by Zakes Mda

I remember the women of Ghana. My reflections tonight begin with that memory. No, I do not mean the women of the modern west African republic founded by Kwame Nkrumah in 1957 after existing as the British colony of the Gold Coast for 56 years. Nkrumah’s Ghana merely named itself after the original Ghana, the ancient empire of the Mande-speaking Soninké people, but had no relationship with it, whether we are talking of geographic location or ethnicities of the inhabitants.

The women that occupy my mind tonight are from an ancient empire located1,550 kilometers to the northwest of modern Ghana, an area that covered part of present-day Mali, part of Senegal, and part of Mauritania. The Soninké people called the area Wagadou, a name that persists to this day. Over the centuries Wagadou assumeddifferent names at different times in its history. When it rose for the first time in all its glory it was known as Dierra, and then as Agada, as Ghana, and finally as Silla. Each time it rose to great power and splendor, and each time, after a few centuries, it declined and fell. The last time Wagadou fell it was to French colonialism.

It’s great incarnation as Ghana was between the years 600 CE and 1200 CE – which means this civilization flourished for 600 years.

Ghana became famous because of its military might, its wealth in gold and ivory, its trade with other nations, and the learning of its women.

Writing was woman’s work in Ghana. Men reveled in their illiteracy. While theyfought wars against the Tuaregs mainly, or chased the Fulani with whips, or tamed camels and elephants that they used to trade with other nations from Marrakech in the north, to Egypt in the northeast, and to Azania in the east coast of Africa, women occupied themselves with tanning goatskins, stretching the skins out on wooden framesin order to create parchments, and writing on them with quills and black ink made from berries. When men returned from their forages and various adventures, women wrote it all down using the tifinagh script. Women did not only write on parchments but also carved the writings on flat rocks. Noble women preferred parchments that were imported into Ghana by Berbers rather than those made domestically.

One of the most enduring works of literature the Ghana civilization bequeathedusthough only a small segment is extant – is the epic poem, Gassire’s Lute, that recounts events that led to the fall of the Soninké homeland of Wagadou, after many incarnations. It is rich with myth and legend and bardic imagination. The beauty of this epic is that it also contains history. It tells us what happened. It narrates the big events and the chronologies, just as all good history does. Thanks to this epic tale we know what happened. Or is deemed to have happened.

But Gassire’s Lute goes beyond history. Its mythical and legendary dimensions are the stuff of fiction. It therefore does not only tell us what happened, but how it feelsto be in what happened – which is the function of all good fiction. That is what distinguishes journalism and history from works of creative imagination such as, in our contemporary world, novels. In novels, as in this epic poem, we get to explore the interiorities of our heroes, their desires, their vulnerabilities.  The bards of Ghana placedus right in the middle of action, into the characters’ dilemmas, into their conflicts, climaxes and denouements, so that a thousand years later we know how it feels to be in what happened.

The bards of Ghana known as the diaru – foretold the demise of their own empire. They had the wisdom to know that nothing lasts forever, not even the strongest of empires. They sang the dausi and I quote directly from it:

All creatures must die

be buried and vanish.

Kings and heroes die,

are buried and vanish.

I, too, shall die, shall

be buried, and vanish.

But the Dausi, the song

of my battles, shall not die.

It shall be sung again

and again.

It shall outlive all kings

and heroes.


And indeed, here I am, quoting from it. The Empire of Ghana and its brave warriors and its bards, and its literate women who made it possible for us to know how it feels to be in what happened, all came to dust. But their artistic creations and their writings have outlived epochs. The greatest of world rulers, the most efficient ofpolitical systems, and the most advanced of civilizations ultimately die and are replaced by others. That is why we no longer salute the Union Jack and sing Rule Britanniatoday! But art is forever. It is what teaches us about those who came before us.

As a aside I must mention that Ghana was not the earliest civilization in Africa to have its own form of writing. The Nubians, many centuries before the advent of Christianity, more than three thousand years ago, established the Kush Empire in what today is known as Sudan. They left us their writings in the Meroitic script. These works were written on papyrus or carved in stone. Most of these can be found today at the Jebel Barkal Museum in the Sudanese city of Karima, formerly the ancient city of Napata. And there are ancient writings in Ethiopia and Eritrea originating in the ancient Empire of Axum in the early years of the Common Era, about 1,500 years ago. The most famous of these is the Ezana Stone, written by Emperor Ezana whose reign is regarded as the most documented of the Axum rulers. The Ezana Stone stands in the modern-dayEthiopian city of Axum today.

The writing surface has evolved over the centuries: from the clay tablets of Mesopotamia, to the papyrus scrolls of Kush and ancient Egypt, to the parchments of the women of Ghana and the rest of Europe, to Codex which were collection of pages held together at the edge and regarded as the first incarnation of the book, to printed books after the invention of the movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, to industrial printing through steam powered printing presses, to much cheaper paperback books, to digital books also known as E-books, to audio books, to where we are now with interactive and enhance E-books that include multimedia content. Each change came with resistance from the die-hards. For instance, when Gutenberg invented the printing press the biggest fear was that books would be so commonplace that they would fall into the hands of common people and would corrupt their minds.

These are resonances of history, and the evolution of the book continues. The last three stages that I have mentioned are called books but are no longer composed of pages made of paper. This has brought about resistance, especially among the highly learned classes who insist that they want to crack the pages and smell the book. After I bought a Kindle, I had to hide myself in the closet to read it so that my academic colleagues, men and women of the book, did not mock me. That was only seven years ago. Today many of them are using E-books, especially after realizing that in that one gadget they can carry a whole library of more than a thousand books with them everywhere they go.

The book as we know it is on its way out. I am sorry to announce this at a festival that some think celebrates the book. I don’t mean to be a party pooper. Figuratively yes,we celebrate the book here, but in fact we are celebrating the content of the book and the creators of that content, namely the writers. The book is only a vessel that carries that content. In future the book will only be produced as a collectors’ item rather than for mass consumption. Even the trees from which it is manufactured are getting depleted. The world is going green to survive. As it goes green it goes digital.

Today we see young writers writing novels on mobile phones, thanks to the FunDza Project, distributing them through the same platform to peers who read themon their mobile phone. Those books that become very popular also see the light of day as hard copy books.

The digital age with its digital social media has been welcome with open arms by the youth of South Africa and has brought about a revival where even new careers are created through which the youth is minting money. To many of my generation these media are deemed the enemy of traditional values – itself a very conservative notion. Indeed, there are many negative things with various social media. For instance, theyhave created a new culture of conspicuous consumption and instant gratification, they are echo chambers of character assassination and career destruction. Worse, the youthno longer read books and hard copy newspapers and depend solely on the internet for information.

Yet from my vantage point social media have enhanced traditional book reading. In the same way that many users may flex about fashion, cars, yachts, there are many others who flex about the books they are reading. Reviews of books that are no longer found in traditional newspapers (except in Mail and Guardian, thanks for small mercies) are all over the Internet on social media, blogs, vlogs, podcasts and vodcasts. A result is that today we have more writers of the traditional book and digital books than ever before in the history of South Africa. There are novels out there by young women writers mostly, but by young men too, works of non-fiction, and of poetry. The digital age has made even self-publication possible.

The reason I became one of the early adopters of social media was precisely so that readers of my books could have access to me at a human level. Sometimes thesocial media streets become toxic, and I question myself: “What the hell am I doing here?” And then I remember Tessa Dooms letter to me, by way of a Twitter DM. You know our Tessa Dooms, political commentator and author. I’ll read some of it: “Ntate, I want to thank you for your tweet about a year ago that gave me the confidence to dare think of myself as a writer. I did a random thread about a drunk woman who had an “accident” next to me on a plane last year and in one tweet you suggested that I should consider writing. I have always considered myself a poor writer. As an academic I felt I could get by because it’s a slightly different skill that requires less storytelling and more adherence to technical rules. I speak better than I write and so never thought a book, especially one that could sit in a popular bookstore was on the cards for me. Any dreams of books were just that, dreams not goals. All that changed with your tweet. I thought, if Zakes Mda thinks that I have the capacity to tell stories in writing, maybe I do. So, this year I allowed myself to dream and wrote two book proposals, one on Coloured identity and a memoir on my youth. Both have been submitted to Jonathan Ball and Jacana respectively and I have now signed a contract with Jonathan Ball. Thank you. The fact that you exist as you are gives so many young Black people hope that they can make a living doing things they love. I could however never have guessed that your presence on Twitter would be so affirming and encouraging. Our icons in SA usually choose to remain aloof and judge young people, you have chosen to embrace young people and for that I thank and salute you. Thank you for your affirmation. You probably don’t even recall the tweet, but I wanted to say this so that you understand the value of your presence on this platform.

I am very proud of this heartfelt letter from Tessa, and I had tears in my eyes after reading it. It credits me for things I didn’t know I was doing. But it also credits a much maligned medium that it can be a force for good. Another letter, along a similar vein, came from a politician by the name of Julius Sello Malema. He wrote: “Love youBra @ZakesMda, I decided to continue my studies the day you tweeted ‘I know Juju won’t stop with just a BA.’ That was the passing of a motion of confidence in me. Today after meeting you, @WitsUniversity sent me a letter confirming my admission as their masters student.”

If this is what my presence on social media is doing, then I’ll wade though the quagmire and grin and bear it.

I started these reflections with the women of Ghana and their writings on goatskin parchments and concluded with the pending demise of paper books. Do not mistake this with the demise of storytelling. Storytelling has survived all the changes I have outlined here and utilized them effectively to enhance itself. The book will go, just as other ways of transmitting knowledge and entertainment came and went, but storytelling is forever. It will always be Time of the Writer throughout the ages – whatever form that “writing” will take in the future. After all, we all live in stories. We are characters in myriad dramas, sometimes as protagonists and at other times as antagonists, and indeed most times as bit players in other people’s narratives.

The bards of Ghana told us nothing is forever but the story.

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