Mourning loved ones, weeping for lost years, writing to purge – join me on a journey in poetry

Mourning loved ones, weeping for lost years, writing to purge – join me on a journey in poetry
A pedestrian walks along the street at the foothills above Afriski in Lesotho, where Rethabile Masilo began writing poems in high school. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Marianne Schwankhart)

An invitation to walk down a poetic path with Rethabile Masilo, the editor of DM168’s monthly poetry page.

My name is Rethabile Masilo. Sometimes, because many Sesotho names are gender neutral, I insert a “Mr” in front of my name in an email.

I started writing poems when I was in high school (in a small village in Lesotho called Peka). I had been trying my hand at fiction for a while, reading a lot and writing a bit on the side because I couldn’t help it. Our father was a journalist and our mother was a teacher so there were many newspapers and books in our home.

I didn’t choose or decide to start writing; I started writing because I read a lot.

In high school, a teacher invited our class to enter a short story competition. My short story, about a couple having marital disputes, won. After the announcement, our teacher asked me where I had copied the story from. Despite my protests, he was convinced I had stolen the story from somewhere else.

I stopped writing until a new teacher took over, introduced us to a lot more poetry and read it to us more often. I found it pretty and brilliant – and I was hooked.

I was born in Lesotho in 1961 and left Lesotho in 1981, at the age of 20, fleeing the events that had occurred in those 20 years: the imprisonment of our father in 1970; the departure of our brother and his death in the Struggle in the late 1970s; the attack on our family in 1981 by rogue elements of the politicised paramilitary entity; and the loss of our three-year-old nephew in the attack.

We had many reasons to flee and grieve.

We fled to South Africa, where we were arrested for trespassing in Springs on the East Rand, and thrown in jail. It was then that we encountered the real apartheid, as opposed to the one found in books and newspapers.

Everything had been so frantic that, although we were grieving, we hadn’t really had time to grieve properly – with the land, with the gods and in the company of friends and family; but we did grieve, and we are still in that process. You can grieve anywhere. Today, we mourn for the little boy and the teenage brother who fell.

We were never given the body of my brother so, when we returned home in the mid-1990s when it was safe to do so, we buried everything we remembered of him, without his body, in his nephew’s grave, adding his name to the headstone with a question mark for the date of his death.

I wrote poems for them as a way of purging myself in my early years at university in East Tennessee, US, where one of my sisters and I studied. I wasn’t writing to grieve as such, but to put on paper the things I thought about most often.

Mourning for Motlatsi was immediate, beginning when his torn and limp body was found among the sheets. He had been collateral damage. The bullets intended for our father found him where he belonged.

We cried for Motlatsi with crowds and crowds of people, and we cried harder when we heard the cries of our sister who had lost her first son.

Khotsofalang had left home as a teenager to go into exile and join the Struggle. Somehow, we always thought he would come back one day. Once we were in exile ourselves, we learnt that he had been killed somewhere in the mountains of Lesotho with his commando. He must have been 20 or 21 years old at the time.

I don’t purposely start writing a poem about them, or about my other siblings, or about our parents, my wife and children, or about anything. Something will trigger me, a line that comes to mind when I’m busy with something else, or a compelling rhyme.

I think most poets work this way, which is why it’s harder to write poems to order.

I’m delighted that you and I will be walking this poetry path together, once a month, in the pages of DM168.

I will be running a poetry column based on poems written by southern Africans, by Africans in general, and by the world, in that order. The poems will have a specific theme each time.

What an honour this is for me! I intend to use my love of poetry and the experience I have gained from reading and writing it to have honest discussions with you about the human condition.

Our parents died when we were adults. They had both been ill. Our father had always been stern and distant, rarely at home. For a brief period before he died, we got to see the family man he could have been. I mourned him because I loved him, but I also wept for the lost years when he had not been my friend and confidant.

Our mother had always been our friend, close to all the children, and kind to her friends and enemies. She, too, had been ready to go.

They both bowed out before their children, which is the usual order of things. How they must have suffered, for not dying before their son and grandson! We mourn them too and lines come to mind, and I write them down, as I do for stones and trees, love and hate, because I am a poet.

It is a pleasure to meet you, and I look forward to walking down this artistic path with you. DM168

The boy who would die

– for Motlatsi Masilo

The bedroom was a shallow grave – perhaps the opinion of the men who came, or of the wardrobe in that room in which a woman hid.

In any case, there was a burial in that room.

Decked in bright pyjamas he slept

as bullets hankered for the softness of his body and found the linoleum under the bed.

Men he did not know in a house on a hill like a staircase –

from the grave you climbed to the sitting room whose Cyclops window looked at the world, the reason perhaps for such an act for which there was no wake, then further up to the tin-stove kitchen that stood above the rest, in which in winter we sang around a pot on the stove –

if not for the outhouse some metres into the hill the kitchen was the highest place of the house, the closest thing to heaven we had.

No dog dared bark that night.

We lived on that hill, and it lived in us, in rocks carved out of boulders and chiselled

into bricks by able hands of noble men.

He died at the edge of his dream, a potted plant on a winter sill, aged three, died for us.

And from then on, all poems would end thus.

The waslap of my father

In my palm sits my father’s waslap, as I knew it would one day each time I saw him scrub himself with it in the zinc tub beside our hut, darkening the water with his mood.

I wash myself with that waslap,

wishing he were here to watch me, all growed up and whistling in the cold morning of winter. I gather it again and squeeze the water out of it the same way he always did, with might, because it is that, too, remembrance, nothing but a conquest of will that has made me the keeper of my father’s dreams, his pants and best cotton shirt that fit me, the hat he bought in Bloemfontein when there for work once, a belt.

All fit and I wear them to parties to impress my friends. The day my father lay here in state on his back, shocked at what the world had done, I wet the waslap and dabbed his brow, before scrubbing him well from sternum and chest down to the legs.

My father who said he was off somewhere and we should let him –

I wonder, is he watching me now as I wring this out and put it on my head to dry, like a kippah, O cloth of memory. All his clothes go on me like a charm, except his shoes which are too big for me to wear.


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