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Monday, November 29, 2021

University of Pretoria hosts book launch for award-winning South African writer Professor Zakes Mda

“We were taught that our history begins with colonisation, whereas our ancestors have contributed greatly to humanity,” said South African novelist, poet and playwright Professor Zakes Mda at a virtual book launch dialogue hosted by the University of Pretoria (UP).

Professor Mda recently published two books, Arola: A Journey into 10 Ancient African Civilisations and Wayfarers’ Hymns.

Arola is difficult to categorise because it is so complicated,” Professor Mda said.

 “The main aim of the book is to teach others about African history. The research process was not difficult or intense because the materials I am writing about are all accessible; some of them are even accessible online.

“We are taught to believe that African history begins only with the coming of the white man, and we call it ‘African history’, when in fact it is the history of the white man in Africa rather than African history,” he added.

“So I was keen to delve back centuries ago to look at the empires that existed then. History of these empires exist in museums all over the world, but scholarship has ignored material that was right in front of their eyes.”

Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UP, added to the conversation by placing emphasis on the University’s intention to educate individuals about their history. “We were not just people who were discovered – we existed before,” he said. “Our intention at UP is to teach people origins and histories of knowledge because, as Prof Mda said, when you are taught something only begins here, you are only being taught one history’s form of knowledge. You are also taught that you are not creators of knowledge. Another thing we would like to do at UP is situate Africans as knowledge creators.”

Moving from Arola to Wayfarers’ Hymns, Dr Nokuthula Mazibuko Msimang of UP’s Faculty of Humanities, who moderated the dialogue, described the novel as a “dramatic book about musical gangsters”.

“This book is centred on famo music, a popular genre of music in Lesotho,” Professor Mda said.

“The predominate instrument used in Lesotho is the accordion. Basothos [a collective term for native Sotho people] have turned the accordion and the concertina into Basotho traditional instruments, and have been creating famo music. This is a kind of music that is full of poetry, which is known as hymns, but these are circular hymns not religious hymns.”

Professor Mda went on to explain why he finds famo music and the culture surrounding it so interesting, and how this contributed to the conceptualisation of Wayfarers’ Hymns.

“I grew up in Lesotho, so I grew up listening to famo music. But I recently learned new things about this music. I learned that musicians also led gangs, so these musicians have evolved into gang leaders. Every weekend in Mafeteng, a city in Lesotho, there are funerals of musicians who have died in wars where they were fighting for territory and followers, but also fighting for [control of] illegal mining sites. The illegal mining that happens in Gauteng and Welkom is actually led by the musicians and leaders of these gangs. So I was fascinated to hear about this because I’ve never read about it, not even in newspapers.”

  • Zakes Mda was born in Herschel in the Eastern Cape in 1948 and studied in South Africa, Lesotho and the United States. He wrote his first short story at the age of 15 and has since won major South African and British literary awards for his novels and plays. His writing has been translated into 20 languages. Mda is a professor of Creative Writing at Ohio University.
  • * UP
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