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Sabata-mpho Mokae On Going Home

The "On Going Home" series offers a glimpse of what returning home means for authors who have spent three months in the U.S. as part of the International Writing Program's Fall Residency. This week's installment comes to us from Sabata-mpho Mokae:

The three months that I spent in Iowa City were like an interval, sort of a break between two years if not two eras. When I got home I spoke of ‘last year’ while referring to the time before departing for the United States, which was just a few months ago. It had been a break from familiarity and routine. But at the same time it was like an island of new life in a sea of old life. That’s newness when one knows that whatever is old is guaranteed, albeit seen with different eyes.

I was so looking forward to a reunion with my family that I hardly slept during the fifteen-hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg. But just before I left the United States, a foretaste of home came in the form of a young white man who came to sit near me at the airport in Atlanta. He greeted me in English that was heavily accented in Afrikaans, a South African language that is literally derived from Dutch and is widely spoken by white South Africans. It is, historically speaking, the language of the master and the servant, or in the old South African parlance, ‘baas’ and his ‘boy’ or ‘girl.’


Mokae's son, Mpho, and wife, Kelesitse, waiting at the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Mokae's son, Mpho, and wife, Kelesitse, waiting at the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa.

While I was in Iowa City I received fairly enough media coverage back home in South Africa. I also wrote weekly for the Diamond Fields Advertiser, the newspaper I work for. So, many people knew what I was up to in America. The uncertainty was with my employers, who were not sure whether I was still coming back to my old job or whether I was going to take the offers that were coming. I chose to stay - for now.

Coming home also meant falling into the old routine and one of the tasks was to take my seven-year-old son to school daily. On two occasions, and almost just out of the blue, he told me that he was sad when I was gone. I had near-sleepless nights as a result. The International Writing Programme was great. I researched a lot for the novel I’m working on. I learnt from other writers. I had the time to write, with little to no distractions. The programme has opened new doors for me and earned me more respect here in South Africa. But if I were asked to do it again, at this age I’m slightly doubtful. I have the certitude that at fifty-five or sixty, I’d jump at the opportunity. But not when I have a young child who innocently torments me by being honest with how he felt when I was gone.

I made up with my boy. We spent time together. My boy told me stories until he fell asleep and carried on where he left off when he woke up. I spent time with my wife, who used the time I was away to prepare for the examinations for her second degree in psychology. We were delighted when The University of South Africa released results and said she had passed, and the degree is in the bag.

But people in the street expected me to have come back from the United States with new material, and a new accent.

Did I bring back new material?

I have been working tirelessly on my first novel since I got to Iowa City and I’m still on it. I decided to pause, go a bit slower and not as if I’m racing against time. I believe so much in this story that even if I need to work on it for years, I will. There have been too many distractions since I got back and I cannot write well when there are such. It is December now and everybody here is on a holiday mode. This time of the year is also a wedding season in South Africa. Neighbours play loud music whenever they are awake.

But coming back home to South Africa from the US made me realise that while my country is the most industrialised in the African continent, it still has a long way to go in offering its citizens the opportunities that I have been exposed to in the US. I think the idea that we’re living in the most industrialised African country has fooled us and now we live in an almost closed community that is hardly exposed to the outer world. It’s like missing out on what we have no idea of. I came back home with a yearning to be a world traveler. Having friends across the world, thanks to the International Writing Programme, means I’m on my first steps towards being a global citizen.

Mokae's family at a wedding.
Mokae's family at a wedding.

I have a crazy idea that my city of Kimberley will one day be like Iowa City in terms of appreciating writers. I live in a city that was once inhabited by great writers such as Sol Plaatje and Olive Schreiner. However, literary appreciation in the city does not reflect its rich literary past. Readings and book launches are hardly well attended. This is while the government of the day is investing funds into literary development in the form of funding literary festivals and giving grants to writers.

A good number of the writers I lived with in Iowa City write in languages other than English. South Africa has eleven official languages and a few ‘protected’ languages. However, the country is largely English-speaking. I write in English and Setswana, which is tantamount to swimming against the tide here. But having been with writers whose books are written in Arabic, Spanish, Icelandic and so forth has reinforced my resolve to write for the six or so million Africans who speak Setswana across the five southern African countries. I hope to have my work translated into English and other languages though. I have already started translating the work of Omar Pérez (IWP '14, Cuba) that mentions about Africa into Setswana, which I hope will introduce him to readers in southern Africa. I’ll pick up the works of other writers that I lived with in Iowa City and do the same.

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