Mofolo, Thomas (Mokopu) 1876–1948
Thomas (Mokopu) Mofolo 1876–1948
Literary scholars identify Thomas Mokopu Mofolo as one of the first writers of note in modern African literature. His 1925 novel, Chaka, written in the Bantu tongue of Sesotho, blends Zulu saga, historical fact, and fiction in its tale of an actual warrior-leader from the previous century. C. F. Swanepoel, in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay, called Mofolo “the most important African writer of the first quarter of the twentieth century. He still ranks with African Nobel laureates Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, and Najib Mafuz.”
Mofolo was born in 1876 in Khojane, Basutoland, which later became the kingdom of Lesotho, located in South Africa. During his childhood, Basutoland and its indigenous Sotho inhabitants were under British colonial rule, and his family became part of a wave of African Christian converts in the area. Mofolo attended schools run by the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society, and as a young man went to the town of Morija, where he worked for the Rev. Alfred Casalis, the director of a local Bible school. Casalis also ran a printing press and book depot in Morija that encouraged literacy among the Sotho.
Mofolo decided on a teaching career and in 1896 entered the teachers’ training college in Morija. His studies were interrupted for a time due to lack of funds, and when he finally finished the program in 1899, the Boer war had erupted in the area. Mofolo then went to Leloaleng to study carpentry. He taught school until 1904, when he became a proofreader at the Morija Press and also served as Casalis’s secretary. Until 1910 he wrote for Leselinyana la Lesotho (The Little Light of Lesotho), a missionary-run newspaper. An avid reader, Mofolo was encouraged by Casalis and the other missionaries to try his hand at writing fiction. The result was a 1907 novel, Moeti oa bochabela (The Traveller of the East), published by the Morija Book Depot. It was the first work of fiction ever written in Sesotho. It was later translated into English and published abroad in 1934.
The Traveller of the East recounts the tale of Fekisi, a cowherder. His father, Phakwane, drinks, and Fekisi decides to leave his home and village after witnessing an ominous eclipse and the horrible death of his father. In the book Mofolo describes the villagers watching Phakwane’s agonizing death throes: “At last the people saw his fingers getting blistered and blackened, oozing liquid like roasting meat.” Fekisi believes that his father, like many in the community, has been corrupted by alcohol and violence. He asks the community elders what has happened, and they recite to him the Basotho creation myth which tells how the people were abandoned by their god because of licentious behavior. In the end, according to the myth, a dinosaur swallows all except a pregnant woman, and her son later slays the beast and saves the people.
Fekisi embarks upon a spiritual pilgrimage to find the “unknown Creator.” He has a dream in which a white, Christ-like figure appears to him in the sky, shrouded by mist. Later he meets three European elephant hunters and sails away with them. They encourage him
At a Glance…
Born on December 22, 1876, in Khojane, Basuto-land (now Lesotho); died on September 8, 1948, in Teyateyaneng, Lesotho; son of Abner and Aleta Mofolo, Education: Studied at Morija Bible School, 1894-96; earned teaching certificate from the Morija Training School; studied carpentry at the Leloaleng Technical School.
Career: Writer; teacher at Bensonvale Institution, Cape Province, and in Maseru, Lesotho; held various jobs, including proofreader, secretary, interpreter, recruiter, and land manager.
to convert to Christianity, and at the moment of his conversion to the church, Fekisi collapses at the altar. The mist comes again into the building, which causes the ministers to flee in fear, but “Fekisi runs forward with his arms stretched out and throws himself on the altar, shouting: ‘Hail, my Jesus! I have longed for you. Oh, that I may go with you home to the Lord.’”
In its original Sesotho, The Traveller of the East was excerpted in the Sotho-language newspaper Leselin-yana. Daniel P. Kunene, discussing the author’s career in an essay for African Writers, noted that the book’s tone and message seemed to meet with approval by the Morija missionaries. The novel opens, explained Kunene, “with words that depict the Basotho as savages.” The critic wrote, Mofolo’s “intention is deliberate and self-conscious. He states that the Basotho of the premissionary days, in which his story is set, were living in deep, pitch-black darkness and ate each other like animals of the veld.” Kunene also compares the deaths of Phakwane and Fekisi in the novel. “Death is such a powerful force in this work because it was a powerful weapon from the pulpit,” Kunene wrote. “The fear of death was exploited by missionaries to convert people to Christianity by promising a beautiful, glorious life in heaven with God to those who lived a good, Christian life.”
At about this time, however, Mofolo began to distance himself from the Christian missionaries. In 1907, the same year that Moeti oa bochabela was published, he became co-founder of Kopano ea Tsoelopele (Union for Progress), a political organization with a Sotho nationalist strain; it was at times critical of the Christian missionaries and their schools. The first president of that organization, Cranmer ‘Matsa Sebeta, would leave the African missionary church to become a minister in the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).
Perhaps because of this increased political consciousness, Mofolo’s second novel, Pitseng, features a different type of hero: its nameless missionary, called Mr. Katse by the African students because of his hat made from the skin of wildcat, takes under his protection two children, Alfred Phakoe and Aria Sebaka. He has plans for them to be married, but the pair are separated and the boy receives an education while Aria finds work. One day Alfred has a dream in which he sees 12 men, all dressed in white and carrying a pitsana, or small clay pot, at Katse’s school. He realizes that his vocation is to take over Katse’s work. He returns to the school, learns that Katse has indeed died, and becomes his successor.
The novel’s more serious message seems to be found in the romance between Alfred and Aria. “Several times in this story, Mofolo engages in long [discourses] to describe in detail the Basotho’s approved way of pursuing courtship and marriage,” Kunene noted in the African Writers essay. Family and community once played a crucial role in arranging matches, and Sotho culture permitted love and sexual relations only inside a marital union. “This habit whereby a young man and his girl friend make their own decision about marriage began with the converts,” Mofolo writes in Pitseng. “This spirit has completely destroyed the youth of Lesotho.”
Mofolo had already started to collect research on his next project, Chaka, during his years in Morija. He finished the life of the Zulu warrior-king in 1912, but it went unpublished until 1925, and only after changes were made that satisfied his Morija Book Depot publishers. “Although they acknowledged the novel’s extraordinary qualities,” an essay in Contemporary Authors explained, “the missionaries expressed grave reservations about the book’s likely influence, with those opposing publication fearing that the volume’s depiction of a traditional Africa, as well as its heroic portrait of the Zulu leader, would draw indigenous readers back to a non-Christian way of life and perhaps even inspire anti-Christian sentiments.”
As Mofolo’s historical novel recounts, the warrior Chaka was a leader born out of wedlock to a Zulu chief’s paramour in 1788. One day he is visited by a monster with two tongues who speaks to him, and he is unable to look away. Later a diviner called Isanusi becomes a key figure, and Chaka grows into a fierce and formidable foe. In actual Zulu history, he is responsible for launching the Difaqane, a series of wars that ravaged Zulu communities between 1821 and 1833. At many times in the Chaka story, when the hero must make a moral choice, Mofolo seems to assert that personal responsibility, not a divine pre-ordained plan or spell, brings suffering and unnecessary death. Chaka comes to believe that there is no justice, a sentiment that Isanusi affirms at one point, asserting that “people live by favouritism and bias, by hatred and by strength.” Isanusi tells Chaka, “And now you too must part with mercy from this very day, because mercy devours its owner.”
In the end, Chaka achieves autocratic rule, but his reign of terror leads to his assassination by his half-brothers. Swanepoel, writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography, noted that Mofolo’s “work ends with the Zulu people saying, with tears in their eyes as they reflect on the tragedy of the kingdom that has fallen: ‘Di a bela, di a hlweba! Madiba ho pjha a maholo!’ (They ferment, they curdle! Even great pools dry away!).” When Chaka’s body is carried away, it becomes carrion and thus fulfils the prophecy his mother has uttered to his father: “There has been born to you a boy, an ox of the vultures.”
Chaka ignited a small controversy in the Sotho world at the time of its 1925 publication. Deemed anti-Zulu in some quarters, it would be Mofolo’s last book. He reportedly had finished another manuscript, L’Ange déchu (The Fallen Angel), but the Morija missionaries declined to publish it. Part of the reason for Mofolo’s abandoned literary career may have been the financial arrangement that he had entered into with the Book Depot: at the time, it was common for the publisher to purchase a manuscript in its entirety—even if it sold well, its author saw no money from it save for the initial transaction.
Around 1910 and the time of Pitseng’s publication, Mofolo moved away from Morija. Swanepoel offered a new theory about Mofolo’s change in career. “This move was not motivated, as some have alleged, by disappointment with the missionaries’ reluctance to publish Chaka because they were afraid that it glorified pre-Christian African traditions, but by the fact that he had been found guilty of bohlola (adultery) shortly before.”
After leaving his writing career, Mofolo worked as a recruiter and labor agent for diamond mines, sugar plantations, and large farms, and managed a postal route for a time. He also owned a trade store for a time, and in 1933 went back to his home district. There he bought a farm, but the seller was a white landowner, and the farm bordered land owned by another African. This was a violation of the Land Act of 1914, and Mofolo’s property was seized by the government. He waged an unsuccessful legal battle that impoverished him. After suffering a stroke in 1941, he could not speak for a time, and died in 1948.
Fifty years after his death, Mofolo’s Chaka is still the subject of literary scholarship. Kwame Ayivor, in a paper published in Research in African Literatures, called it significant for presenting an alternative viewpoint. “It is this black image of pre-European Africa and its legendary heroes that Mofolo’s Chaka seriously questions,” Ayivor asserted. “The location of the Zulu King’s warrior-oriented reign within the universal martial tradition appears to challenge the views that perceive his career as just another incidence of savagery and bloodletting in ‘Dark Africa.’”
Moeti oa bochabela [Morija, Lesotho], 1907, translation by H. Ashton published as The Traveller of the East, S.P.C.K., 1934.
Pitseng [Morija, Lesotho], 1910.
Chaka [Morija, Lesotho], 1925, translation by F. H. Dutton published as Chaka: An Historical Romance, International Institute for African Languages and Culture, 1931; translation by Daniel P. Kunene published as Chaka, Heinemann, 1981.
African Writers, Volume 2, Scribner’s, 1997, pp. 479-493.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2000.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 225: South African Writers, edited by Paul A. Scanlon, Gale, 2000, pp. 283-287.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale, 1998.
Research in African Literatures, Spring 1997, pp. 49-77.
Thomas Mofolo (1876-1948) was a Lesothoan writer whose historical novel "Chaka" encouraged a vernacular literary movement in South Africa.
Thomas Mofolo was born in Khojane on Dec. 22, 1876. He was educated in the local schools of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society and obtained a teacher's certificate in 1898. While he was working at the book depot in Morija, some of the missionaries encouraged him to write what was to become the first novel in Southern Sotho, Moeti oa bochabela (1907; The Traveler of the East). The edifying story of a young Sotho chieftain's conversion to Christianity, it is cleverly interwoven with traditional myths and praise poems. Its success prompted other young teachers to try their hand at fiction writing, thus launching one of the earliest literary movements in sub-Saharan Africa.
Mofolo's next book, Pitseng (1910), is built on a rather clumsy love plot in imitation of European fiction. It contains perceptive descriptions of native mores in Lesotho and in South Africa and a thoughtful, by no means encomiastic, appraisal of the influence of Christianity on traditional marriage customs.
Mofolo then composed Chaka, a fictionalized account of the Zulu conqueror who built a mighty empire during the first quarter of the 19th century. Under Mofolo's pen, the eventful career of Chaka (Shaka) becomes the epic tragedy of a heroic figure whose overweening ambition drives him to insane cruelty and ultimate ruin. The earliest major contribution of black Africa to the corpus of modern world literature, Chaka is a genuine masterpiece; the narrative follows the austere curve of growth and decline which controls the structure of classic tragedy at its best; psychological motivation is sharply clarified at all points; and the author has cleverly manipulated the supernatural element, which is endowed with true symbolic value.
Although the missionaries were sensitive to the high literary quality of Chaka, the pictures of pre-Christian life that the book contains made them reluctant to publish it. In his disappointment, Mofolo left for South Africa in 1910 and gave up writing. For several years he was a labor agent, recruiting workers for the gold mines of Transvaal and the plantations of Natal. After 1927 he bought a store in Lesotho; in 1937 he acquired a farm in South Africa but was evicted under the Bantu Land Act. In 1940, a broken and sick man, he returned to Lesotho, where he died on Sept. 8, 1948.
The fullest account of Mofolo is found in Albert S. Gérard, Four African Literatures (1970). For background on Mofolo's literary output see Daniel P. Kunene's brief The Works of Thomas Mofolo: Summaries and Critiques (1967). Additional information on his place in the history of African literature is in Claude Wauthier, The Literature and Thought of Modern Africa (1964; trans. 1966); Judith Illsley Gleason, This Africa: Novels by West Africans in English and French (1965); and Janheinz Jahn, Neo-African Literature (1966; trans. 1968). □