Through a village boy’s eyes: a journey of literary criticism

Dr Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor, Prof Mwepu and Dr Monnapula-Mapesela, DVC
Dr Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor, Prof Mwepu and Dr Monnapula-Mapesela, DVC

By Tanatswa Chivhere, third-year Journalism and Media Studies student


As per tradition, Rhodes University recently hosted an inaugural lecture of Professor Patrice Kabeya Mwepu, after he was conferred the status of Full Professor by the University.

Professor Mwepu arrived at Rhodes University as a Senior Lecturer in 2007. He currently heads the University’s School of Languages and is Director of Rhodes University’s Confucius Institute.

Professor Mwepu, who originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is fluent in no less than 10 languages including Nyanja, Swahili, Italian and French.

Professor Mwepu started his lecture by accepting the honour of  Full Professor with humility. He quoted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who states that, “The greatest of any profession in the world is to unite people”.

Professor Mwepu then took the attendees on a literary journey which began in the village which he was born and raised, which was based on oral tradition. Even though he does not have any photographs from his childhood, he believes that it was a happy and rich childhood.

Storytelling runs in his blood, he explained, as his mother’s stories were recorded and published by missionaries. Professor Mwepu firmly believes that “Every old man in Africa is a library”.

When he became of age, Professor Mwepu attended École Primaire Nkolongo. He continued his education at College Saint Georges where he learned Latin and Philosophy. Professor Mwepu believes that his rich academic history has added into his diverse library and is part of the reason why he could stand before the crowd.

As a person who appreciates literature, “Literature would like you to be a prophet”, he said. He stated that the burden is even heavier on literary critics because “As a critic, you have to see what others do not see and as a writer, you have to explain it”.

He referred to the image of temple not as a physical place but something found within oneself. Once you find the temple, you find the truth and you find purity. He belives the literary critic’s role is to become a bridge between the secular and the sacred.

Professor Mwepu’s work describes four of the moral acts which impact literary critics. The first one is the ethics of writing or epistemological change. George Ngal is an example of an author who has a way of writing that reflects the method and critique of oral tradition. This type of writing reminded Professor Mwepu of the storytelling from his village.

The second act is the ethics of ‘otherness’. This refers to the journeys which readers take when they read a piece of work. He referenced a previous paper where he analysed the journeys across the Atlantic. “When a person crosses the Atlantic, there is a risk of their culture dying in the Atlantic,” he said. However, this is not always the case as readers and critics can find ways to establish a healthy exchange.

The third act refers to political ethics. This shows how social ills can be fought through literary writings. He explained how the writer’s role goes beyond exposing dictatorships and violence to include building the nation beyond politics. Professor Mwepu told his experience of how an author invited him to Brazaville, despite the political tensions between the two Congos.

The fourth act refers to the ethics of gender issues.

He ended his lecture by explaining how we all identify with literature. “We see ourselves in the characters. We see ourselves walking in the street,” he said.