Culturally Speaking

This one hits close to home and is a long time coming. With every passing generation our cultures and home languag\nes become more and more at risk, threatened and endangered. I may not be ready for the future children who inspire such thoughts but I’m finally ready to have this chat.I am a first generation South African but I dare you to tell me I’m not from Lesotho as well. I’m not a spokesperson but this my story (non-blog) and it seems like all some of these answers are on the tip of my tongue.


My people are the Basotho of the Kingdom of Lesotho: a gorgeous landlocked enclave and Sovereign Nation that many disrespectfully refer to as “the 10th province” (stop doing that, it’s wildly disrespectful). We are a proud and largely peaceful people whose history is defined in equal parts by war, strategy and diplomacy. It’s no accident that the current borders are natural (read: defensible). Battles have been fought against the Boers, The Zulu nation and British forces alike ultimately resulting in land unlawfully lost (see: The ironically named, Free State), strategic manoeuvring (see: the defensible mountain fortress of Thaba Bosiu) and diplomacy (see: British Protectorate) respectively. We have strategically surrendered but (at least in my opinion) have never been conquered. It’s right there in the coat of arms: Khotso. Pula. NalaGrowing up, we went home to Lesotho about twice a year to visit my grandparents house (the familial homestead) and my experience of these trips depended on who and how I was in the world at that time. It was usually at a time when the rest of my family, even those within Lesotho, made a similar trek home (see: Easter and Christmas). Initially it was super fun to be with so many young people who happened to be family (cousins), loved me for no good reason and kept me busy and entertained. It was also an annoyance and interruption of my comparatively “modern” life. Until I was 13, electricity at my grandparents house was rare and it was a return to an era of oil lamps, candles, gas & prima stoves. Fetching and heating water and creatively bathing in vaskoms in ways that maximised the warm and limited water (the limit being the size of the tub, the number of people in the house waiting to bathe and how many bucket trips you were willing to take). I didn’t know it then but it was also a masterclass in community, language, oral history and Botho (commonly refered to as Ubuntu). Everyone was sharing everything always. I started to question things like: who taught me to hide my body around other people because it certainly wasn’t my mother? What is ownership when the neighbours brings you a share of their apricots because you don’t have a tree in your yard and you in turn give them some of your surplus spinach; not to mention that you’re constantly being sent around to return tomoso ea motoho or borrow a large pot at any given time. I’m not saying it was a utopia but it was a different normal than the fenced urban life I knew; a normal that I recognised, at least internally, to be the most beneficial to the most people even though they had “less”. I learned to skip, play diketo, mantloane and that, it seems, our ancestors had held some kind of meeting translating popular games across languages because how are Sotho children singing “dumela mme MaDlamini”?

As I grew older the different ages of the cousins became more of a factor and you couldn’t always guarantee that your faves would be home at the same time you were, so it felt tedious again (puberty fixed this in many ways because I needed an in to their cute friends and they, reluctantly, needed advice on girls!). This was offset by the realisation that my grandmother would happily entertain me reading among the people. An idleness my mom barely tolerated at home unless I was physically at the library and so I became infamous for lugging giant tomes in with my luggage and disappearing for hours at a time each day. Of note, it was always remarked upon how the SeSotho I did speak was internally consistent and untainted by the Setswana-hybrid that the other Gauteng kids brought home (a source of immense pride) but I couldn’t stretch it into the metaphors and comfortable phrases of a native speaker so somehow, I was simultaneously not Sotho enough (a source of great shame). And so the (internal) war at home began. Identity formation is a delicate and evolving thing that starts with just being, then trying to fit in then realising that you were right the first time but now you’re lugging around this extra stuff that you’ve picked up (most of which didn’t belong to you) that’s not as easy to put down. Your home was just home until you had a sleepover at a white friend’s house and realised that we’re not all created equal. You then visit your black friend’s homes and realise that Rooibos isn’t everyone’s default tea (I’m looking at you Five Roses). Then there’s the mixed messaging (“we don’t talk that language here” from a teacher who will immediately follow that line with a bit of conversational Afrikaans), the internalised racism praising you for your proximity to and ability to perform whiteness (see Learning 1, 2 & 3) so in all of this, what is the point of learning SeSotho when you only get to speak it home and only need to speak it once or twice a year?It wasn’t always like that. My mom and I lived in Lesotho for my first 4-5 years before permanently relocating to South Africa. If you’re not familiar with Sotho kids, know that one can hold a fairly sophisticated conversation with 3 year old. I don’t know if they’re just precocious or if there’s something about being fully immersed in their native language (at home at school at church on screen and in writing) that gives them an accelerated course of development (hint hint nudge nudge). I spent my first year of crèche speaking to the white kids exclusively in SeSotho. And I’m fine (so are they I’m sure). My mom recounts how I’d successfully switch languages every time we crossed the border to whichever language best suited the setting, completely unprovoked and even more bafflingly when it was only the two us in the car.Mokete (celebrations) and funerals punctuated these visits and I watched as my elders opened with worship, noted that public speaking and prayer had a certain rhythm to it and knew that an animal was to be slaughtered (though I could never keep track of when or why it was at times a sheep and at other times a cow). I observed my dislike of gemere (ginger beer) with quiet grace and understood that the finer details were lost on me. There’s a passage in Kopoano Matlwa’s modern classic Coconut where she tells the story of the protagonist’s family visiting from “the rurals”, coming to the suburbs and slaughtering an animal much to the dismay of the suburban neighbours. Then she’s hit with the realisation that the next generation custodians of these traditions is her. I connected with that realisation spiritually.

Freight train awakenings

Only 3 times in my life has my culture hit me like a freight truck:

1. It happened in early primary school, while I was trying in earnest to relate to my other black counterparts in my mother tongue because they were communicating in theirs (South Africa has 11 official languages and only 2 of them are of European descent) which is normal. The Tswana girls, my lingual sisters if you will (South Sotho Sesotho, North Sotho Sepedi and Setswana share common linguistic ancestry), were constantly tripping over where our languages diverged, choosing to label my speaking “incorrect Setswana” instead. Having no other South Sotho speaking peers around to defend me, I took the L and chose the less infuriating option of speaking only English in their presence. You’d think the resultant label of coconut would’ve been my undoing but what actually did it was the realisation while walking home one day, that I’d forgotten the SeSotho word for leaf.
It shook me to my core and resulted in my frantic quest to learn to read and write SeSotho asaptually. As I’m sure you know by now, I’m a huge fan of language and definitely had an advantage. Even then, I made a point of harrasing my granny’s best friend, who was a retired teacher, into letting me read some of her old schoolbooks. I did the rest (full disclosure I stopped after I read the terrifying concept that condemned one woman as lefetoa because she was voluntarily unmarried and, being 11, I fully related with the protagonist…) and though my SeSotho reading and writing is painfully slow and methodical, and would bring me undying shame if I was ever called to do either in public, it exists because I made it so. Honorable mentions: The Lord’s prayer, the Apostles Creed and the National anthem (that the South African anthem borrowed from) would cause me no such shame.2. The second cultural freight train was reading that section of Kopano’s aforementioned book. I realised that while I can join in on most hymns, I have an arsenal of exactly 5 songs that I can call upon at will if called to lead in speech and worship (one and the same tbh). Only 3 of which I’m confident about. I can speak freely but cannot emulate the rhythms and cadence of public speaking in my native tongue (it’s so beautiful guys!) and don’t know any real folklore stories. Or rather I know some, but can’t tell them well. I know we’re supposed to something when a little something something when a baby is born but what exactly? Who do I call? Which animal needs to be involved? I can pluck a chicken and man a giant pot but can I coordinate such a thing, a cultural event? Yoh guys the palpitations.

3. Time. My grandmother (and favourite human) is getting older and whe. She goes a rich resource of history goes with her. My family gathered around and obliged me when I asked for/initiated an ancestral ceremony of Thanksgiving. Its already happening, I’m an adult in the family. Me! Who knows my clan names but can’t recite them in order. My mom is unmarried, I’m the first female grandchild and should I get married I’ll be learning in real time the specifics of that cultural moment. Because I’ve never, as an adult, seen us give a woman away or been privvy to lobola negotiations. I feel like just sitting at everybody’s feet and documenting each ceremony in detail. My mother is equal parts amused and bemused at my response to these freight train moments because it’s not that deep but it is. I always tell her she can afford to pick and choose what she wants to practice from her culture because she had the whole menu at her disposal. She has to pause when I ask for specifics because she grew up in Lesotho and never had to think about it. None of them have ever had to teach this before because it was just happening. But we are a generation removed. Literally.

Dying on the vine

It’s already happening. My sister isn’t a confident Sotho speaker at all. She can’t speak it like me and I can’t speak it like my mother. She struggled at school in the beginning with languages so we spoke English to help her (but SeSotho conversationally). Even in my case, I know our parents chose to get us model C educations and accents to give us a running start and while we can argue until we’re blue about why this shouldn’t be the case, it is. The advantages in the world we live in, where English speaking and having non-African accents (cc: former president Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, who I maintain should have been allowed to give speeches in his native tongue) are used as a proxy for intelligence, the benefits are undeniable. Is it wrong? Yes. Is it true? Also yes.Can it be fixed… Yes? The tendrils and consequences of colonialism are long and continue to reach into the future, choking the cultures they tried so hard to destroy.I’ve wracked my brain and only one thing is clear: if we don’t slow down this rate of dilution, how much of my culture will I be able to pass on to my still-in-the-ovaries children? We need to start thinking of ourselves as cultural custodians tasked with actively preserving and passing down as much as possible. How to do this is less clear because these are unchartered waters. Naturally, I have some ideas:1. Oral history vs written history: both.
We can’t hit the rest button and go back to the time of oral history. We can preserve what’s left and write the rest of it down. I got one, plan to slowly chip away at the detail, the nuance and meaning behind each ritual, rite of passage and ceremony with the great care and precision. I did this recently when I felt repeatedly compelled to visit the Basotho Cultural Village. I didn’t understand why (it looked hella touristy from the outside) but when I finally did, I tell you it was one of the most enriching experiences of my life. As a Why Person, it wasn’t that I necessarily learned many new things (I didn’t) but I understood the WHY. When I consulted the Traditional Healer and he instructed me in the way forward and the ceremony required, I left then went [back] and [took notes] on the specifics. The order of the tasks. The why. If you can picture me hunched in that hit with a notebook you’re correct. And I’m only slightly embarrased to admit that. I plan to continue this every time I go home. My grandmother is going to be sick of me (no she won’t, lol, that’s impossible). I’ll be taking notes for the foreseeable future.

2. Cultural godparents: Let’s not be embarrased. We have to be able to talk about this honestly and openly. During these annual trips there were anyways subtrips to friends and family in other regions that annoyed me but now I understand that it s the only time I ever saw my extended family and that keeping relationships alive requires effort. I identify Sotho woman as I move through the world and root fir them. In my adulthood I try to I keep in touch with family friends that I knew as a child because we are the next network of “aunties” for our children to know to play with. Because it’s necessary work. Because if my children can have a godmother to bear witness to and guide their spiritual growth in allowed to create the equally necessary role of cultural godmother too. A non-judgemental safe place to land (who will gently correct your language). We’re all acutely aware of our cultural removal having experienced it firsthand. Let’s help each other undo some of the damage.

3. Linguistic gymnastics: I plan to speak to my children in my native tongue and their father (should he not be Sotho Speaking) will do the same. It will require discipline and effort but children are sponges and though it’s well described that multilingual children speak later and with a faltering start (so basically, don’t panic when this happens) persists and it will come together. I will keep English as a school thing and will supplement their education concurrently. History, geography, animals numbers and colours. When we’re reading English books they will aslo get Sotho bedtime stories. We’ll find ways to make sure it’s not a chore, to make sure that they respond in the native tongue and confidence in speaking.

4. People are valuable resources. Godwilling my children will spend their formative years around my mother. And there is no substitute for live-in help from your native home. The contribution that Ausi Retsebile had on me growing up (little things like her turns of phrase, dramatic retelling of myths & legends, superstitions and just physically speaking SeSotho full time in the home) was invaluable. Visiting Home (Lesotho) and our self built Sotho network will be non-negotiable. I will ask members of my family to only (and patiently) converse with them in SeSotho (assume that this applies to their theoretical father’s side of the family as well please, we can’t be here all day).

5. Black is Beautiful
The is a vestige of the Unlearning that happened in my varsity years. As the bridging generation were doing a lot of the painful uprooting and unlearning of harmful teachings pertaining to our blackness. Supporting black businesses, black art and designers. Normalising black beauty, representation, positive black images, movies, dolls and television. Peppa pig will be a myth to my children we shall be watch Takalani Sesame and SABC Children’s content (“sanibonani dumelang absheni hello, that’s how we’d like to greet you saying welcome to our show”) . We shall embue them with pride, show them that different doesn’t mean better or worse and just as surely as Italians read speak and learn Italian in their country where it both normal and appealing (such that people visit to experience this) so to shall it be in our home. There’s a reason I nearly cried when during the televised wedding of Solo & Dineo Moeketsi, they very casually documented ukuphahla and the nuance of the traditional wedding ceremony (lol, no it’s not just a sing off at the gate my friends). I actually think this might be the easiest part. If Gen Z is any indication, the future will have open minded, nimble, socially conscious humand less likely to victim to colonial a d other such mindtraps that ensnared our younger selves. They already live in a time where representation is a major player in all major industries and therefore I am exceedingly hopeful.Thanks for making it to the end! Please please please share your thoughts, feelings, plans, suggestions and experiences. I’d love to hear/read/see them!

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