A few days ago I encountered a donkey that had just died. A broodmare. It was walking with its foal when a racing driver hit it. Now on its own, the foal was sniffing dustbins, desperate to eat. Alone and lonely. The reality of witnessing the consequences of a life cut so abruptly was both unsettling and jarring. It brought up memories of death caused by social, technological, environmental, economic and political ills, made more visible by Covid-19, and I wondered about the trauma and grief that families and children may have experienced as a result of the pandemic and more. I pondered deeply about possible stories to tell in these moments of hurting and healing.
To gain strength, my attention shifted to the importance of July – Ntate Mandela’s month. He once said “it always seems impossible until it’s done”. Given our circumstances, I believe that creatives have a huge responsibility in terms of how they tell stories about children and for them. Not so long ago, I had been reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and a character that baffled me with his cynicism was Benjamin the donkey. His famous line was “donkeys never die”. Of course, this line needs to be read within the context of the allegory.
In diverse learning environments, there are interesting developments that purposefully amplify ways of knowing and being that have systematically been marginalised. For example, information about Phupu (July) being the last month of the Basotho calendar is being shared more rigorously. Literature and anecdotal information suggests that the Basotho calendar is lunar. During Phupu month, everything seems lifeless, and yet understanding that it’s a preparation for putting seeds in the soil, may be useful for strategic thinking. This month reminds me that while Gregorian (solar) calendars may be considered to be the norm, stories about Lunar calendars such as those celebrated by Basotho, need to be told in order to reveal diverse ways knowing and being. This may not necessarily be told by the experienced ones with the Benjamin attitude, but rather by storytellers who understand their power to heal, educate, transgress and transform. As a word, ‘phupu’ means a funeral.
Consequently, I have been pondering about what witnessing the death of a donkey in Phupu month may mean. Those of us in the creative sector know that these experiences go deeper than just being an accidental encounter. A donkey’s death may reveal more about the things we conceal; it may be an invitation to face our pain and deepen the stories less known.
Using this experience as a metaphor, I wonder what your thoughts could be. In the meantime, I continue to be in awe at the quality of stories you, our members, tell about and for children and young people. Ntate Mandela reminds us that “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children”.
- Lalu Mokuku is the chairperson of ASSITEJ SA and Executive Committee Member of ASSITEJ International. Her latest play, Hlapa Matsoho is due to be published by the University of Johannesburg.