schools of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society and obtained a teacher’s certificate in 1898. This encouraged more teaching graduates to scribe their own novels, launching the earliest literary movements in sub-Saharan Africa in the 20th century. Moeti was a narrative of a young traveller saved by Christianity. It was published in serialised form in the Sesotho-language newspaper Leselinyana, starting on January 1, 1906.
Then there was, Pitseng (1910), a love plot with a European fiction context. Allowing its main character, a young African man, to grapple with issues of changing culture around courtship, love and marriage with religion at the centre. Some critics even label Pitseng, clumsy and a mediocre presentation that mimics of the Western plot. Chaka was a masterpiece.
Professor Bouteldja Riche, at the Department of English, Mouloud Mammeri University- Tizi Ouzou, in a 2010 paper – Thomas Mofolo and Ayi Kwei Armah: The Bankruptcy of the Warrior Tradition and the Quest for a Legacy of African Intellectual Heroism describes Mofolo’s work of Chaka as follows:
There is an admirable, stark clarity in the way Mofolo presents Chaka’s childhood and growth. He shows his childhood as the crucial formative period, the seedtime for all the crisis of his adult life. As for the process of Chaka’s growth, Mofolo shows it to us as a difficult, complex progression, but so sure is his technique, so masterly his grasp of psychological details, that the result has that hyaline quality that often marks the most profound works of genius. Growth becomes a series of crises, in each of which Chaka moves in an inexorable step to his chosen destiny.
“He was so disappointed that in 1910 he gave up writing to work in the gold mining industry as a labourer recruiter in South Africa. In 1937 he acquired a farm in South Africa but was evicted under the Bantu Land Act 1913, only to return to Lesotho three years later, a broken man (Riche, B. 2010).”
Mofolo was born in Khojane, Lesotho, on 22 December 1876. He was educated in the local schools of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society and obtained a teacher’s certificate in 1898. As a child, Mofolo became a servant for the Reverend Alfred Casalis, who managed a combination of Bible school, printing press, and a book depot at the regional capital of Morija. In 1894 Casalis sent Mofolo to Bible school, where he deepened his familiarity with biblical values and literature, two dominant influences on his writing. From 1896 to 1898, Mofolo attended Morija Training School, earning his teaching certificate in 1899 (Riche, B. 2010).
Mofolo’s new employment as an interpreter at Casalis’s press came to an end with the outbreak of the Boer War, which raged until 1902. Mofolo returned to his native countryside, where he learned and practised carpentry. He then taught for two years, from 1902 until 1904, before Casalis employed him as his secretary in Morija, helping him to produce and publish the only three pieces of literature. All three fiction works reflect an African writers conflicted internal and external values – culture versus religion. The confusion Mofolo responded to by quitting. After a stint in Johannesburg as labour recruiter and dispossession of his land he returned to Lesotho in 1940, a broken man. He died on 8 September 1948. (Riche, B. 2010).
1.Armah, in “The Definitive Chaka”, Vol. 5th (March 1976), p.11. The article also appeared as “Chaka”, in Black World, Vol. XXVI, N° 4 (February 1975), pp. 84-90.
2. Daniel Kunene, Thomas Mofolo and the Emergence of Written Sesotho Prose (Johannesburg: Raven Press, 1980).