Problematising umthathi: A conversation on perfection

By: Ndumiso Mdayi


Lewis Gordon, in his paper ‘Through the Zone of Nonbeing: A Reading of Black Skin, White Masks in Celebration of Fanon’s Eightieth Birthday‘ writes:


[…] Europe sought to become ontological; it sought to become what dialecticians call “Absolute Being.” Such Being stood in the way of human being or a human way of being. It thus presented itself as a theodicy. Theodicy is the branch of inquiry that attempts to account for the compatibility of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness in the face of injustice and evil.



While the above is applied in a different situation, it, nonetheless, brings forth questions of and about perfection and absoluteness. I am basing this short piece on the IsiXhosa proverb: umthathi uyawuzala umlothaUmthathi is a tree bark and umlotha is ashes. The general interpretation, therefore, is that a good (perfect) person can give birth to another person, imperfect and not as good as the former. When the tree bark is set alight, it leaves behind ashes, something of an entirely different quality. If the aforementioned is to be presented as a theodical case, we would probably ask ourselves about how does it even happen that such a good person can give birth to someone whose personality is entirely different, when the apple supposedly does not fall far from the tree?



I am neither a student of Philosophy nor Linguistics. In this piece, I do not intend to ask supernatural questions – esoteric and known only to students of the aforementioned courses. I intend to unravel some of the knots I have about ‘human’ life and how this links to everyday language. Walter Mignolo has once mentioned that language is not only something we use for cultural identities but,indeed, a site whereupon knowledge is inscribed. 



Generally, isiXhosa, as a site of knowledge, indicates to us the contradictions in ways in which we understand life and account for its events. For instance, there is another proverb that contradicts the one at hand: Igqabi aliweli kude kunomthi walo. The leave does not fall far from its tree, this is equivalent to the above-stated English proverb. Essentially, man, if we are going to acknowledge and mark umlotha as imperfect remains of what is/was good, what does that tell us about the former’s (own) perfection? Specifically against this notion of perfection, there is another Xhosa proverb that comes to mind: Akukho nzwana engenasiphako. No one is entirely perfect, everyone has flaws. Someone may be good at a myriad of activities, but there is one activity in particular that will hold as a cul-de-sac, an end that will shatter their idea of perfection.  



Furthermore, umthathi may have had deep-seated imperfections, which were dominated and could not find expression in the person’s personality. These may have eventually find expression in their offspring. While acknowledging social influences and rapid learning, a family with a stoutgat of a child may also have to introspect and cease from looking down on the poor child as imperfect ‘remains’ of a good parent. 




*****Ndumiso is a broke BSc Hydrology student and member of Black Space. Twitter: @mbira_tafari / @1BlackSpace

    source: twitter

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