We can’t rely on others to teach our children about their culture and heritage, Fortunate Mamodiehi Mokgehle believes – we have to take responsibility for it ourselves. That’s why she started a project called Rutang Bana Ditaola, a Sepedi idiom meaning, “Teach the children how to throw the bones.”
“It means we must share our wisdom with the little ones and not take it with us to the grave,” says this passionate young arts development advocate and poet from Seshego, Polokwane.
It’s often said that fortune smiles on those who make things happen for themselves (and others), and in this sense Mokgehle’s first name is proving apt. “We have to take an active and a proactive role in preserving our own heritage and culture,” she says emphatically.
“We need to go out of our way to promote our culture and educate others outside our borders, too. In Limpopo, we have amazing culture – we’re one of the richest provinces in terms of culture. It’s quite colourful and there’s a huge amount of pride and humility attached to it – we’re really proud of it and it’s unique,” she says, warming to her subject with enthusiasm.
“We have diverse cultural practices and incredible biodiversity; we have nature and landscapes; we have waterfalls and game parks. Our great heritage ranges from Modjadji the Rain Queen to Mapungubwe. Yes, people find treasure when they interact with our culture.”
Anyone would be hard-pressed to argue – in recent years, we’ve seen the rise of homegrown Limpopo music treasures Sho Madjozi, the Ndlovu Youth Choir and Master KG on the world’s stages. They join music luminaries from the province such as Thomas Chauke, Penny Penny and Candy Tsamandebele, as well as world-renowned artists such as Noria Mabasa and Jackson Hlungwani.
Many of these artists have successfully fused the folkloric and traditional roots of their culture with contemporary elements, making for a potent and innovative past-meets-present brew.
“Fusion doesn’t limit growth, opportunity or creativity,” Mokgehle maintains. “Culture is not static; it evolves, and is constantly influenced by our environment and global changes. Every generation adds to its diversity – otherwise, we’d have one-dimensional history and culture.”
South African artists are no longer looking overseas for their style and inspiration, insists Mokgehle – in fact, cultural patriotism has become fashionable and more emerging artists and designers are finding modern ways in which to reflect “our languages and our colours … we’re even making face masks that reflect our heritage”, she says.
“What I love is that we are commercialising our culture in a way that’s profitable for our artists; that we’re creating an environment in which our artists can thrive. This makes it attractive for the next generation to pursue a career in the arts.”
Although Mokgehle is Mopedi by birth, she has Sesotho, Zulu and Swati roots and speaks Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Siswati, English and Afrikaans. She is passionate about instilling a love for indigenous languages, cultures and heritage in children.
“Our culture is at the root and core of who we are. Music, for example, colours the way we interact, how we greet and how we celebrate.”
That’s why she focuses on developing new arts audiences and young artists through National Arts Council-funded storytelling programmes for local Limpopo children, firing up imaginations using their indigenous languages and encouraging mother-tongue poetry as well as artistic expression. Creating an atmosphere of magic and reverence for the beauty of linguistic and cultural heritage, she calls on community elders to tell folk stories around a fire, providing the children with healthy snacks such as locally sourced nuts and dried fruit to complete the experience.
“We also teach children about praise-singing in their clans, and how to create their own praise poems as individuals using metaphors and idioms from their language. It’s intended to be a cultural experience that stimulates their interest while creating an audience for the artform.”
She believes it’s vital to expose children to arts and culture, so that a love and appreciation is instilled in them and any budding talent can be developed and nurtured. Other strings to her bow include training arts workers in how to package and commercialise their work – for example, by helping them to determine what value they should attach to their output.
Mokgehle says she lives by a Sepedi proverb: “Tloga tloga e tloga kgale, modiša wa kgomo tloga natšo šakeng”, which speaks to the notion of charity beginning at home. “We are a reflection of what is instilled in us at home. We need to learn to embrace and love our own culture, and then we’ll be able to express it outside.
“We should be actively supportive of each other’s craft. When we each bring something to the table, we create a buffet where we can experience, enjoy and learn new things. This Heritage Month, I encourage everyone to go and let your light shine, and spread love in your language.”