Moeti oa Bochabela, 1907 (The Traveller of the East, 1934)
Chaka, 1925 (English translation, 1931)
Thomas Mokopu Mofolo (moh-FOH-loh) was a Southern African writer whose three novels established a literary tradition in his native Sesotho language and influenced African writers throughout the twentieth century. He was born in a small village as the third son to Christian parents, Abner and Aleta Mofolo. The exact date of his birth has become lost, with recent scholars favoring December 22, 1876.
As child, Mofolo attended missionary schools in Lesotho. He then became a servant for the Reverend Alfred Casalis, who managed a combination of Bible school, printing press, and book depot at the regional capital of Morija. In 1894 Casalis sent Mofolo to Bible school, where he deepened his familiarity with biblical values and literature, two dominant influences on his writing. From 1896 to 1898, Mofolo attended Morija Training School, earning his teaching certificate in 1899.
Mofolo’s new employment as an interpreter at Casalis’s press came to an end with the outbreak of the Boer War, which raged until 1902. Mofolo returned to his native countryside, where he learned and practiced carpentry. He then taught for two years, from 1902 until 1904, before Casalis employed him as his secretary in Morija.
There, Mofolo wrote The Traveller of the East, the first novel in the Sesotho language. It was published in serialized form in the Sesotho-language newspaper Leselinyana, starting on January 1, 1906. The novel reflects Mofolo’s Christian values. It tells of a young African cowherd who leaves his sinful community, converts to Christianity, and has a vision of heaven as he dies during a Christian rally.
The book’s success led to the publication of his second novel, Pitseng. It is the love story of two Christian Africans, Alfred and Aria, who eventually marry and work as evangelists in Pitseng, their native village. The novel was serialized in Leselinyana from January 1, 1909, until March 19, 1910, and, like Mofolo’s first work, was published as a book soon afterward.
Most critics believe that Mofolo had completed the manuscript of his last and most influential novel, Chaka, by 1909. In March, 1910, Mofolo abruptly resigned his employment in Morija. He had married and since had been found guilty of adultery. He went into exile to Zambia and did not return to Lesotho until 1922.
Chaka dealt with a controversial subject: the fictionalized account of the life and murder of Shaka, a powerful king of South Africa’s Zulu people, who had mistreated Mofolo’s Basuto tribe. Even though Chaka is described as antihero, some missionaries were worried that the tragic story could be read as a nostalgic longing for past Zulu power and African traditions and rituals opposed to Christianity.
Chaka was finally published in 1925. The success of Chaka led to its translation into English in 1931, and translations in other languages followed. Mofolo’s first novel was also translated into English by 1934, thus assuring him a large audience. However, he had stopped writing in 1909. He continued to work in a variety of non-literary venues, as recruitment agent for African diamond mines, sugar plantations, and large farms. He managed a postal route and a trading house. In 1933 he purchased a farm himself. This violated South Africa’s Native Land Act of 1913, prohibiting the acquisition of land by blacks outside special zones. The government seized his farm, and Mofolo lost his legal appeals.
By 1940, Mofolo had retired, and he suffered a stroke in 1941. Impoverished and in ill health, he died on September 8, 1948. His literary legacy rests on his first novel and Chaka, a work honored by many later African writers, who have commented on its groundbreaking influence on their own work.