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August 9, 2021

TSELANE; THE GIRL WHO NEVER BACKS DOWN

by Lalu Mokuku

Tselane ngwanake

Tselane ngwanake

Nka nka bohobe o je

Nka nka bohobe o je

Kea utlwa he mme

Kea utlwa he mme

Mme o bua sa nonyana thaha

Mme o ua sa tswere e dutse lehlakeng

Tselane my child

Tselane my child

Take some food and eat

Take some food and eat

I hear you mother

I hear you mother

You speak like yellow-crowned bishop

You speak like canary on a reed.

This call and response song is from a Sesotho folktale involving a young girl, Tselane and her knack for escaping the malevolence of Dimo (the cannibal). In the story, Tselane refused to relocate to a new place with her family. Finally, a compromise was reached. She could stay behind, provided that she locks herself in the house, and never ever opens for anyone but her mother. Toward this end, a sacred code in the form of a call and response melody between mother and daughter was created. 

As a medium, folktales open opportunities for diverse interpretations, and perhaps speak to the value of Feminisms in acknowledging and enabling myriad and often murky world-views that may be quick to be muted or contested if perceived to be abnormal. For me, it is Tselane’s relationship with her family that brings up interesting dimensions in terms of how children interact with their families. A quick response would be to think about the difficulty that relatives, parents and/or guardians are faced with because “children have rights these days”. A more nuanced response could critically consider the world-views and rationale behind the invention of children’s rights. In this way, Ben Okri reminds us that “rejection is easy: all it takes is confusion and ignorance, but facing the complexity of others, their history, their raw humanity – that takes courage and it’s rare”. On the other hand, Feminisms teach us to question and reject when necessary. Subsequently,  it offers us the courage not only to face people’s raw humanity, but to seek alternatives, and to envision a desired future. This outlook is important when dealing with a society faced with multiple oppressions that may easily marginalize and/or other those most vulnerable.

In the story, we are told that as time went on, Dimo was able to infiltrate the family setup through the manipulation of his voice, and he eventually caught Tselane, put her in the bag and left; his primary goal being to devour her. Dimo’s ability to maneuver around all the considerations put in place to embrace the child’s wishes and to protect her, brings into question the capacity of families to quickly detect Dimo-like tendencies of maneuvering and obliterating sacred codes built for spaces inhabited by children. Gogo Lieketso Mohoto argues that the fundamental question that could be asked in this instance reflects on how parents’ intentions of raising their children compare with children’s perceptions of being raised: “would they see being locked up as protection or deterrence?”

As the story goes on, Dimo travelled via another village to have something to drink. He put the bag outside while he socialized with others. Meanwhile, while playing, the children of the homestead recognized the finger of Tselane, who happened to be their cousin, protruding from Dimo’s bag. They reported the matter to their parents, and this time, Dimo was outsmarted by a family that knew each other well. 

The notion of knowing each other well as families got me thinking about the definition of family in our context in Africa. What is family? To me it defies biological definitions and embraces botho/ubuntu, another Feminisms lens that may be in contrast with an individualistic concept of family.  How well do we know our children so that we can recognize varied signals that call for our solidarity as a humxn race to outsmart Dimo? 

In South Africa, August is declared womxn’s month. Ironically, the month tends to amplify both the vulnerability and courage to defy the odds, as was demonstrated through the 1958 women’s march to protest the oppressive Apartheid system. In the Sesotho calendar, Phato (August) is the first month of the year where fields are ploughed and seeds buried in anticipation of an explosion of life. 

Given the challenges of violence and trauma linked to covid 19, political unrests, poverty, inequality, race, class and sex in South Africa, what seeds could we plant, to ensure a inviolable sacred code toward protecting the girl child? What melodies would families learn to sing? What would it promise for girls in Africa and beyond?

Can you be that girl, that family, that organization or company that can start a melody whether from a reed, like the canary bird, or from home, from social clubs, schools or other locales, like Tselane’s cousins? How would you do this? Especially starting this month? And why would you?

– Lalu Mokuku is the chairperson of ASSITEJ South Africa and Executive Member of ASSITEJ International. She recently self-published QANQANA SENQA, a story book for tweens, that follows Lerato, a young girl determined to innovate and beat odds.  

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