THOTOBOLONG; a safe-deposit for tellers of stories that move us

16 Aug 2023

Thotobolo, an ash heap, is a healing and sacred site in the Basotho culture. Thotobolo is made of molora (ashes) whose healing properties are myriad. Anecdotal evidence suggests that thotobolo is located in front of houses and in plain sight of the inhabitants. Moreover, fundamental aspects of life such as umbilical cords and still-born babies are buried there.

I never thought deeply about thotobolo, until I had a conversation with my mentor Warren Nebe about the power of a metaphor in playback theatre. This was after I had witnessed a playback theatre performance by MEQOQO, which celebrated womxn’s month, themed “Are You Boxed in?” Here, a teller* shared a story of being boxed in and given demeaning names, following a childhood assault that resulted in an unplanned pregnancy and was left unresolved. Prompted by an exceptional Conductor, Nine Magagula, the teller took us on a journey that was marred with pain and power, revealing how the perpetrator continues to prey on young women, without any legal recourse. As audience, we were hit in the belly when she shared how this experience had influenced her relationship with her mother and daughter. Her bubbly face had melted like ice as the tears poured off. It was not funny anymore; someone’s future had been changed radically, and she had plucked up the courage to share the story.

I was moved by this story to the extent that I followed the teller to learn more about what the experience of sharing a story of events that happened such a long time ago could have been. She told me that “Meqoqo was a safe-deposit for tellers to share stories” adding that “I felt enabled to tell my story to people who listened actively with empathy. The players hugged my heart as they played it back because for the first time I felt seen, heard and totally understood in a manner that I have always wished”. Nebe shared something that I found invaluable, which I wish to share with you. He said stories must first and foremost be held in and through the dramatic aesthetic of playback. And that includes an understanding that metaphor and distance can be a powerful container and healer – and a rejection of any form of literal interpretation.

This response has got me thinking as to whether theatre or playback could possibly be considered as thotobolo? Perhaps the stories it reveals remind us that events in our lives call for action as they are in plain sight, seeking our collective safe guarding, and where necessary, action, to avoid stench (I don’t think I explicitly mentioned that molora also arrests stench). Here again, Nebe’s argument that “we need to provide forms of post-performance backup support, inclusive of a strong workable referral system” holds water. An audience member, Lerato Ndlovu, reflected on the same performance and shared that “for me it felt like such a safe space. Home away from home. And I think sometimes that’s all we need”.

I couldn’t agree more. I hope our upcoming gathering at Cradle of Creativity festival in Joburg will move us toward a shared vision to shape a world fit for children.

May I also take this opportunity to celebrate Yvette Hardie (Producer) Faye Kabali-Kagwa (Curator) and Hailey Chisholm (operations/logistics) for this historic and exceptional event. Bo Mme, you remain an inspiration to all of us in the organisation and beyond.


*Name withheld out of respect for the teller’s privacy.


Lalu Mokuku is the Chairperson of ASSITEJ SA and ASSITEJ International EC member. She is a member of MEQOQO; a Playback Theatre inspired collective. She will be attending the ASSITEJ Cradle of creativity Conference and Professional Development from 20 – 27 August, together with the cast of Pen(t)s Down Hahà! (2023 Bronze Standard Bank Ovation Award Winner)


Join Us

Enjoy ASSITEJ South Africa benefits.

Be in the Know

Get relevant info direct by e-mail.

Our Partners

Thank you to all our partners, supporters, funders and friends.