Decolonising Lesotho’s Literary Landscape

The past few weeks have been a tough balancing act for Lineo Segoete. She is co-director of Ba Re, Lesotho’s only literature festival founded in 2011 by the late, great pearl of infinite wisdom Liepollo Rantekoa. The festival runs over two days and starts today in the capital Maseru. Segoete had had to deal with last-minute cancellations from guests (Kenya’s James Murua), and other issues.

But it’s generally been a good year for Ba Re, short for ‘Ba re e ne re’ (Sesotho: Once upon a time). They have experienced exponential growth since 2011, the year in which Liepollo gathered poet and author of the recently-released A Half-Century Thing Lesego Rampolokeng, along with Kgafela wa Magogodi as guests at the inaugural showcase. This year’s line-up of the two-day festival has writers from around the continent. Besides the festival, Ba Re the organization is in continuous engagement with various stakeholders in Lesotho to revive the country’s once-bustling publishing industry — Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka comes to mind — and to boost literacy rates and build an appreciation for the arts in general in a country which doesn’t see a correlation between Creative Industries and Science- and Business-oriented subjects, in effect downplaying the importance of the former.

To this end, Ba Re have initiated a partnership with Peace Corps in Lesotho whereby on-the-ground volunteers run writing competitions and a spelling bee contest in the country’s 10 districts. “We hold a national ceremony with the outcomes,” says Lineo, the co-director. “The spelling bee was actually the highlight of our year. We had students from all of the districts except Maseru. That was deliberate because we actually do want to reach out to the outskirts, the more rural areas where access to these kinds of resources are super-limited,” she expands. There were prizes on offer for all of the participants. The winners received full scholarships for the next academic year.

Lineo re-counts last year’s festival by way of a Sesotho saying “Ha ho ntho’e mpe e se nang molemo.” A few months away from the festival, the then-tripartite Lesotho government, headed by Motsoahae Thabane, suffered a military coup. A state of emergency was declared, leading to safety concerns from funders who eventually pulled out of the event altogether. Still, they were able to pull strings together and make the festival happen. Yewande Omotoso and the Chimurenga massive were among those in attendance.

“What we took from that [experience] was that there’s a great need for artistic expression in the country. Most of our guests from last year were like ‘guys, this is a landmine! You should be writing about this. This should be a book. You should be published!” says Lineo excitedly.

The festival happens in the midst of political instability yet again. Though not as tense as last year, events surrounding the impending release of the Phumaphi commission’s report — set up following events which included botched assassination attempts on the former Prime Minister, and the assassination of former army commander Maaparankoe Mahao — have rendered Lesotho a shadow of its former peaceful self.

Ba Re have heeded the wise words of last year’s participants and are using the festival to, among other things, imagine a future for Lesotho’s arts industry, and to have a conversation about decolonising the country’s literature sphere. “From the writing competition, we learned that there is a lot of creativity in the country, and it’s quite different from what we are used to in terms of the books that have been published in the past, which were mostly influenced by religious dogma and politics.” Lineo says that what they are encountering is a shift towards a “broader worldview” which is reflected in the writing. “To us, it reveals that we are aware that we are part of a global society and we’re just trying to claim our place in this world that we live in,” she added.

Besides their core activities, Ba Re are also seeking out ways to help writers get published. Lineo says this is where their growing network in the field of literature comes in handy. She shares a bit about her exchange with Moses Kilolo from Jalada Africa. “[We] started talking on social media and sharing ideas and conversation. We were like ‘you know what, we should have someone from Jelada Africa come to Lesotho as well, especially because you guys deal with publishing and you have such a great set-up. We can actually learn a lot from you!'” she says.

As our conversation nears to an end, Lineo shares the following sentiment: “Part of the underlying motivation behind this project is for us to be more in touch with our cultures, especially considering our colonial heritage and history. The fact that we’re doing this in Liepollo’s memory is a way of acknowledging our ancestors. For us, that is an even bigger motivation. It’s a communication between us and the other side of life; a conversation between the past and the present.”

* The festival starts today 5-6 December 2015 at Machabeng College in Maseru. This year’s theme is “Reclaim your story”

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