“Knickers Abroad; a multiple journey”
Rose D. Kaye
For a complete list of chapters in numerical order please go to this page.
‘The Poet Laureate of Lesotho’
One of the primary reasons I was looking forward to visiting Paris was to meet Rethabile Masilo. He is a writer and activist and his poetry reads like smoke. (He’s not the Poet Laureate, but he should be.) We made plans for dinner, but they fell through and we settled for a quick hour meeting the next morning at a cafe across the street from our hotel. We ordered tea and listened while he talked about his life.
Rethabile was born in Morija, Lesotho – a country entirely surrounded by South Africa – and his soul has never left home. He grew up in the capital of Maseru until he was eighteen years old when he fled as a refugee with his family. After short stays in South Africa and Kenya he left his family and washed ashore in Maryville, Tennessee as a student at Maryville College. Among his many achievements there, in 2006 he was named as a soccer player of the 1980’s Decade and was an All-South Region player in 1985. He’s most proud though of his wife whom he met in college and after graduation with a degree in biology, they moved to France because she is a French citizen.
He described that even though he’s lived in Paris for twenty years and has two children who are French by birth, he does not feel French. Nor does he feel American for as he described, going to college in Tennessee for a dark-skinned African was not comfortable. He mentioned feeling scared many times both by himself and when he was with his soon to be wife; his wife who is white. Missing family and home, he credits his time in Tennessee with the birth of his poetic life.
I was very moved by his quiet anger and frustration at the racism that has marked his entire life. His father Benjamin Masilo has been and is currently still deeply involved with politics in Lesotho and Rethabile expressed his desire to be more involved. I got the sense though that he is not like his father who he mentioned as being drawn to the ‘colonial’ way of living. Western suits and Western attitudes, a need to be better than and apart from the native culture. I told Rethabile that I did not see him as black, but as my friend. He seemed disturbed and replied that he was not black although African. We did not return to this subject but moved on to poetry.
Prior to our meeting I did quite a bit of research into Lesotho because I’ve always been drawn to the way Rethabile writes. Our discussion began when he mentioned how his poetry is constantly evolving and changing. I stated that a major difference between Brian and I was that he never edited his poetry and I did. Brian chisels his words in granite but I write poetry in the sand, letting the waves wash away my transient words. I told Rethabile that to me I perceived his poetry as springing from his core.
His core is Lesotho and it defines his life in a way that is poignant. To desire the place but not the government: to help the people, but not the politics. To live in exile yet with words live every day in his home half a world away.
Having spoken with him for a much too short half an hour, I was left with a sense of strength and determination to affect change. A quiet passion for justice, an unquenched thirst for the truth and beneath the guarded smile, a smoldering fire that creates the poetry that reads like smoke.
“To Khotsofalang, the face of the hills”
When gates open
that once were blocked,
the sky fills with
people longing to fly,
hearts that were dead
beat again and in the cracks
of the land I find your face,
the memory of our
days among the blackest
hills of Qoaling where
love was born, died, and lives
in dough-thump districts
that fill my head still.
I like when smoke spills
memories to the sky to
gather us for supper,
first on stump-stools for
a few rounds of morabaraba
in which you excelled, till
steam-bread gushes out of the pots,
tomato and lamb-chop bleeding
on embers, and we’re lulled
by the lamp that burns our midst,
moths once more to what brings
kin together like this, to eat, to
drink, to live the fray
of chasing odium away.
© Rethabile Masilo
“That’s a beautiful poem Rose. Rethabile sounds like a wonderful man.”
“He is Dewy and I am so grateful that we found the time to meet, albeit briefly. I am fascinated by his words, they speak to me in a way that I can’t readily explain.”
“It’s my understanding Rose, several months after returning home you had the opportunity to speak with Rethabile again.”
“Yes I did Dewy. He was gracious enough to take time out from his busy holiday schedule and answer some questions for me. This is part of what we discussed.”
In mid December 2007 as the snow and ice fell in northern climes and millions shivered without power or heat, the warm Florida sun continued to shine brightly. The soft blue was close, but not quite the glittering color of that Paris day in late October and it reminded me of my friend Rethabile. I had intended since the start to follow up on some of the topics we had discussed in that cafe and I was prodded into action at last.
“Dumela ka motsoalle, it’s been too long since last we spoke Rethabile.”
“Lumela, Rose. It’s been long, but the thought has stayed. Thanks for taking time to see me again.”
“You are most welcome. I’m glad we could make the time to continue our conversation. Rethabile, is there anything you would like to comment about based on the chapter above?”
“I think those are words that stand for many places one sees these days Rose, whether it be on this continent or on another, this country or another. It’s a touching account of the truth of our times.”
“It seems to be that way my friend in many places. You opened my eyes a bit with your passion for justice. Rethabile do you ever plan on returning to Lesotho and if so in what capacity do you envision?”
“That is a difficult question, Rose, because it encompasses so much, and because it is a potential emotion in itself. First off, I plan on returning to Lesotho. I cannot debate that even with myself. There’s a certain kind of pull that constantly reminds me of Lesotho and of its people. One might wonder how I can live abroad and profess to want to return to my country of origin. I live in France, which has become my second home, or my first, depending on the mood of the day. France has given me haven, and a family, and for that I’m grateful. I consider it my country.”
“Yet above you mentioned when we met that you don’t feel French. If France is your country, is it also really your first or second home?”
“Rose I consider Lesotho my home. Somewhere along the line they’re interwoven, France and Lesotho, but I still make the distinction. Lesotho gave me life and made me who I am today. I don’t know in what capacity I will be able to return to Lesotho, but it must be one that will enable me to help Basotho, one way or another. I’d love to teach creative writing and get in contact with the youth, have the opportunity to have an influence on their development. Or any other stead through which I may be able to have an opportunity for such influence.”
“I consider your poetry to be among the most powerful I’ve ever read and I’m sure that it provides you with influence. What prompted your memory that created the poem ‘To Khotsofalang, the face of the hills’? This is one of my favorite poems of yours Rethabile and I can smell the scents and smoke of this place in your heart.”
“Another hard one Rose. Well, Khotsofalang is the name of my elder brother who is late. He died for me and for his country, Lesotho, because he believed he could effect change. Other people didn’t want him to, so they killed him.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss Rethabile, I didn’t know.”
“Thank you Rose. The poem actually started with thoughts of birds flying about freely, after something has snapped. Freedom from something foreboding, and I wrote the first line in its cruder form. But the poem was born, and freedom to me means freedom to be with family, freedom not to have a sibling murdered for his beliefs, freedom to play morabaraba, ‘Basotho chess’ in which Khotsofalang was a master player, freedom to have enough to eat, freedom for mothers to pound dough in the way they used to. Khotsofalang is Sesotho for ‘be satisfied,’ but will I ever? I think I would, if the things he died for were given to our people by Lesotho’s politicians.”
“Is ‘The bonfire’ an anti-colonial poem Rethabile? Or is it simply a version of the truth in terms of politics and power that exist in Lesotho and the world?”
“I’m afraid I couldn’t put a label on ‘The bonfire’ and make it stick. It is, as I see it, both a joyous and an unhappy gathering. It means too many things and evolved from its original bent into what it says today. I can remember that I wrote the poem, a happy thought in the beginning, but in the end wasn’t sure it wasn’t sad and angry.”
“You told me that your name, Rethabile, means ‘We’re happy’ in Sesotho. Do you feel your name fits you, or is it more an ironic name, given your life history?”
“I feel that my name fits my character. That’s my top-of-the-head answer. And I feel that way because I’ve always tried not to sadden up in my life, no matter what the situation may be. Remaining happy is different from remaining not sad, and much harder to achieve. After a bit of reflection, however, I’d say my name was a misnomer, given the experiences of my family, of the people who actually called me “We’re happy,” declaring in the process their state of mind at the beginning of the sixties. I like my name, however, and I hang onto that early sixties sentiment my folks had. In a dire context I’m the cheerer-up/cheer-upper, and I pronounce clichés like “it could have been worse” and “you didn’t win X but you gained Y” easily. I think there is nothing on earth to be unhappy for.”
“If you feel comfortable in answering this Rethabile, I would like to know what do you want your life to stand for?”
“Finally a question I can deal with Rose… several factors have faceted me and given me a certain consciousness. My religion (do as you would be done by) for one, my family, especially my mother (help the underdog): and the experiences of my life (if they’re out to get you, you’ve touched a nerve). I would like my life to reflect these influences and experiences.”
“Will you remain in France and work for change in the officially colorblind society? Does that even seem to be possible Rethabile?”
“I’d like to have the means to hop back and forth between the two countries. But wherever I am, I will always work toward a society where discrimination in all its possibilities is nil. France is officially colour-blind, but in reality it is assorted into different hues and religions and sexes that all enjoy different existences. Lesotho is a different case. In Lesotho, Caucasians are looked up to by a lot of people, no matter what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. Basotho who speak good English are considered better and they consider themselves better than Basotho who may speak better Sesotho. That has got to change, too. And Rose, everything is possible.”
“Yes Rethabile, anything is possible. If such disparate persons as you and I can become good friends through our poetic voices, then others that work for peace and justice can become friends as well. I look forward with eagerness to our next meeting. Perhaps it will come in Lesotho and you can show me where the smoke that smells like poetry is born.”
They crossed all lands to reach us, to surround
with us the fagots and steeples, laughter
like relief telling who among our folk had
sent them to find our souls. The short one, who
talks little, knew something about what drives
men here, why a king might decree such a
thing out of fear. I stood to stretch my legs,
broke roots off the liana sagging from
the ceiling, threw them to the hiss of the
sizzling stem, and talked about the weather,
the snow that had surprised everyone and
covered cavern, lair – just talked, until I
found in mural dye your face, the fire
of sunrise in my cells, root-sent, entire.
© Rethabile Masilo