WHAT WE LOST, WE CAN CODE

 

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“I’d like to know about the process one goes through when writing a book.” This is a question posed by Luthando to Moses Nzama Khaizen Mtileni, who joined us today for the Literary Arts Club Meeting. “Writing for me,” Moses began, in a slow tone heavy with accent, ”is more about my encounters with the world.” He went on to elaborate on how he writes not because he is mandated to do so, but because he feels that the there are certain things that occur in society that warrant documenting, and so he does this in the best way he knows, with a lyrical pen.

His first novel, which is written in Xitsonga and set in Kliptown, Soweto, the township that gave birth to the Freedom Charter, is an example he uses to elaborate on how he through this art is able to tell the tale of an instance where it is the victim of an injustice that forgets the unjust act and does to others what the perpetrator once did to him – a metaphor for the ANC government of date perhaps.

Thulasizwe wanted to know if Moses just writes on politics, whether at times he writes about emotions such as love, hate, and pain. That took me back to a recent piece I wrote a little while ago, an emotional piece that I shared at today’s session. Be it for impact, recognition, or to deal with the politics of an empty stomach, the art of writing is to the writer nothing less than a public intimate affair, many of us write in the hope that others understand.

That’s kind of how Moses described his initial interaction with poetry. “I read, and as I read, I found all these voices in poets that echoed that which I wanted to say. In theirs I found my voice.” He mentioned all sorts of names I had never heard before, local and from afar, of people he had read and the things they had written. So absorbing was the interaction, so insightful that one cannot help but think about code that would help solve the challenge of there not being enough avenues where the youth are encouraged to learn their own ethnic languages, and in turn write in those languages, as Moses does.

These are the types of topics we dipped into throughout the session. Mandisi then asks, “But how then do we teach our languages to others who are willing to learn when in Xitsonga the equivalent of a sentence is single-word gesture?” Moses seems to think that in learning just as in poetry, the most important aspect is understanding, the technicalities of sentence structure and prose are secondary – it isn’t about what the student can learn, rather what the student can unlearn. Yet all too often we pull out hair trying to write what is “acceptable” in the social construct and often forget that that too is one man’s way of controlling another.

I am fascinated at how, throughout a number of conversations  with different people, the issue of artistic compromise subtly creeps in. At how Bab Zakes Mda’s having to change the ending of his novel,The Whale Caller, for its movie adaptation. How Kholeka Putuma refused to change her poem, Water, for the TEDx Stellenbosch video edits. “How do we not lose the true sense of who we are and the story we are trying to tell when we translate our work into different languages,” Andrew wanted to know? How do we then not think about Okot p’ Bitek’s song of Lawino, who’s translation warranted a defense? “I often think that if I were to translate Mpimavayeni, which is about eight chapters long, into English,” Moses responded, “I would begin in the seventh chapter. And that in itself makes the translation a whole new book, does it not?”

There is a discourse in our education system, and I should think that this is what the Education Ministry seeks to correct with the Language Policy Framework. We have young people who think first in Setswana, Isizulu, Tshivenda, Isixhosa .. and those that think in N/U, in Isbanxa, Ishlubi, Selete, Sengwaketse, Xitswa, Xironga, who’s wells of wisdom are quickly drying up, and we have all these young people reading, writing, singing, ululating in english. This is a problem. Is it a problem that code can fix? The collection and categorization of language metadata, this isn’t something new. Creating open spaces of learning where young people can interact and interrogate their languages, and perhaps merge these to create new, creative forms of Pidgeon English, twenty-first century Fanagalo perhaps. These are avenues that code can explore.

Today was the last day of the screening of Swabada at the Bioscope Cinema at Maboneng Precinct, and that was where Gontse, Thando and I headed after the session with Moses. Intrigued by the fact that one has never before encountered any information, written or otherwise, about this figure in African music that is larger than life, I took from him the fact that nothing ever has to be systematic. We do not have to follow the rules, or satisfy conditions, we just have to do with heart that which we want to do most. And for him this was play an instrument. He did this so well that he created his own instruments from almost anything, and that is essentially what makes him extraordinary. Keeping true to who he is, never giving up, and always willing to pass on his knowledge.

I am listening to Lagbaje as I type, a man who would never reveal his face to the world. At how that could never have made his music any less beautiful. We need to interrogate how code can be used to help us unlearn our learning, learning that is institutionalized, indoctrination. Code that does not just require user input, code that allows the user the freedom to be, to say, to do whatever it may be that the user sees most appropriate in sharing their experience, in their own language, informed by their own contexts. An interesting current phenomenon in Artificial Intelligence is designing intelligent machines to maximize the future freedom of action of humanity rather than their own.

Moses ended the session by reading two of his pieces at the session, one about adoption of Mercy James by Madonna from his book When the Moon Goes to Rest, and another from his more recent unpublished works which drew snippets of the present Johannesburg – once glistering as gold, now no more. Before this moving finale, we had Khwezi and Thando perform slam pieces of poetry. I for one could not conceal my excitement at the spontaneous hacking of minds to lyrically bring to life these notions of love and acceptance. Richard Buckminster said, “I am enthusiastic over humanity’s extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuity. If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, is a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contriving as constituting the only means for solving a given problem””.

Tumelo Motaung

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