My first out-of-body experience happens in a mall parking lot, hours before I’m to perform a spoken word poem in my school’s annual poetry show. In our small school, the shows are just one of two big events put on by the school’s art and theatre departments and the poetry club of which I’m a member. The other big event is the school play. Unlike the play, however, the poetry shows usually attract a younger crowd, perhaps owing to their incorporation of acts in the set list like rap and hip-hop dances. If this collision of art forms may seem chaotic, then there is something beautiful in the miscellany, perhaps also owing to the highfalutin titles we give each show: “The Spoken Word Odyssey” and “The Circle of Fiction”.
I’m at the mall because the day’s rehearsals are done. With a few hours left before the evening’s performance starts, I use the time to get something to eat. It’s a warm summer’s day, the afternoon sun glancing against the roofs of parked cars.
That’s when it happens.
The summertime calm is disrupted by what feels like my brain unhinging from the roots. At first, it feels like nausea, or just any other dizzy spell, but this is different. This is dislocation. This is my body feeling like it’s composed of two selves, separating. The one self walks on, only perfunctorily involving himself in the conversation with the people around him, trying not to freak out—is this what dying feels like?—while the other self seems to be hovering somewhere in the sky, with a bird’s eye view of Self One walking away. The sensation seems to challenge all notions of a self in the first place. How secure is our grip on “the self” if on a sunny day in a mall parking lot, that conception could so easily disintegrate?
But those thoughts only come later.
For now, I can only hope the people I’m walking with can’t tell I’m freaking out, and hope that I’m not dying, and pray that, at least by the time I’m buying the food, my brain gets back to normal.
Medically, out-of-body experiences are still a bit of a mystery. Doctors have loosely attributed them to causes like heavy physical exertion, near-death experiences, anxiety, depression, sensory overload, and hallucinogenic drug use. Leading up to the poetry show, I haven’t experienced any of these, save for, I suppose, the normal performer’s nervousness about going on stage. Still, I have been on stage many times before. It’s hard to buy into the idea that my nerves could transform into a full-blown out-of-body experience. Perhaps sensory overload is the most plausible cause.
There is a sensory cornucopia I love about afternoons in Lesotho that only a few countries, I believe, are able to provide. In the post-rehearsal calm of a show—the silence before the stage lights turn on, before the audience’s voices start filling up the theatre—this characteristic seems to be amplified. It’s in the lazy way we are strolling to the mall. It’s in the sunshine itself, viscous as honey; it seems to slow down the rush-hour traffic and ushers in the sensation of a city about to sleep. Still, this seems to bear no correlation to the subtle violence of feeling as if I have been divided in two.
The medical explanation doctors seem comfortable with explains them as a disorder in the vestibular system—structures in the inner ear that provide us with a sense of balance and spatial orientation. However, should you seek other answers, specifically of a spiritual nature, they have also been said to be proof of the existence of the soul. I don’t care to argue with any of these explanations. Whether through science or mysticism, the separation of personhood into two selves is both surreal and profound.
As we walk to the mall, I think of telling the people around me what I’m experiencing. But how would I explain it to them? My feet are moving along with everyone else’s, I’m involved in the conversation like everyone else as well. How do I explain that it feels that a part of me is separated from my body and is now floating in the air?
More than the fear that I was having a nervous breakdown of some sort, I remember being terrified that it would never end, that this feeling of my soul being afloat was how I would perceive reality from now on. I would be stuck in this small forever.
By the time we get to the Pick N Pay inside the mall, the experience has ended, and I’m relieved. We return to school and I’m eating my snacks in relative calm, waiting for the show to start. The school theatre has become more chaotic than we left it, as people scurry to and fro, preparing for opening time. I am swept up in the chaos, so I have no time to dwell on the strangeness of what had happened to me a few hours ago. I tell myself that once I get to bed that night, I will quell any lingering fear about my experience with Google searches.
Evening sets over Maseru and people start coming in. The theatre lights dim, and the MC steps on stage, introducing our much-rehearsed-for Spoken Word Odyssey. The evening goes by uneventfully and my time to perform approaches. With a few minutes before I’m about to go on, the out-of-body experience happens again.
And I panic.
Again, the feeling like I’m looking at everything from the outside.
The sense of dislocation.
I watch the MC introduce me.
I watch myself stand up and approach the microphone.
I watch myself perform a spoken word poem.
There was a period in time when spoken word poetry, as an art-form, experienced a boom in Lesotho the likes of which only music, among all art forms, experienced. No doubt, it was influenced by a similar boom in neighbouring South Africa, with festivals like Poetry Africa and platforms like the Word N Sound Poetry and Live Music Series. This is years before it passes through the self-ironising cultural lens perpetuated by films like 22 Jump Street, in which Jonah Hill’s “slam word poetry” monologue satirises the form; staccato-delivery of verses and all. In the boom, people like Joshua Bennett and Jackie Hill easily perform poems that go viral online. In between lectures, university students, in their hard drives filled with the latest films and music, open up their laptops to watch Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam series hosted by Mos Def. It features a slew of well-known artists performing spoken word poems: Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Common, and Nikki Giovanni. Here in Southern Africa, poets like Lebo Mashile, Napo Masheane, and Lesego Rampolokeng are household names. A then up-and-coming Kanye West appears on three seasons of the series, performing, amongst other poems, a spoken word version of his hit “Gold Digger”. For a while, it doesn’t seem impossible that this form could become the art form of the time.
Back home, Lesotho is replete with regular poetry events at restaurants, even one time, at the defunct cinema where Mak Manaka is performing a sold-out poetry show. Our poetry club is a response to this cultural boom. It has something to do with having nothing better to occupy ourselves with on weekends. It has something to do with that ancient human need for self-expression. As a country, Lesotho has run the gamut of all possible scenarios that come from violent colonial subjugation—corruption in government, army coups, state failures in education, failures in economic policy, and failures in protecting her citizens’ human rights.
Countries are living, breathing things, an organ composed of us—million little cells holding the part together. All living things are in the process of dying, some faster than others. I can’t place a date or time when Lesotho started dying, nor can I place one on the eventual and inevitable end. But the decline is all around us, in the crooked streetlights, in the cracked pavements, in the latest politician who has misappropriated state funds. And yet, I know that this art form—crass, lowly, honest, beautiful—is a response to this perpetual death. An attempt to create new life in the face of decay.
Here, it feels as if there is something new being born through our oldest art forms of words and sound. Words that call new worlds into being as each word is strung together to open up new thoughts and feelings.
I admire this form because it suffers no ambitions of grandeur. Cooped up in small venues like coffee houses and community halls, there seems to be a common understanding that no one performing is trying to carve out a career for themselves as a world-renowned poet in the same way, for example, a singer would traipse across the stage on an open mic night hoping to be discovered. There is a common acceptance of the ephemerality of this moment, which is also to say, the ephemerality of life itself: you step on the stage, open up a crumpled piece of paper and search through messy handwriting, read, and then go back to your seat. Everyone from the suited businessman, to even, one time, a homeless woman, heeds the call to the microphone. On Monday, they return to their lives, all artistic impulses satisfied. There is no bigger moment outside of being in a room with strangers and friends, sharing themselves. That is enough. That in itself is the big moment.
On the outside, it may seem strange that Basotho youth have adopted this form as a way to express themselves. Why not dance? Why not theatre? A similar boom seems to be happening with rap music, but in this period, it’s an art form seemingly reserved for what we call true hip-hop heads, an underground scene strikingly dissimilar to today’s culture where trap music is ubiquitous, and everyone within a five metre radius is either rapping or knows a rapper. But on closer inspection, Basotho youths’ adoption of spoken word poetry as a mode of expression is tied into a unique Basotho identity. In Basotho villages, it’s commonplace to hear, on crisp mornings, a herder breaking into a stream-of-consciousness poem as part of lithotokiso as he leads cattle to graze. Famo, traditional Lesotho music, uses a stream-of-consciousness songwriting style reminiscent of spoken word poetry, with grand themes such as love, marriage, and betrayal.
I think back on the popularity of spoken-word poetry in Lesotho with a lingering wish that it could have lasted forever. Not that people still aren’t writing the poems, or performing them, but it no longer occupies the upper echelons of the arts scene like it used to. The poetry events are held sporadically, if at all. The poets that used to haunt them have now moved on to other forms, some have abandoned any kind of artistic practice altogether. The decay carries on.
As for myself, it takes me a while to stop writing spoken word poems, even though there are no places to perform them. Perhaps it’s because of my unwavering belief in the power of spoken words; to convey emotion, and even, to celebrate language.
Or perhaps, it’s because of the ephemeral nature of the art form itself that has contributed to its diminishing popularity. Unlike music or novels, a spoken word poem performed in a theatre or coffee house is intangible. It can’t exist on paper or a Spotify playlist. So much of the art form relies in the very thing that makes theatre compelling: speaking to an audience in real-time, the audience responding to the poem with the idiosyncratic snapping instead of applause.
And though it happens in these fleeting moments, like a conversation with a friend, it’s this very nature that makes it beautiful. It asks of you to be present in the moment that it’s giving itself to you, but not for your possession. You can’t take it home to read. You can’t play it over and over again like your favourite song. This is something the businessman and homeless woman understand in a way I don’t. The art form distorts space and time, in a manner not unlike my out-of-body experience.
Here in my school theatre, Spoken Word is as alive as the warmth of the stage lights against the side of my neck.
Despite being outside my body, somehow I manage to finish my poem and return to my seat.
I noticed, though, that as soon as I started performing, all my nervousness disappeared. Whether this was because of the numbness of the out-of-body experience or because I was truly inhabiting the words of the poem, I do not know.
Neither do I know that in a few years, I will fall out of love with spoken word poetry, frustrated by its inability to adequately express images, sound, or even silence—a home of expression that I later find in cinema.
But this is the strange thing with any ephemeral state. Even though short-lived, once you’re in them, they seem like small forevers.
In a state of youth, no one thinks they’ll one day grow to be old. In heartbreak, no one thinks they’ll move on from an ex-lover. It’s a trick of time, a trick of light. Sunlight glancing against the roof of a parked car.
Moso Sematlane is a writer and filmmaker from Lesotho. He separates his time between Maseru and Johannesburg, South Africa. He has been published in Nat, Brut, and The Kalahari Review. He is also an assistant editor at Lolwe. He was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.