Zakes Mda’s professional mourner is not alone

2015-04-12 17:51

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Zakes Mda chats to #Trending's Grethe Koen about themes of life and death in his illustrious works.

South African author Zakes Mda’s celebrated novel Ways of Dying features a professional mourner called Toloki. At the time of writing it, Mda was not aware that such a vocation actually existed. We caught up with the writer, artist and lecturer, and asked him about death, mourning and twerking at funerals.

Why did you decide to make Toloki a professional mourner?

It was a romantic notion that I thought I had invented. I was attracted to its sheer absurdity. There was so much death happening those days – what was called black-on-black violence during the period when apartheid was at its end and the new democratic order was struggling to be born. The deaths I was writing about were mostly political.

Yet Ways of Dying is a love story. Was the plan to offer hope in a time of gloom?

No, it was not a plan. It is reality. People don’t stop loving in the face of death. They love even more.

After it was published, you’ve said you were then contacted by people all around the world who had tales of professional mourners. Can you recall some of these?

I was surprised to hear of professional mourners in many different cultures. I explained to these readers that in South Africa, we don’t have professional mourners and, in my novel, I am at pains to illustrate that Toloki invents this profession.

In the real life of South Africa, such a profession would not thrive because we believe in ubuntu: you mourn the death of members of my family and I will mourn yours.

The readers told me about professional mourning in India, Spain, Ireland, Taiwan and, indeed, in Africa – as close as Zambia. I was crushed to hear that I had not invented this profession, but happy to realise that now I can take Toloki to the world in my next novel in search of mourning.

What do you think about twerking at funerals?

I know I am supposed to say it’s disgusting and shameful and un-African and disrespectful and all sorts of labels. But you know what? We all have different ways of coping with death. How is twerking any different from the vulgar fashion parades, displays of wealth and drunken after-tears antics that we see at funerals today?

Is death a common theme in your novels and plays?

No, I am concerned with life, not death. I am not preoccupied with death. I am not scared of it either. When it happens, it happens – and I welcome it. We should all make way for others. I write about life. Even Ways of Dying is about ways of living.

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