Filemon Iiyambo is a Namibian writer and former newspaper columnist for the Namibian Sun Newspaper. He has also contributed social commentary articles for the New Era Newspaper. A qualified geologist, he is now an educator. His work was included in Erotic Africa, an anthology of short stories published by Brittle Paper in December, 2018. He is currently working on a novel.
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between Windhoek and Kampala, via email.
Filemon’s story, December, follows September Shikongo after he returns from his studies abroad to visit his older sister; when he goes to the hospital’s psychiatric ward to see her, he carries gifts and a heavy secret.
Did you know that organizing a fantasy soccer team and sorting socks after laundry day can smoothen the transition into writing? Neither did I! But that’s Filemon for you! Read on for more wondrous things, including his induction into geology (via a year-long experiment in the engineering department) and our shared beef with restaurant attendants who hoard tomato sauce!
As for what creating December was like, he discusses which part was the hardest to write, and why a speculative version of the story wouldn’t slap as hard. Sandwiched between thoughts about symbols, myths, and traditions is his greatest hope, which is that December will bring awareness around mental health to the fore.
Davina: My interest in geology peaked a few years ago, when there was much excitement about oil here. Every other day there would be glossy pullouts and pictorials in the newspapers meant to educate the public about one or another aspect of oil discovery and production, or to warn government officials about the dangers of the oil curse. There would be highlights of case studies, too: how to emulate Ghana and Norway, how to avoid becoming like Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, and so on.
That excitement has since been replaced by suspicion and innuendo that our oil has already been sold or mortgaged – so much so that early this year the Petroleum Authority of Uganda felt moved to issue a statement.
I have unfortunately forgotten much of what I read back then and would now like a refresher course. Which geology books do you recommend for a non-specialist like me?
Filemon: Funny enough, when someone asks me a question about geology, I think of a joke made by Jim Parson’s character in The Big Bang Theory. There is an episode in which Sheldon Cooper refers to geologists as “the Kardashians of science.”
What I have come to know about geologists is that they are versatile and interdisciplinary scientists. Geologists are never lost: even when they appear to be lost, they are not lost – they are simply somewhere they are NOT supposed to be.
A basic ‘introduction to physical geology’ textbook will suffice to arm one with basic knowledge of geological time, uniformity of geological processes, plate tectonics, and geological time. As an undergraduate, I used Earth: An introduction to Physical Geology by Edward J. Tarbuck and Frederick K. Lutgens.
A quirky book by Dr Gabi Schneider – The Roadside Geology of Namibia – is one I’d recommend to anyone interested in Namibian geology for recreational purposes. And if you ever visit Namibia, the book allows you to do the two things everyone visiting Namibia should do: sightseeing, and enjoying a drive on our beautiful roads.
Davina: My crush on Sheldon Cooper shall remain intact despite his views on geologists. Hah! The Roadside Geology of Namibia? I like the title! After reading what Google Books says about it, I’m salivating:
Namibia has over the years attracted scientists from all over the world to study its geology, uniquely exposed in the desert environment. Their research has shaped geological thinking worldwide, and led to the development of many new concepts. Due to an arid climate and low population density, geological features are ever present and eye-catching in Namibia. It is for these reasons that both scientists and laymen are attracted to the country, and many a tourist develops a keen interest in geology when touring this beautiful country.
Reading an excerpt from the book prompted me to compare Google Earth images of the Windhoek Graben to those of the Albertine Graben. I also Googled Kaokoveld, to which the hair on December’s head is likened, and discovered that “Welwitschia mirabilis, which consists of individual plants estimated at more than 2,500 years old,” is found “scattered about the hyper-arid plains of the Kaokoveld Desert ecoregion.” And that desert-dwelling elephants and lions are common along the dry river beds. Someday, I will visit and write about that Welwitschia!
What initially drove you (pun intended) to geology as a possible course of study, Filemon?
(Aside: I’ve heard that the views from the peaks of some of the mountains here are unrivalled, so if you’re into that sort of thing you might want to go mountain climbing when you visit Uganda.)
Filemon: I never turn down an opportunity to scale a peak, so that is on my list of things to do when I visit Uganda.
I would say indoctrination, and vision 2030, are the main reasons I became a geologist. There was a time, circa mid-2000s, when there was a concerted government effort to steer the brightest secondary school learners towards careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). This was in line with the national blueprint to turn Namibia into an industrialised nation by 2030.
So, if you could scrape together a few As, you were immediately shuttled towards a course in STEM. I eventually ended up at the geology department via the engineering department; my year-long experiment with engineering didn’t work out, so I changed to geology.
Davina: Last year, I learned of the snowflake method of novel writing through a conversation between Kenyan writers Makena Onjerika and Ndinda Kioko:
“Makena: I also recently came across the snowflake method of novel writing and it has made novel writing so easy and straightforward. I now understand how some writers pop out 4 novels in a year.
“Ndinda: I’ve never heard of the snowflake method. Is this the magic? I write from a place of utter recklessness. If my writing was a house, you wouldn’t want to live in it. There would be brassieres inside cups and shoes on top of the coffee table. Tell me about the snowflake method.
“Makena: What I love about the Snowflake method is that it creates a structure that allows me to see the middle and end of my novel. I am unable to write without knowing these things. Here and very quickly, I establish the disasters my character could face and her false moral premise, and voila, the thread of the story begins to roll and other things follow.”
Then, this year, I learned that you can use a Microsoft Excel worksheet to plan a novel! The worksheet I stumbled upon is based on Larry Brooks’ Story Structure and Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, and designed by Elizabeth Davis. I found it the way I often find all magical things – tangentially – while following a link within a link within a link within a link within a link. I felt as if I’d just emerged from under a rock! Until then, I’d never heard of a beat sheet! It was the last thing I expected to create in Excel! Eh! It was a revelation!
I also learned about Scrivener through my conversation with Stephen Embleton.
What hacks have you discovered that have simplified your writing process?
Filemon: I haven’t used the writing tools you have mentioned, but I understand why they would be popular. Any writing tool that allows you to produce work that is structured is valuable, and I would assume they become more significant when one is struggling to write. I am in the habit of starting pieces and not finishing them; I rectified this with my short stories, but have yet to do the same with my novel, so the hacks you have passed onto me might prove to be most useful.
It’s also my habit to write ideas down on paper, there is something organic yet outdated about it, which feeds into my love for all things outdated and vintage. Sometimes I write several pages on loose paper, then take pictures and use Google assistant to convert them to Microsoft Word.
Sometimes I write on my phone, and then convert the notes to PDF or Microsoft Word. So my thing is having ways to write on the go and then making what I’ve written accessible when I sit down to synthesise on my computer. I generally just tend to write, and only worry about structure later, which gets me into trouble with editors sometimes.
I normally transition into my writing process by organising something – anything – could be photographs on my phone, recently washed dishes, or my fantasy soccer team. My favourite is sorting my socks after laundry day.
Davina: Are there themes you consider outdated? And are you precious about your treatment of them?
Filemon: Themes are like songs; someone will come along and make covers of them that sound better than the original, and which will make you appreciate both even more. So, there will always be a writer who will put a fresh spin on a theme that is considered outdated.
I don’t believe themes become outdated; perhaps it’s the way the themes are addressed in literature that ends up becoming outdated, which prompts writers to come up with new narratives for them.
Sometimes, something as simple as telling a story from the perspective of a character that is ignored in traditional narratives can breathe new life into a theme that had seemed exhausted.
Davina: I like to watch F1 but I’m yet to venture into the world of fantasy F1. Help me get a feel of what that might be like by sharing your experience of owning a fantasy football club. How has this changed your experience of being a football fan?
Filemon: Fantasy football changes your whole relationship with the game, and your favourite team. I used to watch games for entertainment, primarily because I love how the competing teams play football. Now, I don’t watch games because of the attractive styles of play, but because there are players on the field who are in my fantasy team.
I watch players and not games. I am more concerned about results and statistics than I am about the football on display. I am a Liverpool fan; there are days I get upset that Sadio Mané got to a cross first and scored because, say, I’ve captained Mohammed Salah and will get more points if he scores. I guess I will have to work my way back to watching soccer for the fun of it.
Davina: In Finding a Nation’s Voice, Munukayumbwa Mwiya wrote that “…Namibian writing often seems to take its cues from literary movements elsewhere, like postcolonial literature in Nigeria or Kenya,” and that Afrofuturism was becoming increasingly popular.
What trends have you noticed in the Namibian writing that you’ve read?
Filemon: Namibian writing in general has moved away from autobiographies, and chronicles/memoirs of the liberation struggle towards novels and autobiographies that address more contemporary issues: mental health, love and relationships, careers, etc.
It’s a natural if somewhat slightly delayed progression because the Namibian writer is getting younger, so as the new generation embraces literature, and writing, and the idea that Namibia can be a place in literature, the literature produced is changing. It’s also a trend in Namibia for authors to self-publish.
Larger literary movements in Africa have always had an influence on Namibian writing, because they’ve always had the spotlight on them. With the emergence of digital writing platforms, it has become easier to access literature from these places, and in turn it is easier for people outside Namibia to access Namibian writing.
Davina: Jowhor Ile finds “both the short story and the novel equally difficult”:
“I don’t share in the assumption that the short story is an easier form to achieve, at least it’s not so in my case. But I understand how brevity can suggest ease. I think writing a novel requires stamina and maybe a wider scope in general, but I have short stories I started five years ago and they wait daily for something to happen to them.”
One of the problems ML Kejera identified in his stories is weakness “in terms of structure”:
“To ameliorate this, I examine how other related work is structured. Twice, for the Caine Prize nominated story ‘The Magician’s Clown’ and ‘Fatou vs. the Dictator,’ I have revised work using Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp’s work, respectively Morphology of the Folk Tale and ‘Oedipus in the Light of Folklore.’”
You said you rectified the problem of starting but not finishing your short stories. How did you manage that? What did you do to, as Ile might say, make something happen to those short stories?
“Can you question tradition without being disrespectful? Are you your brother’s keeper? Is it selfish to chase a dream and leave your sibling behind? When our loved ones suffer from mental illness, do we lose them or are they still there?“
Filemon: Namibians like their Kapana with a bit of fat: I used to write my short stories with too much ‘fat.’ My short stories became a lot better when I learned to trim the fat. The first thing I fixed was structure. I worked on the narratives; I worked on having a clear narrative before anything else.
The story really just works itself out when a clear path is set out at the beginning. One thing I have always had in my stories is humour, and good dialogue; when I rectified the structure, the stories started to come together.
The other thing that helped greatly was having access to online literary platforms from other parts of Africa. I got to see what other writers were doing and how they structured their stories, and I saw the quality that is required for your work to be taken seriously.
Davina: Kejera also talked about what he does when he finds himself unable to improve a story:
“If I am unable to better a story but sense that it could be better in some, at the time, undecipherable way, I assume I simply have not read enough or written enough to do so and work on something else. I sporadically read my old work to get a sense of how my writing has changed and if anything I deemed unworthy of effort might be salvageable.”
What is your relationship with your old stories like? Is it important for you to get a sense of how your writing has changed?
Filemon: I love my unfinished short stories because they remind me of what I’ve always been good at: humour, dialogue, imagination, and creating characters that have distinct Namibian features. They also remind me of the skills that I lacked: plot structure, narrative arc, etc.
I see what I have learned in my new stories, and I go back to my old stories to rediscover how to ‘spice’ the story properly. It also allows me the opportunity to reinvent an old story and turn it into a ‘new’ one.
Davina: Let’s dip into your editorial troublemaking, now. Was this in reference to both your social commentary and fiction? Or does it lean more heavily to one side?
Filemon: I like to email drafts as close to the deadline as possible; I eke out every second available. Newspaper editors obviously didn’t find this funny because they still had to send the piece to graphics and layout after they edited it, so the paper could be printed and distributed. I was called to order once or twice. But, what is life without living on the edge of a deadline?
Literary magazine editors are slightly more lenient, but will strongly encourage you (passive-aggressively) to submit earlier in the emails they send to confirm receipt of the submission.
Davina: You should know how I side-eyed the waitress that was eyeing September. In my head, I told her off: “Warn yourself extremely very sternly, madam! Don’t you know that chips alone constitute a real order?!”
Then there’s the more pressing matter of September having to ask for an extra sachet of tomato sauce. I’m always almost coming to blows with restaurant attendants! I’m the customer that says, “You look here, and you look well! Stop being stint with the tomato sauce! Did you give me these chips for free, or what? Didn’t I pay real money for them? Give me more tomato sauce, you people, otherwise you’ll see for free what Kkobe women are made of! What do you mean this one is enough? It’s NOT enough!”
This is getting ludicrous, really! Is there an Emperor of Tomato Sauce, out there, somewhere, who demands a cut from every restaurant, or what? Who do we need to speak to, moreover in CAPS LOCK, about this matter, Filemon?!
Filemon: I see that questionable customer service is universal. When I was younger, KFC chips could feed half a soccer team, but now it seems as if they count each one. So if the establishment is going to skimp on the chips, as the customer I am more than entitled to ask for extra tomato sauce to put on the chips that I am PAYING for.
Writing that scene came very easily. I had experienced that enough times that I didn’t need to imagine it; I just needed to put September in it.
Davina: Quite early in December, I’m advised that “stories sound better when exaggerated,” and that even then there are accepted versions of the better-sounding stories. Although this is technically meant to apply to the incident in the vegetable garden, during which December accidentally gashes the side of September’s head with a hoe, I wonder whether I’m allowed to apply this to the rest of the story.
Is the whole of December the accepted version of an unacceptable – perhaps because mundane – story? A related question: was there any self-censorship involved in the writing of December?
Filemon: Stories like December are told all over the Northern part of Namibia; it’s a story that you’ll hear often, but it will be a cautionary tale of lamentation or mockery, or both, steeped in myth and witchcraft.
The hardest part for me was to tell this story in a humane way that would resonate with readers all over, regardless of geography or ethnicity. The most difficult part was to tell the story from the imagination and not from fact. It isn’t that the story is mundane in its original form, but that it lacked compassion and empathy for the Decembers of this world.
December puts the relationship between the two siblings at the centre of the narrative, which shifts the focus and asks important questions. Can you question tradition without being disrespectful? Are you your brother’s keeper? Is it selfish to chase a dream and leave your sibling behind? When our loved ones suffer from mental illness, do we lose them or are they still there?
Davina: Was there something in those myths, which suggested the structure that December should assume? Were you keen on using techniques that invoke orality?
Filemon: I wrote two versions of the story. I chose to revert to the narrative that best shows the relationship between the siblings, and their relationship to their grandfather. This was more important to me than traditions and myths – which play a vital role in the story – but which weren’t my focus. My focus was to zone in on the characters and their relationships with one another.
Davina: The idea that the way to truly esteem or honour or respect something is to NOT question it bothers me. I have no problem with tradition. What I have a problem with is the idea that one must not question tradition simply because no one questions tradition, period. I can understand why it might be necessary for tradition to patronize my 6-year-old self. But, surely, as an adult, can’t I want to know why certain things are so? The old ways exist for a reason, yes, but so do the new ways!
If the reason for old way A or the logic behind old way B is a sound one, why not explain it to me? Why clothe it in so much mystery? Isn’t this secrecy part of a big reason why ‘the new ways’ continue to gain converts? With ‘the new ways,’ it often seems as if I’m being treated like an equal – someone with the capacity to understand and differentiate. Tradition, on the other hand, seems to take extra pleasure in treating me like a perennial child.
Consider attitudes towards food, which, over the years, have changed considerably in different cultures. Is it fair to expect that I won’t acknowledge that change? Is it reasonable to expect that I won’t want a conversation about how those changes might affect my health, or, say, any number of gendered roles and behaviours within relationships?
Filemon: Conservative communities will always oppose change, especially change that they believe is driven by external agents. There is an aversion towards changing the way things are done. I believe that it is necessary to question traditions, especially those that are harmful or potentially harmful. From questioning why widows are not allowed to inherit their husbands’ wealth to questioning why certain rituals are necessary if they endanger people’s lives is all necessary for the greater good.
No custom or norm is static, unless a society is completely isolated from the world. So, as generations succeed each other, a better understanding of things such as mental health disorders will eventually lead to the kind of questioning that will invoke change – even if the change is just marginal.
Friction between successive generations will always exist, especially if the younger generation realises that a certain tradition needs to be abandoned. But every generation must do what they believe will create a better future for the next; if that means rebelling against tradition then so be it. We cannot let our next generation suffer from the same oppressive parts of tradition that we suffer from; they must find new traditions to challenge.
Davina: Your question about whether we lose our loved ones when they suffer from mental illness made me think of all the people with no clothing who walk our streets, conversing with people only they can see. Every time I encounter them on my way to and from home, I wonder what they are thinking, what their lives were like before, and if they miss their families.
I wonder how they came to live on the streets. Perhaps they were forced out of their homes/communities because of stigma attached to their illnesses, or can’t for whatever other reason access medication anymore. I often think about how they continue to be present while simultaneously remaining lost to parents, siblings, cousins, and friends.
I mentioned to a friend that I often wonder if the rest of us have the moral authority to refer to them as ‘abalalu.’ What if their vision of the world is more accurate? What if our interpretation of reality is incorrect? But my friend said, “No, come on. That’s impossible.”
Is it, though? There are so many abnormal things in this world that we’ve come to accept as normal, and I daresay necessary. How do we know for sure that we are not the illogical ones?
Filemon: Anything normal is about numbers: the majority rules. Abnormal behavior is measured against how the majority behaves. So in a world in which abalalu are the majority, those who wear clothes would be the crazy ones. In an alternate universe, the tables are turned.
Paying taxes that get embezzled by politicians, and then voting for the same politicians to continue doing the same thing, is questionable. Those are just two of many crazy things that we do as part of normal behavior. So, who are the crazy ones?
Your point on how people become lost to their families points to human nature; sometimes people put themselves first and shirk responsibilities that they consider to be a burden.
In my story, September also questions himself: is it selfish for him to go study, and leave his sister behind? Old Man Ezekiel steps in to help, but this question now remains unresolved when he passes on. Who will care for December?
Davina: Silas and Josef both have problematic relationships with the concept of time – time as the passage of events, time as a resource, and time as control. December herself is at some point left on pause, and remains suspended between the past and future.
The way time is written about lends a fragmented feel to the narrative, which also speaks to loss – the loss of a sense of self, of relationships, and of opportunity.
Filemon: The narrative is fragmented to represent how the mind unravels, and in this case how December’s mind unravels through her brother’s eyes. The major part of the narrative is a play on time, from the siblings’ names, to seasons and places, to the month in which Ezekiel is buried.
Davina: Once, all I ever saw myself writing was realistic fiction. These days, however, I find myself more drawn to speculative and science fiction than I used to be.
Suyi Davies Okungbowa argued that “… at its core, fiction itself is speculative, asking, “What would happen if…?”
“Speculative fiction offers that opportunity to expand that question into zones that are not a part of our current material reality, and in doing so, expand our minds into those spaces, allowing us to perceive the matters being discussed and challenged and commented on in new light.”
Justin Clement referred to speculative fiction as “…a super genre of sorts, an umbrella term encompassing all kinds of fiction that have elements of the unreal or the surreal – fantasy, dark fantasy, science fiction, steampunk…”:
“The way I see it, speculative fiction opens both the writer and the reader to possibility, and that possibility is what I like to present in as many different ways as possible.”
All writing is of course, in a sense, about opening up possibilities, yet it sometimes seems as if there are fewer possibilities within my realistic fiction – as if my imagination is less restrained when I’m thinking outside the box of realism. Did it ever occur to you to write December’s story within a non-realist tradition?
Filemon: I feel that possibilities exist in both speculative and realist fiction. The spectrum is broader within speculative fiction, but within realist fiction the fact that a writer is able to take reality and fictionalize it, but still keep the narrative realistic, speaks to the range of possibilities in that category, notwithstanding the limits.
I think December written in speculative fiction wouldn’t slap as hard as the current version does.
Davina: I like what Masande Ntshanga said about imagination, how he believes that “imagination is an important instrument for revolution. Not only for strategy, but for its aftermath, its thinking.”
For Idza Luhumyo, the most moving writing “tends either to be imaginative (as in revealing one’s unique and singular vision of the world) or to address itself, somewhat, to something/someone outside of the writer’s own subjectivity”:
“Double points if both elements are present. I’m probably conflating many things here, but I guess what I’m trying to get at is this: there is something specific that we are looking for when we go towards stories. If I wanted to read about the intersection between race and gender, for example, a quick online search would reveal quite a few treatises on the subject. But when we go to stories, to fiction, my sense is that we’re not necessarily looking for a political pamphlet, or a manifesto, or a lecture. We’re looking to be moved—literally, to be shifted from one position to another, whether emotionally or intellectually. We’re looking for imagination; we’re looking for a bridge, if you will, out of our own specific subjectivities and into other ways of seeing and being.”
Filemon: There are things that are universal; there are human truths that span the world, from absent parenting to discrimination. These things are everywhere. I have learnt from Rémy Ngamije that the more specific a story is, the more it captures the reader’s mind, the more it resonates, and the more it teleports them into the world you have created.
Readers don’t need to be told: just create a doorway for them and the rest will take care of itself. They will find meaning in the story, they will make their own interpretations, and it will touch them in different ways. As a writer of fiction, create an alternative to reality, or create a whole different world, while still enabling the reader to connect to what you are saying, and you have done your job.
Davina: I read the yellow Irises in the garden outside the ward, and the leopards in Ezekiel’s dream, as symbols of the natural physical world: stark but welcome contrasts to the artificial, and built, environment of the town.
In your story, chicken, like the leopard in my culture, enjoys sacred status; December is forbidden from eating it for reasons that Ezekiel doesn’t explain.
Long before she finds herself confined within a psychiatric ward with windows reinforced by bars, she’s confined within dietary restrictions that are rooted in the old ways. (Again, here, I encounter that note of powerful contrast: the rigidity and toughness of the iron bars vs. the unraveling – like a thread coming loose.)
Were the irises and leopards meant to be read solely within the context of the story or do they speak to something[s] in the world outside the story, too?
Filemon: A Namibian story where the symbols are coincidental? Aaye! That could never happen. Once the plot of the story was settled, I weaved the symbols into the story so that they would be inconspicuous yet still essential when you try and piece the parts into a sum. Even though every reader will get a different sum.
In December, the leopard connects Ezekiel to his brother through a dream; it also shows him what he thinks is the source of his brother’s ailment. This spiritual connection is important because it forms the basis of Ezekiel’s belief that if he restricts December’s diet, he will be able to stop what happened to his brother from afflicting her.
Outside the context of the story, although the leopard is not one of the Aawambo totems, it is highly regarded by the chiefs of the Aawambo tribes as an important part of their regalia. It is the symbol of many royal houses from other Namibian ethnic groups as well.
The leopard also forms the name of the town where I attended high/secondary school; the name of the town, Ongwediva, loosely translates to ‘leopard pond,’ which inspired the scene in Ezekiel’s dream. It is poignant when you consider that when December begins to unravel, both she and September are in high school/secondary school, since they are born two years apart.
The flowers are something I thought up to represent the relationship between the siblings; the perceived ‘pureness’ of sibling affection. Symbols are interpreted differently, so I was deliberate in making them vague to allow the reader to make their own conclusion.
Davina: Indeed! For the pureness of sibling affection, for instance, I’d have chosen Calla Lilies! Irises would never have crossed my mind!
The leopard (‘ngo’) is the secondary totem of the Mpologoma (lion) clan and Kasimba (Genet cat) clan, which are two of over thirty clans that are officially recognized where I’m from:
“The clan essentially forms a large extended family and all members of a given clan regard each other as brothers and sisters regardless of how far removed from one another in terms of actual blood ties. The Baganda took great care to trace their ancestry through this clan structure. A formal introduction of a Muganda includes his own names, the names of his father and paternal grandfather, as well as a description of the family’s lineage within the clan that it belongs to. The clan has a hierarchical structure with the clan leader at the top (owakasolya), followed by successive subdivisions called the ssiga, mutuba, lunyiriri and finally at the bottom the individual family unit (enju).
“It is a curious fact that the clans are not known by the names of the respective clan founders. Instead, totems were adopted by the clans, and the names of those totems came to be synonymous with the clans themselves. Each clan has a main totem (omuziro) and a secondary totem (akabbiro). The clans are usually known by the main totem and they are listed above by that totem. The royal clan (Abalangira) is a unique exception in that it has no totems whatsoever. For a proper understanding of the culture however, it is important to distinguish between the totem and the clan. The clan is a matter of genealogy and it is through the clan that the Baganda trace their ancestry. A totem on the other hand, is just a symbol to represent the clan. Although the two are intimately associated with one another, they are in fact different. In the west, a totem would be similar to a court of arms.”
How is the clan system where you’re from organized?
My mother is from the Njovu (elephant) clan while my father is from the Kkobe (a kind of climbing yam) clan, which means that my siblings and I are considered to belong to the latter clan.
If it was a matter of choosing a clan for yourself, I’d already have crossed over to the Ngo clan! I’m a fierce admirer of leopardine solitude and elusiveness, so of course I consider the leopard to be my spirit animal! Plus, I like to associate with fantastically good-looking animals!
What do you consider to be your spirit animal, Filemon?
Filemon: Aawambo clans are identified by their totems; there are 10 totems that I am familiar with (elephant, snake, lion, dog, locust, grain/millet, cow/cattle, zebra, rabbit, and hyena); the totem usually represents the wealth of the clan.
The lineage is paternal, the child is identified by the father’s totem, but it is common practice that the child belongs to the mother’s clan. Essentially children would inherit their paternal uncle’s wealth and not their father’s wealth. The Aawambo clan system was important in preventing inbreeding; the further apart the paternal totems are, the better.
With globalisation and urbanisation, knowledge of this clan system is dwindling but it is still very important and highly regarded to know one’s clan and connect with them as they form your extended family; they form your support system and gather for weddings, funerals, births, etc.
My spirit animal is the wildebeest: it migrates, is a nomad, and searches for greener pastures. And those are things I identify with.
Davina: The world December inhabits is very familiar to me, for I too exist in a society where religious beliefs often override other categories of belief. Say you’re feeling low-spirited, for example, and eight out of ten times someone will immediately offer to pray for you. It can’t be that your sadness has ordinary causes (perhaps a loved one has terribly misunderstood you, and you’ve run out of ways to make yourself understood): it must be that there’s a mysterious or supernatural force at work that must be fought back with a visit to a pastor or traditional healer.
But why can’t sadness, despair, or hopelessness be valid and honest reactions to the experience of being alive? Must life be one endless episode of happiness and excitement?
When I was a child, a few adults regularly cautioned against talking to oneself: “people will think you’re mad,” they said to me. So, for a long time, talking to myself was taboo. And yet like most forbidden acts it retained the power to entice me. As an adult, I mostly wonder why talking to oneself can’t also signify health or healing. (I guess that’s what writing essentially is to me: a way to talk to myself about things others aren’t willing to talk about.)
We are terribly mistrustful of people who talk to themselves; it doesn’t even matter if they do so while fully dressed. Others will still whisper about them. I was talking to a friend about this, recently, and asking what she makes of it. She said maybe it had to do with the fact that we are primarily such communal cultures; and that perhaps the act of talking to oneself is perceived as the ultimate transgression of communality. I thought that was very interesting. I’d never thought of it that way. What do you think, Filemon?
Filemon: I find it very humorous. You must not even dare to talk to yourself, because there are others around that you could talk to. I find that hilarious: that something as harmless as talking to yourself can be perceived as sacrilege against one’s culture.
Yet I also understand why it is frowned upon; more often than not, when people start to unravel, the most visible sign is that they talk to themselves. It also makes me sad how the stress and pressures that come with life and living it take their toll.
Many people find comfort in talking to themselves, to calm themselves, to convince themselves that things will be okay; I understand how it can be enticing. What is generally taboo is to many people a natural reaction to the rigours of surviving life.
I have a theory that with children, we take offence at them talking to themselves because we are insecure about our ability to communicate with them. I always assume when adults get angry at children talking to themselves, it’s because they take it personally; the child would rather talk to themselves than talk to me! What am I doing wrong? The same way they take offense at children with earphones on, listening to music, around them, because how dare you isolate yourself? Do you find my company that repulsive?
We react differently when we know more about things, so my greatest hope is that this short story brings awareness around mental health to the fore, so that discussions around it are normalised. So that mental illnesses are no longer taboo. So that we consider medical treatment before prayer and supernatural intervention. So that perhaps, in the future, the Septembers of the world don’t have to watch helplessly as those they love slowly unravel.
Davina: I like your theory; I’ve never thought of it like that. Whenever I see a child talking to themselves, I think of this as a form of play. We speak often about the importance of play in early childhood, how without it we might not develop the full repertoire of social, emotional, cognitive, and physical skills that we’ll need later in life. Yet when we talk about play in adults, we mostly limit its importance to the realm of inventiveness; be more playful if you wish to be a more creative creative writer, and so on.
Filemon: I always tell kids that adulting is a trap. Don’t do it. Remain a child at heart for as long as possible.
Davina: Lidudumalingani Mqombothi’s story, Memories We Lost, is about schizophrenia in children. While discussing the kind of conversations that the story stimulated, Lidudumalingani said:
“There’s been, also, which I think is perhaps the conversation that I am obsessed with right now, the thinking that this is a problem unique to villages, given that the story is set there, but I think not. The stigma and the absence of conversations are present even in urban setting[s].
“Years before writing the story I had been hugely bothered by the way people with mental illness were treated and the views people held of them and that was my first departure, to give nuance, both of mental illness and the way we speak about it. Juggling these in an artistic medium, which is what writing is, is difficult because there is the obvious importance of the politics of it and then one is also concerned about the poetry of it, the beauty of it, and so this is what I was carefully crafting and navigating. I had carried the story for a long time, years before sitting down to write it.”
Lidudumalingani’s reference to “the politics of it” takes me back to the question you asked, earlier, about whether we can question tradition without being disrespectful. Would you frame your question as a political one?
Filemon: You can never question tradition without being disrespectful. In the Namibian context, this is even more pronounced because many traditional leaders have strong political affiliations, and many family elders are political figures. When these two are married, it becomes a revolt to question tradition.
It’s also a question of neglect, mental disorders are treatable, but the quality of treatment is often poor and this ultimately comes back to the priorities of political leaders: self-enrichment over service delivery. There is also the weaponization of mental disorders in political warfare in Namibia, which further adds to the stigma and discrimination.
Davina: Do you have a favourite Namibian writer, and what kind of legacy do you hope to leave for Namibian writing, and other Namibian writers?
Filemon: I have two. Rémy Ngamije, the coal seam of Namibian writing; his rise to prominence is exactly what happens when prospectors find a coal seam exposed on the surface – they come to see what is beneath the surface. He basically has kept the door open for the likes of Beauty Boois, myself, Dalene Kooper, Ndawedwa Hanghuwo, and many others, to pass through.
Dalene Kooper is my other favourite; she has a way of creating child characters that are believable – so believable that you see your childhood friends in them. I, too, tackle trending issues and current affairs in my fiction through teenagers and young adults. She finds a way to weave different themes into her stories (absentee parents, cultural differences, class and wealth divides, etc.) through child characters, and I find that somewhat magical, imaginative, and bold.
If anything, I’d simply like to get Namibians interested in reading, and get them to support Namibian writers. It’s great to be recognized abroad, but the best thing is to be recognized at home.
This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda.
She writes poetry and short fiction for children and adults. Her short stories, Of Birds and Bees and Touch Me Not, were short-listed for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize respectively.
She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, and writes about topics that interest her.
She’s writing her first novel, The Other Side of Day.