Tradition and love weighed by a progressive pilgrim

Sotho author Thomas Mofolo was one of the first black novelists in ?sub-Saharan Africa and recorded African life in the early 1900s.

Sotho author Thomas Mofolo was one of the first black novelists in ?sub-Saharan Africa and recorded African life in the early 1900s.

PITSENG: THE SEARCH FOR TRUE LOVE by Thomas Mofolo, translated by Daniel P Kunene (Morija Museum & Archives)
Daniel Kunene's translation of Thomas Mofolo's Pitseng is a valuable contribution to the body of works available in English written by this fascinating Sotho author. 

The first black novelist in sub-Saharan Africa, Mofolo provided insights into the concerns of a generation of writers who, in a Southern African context, despite the odds, dedicated themselves to recording the beliefs and customs of African people in the early 1900s.

His first novel, Moeti oa Bochabela (Traveller to the East), was published in 1907, followed by Pitseng in 1910, and his masterpiece, Chaka, was eventually published in 1926.

Mofolo's chequered professional career highlights the challenges faced by his generation of educated (in the formal sense of Western education) black people, who struggled to find fulfilment in a rapidly changing world, shaped by European influences. Mofolo trained as a teacher and a carpenter; he taught for a number of years; and worked at Morija as a secretary and proof-reader; he was also a labour recruiting agent; and he was an entrepreneur, taking over the management of a 48km postal route between Teyate-yaneng and Ficksburg. 

A "good sheperd"

He purchased a farm from a European at Matatiele, close to the Lesotho border, but the transaction was nullified under the Native Land  Act of 1913. Mofolo contested the case and lost, which ruined him financially.
He was a staunch member of the Basutoland Progressive Association.

Brought up in a Christian household, Mofolo's works reveal how deeply immersed he was in religious affairs. The hero in Pitseng is known by his nickname, Mr Katse, and his life and witness provide a suitable role model for the amakholwa (Christians). 

He is widely credited with converting many "heathens" in and around Pitseng and is often referred to as a "good shepherd".

As an evangelist, Katse wins souls by epitomising faith in action; indeed, his sermons can be analysed on two levels, the spiritual and the practical, mainly because he practises what he preaches. He is also a dedicated, inspirational teacher. 

He has a formative influence on Alfred Phakoe and Aria Sebaka, who represent the ideal Christian couple in Mofolo's eyes.


The evangelical thrust of the novel will appeal to Christians, and readers interested in the tension between traditional African cultural practices and Christian values will be struck by Mofolo's fusion of the best in traditional society with the progressive aspects introduced by Christians. 

The author praises the core principles that underpin ubuntu: the acceptance of people, the welcoming of strangers and the culture of sharing. 

The text suggests that Mofolo favours arranged marriages, as manifested among the Basotho, where members of the extended family and community played a major role in selecting spouses for the young. "Western-style" courtship is denounced. 

Mofolo's keen sense of humour lightens the evangelical fervour that runs through the text, particularly in the hilarious scene in which a married couple discusses Mr Katse's sermon. The hapless husband's appeal – "Mother-of-So-and-So, it has been said that love is rejuvenated by the woman; do something and rejuvenate it, I beg you!" – triggers unforeseen consequences. 

The seemingly innocent remark is deemed tactless by the wife, who objects to having to bear the burden of rejuvenating the marriage. 

The more the man tries to explain what he meant, the deeper he lands himself in trouble until he concedes: "No mother, let's pass it by, the affairs of the gospel do not accord with those of people's households." 

The wife nevertheless insists on having the last word and castigates him for "words that seem to say that that excessively evil woman about whom it was spoken is this one."

The value of family life

Mofolo's novel foregrounds the importance of family life: it shines a spotlight on the emotional distance between fathers and sons that is often found in black households, as seen in the curt comment by Alfred's father, when his son departs to further his studies in the Cape. The importance of communication is reinforced, as seen in the marital tiff referred to above. 

Alfred, who inherits the mantle of Mr Katse, is the epitome of the progressive "New African". 

He is presented as someone who is open-minded, who is intrigued by other cultures and spends his holidays travelling around South Africa, visiting mining centres such as Kimberley; he travels by boat up the east coast; he also visits Bulawayo, in Rhodesia. He makes a point of studying the nature of these locations and the people he encounters. Alfred's outlook supports development, a key element in the progressives' agenda. 

Much as Mofolo admires the beauty of Pitseng, he acknowledges the need for dynamic growth, rather than stagnation: "These are the days of schools, the child who will [find] success in life is one who learns; whereas in those days the affairs of life were of a different order from those of our day."

Significantly, the woman Alfred eventually marries, Aria, is also a teacher. The text suggests that theirs is a true partnership, a marriage of hearts and minds, a union of professional people, who will help to build a new society based on principles and integrity, anchored in a faith that stresses the significance of fidelity to God and humankind. 

Aria is bold, strong-willed, frank and exudes self-confidence, which unnerves "traditional" men, who are more comfortable in the company of demure women. Much of the humour in the novel revolves around Aria's curt dismissal of frivolous suitors.


Gender relations are discussed in the contexts of a variety of "tribes" and ethnic groups. The courtship rituals of the Zulu, Ndebele, Xhosa, Indians and Chinese (found in Natal and in China) are evaluated. Mofolo castigates forced marriages, where parents "are motivated by greed, not the kind of life that their daughter will have, that is to say that they love cattle more than their child." 

Multiculturalism is celebrated in Mofolo's fiction (as seen in Chaka) in a manner that, to some extent, prefigures Léopold Sédar Senghor's celebration of the "civilisation of the universal". 

The educated elite's confidence in their own culture, coupled with their knowledge of the colonial culture, prompts an "assimilate: do not be assimilated" response, in Senghorian idiom.

Besides the engagement, on a "philosophical" level, with Western-Christian culture, we find a sustained fascination with the geographical landscape in Pitseng and, indeed, in Chaka. There are lyrical passages describing the beauty of the landscape of Lesotho, which nonetheless avoid the pitfalls of trying to present the country as a pastoral idyll. Progress is equated with development and education is the means through which these goals can be attained.

God's servants endure trials

The nature of the Christian pilgrimage presented in Pitseng is not simplistic. Mr Katse suffers physical hardship on his journey to Pitseng, as he, his wife and guides are caught in a snowstorm and seek shelter in a cave. He is tasked with preaching as well as establishing a school, but illness in the form of eye strain and debilitating headaches force him to retire, prior to consolidating the success of both missions.

The reader infers that the way of the cross is difficult, God's servants are not exempt from trials and tribulations, they should expect them. The biblical template is that of the Son of Man, a "man of sorrows and acquainted with grief". 

Mr Katse's response is not to despair; he resorts to prayer and an earnest hope that the seeds he planted among his flock will germinate and blossom.

His dream that Alfred and Aria will find each other comes to pass. 

They marry late, in the eyes of their community, but the author bestows his blessing, along with that of the Almighty, on this union, which is envied by young and old alike. True love has a spiritual foundation and outer beauty reflects inner worth.

Mofolo mentions John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, which serves in some respects as a model for Pitseng. Mofolo draws upon the didactic element that features prominently in African literature and the tradition of Christian apologists. Both novels use biblical texts to reinforce their message.

Pitseng would have been improved by rigorous editing, as there are a number of errors, for example, the spelling mistake on page 190 ("gracing"). There is also the awkward statement on page 156, when the Mothe-pu man says: "The Preacher who converted us was clearly teaching something for which he was chosen to reveal it, which he did not make up in his own head." 

And, on page 152, there is the ungrammatical sentence: "Little did he know that he had met his match, and her answer disarmed him, and he was not going to ask her another question of the nature."

The publishers deliberately chose to use cheaper paper, so as to lower the cost of the book, to make it more easily accessible, but several pages in the copy sent for review contained faint print, and page 112 was smudged. 

It is nonetheless fitting that Pitseng was published by Morija Museum and Archives, given Mofolo's intimate connection with Morija Press. 

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