From the Archive | The memoirs of Zakes Mda

The famous novelist, poet and playwright describes his early days at a liberal high school in Lesotho and how later he scraped by through selling paintings to tourists.

Zakes Mda is well known for his novels, including Ways of Dying (1995), The Heart of Redness (2000), which won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, and, most recently, The Zulus of New York (2019). 

This is an excerpt from Zakes Mda’s Sometimes There is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider (Penguin Books, 2011). 

Mabathoana High School was named after the Archbishop of Lesotho, the Right Reverend Emmanuel Mabathoana OMI, the first black Roman Catholic archbishop in southern Africa. It was run by nuns of the Holy Names, most of them hailing from Canada and the United States of America. They were more liberal than the local nuns we had come to know so well. For instance, at Mabathoana there was no morning assembly before school started where prayers and announcements were made. When the bell rang in the morning students went straight to their classrooms and lessons began without any prayers. All announcements were posted on the bulletin boards at both the senior and the junior blocks. This was very unusual for Lesotho where schools of every denomination, including government-controlled schools, had a tradition of morning assembly with prayers and readings from the Bible.

Another unusual thing about Mabathoana was that all the cleaning of the classrooms and the surroundings was done by employees. After school in Lesotho, girls had to take turns to sweep the classrooms and boys kept the school grounds clean. The Basotho teachers at Mabathoana, especially the older female teachers, complained that the American nuns were spoiling Basotho children who needed to be brought up under the strict discipline of prayer and work – ora et labora. But the nuns were adamant that the children had not come to school to work but to study, and if they wanted to pray at all they could do it at their homes or in church. Religious education, they insisted, should be left to the parents and the priests, except in those instances when it was taught in the classroom as a subject for those who opted for it.

I was impressed by this philosophy when I joined the school as a teacher of Literature in English, following in the footsteps of short-story writer Mbulelo Mzamane who had taught there after completing his BA degree at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland at Roma and my younger brother Monwabisi – the one they called Thabiso – who had taught there immediately after obtaining his secondary teacher’s certificate at the Morija Training College. The first time I met Mbulelo Mzamane I was buying a loaf of bread at Maseru Café. It was already sliced and was neatly wrapped in cellophane, which was quite a new way of packaging bread because before this we bought bread unsliced and unpackaged. I heard a voice behind me, “Hey, don’t you have a bread knife at your place?” I didn’t even know who this tall guy was who had just pounced on me asking me this silly question. I bet he didn’t know who I was either, and I resented his forwardness. He was with some guys I knew, the Lebentlele brothers who were jazz musicians. He was introduced to me as one of the talented young South African writers exiled in Lesotho. He turned out to be such a lovable guy after all. He was quite an activist in organising cultural events, and some of his students at Mabathoana had formed a band, The Anti-Antiques, led by a scrawny boy called Semenkoane Frank Leepa. This was the band that later became Uhuru and then gained international fame as Sankomota. Now Mbulelo Mzamane had resigned from the high school because he was going abroad for higher education.

My brother, on the other hand, had left the high school after he had been at loggerheads with the nuns on some matter that I never got to understand. That helped him because he went to university to study law, and at that time he was doing his LLB degree at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. In February that year, 1976, I had completed a distance-learning degree with a Swiss private fine arts academy that had started as a learned society but was then offering courses for artists who wanted to qualify for its membership. The International Academy of Arts and Letters has, unfortunately, long since closed down with the demise of its major funder, the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF). 

I had been studying law, as you might remember, while working for the attorney OK Mofolo. Because of the measly salary he was paying me I had gone back to painting and flogging my works to tourists at hotels with Mr Dizzy and sometimes with James Dorothy. I had found myself spending more time painting and less time studying law. I had also re-established relations with the older artists such as Meshu Mokitimi, Paul Ncheke and Phil Motsosi. Most of us were starving artists, but to me the life of a starving artist was much more fulfilling than the life of the lawyer I was going to be on obtaining my Attorney’s Admission. I decided to give up on law altogether. I did not tell my father about it because he would have been very disappointed. Although he had always been careful never to push me into law, or in any other direction, he had been proud that at last I was making something of myself, especially in a noble profession that had become a family tradition.

Unlike my fellow artists who were happy just being artists, I yearned desperately for a formal qualification. It didn’t matter what it was or how much recognition it had, as long as it allowed me to put the letters after my name. That was one reason I had previously attempted the courses of the College of Preceptors in London – on qualifying I would have been an Associate of the College of Preceptors, or ACP, and would continue with them until I became a Fellow, with an FCP after my name. I came from a family of learned people where degrees were valued for their own sake. Even if I were to sell lots of paintings and make millions of rands, there would still be a gaping hole in my life that could only be filled by a university degree. And of course I was not making the millions. I could barely survive. Once in a while I would sell a painting but the money would not be enough to pay rent. I was still renting a room on the outskirts of Maseru, at Qoaling, where I lived with Mpho and the kids. Occasionally I had to borrow money from my mother who was then working as a registered nurse at Holy Cross Clinic, a Roman Catholic mission station in southern Lesotho. I was too ashamed to ask for assistance from my father.

One day an artist from Pretoria, an old white man called Walter Battiss, paid a visit to the Lesotho Museum that Leabua Jonathan had established in Maseru. What impressed me about him, besides his very unconventional looks with his mane of white hair and flamboyant style of dressing – a flowing white caftan – was the fact that he was not just an exuberant abstract painter but a scholar of art. Indeed, he had retired from a professorship of art at the University of South Africa a year or so before. I was in awe of artists who were also academics because they were not the sort of people one usually met in our circles. He was a Fellow of the International Institute of Arts and Letters MAW, a learned society in Switzerland, and I wanted to see letters of that type follow my name as well. So, Walter Battiss introduced me to artists in Switzerland who were operating the distance learning International Academy of Arts and Letters. They were financed by the International University Exchange Fund which was in turn funded by the Swedish government.

You may remember the IUEF as the organisation that was infiltrated by the South African master-spy Craig Williams in the 1980s – long after my association with them, I must add. He had inveigled the Swedish director Lars Eriksson into appointing him to the staff, and reached the high position of deputy director where he was able to gather information on the South African students whose scholarships were being sponsored by the organisation. He was also able to carry out a wide operation of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations of South African refugees and political activists in Europe from the offices of the IUEF. When he was exposed as a spy of the apartheid government, the IUEF had to close down. But that is another story, and if you want more of it visit the documents of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Lesotho representative of the IUEF was a friend of my father’s, Abner Chele. He handled the funds and paid all the fees for South African refugee children who were attending the various high schools in Lesotho and the local university. He recommended that the IUEF in Geneva pay directly to the Swiss academy and I was able to study while I struggled to make a living. At least the IUEF purchased all the art materials for my school projects, but of course most of the materials were used for the paintings that I peddled to the tourists.

On completing my studies, Sister Arnadene Bean, the principal of Mabathoana High School who hailed from Oregon in the USA, gave me a job as an assistant teacher of Literature in English. The salary was R250 a month, a far cry from the R25 rands a month I was earning from OK Mofolo. I had never had so much money in my life, and of course I immediately put it to good use drinking with the civil servants at Lancer’s Inn and at some of the more up-scale shebeens, rather than at the pineapple and hops home-brew joints I used to patronise with Mr Dizzy.

In addition to Mr Dizzy and Clement Sima Kobo – the Lesotho High School teacher we called Clemoski – my circle of drinking buddies increased to include Thabo Sithathi, an aspiring lawyer who was reviled by everyone else as a South African spy while they continued to associate with him, Sol Manganye – Bra Sol – who taught commercial subjects at Lesotho High School and was also a PAC activist exiled from Lady Selbourne in Pretoria, and Mxolisi Ngoza, a thoroughly gay man who was my colleague at Mabathoana where he taught mathematics. These were my Maseru friends.

Whenever I visited home in Mafeteng I continued my drunken association with Litsebe Leballo, Peter Masotsa and my mentor Ntlabathi Mbuli. The other two Mafeteng guys who had been promoted into my ever-widening circle were my brothers, the twins Monwabisi and Sonwabo. But Sonwabo, also called Thabo, was at the Lerotholi Technical College in Maseru studying technical drawing and Monwabisi, as I said, was in Edinburgh. My other siblings, my sister Thami and the last born in the family, Zwelakhe, were still living with our father in Mafeteng, but I did not socialise with them when I was there because there was quite a wide age-gap between us and we didn’t have much in common to talk about. In any event, I didn’t have a reason to go to Mafeteng that often, especially with my mother now living 70 kilometres away at Holy Cross; I had it made in Maseru in my new job and I wanted for nothing.

The nuns gave me a fully furnished four-roomed house next to the junior block and opposite the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Names. I moved in with Mpho, our four-year-old son Neo, our two-year-old daughter Thandi and our three-month-old son Dini. A few weeks after we had taken occupation of the house my mother came in a van with her driver from Holy Cross to see the child. We could host her now that we had a decent house with an electric stove, a fridge, a bathroom with a geyser for hot water. I was having a beer with Thabo Sithathi in the living room when my mother and Mpho joined us. My mother took the baby in her arms and marvelled at how beautiful he was. 

“He doesn’t look like your other kids,” she said.

“Are you saying my other kids are not beautiful?” I asked, laughing.

“They are beautiful in their own way,” she said. “This one has fluffy hair and is light in complexion like a Coloured.”

“Maybe he takes after your people, mama,” I said. “You are light in complexion because you are a descendant of the Khoikhoi people. We all know that we Mdas are not easy on the eye, but you and your people are very beautiful.”

We all laughed about it, including Mpho. But Thabo Sithathi didn’t think it was a laughing matter. He looked at us pityingly and said, “My friend has been cuckolded and you people think it is a joke?”

I was surprised that Thabo Sithathi should make such a statement because I had never discussed anything of the sort with him. I also felt deeply offended that he should be so brazen as to mention something that Mpho and I never talked about. We had gone on with our lives as if nothing had happened. We glared at Thabo Sithathi in unison, and then turned our attention to the baby and talked baby language with him, extolling his beauty.

I wasn’t about to make a song and dance about anything.

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