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Wordsetc Journal

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Es’kia Mphahlele’s Last Interview

Wordsetc 2nd Issue

Es’kia Mphahlele, a giant of African literature, passed away last night. Wordsetc had the privilege to visit him at his home in Lebowakgomo to talk about his storied past, famous works and the state of South African literature. It was his last major interview, and we bring you a portion of it here. May his soul rest in peace.

* * * * * * * *

Es’kia Mphahlele, one of our country’s greatest writers, may be out of limelight nowadays but he has given us so many books to savour and know his convictions as a writer and the often difficult life he has led.

By Madala Thepa

It had always been my wish to get up close with the godfather of South African literature, the man who gave the world important books such as Down Second Avenue, Afrika My Music and The Wanderers. So it was with great resolve that I called him up in December last year to set up a meeting. He had not been that enthusiastic at first. He doesn’t readily grant interviews these days. His health has been poor of late. He’s 88. On the phone his breathing had been laboured and his speech marked by constant repetition of words. I persisted and he finally relented. We agreed to meet early in the new year. So, I had no choice but trek to his home in Lebowakgomo, Limpopo. He suggested I come a day earlier to find out where he lived and then do the interview the following day, a Saturday.

Ten hours later after leaving Johannesburg, after spending most of the day lost a few kilometres from my destination, I was directed to his house – which he said was Unit A but turned out to be in Unit F – with the help of some local children. Behind a brown door, I encounter the man himself. Oddly, he looks as though he is in his late forties, except that his cheeks have drooped and his body is frail. He is in a glum mood, spectacles drawn slightly on the breach of his nose. He does not lift his eyes or look at me.

He is sitting on a flimsy chair attached to a table without much heft to it. His arms are resting on the table. He is wearing shorts and the operation scars on both knees are visible. On the table is a glass with red liquid inside it, filled to the brim and placed between his hands. On the wall is a portrait of the author wearing a dashiki, the cabinet in the living room is set with sculptures and some other plastic arts. It’s not really a storehouse of art, books and papers. The house looks like a retired school principal’s house – neat, clean, bare. He is watching television with his grandchild. The only action he can muster is a nod, to which Stephina, his helper, responds by jumping to her feet to lower the volume.

“You finally found the place,” he says in a low, grave voice. “So tomorrow let’s meet at 10 in the morning then.”

At 9.30am I am lurking outside Es’kia’s house with a colleague photographer. Stephina answers the door. Es’kia is called. He plods in a circle when he walks, like he has left something behind. The interview is conducted in Sepedi, his language. I’m thinking I should not fall into bear pits of rigid translation methodologies. I’m hoping to be faithful to the quality of his words.

My hope really is twist his arm gently and get out of him secrets of the trade without asking him to act. This was an opportunity to lash together a summary of his adult life and to highlight his dedication to the written word.

When I start off by telling him that a literary journal on the internet claims that the name Es’kia is Ndebele, he laughs. “There is nothing like that. Es’kia is Sotho. Those people don’t know what they are talking about,” he says with a slight irritation. “Let me write it for you.”

He takes my notebook and marks out a print – as if producing a print block, a linocut. “This is how you write it,” he says and spells it for me.

“A small comma at the top signifies that an E was left out. It’s like when I say ‘I can’t’. I’m not pronouncing the second ‘n’. I’m not pronouncing the word in full, which is ‘I cannot’. It’s similar with my name. I’m not saying it because of the comma at the top.”

The teacher in him has exploded, he feels the need to explain to a poor journalist.

“Do you understand?” he asks me. I nod in agreement.

“We use it to leave out certain letters. So in Sotho the short name or shortcut to Ezekiel is Es’kia,” he says. “The shortening of names is old. I think the Greeks did that too and they were not the first…”

I keep asking him about his days as a teacher but nothing concrete comes out of it. Another worst fear of this assignment has been realised Es’kia is barely audible. I have to lean in quite close. Even later, when I transcribe the interview, the recorder can’t play back most of his words.

During the interview, I ask him to tell me about his experience as a clerk and shorthand typist at Ezenzeleni Institute for the Blind in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg, where he worked for four years in the early 1940s.

“I taught the blind, taking care of their needs, taking them to town and helping them in their hostels. I taught them to read alphabets – from A to – Z in Braille. P, for instance, will have three or four dots and so on and M would have… Let me write it for you,” he says and begins to carve out the letters.

“I was called by the principal of the school for the blind when I was in teacher’s training at Adams College, in KwaZulu-Natal. So he said to my college principal: ‘I hear that you have Es’kia Mphahlele. We would like to talk to him to come and teach here.’ That’s how I got there…. I used to read Braille but now I can’t. It’s a long time ago.”

Es’kia was fiction editor, sub-editor and political reporter at Drum magazine from 1955 to 1957. He gives the impression he had a bad time. “People thought it was about killings, outlaws and ruffians. I must say, it was grossly exaggerated. There were borders and limits where we had to stop,” he says.

You feel from his grunt that he doesn’t want to talk much about Drum. When the magazine discontinued short-story competitions, he was devastated. In his book the selected letters by Manganyi (Bury Me At The Marketplace), he laments the publication’s move.

“I notice that, after all, it was good riddance to Drum: no short story anymore and apparently no competition. Damn pity, because with the absence of a literary or semi-literary journal, what will happen to African
creative writing?”

The apartheid regime kept tightening its screws around the talented writer/educationist’s neck, until all legitimate and possible escape chutes were out of reach for him: he had been expelled from his first love, teaching, for his temerity to grumble aloud about Bantu Education, and the decision to terminate the literary desk at Drum magazine meant he could no longer indulge himself in his other love, writing and editing short stories.

In anguish Es’kia packed off his belongings and small family, and left his beloved motherland on an exit permit, for decades of vagabonding across the world. But his patriotism and zest for life never left him.

t 9.30am I am lurking outside Es’kia’s house with a colleague photographer. Stephina answers the door. Es’kia is called. He plods in a circle when he walks, like he has left something behind. The interview is conducted in Sepedi, his language. I’m thinking I should not fall into bear pits of rigid translation methodologies. I’m hoping to be faithful to the quality of his words.

My hope really is twist his arm gently and get out of him secrets of the trade without asking him to act. This was an opportunity to lash together a summary of his adult life and to highlight his dedication to the written word.

When I start off by telling him that a literary journal on the internet claims that the name Es’kia is Ndebele, he laughs. “There is nothing like that. Es’kia is Sotho. Those people don’t know what they are talking about,” he says with a slight irritation. “Let me write it for you.”

He takes my notebook and marks out a print – as if producing a print block, a linocut. “This is how you write it,” he says and spells it for me.

“A small comma at the top signifies that an E was left out. It’s like when I say ‘I can’t’. I’m not pronouncing the second ‘n’. I’m not pronouncing the word in full, which is ‘I cannot’. It’s similar with my name. I’m not saying it because of the comma at the top.”

The teacher in him has exploded, he feels the need to explain to a poor journalist.

“Do you understand?” he asks me. I nod in agreement.

“We use it to leave out certain letters. So in Sotho the short name or shortcut to Ezekiel is Es’kia,” he says. “The shortening of names is old. I think the Greeks did that too and they were not the first…”

I keep asking him about his days as a teacher but nothing concrete comes out of it. Another worst fear of this assignment has been realised Es’kia is barely audible. I have to lean in quite close. Even later, when I transcribe the interview, the recorder can’t play back most of his words.

During the interview, I ask him to tell me about his experience as a clerk and shorthand typist at Ezenzeleni Institute for the Blind in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg, where he worked for four years in the early 1940s.

“I taught the blind, taking care of their needs, taking them to town and helping them in their hostels. I taught them to read alphabets – from A to – Z in Braille. P, for instance, will have three or four dots and so on and M would have… Let me write it for you,” he says and begins to carve out the letters.

“I was called by the principal of the school for the blind when I was in teacher’s training at Adams College, in KwaZulu-Natal. So he said to my college principal: ‘I hear that you have Es’kia Mphahlele. We would like to talk to him to come and teach here.’ That’s how I got there…. I used to read Braille but now I can’t. It’s a long time ago.”

Es’kia was fiction editor, sub-editor and political reporter at Drum magazine from 1955 to 1957. He gives the impression he had a bad time. “People thought it was about killings, outlaws and ruffians. I must say, it was grossly exaggerated. There were borders and limits where we had to stop,” he says.

You feel from his grunt that he doesn’t want to talk much about Drum. When the magazine discontinued short-story competitions, he was devastated. In his book the selected letters by Manganyi (Bury Me At The Marketplace), he laments the publication’s move.

“I notice that, after all, it was good riddance to Drum: no short story anymore and apparently no competition. Damn pity, because with the absence of a literary or semi-literary journal, what will happen to African
creative writing?”

The apartheid regime kept tightening its screws around the talented writer/educationist’s neck, until all legitimate and possible escape chutes were out of reach for him: he had been expelled from his first love, teaching, for his temerity to grumble aloud about Bantu Education, and the decision to terminate the literary desk at Drum magazine meant he could no longer indulge himself in his other love, writing and editing short stories.

In anguish Es’kia packed off his belongings and small family, and left his beloved motherland on an exit permit, for decades of vagabonding across the world. But his patriotism and zest for life never left him.

The journal Es’kia dismissed earlier also carried a statement that he was afraid to grow old in America and that it was one of the reasons he returned.

“Yes, I was tired of staying in America,” he says. “It was bothering me for many years and I wanted to continue with my writing. There’s no time, people in the US do a lot of stuff. It’s hard for you to do what you want to do the way you want to do it.”

In his letters (to friend Norah Taylor in 1961, page fifty-three) he explains: “I found myself entangled in so much
writing, much of it stupid stuff one is asked by overseas journals to do on one political or cultural topic and another.”

He doesn’t know how to explain it.

“Old people in America are not looked after properly,” he says eventually. “I didn’t want to be become that… just like (artist Gerard) Sekoto, who went to France and the…” His voice fades.

* * * * * * * *

Madala Thepa’s complete interview and gloss of Es’kia Mphahlele’s major works appears in the second edition of Wordsetc, published May 2008. It’s Es’kia Mphahlele’s last major interview. Wordsetc celebrates South African literature; back issues, including of the second edition, are available. For more information, visit www.wordsetc.co.za, or write to info@wordsetc.co.za.

 

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