Dashiki dialogues: How do I say atheist in Sesotho?

2011-05-13 14:44

Some of my best friends are atheists. Well, at least that’s how they address themselves to the world. Don’t judge! I can think of worse human beings. Papa Ramps the poet calls them “beasts and preachers, priests and other creatures”. Yes, I know that somewhere an altar boy is nodding his head in affirmation.

Anyway, this has never been a special issue until very recently. You see, I’ve never had to explain atheism to an African elder before – let alone an old lady who wears a church uniform, carries a tobacco pouch and has 70-odd years under her belt.

She lives near my home and had overheard a friend of mine ­running his mouth. Later that day, the old lady came to me like a thief in the night: unexpected.
Wasting no time, she demanded to know whose child my friend was, and then proceeded to ask which church he went to.

Now how do I say “atheist” in Sesotho? Or worse, how do I frame ideas of compassion, love and ­justice without God for this ­beloved person?

After all, she’s in the winter of her years, and has dedicated her life to the church and its promise of everlasting life after death.

So I struggled to explain that my friend is not anti-God, nor is he the Antichrist. To be “anti” ­anything one would have to first acknowledge its existence.

The major problem, though, was explaining the possibility of genuine goodness outside of godliness to her. I’m not sure I succeeded, especially while battling not to ­undo whatever precious meaning the old lady has found with her religion, given her age.

So after that encounter, I found myself mulling over more questions than answers. I wondered whether atheists could be spiritual, and what we mean by “spiritual” in the first place.

Because “spirit” ­refers to the supernatural – and that’s very un-atheistic.

To me, spirituality speaks to ­ideas of vitality and transcendence, of connectedness or that place where boundaries of self and other are dissolved.

The opposite of what American novelist William Burroughs thought when he cried: “Promise me you’ll never wear a policeman’s badge my son, and never let a priest near you when you die. The only place they’ve got a key to is the s**t house.”

But in a more sober approach, we the living have seen the pain manufactured by religion against love – so we’ve embraced an ­urgent task to creatively re-dream our world with every dashiki ­dialogue.

Hence, we see every act of love as a worthy prayer.

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