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Notes for an Oratorio on small things that fall

by Aditi Hunma

‘Remember this date, 13 April 2022’ were the first words of Sarah Mosoetsa, Professor of Sociology at the University of Witswatersrand, as she initiated a powerful conversation with Ari Sitas, Omar Badsha and Faisal Garba in the Chimurenga Factory in Woodstock, a well-frequented hub for African writers and other artists. 

The venue was packed with academics, artists, activists, students sitting on cushions, chairs or leaning against the wall.  Sarah Mosoetsa celebrated the fact that those in the room had survived the pandemic, but in the same breath lamented the news of floods in KwaZuluNatal.  The book, Notes for an Oratorio too, in many ways speaks about the present, about the anomie brought about in the wake of industrialization and globalization, and the struggles of the working class.  In the introduction, Ari Sitas, the main author, chair of the ‘Re-centring Afroasia project’, sociologist, poet, composer and visual artist, describes the book as, ‘a map of the way of suffering, a via dolorosa for the twenty-first century’.  He goes on to describe the map as one that he walks and draws, suggesting that the map mirrors the terrain, and perhaps brings into salience the forgotten, less shimmery parts of it.  The other contributors are Kristy Stone, Greg Dor and Reza Khota who convey the terrain’s richness through illustrations and music.   

For Ari Sitas, the book came about through the act of listening to content from different spaces and ‘finding the midpoint’, meeting people across spaces and being open to their honest feedback, and having conversations with students.  It came about through an attempt to ‘try to understand where things come from, who cleans the shit’.  So, the book traces ‘the things that we most cherish’ back to the invisible workers who make them and their stories.  Omar Badsha, a South African documentary photographer, historian and activist comments that it is ‘a book of instructions that talks of today and takes us through the history of thread to create a magical world’.

As one peruses the book, one is immediately drawn to the tapestry of prose, poetry, photos and sketches for an elevated sensory experience of the terrain.  The motifs of this complex human story get threaded through repeated allusions to silk, suggesting the universality of exploitation and suffering, in the process of satisfying the world with coveted goods.

The story gets mediated by Nomxakazo, a mythical character in isiXhosa literature, who asks questions as she travels back home.  In A.C. Jordan’s book, Tales of Southern Africa, Nomxakazo was the spoilt daughter of a king who clung to the promise made by her father that upon her coming of age, he would give her as many cattle herds as would ‘darken the sun’.  Unfortunately, to fulfil this near-impossible promise, neighbouring villages got mercilessly plundered.  The excesses that Nomxakazo accumulated eventually led her into a moral abyss where she was held captive by an ogre, until the day she decided to flee.  Her escape and journey back home, as she got assisted and nursed by the very villagers that she was complicit in plundering, marked the beginning of a momentous learning process where she realised the consequences of greed. 

In Notes for an Oratorio, Nomxakazo’s encounters with Chinese factory workers, Syrian immigrants and Indian farmers among others offer glimpses of the costs of our endless material quest and accumulation in the twenty-first century, and how these have come to divest others of their dignity and humanity.  The title is quite telling given that Oratorios are generally grand musical compositions on sacred themes.  To envisage an Oratorio ‘on small things’ seeks to reinstate them to their true sacred nature.  It reminds one of the stories of the picaro or rogue from the Spanish literary tradition, whose marginal existence would heighten one’s awareness of the flaws of the very society that rejects him, while now offering him a space to be seen and heard.  The last part of the title, ‘Like a screw in the night’ is a verse from the poem of a Chinese worker trapped in the cellphone production chain before he commits suicide.  As Ari Sitas highlights at the launch, ‘Look at the cellphone, the most precious commodity of the twenty-first century, and yet it kills’, pointing to the real effects of the exploitative system.  The allusion to the Oratorio thus presents a powerful critique of human beings’ reduction to dismembered and replaceable cogs in the wheel. 

And yet, there is hope.  Nomxakazo’s journey back home is also a journey of growth, understanding, redemption, and of shedding the layers of artifice and material gain.  For Faisal Garba, ‘In the theatre of the everyday world is an outline of an alternative world’.  For Ari Sitas, actualising it requires effort, ‘transformation is an everyday task, it is not what we say, but what we do’. 

Notes for an Oratorio on Small Things that Fall (like a screw in the night) is available at the Chimurenga bookstore (157 Victoria Rd, Woodstock, Cape Town), or at our online store.

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