Thomas Mofolo has been somewhat overshadowed in the literary world by the writers of African origin who wrote in English, so it is important to mark that he was the first South African author to produce a novel in the (local) African language.
Mofolo is best known for his semi-historical book, Chaka. Still, his other two major works, Moeti oa Bochabela and Pitseng, shouldn’t be overlooked, providing a powerful insight into the conflict between traditionalism and westernization.
Facts and details
In his 2008 Nobel lecture, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio salutes all the writers he lived with, especially African writers Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ahmadou Kourouma, Mongo Beti and Alan Paton, with a concluding reference to Chaka by Thomas Mofolo. The other writers are well known, but Mofolo has always been largely ignored by historians of literature. Why? There’s no answer to that question… All we know is that Thomas Mofolo was an innovative, original, geographically marginal writer. He was also a writer deprived of a literary milieu: a vox clamantis in deserto (a voice crying in the wilderness).
Thomas Mokopu Mofolo was born to Abner and Aleta Mofolo in Khojane, Basutoland in 1876. He attended a school in Lesotho and went on to work for the Morija Mission as a servant to Reverend Alfred Casalis. Mofolo oversaw Morija bible school, printing press and book depot. Meanwhile, he began to study again, obtaining a teaching certificate in 1898.
His first book, Moeti oa Bochabela (The Traveler to the East), was published in 1907 in the African language of Sesotho. The novel describes the journey of a Christian Basotho man who leaves his homeland and embarks on a spiritual quest for truth, seeking God.
The manuscript of Chaka was completed around 1909, but Mofolo suddenly left Morija on the 23rd March 1910, returning only in 1912. Though the reason is unknown, some sources mentioned that he fled Morija after the revelation that he had been engaging in adultery.
Mofolo never returned to Morija, yet he did to Lesotho. His first wife died and so he remarried. Then his second wife died too, and he remarried again. The third marriage lasted until his own death. He worked as a reporter, proofreader and reviewer, and he even bought a KwaZulu-Natal farm during that time. He was also a member of the Council of Progress.
In the early 1920s, he decided to revise and publish the book about Chaka with the help of Reverend Alfred Casalis. It was finished before Autumn 1922 but published only in 1925.
Suffering from a stroke in 1941, Mofolo’s health steadily declined along with his fortunes.
The importance of Chaka
Chaka is a history-based fiction. By his own testimony, in writing this book, Mofolo did not intend to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the greatest Zulu king. He often stated, “I’m not writing a history book, but a tale, or should rather say I’m writing what actually happened, but to which a great deal has been added, and from which a great deal has been removed, so that much has been left out, and much has been written that did not actually happen, with the aim solely of fulfilling my purpose.”
As you can understand, the distorted facts served the artistic/literary purpose of the author: to attain dramatic tension and to create the image of a superhero who struck terror into the hearts of kings and communities around him. That’s why Mofolo made up 1) Isanusi, a man who is a doctor, a herbalist and a diviner, who helps Chaka with a transformation into a man; 2) Noliwa, the woman with whom Chaka falls in love to bring to the surface the last spark of humanity, human tenderness and his capability of loving; 3) the symbolic murder of Noliwa, who is pregnant with Chaka’s child; and 4) Chaka’s alleged murder of his mother, Nandi.
I recommend reading Chaka-book translated by Daniel P. Kunene, a truly fantastic read. As a side note, the story of Mofolo’s translations is worth going into in some detail. It is a story of goodwill but also misconceptions and severe misunderstandings. It is also an eerie tale of dismissing the author! Mofolo only died in 1948 but seems to have been completely dissociated from his works long before that and entirely detached from publication in other languages.
In the end, let me mention that Chaka was the first psychological book that took the great Zulu leader and emperor as its subject. Mofolo presents his story as a study of human passion, an uncontrolled ambition leading to the moral destruction of the character and the inevitable punishment.
A Hundred Years of Thomas Mofolo. From “English in Africa,” vol. 37, nr. 2 – an article by Thomas Jeffrey (published by Rhodes University)
“Thomas Mofolo and the Emergence of Written Sesotho Prose” by Daniel P. Kunene
“Towards silence: Thomas Mofolo, small literatures and poor translation” by Alain Ricard