Dilotho; unveiling and/or creating stories with and for children

25 Nov 2021

Lalu Mokuku

Dilotho (riddles) is a Sesotho game of guessing the right answer. It is traditionally played by children and used by adults to mean a mystery; (Selotho/singular for riddle or a mystery). The plural for the word or game is dilotho. Many cultures in Africa have a similar game; Kitendawili/singular or Vitendawili/plural in Kiswahili.

To play dilotho effectively, participants are required to draw from their historical, cultural and linguistic repertoire and inevitably unpack significant moments, events or experiences.
The one with selotho usually starts: Ka o lotha (I have a riddle)
Then someone interested in playing along will ask: Ka eng? (about what?)
The one with selotho will continue. For example; Ka monna a yang nokeng a nonne, a kgutle a le mosesanyane (a fat man who goes to the river and comes back thin).

If one knows the answer, they simply give it. In this case; sesepa (soap). If one does not know selotho, they may opt ho se reka (to buy it).

The one who posed selotho will ask:
Ka eng? (with what)
They are then free to pose a new selotho.

In many ways, the nature of the game reminds us that our present circumstances always have a history and a cultural context. Some stories are told through books, while others are told orally, digitally or otherwise. Nevertheless, when told well, stories have the power to reveal and not conceal contexts. Hence the wisdom of being curious to know “Why” and “How” about stories. Research suggests that children are curious by nature, and if they sense dishonesty in responses, they never bother asking further.

In the mainstream school system, stories in the form of an imposed curriculum often make it difficult for those with different stories to be heard. Hence the great historical moment of #RhodesMustFall.

How do we ensure that these stories are heard?

In 2020, I encountered the above-mentioned selotho; Menthele wa shapa monna ditsebe, nkenke ya kena e tswa, which can loosely be translated to mean “a man can’t figure out something and is left gaping”.

Who is it? You might have guessed right:
The answer is Justin Trudeau.

Or does this remain a mystery?

The answer to this selotho leads us to a significant story that happened during the pandemic on May 25, where 7 year old Gianina Floyd lost a father; George Floyd who was brutally killed by Police officer Derek Chauvin. According to reports, the law enforcement officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes, 20 seconds until he died, crying “… I can’t breathe … mama … mama…”

At the time of this event, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, was asked a question about then President of the USA, Donald Trump’s response to peaceful protests in the USA. He took 21 seconds to answer this question. He opened his mouth and uttered no words. Twice. And then responded that “the world was watching in horror …”

So we can see that the game opens up prospects for further conversations about historical, economic, digital, social and cultural contexts. It creates a space to ask why and how. In this case, how and why did Justin Trudeau respond the way he did?

Dilotho creates an opportunity for further stories and analysis, making it possible for diverse opinions to weigh in on a matter, uncensored. In conversation with Umana Niwenshuti about cultural expressions, he suggests that “dilotho, like many other African mediums of expression, show how different stories, even difficult ones, were spoken about and engaged by everyone, including children”.

In South Africa, one of the difficult stories to tell children has to do with the systematised racial oppression called Apartheid.

In 2021, I encountered another selotho. Ironically it involves a “mouth” and a “man”- Monna ya jang ka molomo feela o sa bulehe (a man who eats with a mouth that never speaks).

Who is this? You might have guessed right. Frederik Willem de Klerk.

To put everything into context, on November 11, former President of South Africa Frederik Willem de Klerk passed away. On this date, his Foundation released a video in which he apologised “without qualification” for the “pain and hurt and the indignity and the damage that Apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa”.

In unpacking this selotho, we have an opportunity to critically reflect on the choices that de Klerk made during apartheid. In the video, he asserts that he had been “converted” “since the 80s” and in his “heart of hearts, realised all along that Apartheid was wrong”.

But before de Klerk could be “converted”, during his “conversion” and after his “conversion” it appears that he did very little to touch the hearts of the children, who now have children, grandchildren, grand grand children and grand grand grand children to fully appreciate the mayhem and associated trauma that his ideology and government caused. The International Criminal Court went on to name apartheid as a crime against humanity. Nevertheless, as recently as 2020, de Klerk asserted that apartheid was not a crime against humanity (and later retracted his assertion).

Writer Mary Frances-Winters refers to this state as “sublime ignorance” in her book Black Fatique; How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit, where she unpacks the impact of systematic racism on the physical and psychological health of black people across generations, that begs for generating further stories, those that offer alternatives toward healing.

I have to pause here for your engagement. As I said, this game enables further stories and engagements. This time though, I would like to invite you to coin selotho based on a situation that involves law enforcement officers and decision makers in the creative sector in South Africa.

It has to do with a mother, an artist, activist and a thinker who was stripped of her shirt, exposing her body and was pressed against the wall by a police officer outside the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture offices in Pretoria. Why? For insisting that a meeting that had been scheduled with the authorities, took place.

In coining this selotho, I wish to request putting the “best interests” of the child first.

This event took place on 2 November. From 25 November to 10 December, the 16 days of activism against violence towards women and children will be the foregrounded story.

What alternative stories need to be generated during this time, especially if the 16 days can actually contribute towards our desired outcomes: kindness, peace, love. Unlike the silences of Justin Trudeau and Frederik Willem de Klerk, could these stories decisively and persuasively articulate our desires for humanity to our children Lalu Mokuku is the chairperson of ASSITEJ SA and a member of the Executive Committee of ASSITEJ International.

#storiesforchange #childrenstories #storytelling

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