Yunus Emre and Es’kia Mphahlele Fêted

On Sunday the 13th of November 2021, two polymaths from two geographic origins were commemorated posthumously. They are, namely the ‘would be’ 783 years old Sufi (or mystic) poet from Turkey Yunus Emre (1238-1328) and our local ‘would be’ 102 years old South African Afrocentric educationalist, award winning author and philosopher Es’kia Mphahlele (1919-2008), fondly dubbed in some quarters as the ‘Dean of African Letters’. This fête was hosted at the South African branch of the Yunus Emre Enstitusu, simply translated as the Yunus Emre Institute (YEI). The latter is an affiliate of the Yunus Emre Foundation founded, in 2007 and headquartered in Turkey. Its mission is to promote Turkey, its language, history, culture and arts. This is meant to complement the foreign policy of Turkey, with other countries. Globally YEI estimatedly exists, in 63 countries. The YEI branch in South Africa, was opened by Turkish Minister of National Education Dr. Ismet Yilmez, on the 4th of October 2017 and continues on its aforementioned mission. 

Awareness of YEI’s purpose ought to help to understand why the aforesaid two icons, were posthumously being acknowledged. Their body of work, mostly under the common theme of humanism served as an excellent advert for YEI. Emre and Mphahlele were foremostly being celebrated, for having advanced humanist ideals. Given the influence of the Bengali polymath and Nobel Peace Prize laureate for Literature in 1913, the ‘would be’ 160 years old Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) on Mphahlele’s ouevre on African Humanism, the embassy of India stands challenged, to also explore hosting a similar bi-lateral cultural occasion. I could not help but be curious, about how many South Africans are aware of Yunus Emre? Furthermore, how many South Africans, have a smidgen of knowledge, regarding the local existence of YEI?

I was cordially invited, by Mr. Abdulaziz Yigit, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of YEI (who was introduced to me by Mr. Ponty Israel Moletsane – the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of YEI’s media partner Salaamedia), to Number 1 Pretoria Street, 2192 as part of a handful of guests, in the leafy suburb of Oaklands in Johannesburg. This prestigious ceremony, was hosted at the aforesaid upmarket address and it was pointedly presented under the following theme Yunus Emre and Es’kia Mphahlele Anniversary Conference. The official advertising flyer, emailed to me revealed the three participants, which were planned and indeed did feature on the programme. The moderator was Ms. Hawa Bibi Khan (introduced as a Council Member at Nelson Mandela University) and the two guest speakers, were Prof. Muxe Nkondo (introduced as a Council Member of the University of South Africa) and Dr. Mustafa Mheta (introduced as a Senior Research Fellow / Head of Africa Desk Media Review Network of South Africa). The topic of Prof. Nkondo’s paper was “The Education of Turkey-South Africa Relations and the Functions of the Creativity imagination” and Dr. Mheta’s paper was titled “Yunus Emre and Es’kia Mphahlele: Two Lives, lived in different Geographic Locations and Centuries Apart, Yet Sharing the same Message” . For those interested, Salaamedia’s Facebook page, has the uploads of all the speeches. 

An absentee from the latter list yet was a crucial speaker, was the recently appointed Ambassador of Turkey to South Africa, Her Excellency (H.E) Ms. Aysegul Kandas. As per protocol from someone in her portfolio, she dutifully opened this ‘Anniversary Conference’, with warm words of welcome on behalf of the local Turkish embassy. I am of the opinion that the jury is still out, on whether or not she may be forgiven, along with her fellow Turkish nationals, for struggling to pronounce the surname of ‘Mphahlele’. Since there are plans to host the same event, in Turkey next year, then YEI must work to overcome such phonetic blemishes. 

Conspicuous in their absence, was representatives of Es’kia Mphahlele’s family. As an Es’kia Mphahlele scholar, the aforesaid lacuna did not sit well with me, so I seeked clarity. Elucidation of this concern, may expectedly be longwinded, given my knowledge, on the ongoing saga related to Es’kia Mphahlele’s house in Lebowakgomo and Prof. Muxe Nkondo’s alledged involvement, with it. In the context of this particular occasion, perhaps the absence of Mphahlele’s family may be summed up, in my one-on-one dialogue with Ms. Khan (whom I had approached at the end of the event, to secure her speaking notes- she obliged and also insouciantly even provided me with Prof. Muxe Nkondo’s notes). In a nutshell Ms. Khan illuminated to me, that she was an adviser to YEI and basically, most of what was planned and implemented leading upto and on the day of the ‘Anniversary Conference’ in question, was her brainchild. As our dialogue progressed, it was startling to realize how much she got impatiently defensive, about any concerns that the Es’kia Mphahlele family, may have had or still have resulting their reason, to object to Prof. Muxe Nkondo’s public lectures, as they were at the expense of Es’kia Mphahlele’s name. Our concise dialogue did not even exceed twenty minutes however Ms. Khan’s remarks were unapologetically quite dismissive of any concerns, about the grave oversight of not having had the courtesy to ensure, that as part of her advice to YEI, an invitation would also be sent to the family of Es’kia Mphahlele. After communicating with Pascal Mphahlele, one of the representatives of the Es’kia Mphahlele family, he was of the view that they would not comment until a meeting was held with YEI. Until that meeting takes place, Ms. Khan’s parting claim of this having been a ‘successful occasion’, may unfortunately be the prevalent view, of others who attended even if they were oblivious, to what some may dim a superfluous sideshow. As to not steal Ms. Khan’s thunder, her partying shot to me was that, as far as she was concerned ‘It was important to include Es’kia Mphahlele as part of celebrating Yunus Emre and there was no better person that could speak on Es’kia Mphahlele, besides Prof. Nkondo’. What an anticlimax! 

By Dr. Tshepo Mvulane Moloi