To Ban or Not to Burn
At eight-to-nine-years of age, 1968-69, I was too young to see the implications of not attending school for two years. My Grade 1 year at St. Rose Primary School, Peka, Lesotho, was a long one. It lasted from age four-and-half, 1965, to six-and-half years old, 1967. I, at instant notice and under dramatic circumstances, had to leave Lesotho in the earlier part of 1969. There was no time to acquire school reports and formalized school transfer documents to enable me to continue with schooling in South Africa. Not that I knew anything about such documents at that time, though. In any case, my expectation had been that I’d return to my school in Lesotho once the situation had become normal and safe again.
Towards the end of 1969, I had already begun to discern the bigger social dynamics around me. That applied to both in my home and with regard to the extended family relations, as well as the wider society to the extent that a nine-year-old child can make sense of their world. It hit me like a bomb, therefore, when my parents unexpectedly made it clear to me that schooling in Lesotho was over for my younger brother, Thabo, and I. We’d resume studies in my mother’s hometown, Thaba Nchu, 210km to the south of my hometown, Welkom. We had been to the former to celebrate Christmas 1969 with my uncle Moses’ new and young family.
The anger and frustration I felt towards my parents at that time hurt me so much that it felt like I had river stones in my stomach. This feeling of profound disappointment and helplessness would last the entire two years that Thabo and I stayed in Thaba Nchu. That I’d have a bad relationship with my uncle Moses’ wife didn’t help matters much. I became a bundle of mental and physical tension. Otherwise a generally happy-go-lucky child up to that point, I became unruly in my uncle’s home.
Understanding Thabo and I’s plight regarding education access given our background, Mr Justice Mmekwa facilitated Thabo and I’s resumption of schooling in Thaba Nchu. Eldest son of my uncle’s landlady, ‘Masang, he was a respected primary school Principal in a neighbouring town called Tweespruit. Without this kind man’s help, it would have been extremely difficult to find any school places for us in then Apartheid South Africa. As an independent, non-racial state, Lesotho represented values contrary to those of then anti-Black progress racist Apartheid South Africa.
I remain eternally grateful to Principal Justice Mmekwa for his assistance, support, and inspiration. He was a man of class; ever well-groomed. A fine family man exuding charisma that few of my adult male role models of the time had. Other than the traditional Barolong Chief, and Mr Ngophe the trader in the neighbourhood, the Principal was the only man with a car. The latter’s black Mercedes Benz power machine made my father’s then blue Opel Rekord car look like a toy beside the former. No doubt, the man is one of those lasting I wanna be like that when I grow up references in my life. I had already begun to be aware of my predisposition towards being there for the weak and vulnerable in times of need. Principal Mmekwa’s gesture enhanced that attribute in me.
A fixed image of Principal Mmekwa in my head is that of him majestically stepping out of his car each time he arrived home from work; a rolled newspaper clutched under his left armpit, with a book in the hand. On the right hand he would be carrying the most beautiful leather briefcase I’ve ever seen. In tweed outfits (never a suit), a Stetson on his head, and a smoking pipe jutting from his mouth, he was a sight to behold. His “Dumelang, bana! Hello, children!” baritone voice resonates in my head to this day. His eyes were the suns.
In January, 1970, Thabo and I were well-received by the Principal of the then newly-opened Namanyane Primary School in Selosesha Township. The Principal, whose name I’ve forgotten, was another affable man. It was advantageous that it turned out that he was homeboy with my mother and uncle Moses from their village, Paradys, about 30km from Thaba Nchu town.
Thabo and I’s respective class teachers and others were really nice to us. That made the two years at the school very enjoyable for me indeed. Whilst at school, I could forget about the unpleasant atmosphere at home with my aunt. I had already experienced the joy of choral music singing in Lesotho. However, I got the first ever taste of inter-school choral singing competitions at the new school. In my head, it is as if there was singing every day of school during the years 1970-71. The sounds of rehearsals voices of different categories of singing according to age and song vocalization skills still buzz in my head in my moments of meditative inner silence.
I got the first taste of formal competition victory when my choir, the Junior Choir, won the regional schools choral music competition in 1970. The category song was called Mmino wa Pino/ Singing of a Song. It spoke about the universal appeal of music; how it, music, defied all the prevalent artificial discriminatory practices in society. My eyes began to open to Apartheid in a critical way at about this time. My life would never be the same again.
It is also at this time that I began to consciously think about the big questions of life around hate, love, peace, and all other tendencies reflecting inequities around me. Inspired by the Apollo 11 moon landing in the previous year, I recall one day wondering if it were possible to relocate to another place far, far away from all the evils of mankind on earth.
At the same time, I discovered that whereas I was in Grade 3 that year, 1970, several of my agemates were two to four classes ahead of me. In no time I had figured it out that the situation was due to the fact that I had lost the two school years of 1968-69. The difference would probably had not been that much had I progressed normally from Grade 1 in 1965, I reckoned.
If I ever had a sore moment at Namanyane Primary School in Thaba Nchu, it was the illumination of how much schooling time I had previously foregone due to circumstances beyond my control. The school Principal, my class teacher and some of their colleagues also found it hard to understand how I could have academically stayed that far behind my contemporaries. This enhanced my new sense of bewilderment here. I was actually a brilliant pupil. And, ideas of what I wanted to be when grown up were already crystallizing in my head. I began to wonder some more about whether there didn’t exist another place far, far away where I could get educated quickly to be a doctor without having to bother about the other kids that I felt had had an unfair lead over me. Visions of living in other worlds preoccupied my mind from then on.
Thinking about the moon was not exciting because I had already learned that normal human life was impossible out there. But the moon remained a major point of reference until in my class we began to read stories and answer questions from books. We began to read and write down our answers to the questions set in the books. This was a major leap from verbally answering questions from texts our teacher would have read to us.
I don’t recall any of the stories the teacher ever read to us. But I know that listening to them induced in me a feeling of flying away like a bird during the reading séances. This gave me a special inner peace that detached me from my frustrations with my derailed academic progress. In this state of mind, negative forces around me ceased to matter. The challenge, though, was that the reading sessions were ever so short. Nevertheless, that made me to ever want to look forward to going to school the following day. Truly happy memories.
We may have read more stories when the time came for us to read our recommended class text book on our own. That’s because the first two stories I remember, and got to make a lasting impression on me, were somewhere in the middle of the book. Both in appropriate condensed forms, the first story was about a man whose tragic life led him to unknowingly kill his father, and end up marrying and having four children with his own mother. The second story was about two men in an intense competition to reach the South Pole one before the other.
My class teacher made it clear that the first story was not for real. It was created a long, long, long time ago by a writer and thinker from an overseas land called Greece. Although it was a story too difficult to discuss thoroughly then, she told us that its idea was that sometimes we cannot escape what destiny had in store for us. It was therefore important to aspire to be as descent a human being as possible, despite the troubles of our world. She went on to say that we were going to read even more books as we grew older and progressed with our education.
“Books are a safe store of knowledge about who we are; just like banks keep our money safe,” she concluded.
As regards the second story, it was from reality, the teacher enlightened us. The story highlighted the importance of determination towards the achievement of our goals as we grew older. She said that books that tell real life stories teach us about what it takes to attain certain goals. The books help us to learn not to make the same mistakes that the writers shall highlight in their stories.
“Real life story books teach us how to be human in ways we should easily relate to, even if we could never replicate events of the stories as they are narrated in the books,” the teacher said. She went on to say that it was the aim of acting in the bioscope and theatre stages to seek to bring book stories close to life as much as possible. Some of us would be actors when grown up, maybe?
Two years later, I’d see for the first time a professional theatrical performance: Sikhalo, by the legendary South African playwright, Gibson Kente. This play brought home to me a clearer picture of the Black condition under Apartheid South Africa. I got a better understanding of the monster. The monster had to die, even if many of my people had to die in the process. We could cry and laugh away our troubles through the arts. Education was a crucial weapon in our struggle for freedom. If education was found in books, then I’d read and read them all.
It was one thing to hear the teacher’s philosophical discourse on the stories and the value of books. From reading and understanding the essence of the stories, what happened with me was that my mind for the first time in my life saw the existence of other worlds on earth. I could, perhaps, escape to these new places for my peace of mind. The more I read, the more the world, life, made sense to me, for better and for worse. The more I wanted to explore human nature in order that I might better understand myself and my purpose in life.
The interesting coincidence is that I have now been living in Norway, the land of Roald Amundsen, one of the two South Pole explorers mentioned above, for nearly thirty-four years. Greece was my first encounter with Europe in 1985. Talk about fate!
I came to Norway via Zambia, my fatherland. Landing in Zambia in March, 1975, would turn out to be a thirteen years’ enduring be careful what you ask for moment. Zambia took me down, took me up, tossed me mid-air in stormy weathers, took me up and up to finally thrust me even farther away to new lands in my pursuit of a suitable place for my peace of mind. Thanks to Zambia, upon my landing in Oslo in August, 1988, I was a mean physical fighting machine, a polished rising international intellectual powerhouse with, of course, a taste for the finer things in life. Zambia gave me tough lessons in how to be a man of the world. Such that, no, landing and eventually living in Norway has never been a culture shock trip for me.
The two years prior to my parents relocating the family to Zambia, 1972-74, presented me with a trove of pubertal-early-teens growing up thrills: consolidation of my sense of identity, winning respect from my peers, earning own cash, rock-and-roll with girls, street survival mentoring from older friends of both sexes, travelling, sport, and much more. At school I was a star by default. The vision of my being a doctor when grown up was becoming more and more real. That as talk about beginning to look for potential bursary/ scholarship sources for me had begun. I got inspired to want to read more and more intensely so as to maintain my top-of-the-class status at school.
Reading then involved a great deal of cramming, especially during examination seasons in June and November/ December every year. For homework assignments, I could in one sitting lasting perhaps an hour, read and memorize all the recommended texts for the day in all the subjects: English, Afrikaans, Maths, History/ Social Studies, General Science, and Bible Studies. That was the most natural thing for me to do at the time. However, it used to baffle me when some of my classmates used to complain about how difficult it was for them to either find time or concentration to read at home. I didn’t know how I could help them; neither was I keen to, really, because competition for academic excellence was very stiff. Only the very best of the best got access to the extremely scarce bursaries/ scholarships provided by various private business entities and rich individuals.
Extra-curricular reading during this time mainly comprised newspapers, various weekly and monthly entertainment magazines and comics. Bible stories of Moses, Samson, Kings David and Solomon captured my imagination in a huge way. So, I read the Bible a lot. Some of the best literature-induced mental travels I’ve ever had have been during this time. Reflections over the adventures of the mentioned figures have lastingly influenced my view of life.
Moses opened my eyes to the sense of devotion. Samson’s warrior heart ceases never to give me goose bumps; his wife, Delilah’s betrayal of him may just be one of the reasons I’ve yet to get hitched. I don’t know. King David and his son’s lust issues gave me a special perspective about power and sex. And, then, King Solomon’s proverbs in praise of his women paved the way for the lessons of love that I’d later read about in greater depth in The Perfumed Garden. I learned from the latter book that if I wanted to maximally enjoy physical intimacy with a woman, I must handle her with utmost tenderness, just like when I consume my favourite juicy fruit. This book broadened the mystery of misogyny and violence against women. Beats me.
After over three months on the rails and road, we arrived in Lusaka a tired family unit. The journey had been hard on us on many fronts. Our joy at having finally arrived home turned into acute disillusionment within a matter of days. Longstanding conflicts in my father’s family made it difficult for us to bond. Subsequently, at different times and under different circumstances, my parents, my two surviving younger siblings and I would leave Zambia. The youngest sibling, Dintletse, died and was buried in Lusaka in 1983. I came to Norway, whilst the others returned to South Africa.
Starting with my uncle, Mr OB Chilembo’s private library at home, arrival in Zambia was an introduction to a world of books like I had never seen before. In the home library, I could mentally fly away from bitterness bordering on hate in my family situation then: I’d find myself following murder investigations in the USA, falling in love with English women in London, fighting in World Wars 1 and 2, investigating human nature as a psychologist, defending criminals in courts all over the world, singing and dancing Jazz on Broadway, playing World Cup football, getting lost in the Sahara, robbing banks in Paris and Rome, escaping from Russian labour camps in Siberia, pretending to be dead in Mao Tse Tung’s China’s rice paddies, hiking across Australia, and much more.
The comfort I derived from reading books was like no other. I don’t quite exactly remember what specific books and other publications I read especially throughout the rest of 1975, when I didn’t attend school. But I know for sure that much of the reading helped me make sense of my reality. That way I could, indeed, find some peace in my inner world.
I found the reading culture in Zambia amazing both in magnitude and diversity. Even Radio Zambia had an African Literature reading hour most working day afternoons, if I recall. Zambians had no culture of displaying their book collections on shelves in living rooms. I’ve met numerous foreigners who had concluded that Zambians were not well-read for not having showy bookshelves in their houses. Quite the contrary.
Well-off Zambians like my uncle had private libraries, as I’ve already alluded to above. Otherwise, people valued their book collections so much that they kept them in their bedrooms, or such other private spaces. Others concealed the books in locked, opaque cupboards in their living spaces. Upon entering my uncle’ spacious living and dining area, including a bar, there was almost never a book to see.
Uncle OB has on more than one occasion spoken in awe about how vast a collection of exclusive books two of his contemporaries had in their private libraries. Only selected individuals could enter here. If you didn’t ask, or you didn’t get caught up in a heated debate necessitating available literary referencing, you’d not likely see your Zambian host’s book collection. Erudite or not, Zambians can be formidable debaters, if not orators, thriving on the pedantic.
With time, some of my paternal cousins of my age took me to the Lusaka City Library. I don’t recall ever reading or borrowing a book from there. But the picture of me walking around and around the library gazing at the books in amazement for what felt like hours on end, day after day, never leaves my mind. I had never seen that many and huge book walls anywhere.
The following year, 1976, I started schooling in Grade 7 at Lusaka’s Olympia Primary School. That a mobile clinic came to the school for pupils’ periodic medical check-ups and the like wasn’t such a big deal. But the first day a mobile library came over, I was positively shocked beyond words. It soon dawned upon me that, with such ample access to books, it was no wonder that Zambian Black people were not only doctors and nurses, they were pilots, train drivers, army commanders, and all sorts of things Black people of South Africa were not.
I’d eventually be member of both the British Council and American libraries in Lusaka. From the former, a book on running made the biggest impression on me. Such that when my Karate teacher and life mentor, Professor Stephen Chan, OBE, suggested that we, the then senior-most students at the University of Zambia Karate Club in 1983, take part in the maiden Lusaka Marathon run that year, I had long been mentally ready for it.
From the American library, the one book that made the biggest impression on me was on the freedom of speech concept. I recall its stand that whereas freedom of speech was indeed a fundamental human right, it was important to remember that there are moral and legal constraints as to how far we could say what we will on any subject, to anybody. Freedom of speech is not an entitlement to be malicious to others. In connection with the freedom of speech ideas, the book also touched the subject of truth telling. It argued that truth must be told always, but not necessarily at any cost. If currently telling the truth could cause more harm than good, then it may not be a bad idea to withhold it until conditions are more favourable, if ever.
And then in 1982-86, the University of Zambia Library became my books haven. Many of us students and the academic staff did our research here. This institution consolidated the intellectual foundation upon which this my new writing career stands.
During the years preceding university studies commencement, I used to have much informal political education talks with a selection of some older South African freedom fighter veterans based in Lusaka in those days.
One of the veterans, Comrade Lerumo, once said to me, “Sy, when you analyse any issue, you must always look at it from both opposing sides. When you read in your research, read books, or any other relevant form of written presentation, articulated from opposing perspectives. Do the same when you listen to world news on the radio; listen to everybody, whether you agree with them or not. That’s how we become intellectual powerhouses, able to solve problems effectively as they arise because we know how everybody thinks.”
Comrade Lerumo went on to say, “The sad situation is that surprisingly many of our leaders in exile don’t read. If they do read at all, it’ll be a book on Marxism here, Che Guevara there, and Chairman Moa there and there. They’ll recite a stanza or two of a Shakespeare and think that they are smart. Tragic!”
The UNZA Library provided me with all the books I ever needed for a successful university studies career. These days I have access to major world libraries in the palms of my hand, at the tips of my fingers. In principle, no one can hide from me a once formally published book. No one can absolutely hinder me from publishing a book, formally or otherwise.
From the outset I write with good intentions. I write with a pure heart, my imperfections notwithstanding. Because I’m non-cantankerous by propensity, I consciously choose to write non-offensive, uplifting books; upholding principles of freedom of speech and truth telling with responsibility. At the same time, I do not expect that my writings shall be appreciated by all. I’m not a popularity contests writer. I write as a free spirit without fear or favour, simply practicing what book reading has taught me over the years. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to contribute to the growth of humanity’s reading material data base.
Writing books has liberated my soul. The worlds I create with my books instil in me a sense of peace and love beyond words. Each publication of any writing of mine is an attempt to portray the workings of the peace and love that I feel. Although it is for the observer to judge my deeds, inside of me I feel I’ve become a better person breathing and walking as an author. Books have outright saved my life. In more ways than one. Plain and simple.
If we want this our world to be a better place for all, it’s symptomatic of intellectual bankruptcy to ban books that tell and expose truths about transgressions we have historically, and continue to commit over one another. That depending on the balances of power according to race, political orientation, and other artificial human discriminatory categories and practices.
Good or bad, truthful or malicious, once a book is written and published, it’ll stand the test of time in numerous formats. That’s why we have, amongst others, national libraries and archives. Power is in writing another book to counter or falsify a book that proliferates undesirable messages. Better yet, power is in writing another book to take already existing progressive literature to ever higher levels.
Banning of books prejudicially classified by powers that be is tantamount to running away from the truth, running away from the self. Banning of books is denialism of the existence of one’s deeds tracks in history. Banning of books fakes presentation of the present as if the present begins and ends in itself. Living the present on fake presuppositions is sure a promise of a future of ignorance and non-sustainable existential premises. As it is, it is evident that a current exercise of banning of books enshrining enlightenment and wisdom is a consequence of forces of ignorance and destruction having had the upper hand in the past, distant and near.
Truth frightens the guilty. Cowards fear for life confrontations of truths about themselves. They shall ban and burn books, they shall incarcerate and murder writers, but cowards in the form of fascists shall never ever succeed in erasing the urge for truth search and expression that is at the core of being human.
In the 21st Century of unprecedented potential for making planet earth a place called heaven for all, USA (The Ununited States of America), the most powerful nation on earth, is in an orgy of banning books. As if the Coronavirus pandemic and the January 6 insurrection weren’t bad enough. Amongst others, these books lay bare the truths about one of the essential elements of the foundations upon which the economic might of the USA stands: the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This endeavour inhumanely uprooted African people to go and work in slavery the initially cotton-based American agro-industry.
Classified as inferior humans, American-enslaved Africans lived and worked under the most appalling, dehumanizing conditions. Modern day USA racism against people of African descent and others stems from the earliest days of European settlement and subsequent colonization of the north American continent. Truth as plain and undeniable as can be.
Slavery in the USA formally ended in 1865. In the Euro-USA context, though, racism as a social construct continues to seek to perpetuate artificial racial inequalities that have been developed to sustain oppression of Black and other People of Colour. This phenomenon is experienced in other parts of the world also (The Middle East, China, Eurasia), notably Australia, South Africa, and other areas of the world where Euro colonialism has had a lasting imprint. The idea being to infinitely suppress the oppressed so as to maintain them in perpetual subservience. That way forcing them, the People of Colour, to continue selling themselves cheaply for the benefit of the superior White race. Baloney, of course.
Through research and critical analysis of historical facts, books are written in order that knowledge about the truth about where the USA comes from, and what values make and break it can be disseminated as wide and durably as possible. In here is included books countering anti-Semitic literature and the anti-Jewish sentiment as a whole, both in the USA, Europe, and globally.
Banning and burning of books is knowledge dissemination delayed and denied. I shudder to think about the future of America when literacy rates are as low as they are today. All explicable in historical terms, of course. When some of the leading books banning proponents are Ivy League universities graduates, it may be arguable that many a student enter these institutions with but half-baked academic maturity. No wonder the country is in such a socio-politico mess spearheaded by educated fools. Unversed American children raised by conspiracy theories pregnant America can only but keep the fires of American Nightmare burning in all perpetuity. Trash begets trash. In that case, they can ban me with pleasure for my broken Dream of America.
In Africa, an educated fool emerged from anti-liberation struggle imprisonment once. He had seven university degrees to his name. Obtained from studies behind prison walls with limited access to relevant research literature, the degrees could only have been half-baked. The man brought his country to its knees. He is dead now. His country is on stumps; amputation wounds chronically infected. No school books in the country. Teachers are running away before they lose their knees. Future of intellectually bankrupt America as dire as that of country balancing on stumps that won’t heal.
February 05, 2022