Tuesday, February 08, 2005

South Africa to African America: 2 Poets Correspond (Letter #7)

08 February 2005

Brother Vonani,

As we enter the final week of the residency, this is the 7th of our correspondences. I feel a bit anticlimactic by concluding when things are still rolling. And, boy, aren’t they rolling! Today, I am scheduled to go with Terri and Ros on an open car ride through a game reserve.

“You can’t say you’ve been to Africa and not seen any animals!” Ros insisted.

So, I’m rather excited about the promise of rhinos, giraffes, zebras, and whatnot.

This business of land ownership you raise is a tricky one. Ros explained that this game reserve is actually privately owned by an individual. On the way back to Caversham from the Bushmen caves, you explained land ownership as it relates to the typical rural village – that the villagers do not own their properties, but rather receive it under some sort of lease arrangement from the chief; that the chief does not own the property either, but rather serves as custodian.

Something seems wrong with one individual owning enough land for a game reserve while there is no individual land ownership at all in a village of thousands. And it is all the more tragic when the people who live in a village next to a state-run attraction (Drakensberg/Giant’s Castle) - and all of the cultural wealth it contains - cannot even afford to visit it.

By the looks of things, the only way for a Black person to get in the park is to work in it!


Is Peter Clarke, in fact, human? I’m beginning to question it. It wasn’t enough that he didn’t need a respirator from all of the breathtaking scenery, but the man is still climbing mountains at age 76!

But more specifically about the Bushmen Caves, my eyes have never seen anything so old. Taking the long walk through the hillside and up the mountain – through the aloe and protea, over the gurgling streams, through the maze of trees and up, up, up the rocks - gave me a much greater appreciation for these red and yellow ochre figures I’d seen pressed between book ends. How amazing it is that these figures endured rain and wind and fire (and, most remarkably, man) for our eyes after thousands of years. It spoke to the importance of art in documenting societies – how it survives much longer after its creators are gone.

(NOTE TO SELF: Be careful what you publish!)

(NOTE TO SELF, PT. II: Who’s documenting the three village boys squatting at the roadside, even now – eternally - the green hills rippling into mountains beyond them – as they wait. Waiting for a car, a truck, a spirit - any one, any thing to stop time and bring the sweetness of the outside world. Who will document their dung sculptures of cows? Their ankles of dust? Their open hands? )


Zulu is such a curious language. Last night, Gabi taught me a word which uses the sound. In English, this one word translates into roughly seven words.
NGQONGQOSHA – to carry a child on your shoulders

Days before I came here, I searched for Zulu language sites on the internet with little success. Now I see why. How does one teach the GQO and the XCQ to someone who has never heard the sound before?

(You’ll have to give me a word a day to learn in your language, so I can take it back to the States.)


Crunch time is here. Now’s the time for us to stop all of this dialoguing and actually produce! I must say that the change has seemed rather abrupt. Suddenly I feel all of this pressure, but it’s a good pressure, though.

There’s the pressure about what to actually produce, whether it will successfully get produced.

At first I was debating whether I would produce a small chapbook, or if I would just do a few prints of individual poems. I decided against the small chapbook idea because I just couldn’t justify having a book for which the print run would be under 40. I could sell out of that in like 2 readings. And then what? The patrons just stick the books on their shelves? I figured, for something in as limited an edition as this, I’d get more mileage out of it if I produced something that could be more visibly displayed and thus appreciated by more eyes.

Once I sold myself on the idea, Malcolm approached me about whether I would do 3 prints or 5. As I was initially intimidated/overwhelmed by the visual element of the process, I told Malcolm I’d aim for 3 – one poem written here and 2 that I’ve written in the past year. He suggested that I try handwriting the poems for a more personal/artistic touch. What he didn’t tell me was just how labor-intensive that could be.

What didn’t go wrong? My handwriting was too wispy, then the page margins were too short, then the image wouldn’t scan, then the printer wouldn’t print, then I printed on the wrong type of acetate, then the ink began to smear. And here I thought I was going to have problems with the images!

Now that I see how much work is required in pre-production, I can’t wait to see the final product. (Your book, by the way, looks fantastic.)


So, now that we’re in the home stretch, what would grade would you give our class as it relates to collaboration? I’d say a C-minus. Unless I’m missing something, the only collaborating really happened with us, the writers. Here we have these 7 letters where we dialogued. You have a book in which Peter provided graphics. I have one print where Terri assisted me on an image another in which Gabi is providing an illustration.

But I’ll have to admit, if it were the other way around, and we were working in the print (literature) medium, I probably wouldn’t be jumping at the chance for the visual artists to help me compose words.

Nonetheless, everything in me wants to try to collaborate with Peter Clarke on one print, but I don’t think there’ll be enough time.

So, this is officially the end of the 7th day of correspondence. But I don’t think it has to end here. And besides, I’m notoriously terrible at endings. We should continue this dialogue, after the residency is over. We’ll have to trade addresses.

Besides, I think I owe you some poems.

M. Ayodele Heath
08 February 2005

Sunday, February 06, 2005

South Africa to African America: 2 Poets Correspond (Letter #6)

06 February 2005

Dear Ayo,

I loved your letter. It’s layered with history, philosophy and wit. The girl who asked for your contact details at the salon was brave enough to confront you. I guess she saw a window of opportunity: a handsome man, husband, good life in the US. Maybe she’ll send the email. And when you come back, do not live indoors: face the real world out there in clubs and pubs and stadiums and church and varsities and where else… where young people gather. Of course you need to take precaution. But fellow, I can tell you that people have been falling in love in all these years of a myriad catastrophes: World Wars and ensuing challenges. If you are serious about claiming your Africaness, then get a real Zulu or Kenyan maiden girl. She will balance your life like she does with luggage on her head. I wish I had been there, behind the curtains, with a red-lipped Kenyan beauty. I am happy you suppressed your feelings, but I was not there!

ii. Print making

I’m making a book bro. It’s called, Lines for Lionel. It’s taking a good shape. Malcolm has amazing technical knowledge. I went upstairs to his office/ studio, and we sat behind the PC to layout text. We talked about measurements and sizes – a language of designers and architects. I am happy with the prototype made so far. I am not sure how books we gonna make, but I am sure I’ll have something to show the people of Limpopo when I get back home. I think it’s gonna be special book made on rare paper. Paper in this country is expensive, it is owned and controlled by private companies Mondi and Sappi. It’s for this reason book prices are unbelievably expensive compared to places where forests are under state control.

iii. A visit to Ukhahlamba (Drakensberg’s) Giant Castle

Sandile knocked on the door as I was sipping herbal tea, waiting for the two eggs to boil in the pot. The time was 8:55. Then Gabi, Sandile’s mom came to literally collect us. You had just cooked the green broccoli as part of our cottage’s contribution to the afternoon picnic. I added baby tomatoes (which few Cavershamers ate) and maize cheese snacks which everyone loved. Cruising through valleys and alleys, and rolling knolls in the hired Toyota Condo 2000, Malcolm the master printer (driver) behind the wheel, I felt safe. I had the company of you and the arts-maestro Peter Clarke. The Caversham man known for his word, ‘you are here for others) explained the history and landmarks of the area: the Midlands place of rare shoes, the expensive and historic Michaelhouse high school where parents fork out R80 000 before uniforms and other school activities. We drove through a huge village, children loitering in the road. Some were playing in ponds, perhaps catching trout – the fish we ate at the Caversham mill restaurant last night. I kept asking myself, how many lives have been lost in these ponds… Red kombis stopped and loaded people to church or parties or societies or who knows? Scrap cars littered everywhere. I actually think they are more than moving cars in the village. It’s a typical lively village where most people in the village are of Hlubi descent and share the surname Hadebe (according to Thandeka, the tour guide at the caves). People’s houses were generally typical of any village: poorly constructed crammed brick walled houses with stones over the zink roof, mud huts that normally collapse when heavy rains fall and a few tin shacks.

When we entered the Giants’ Castle, I was glad to know that the place is controlled by the government of South Africa. In South Africa, there are a few propertied few who own rivers, mountains and game. They even charge for what they acquired illegally.

We walked to the Main Caves, guided by Gabi, who, like you and Terri, took pictures incessantly. Terri loved the beautiful landscape – of a variety of proteas plants, red ochre, million-year old layered rocks, flowing river/ stream in the bottom, singing birds. I saw her capturing types of grass and fen.

Lionel remained behind at Caversham with Molly the bulldog, making art. When I learned that he was not going join us, I tried to persuade him during dinner at the restaurant. But when a big man of Lionel’s stature has made a decision, no one can change that. Even though it’s risky to walk in paths of puff adders, baboons and reptiles at the so-called Bushmen museum, it would have been good if Lionel had joined the group. Perhaps we would have become a better team, now and forever.

As we walked in the lovely sun of Midlands summer, I admired the energy of 76 year-old arts-maestro Peter Clarke. He walked tirelessly, hanging his green jersey on the shoulders. He might have walked 2 hours to and from the caves. At the caves, Thandeka the tour guide from the local village, with words pasted on her head, told us the history of the Northern and what side caves? She spoke in English. She enticed us to the beauty of the Nguni languages of clicks. She made sounds: qoqo, cici, xoxo. I am not sure if tourists bother to learn Zulu given their obsession of European languages. Many tourists who walked to the direction of the caves were white. I kept probing, ten years into South Africa’s freedom and democracy, where are the African tourist? Peter indicated sarcastically pointed that they were still fighting for liberation. Later he said he represented the African folk. I asked Thandeka about numbers of people who visit the area, she said,

“We have a lot of whites. Sometimes a few blacks from the US. It’s expensive, it’s R50 per person. Imagine a man from Kwa-Mashu with his family visiting, it would be very expensive. Plus they would like to eat and drink, and plus petrol”. Importantly, local people need not pay when they visit the caves. The only problem is that sometimes they hunt down elands and kill them, an unbecoming act.

In the caves, I saw faint paintings of the Khoisan people: images of elands, cattle, bushbucks, snakes, people, bows and arrows. I also saw sculptures of these short people donning Thandeka explained too fast the traditions of these almost decimated people. She also showed us a 1942 signage by a certain Boshoff whom she did not know anything about. She showed a place where British soldiers used to gather and make fire. She said nothing about the great AmaZulu nor the village where she lives in.

For me, the visit to Ukhahlamba was joyous, a great effort on the part of Caversham to build a team. I wish Lionel joined the team. Maybe he would have loved the food feast and sweet corn that I ate in the picnic luncheon.

iv. Sharing is based on the generosity of spirit

Now I want to preach. Sharing is the basis for any solid group. Yesterday you expressed doubt if we were a group, pointing out that if we were, few would dominate. It’s not only you who sense a hierarchical structure within the group; that is, it’s Peter, Lionel. Peter is humble and reasonable.

What is it that we can share as poets? Poems to the group. We must fight for that space. Peter created the 10 o’clock ritual during tea time. We must leave a legacy. No room for despondency.

Lot of things can be shared as part of strengthening this residency: photos that people take can be developed and shared amongst all of us. A group photo can be made for all participants to take home. A Caversham news/ bulletin can be set up. It’s good Terri is helping with the development of Caversham website. It’s a resource for all of us. It’s good that we’ve been eating together quite often. Some members of the group are not into the cooking habit though. Or are they saving money? I don’t want to mention names (I have no cash to face the legal court).

Sharing must go beyond Caversham. Someone must do a catalogue of work done at this residency. We must all practically demonstrate an ability to cut this selfishness in us, and share words, ideas, physical resources to the poor and deserving.

When we share what we have, financially or ideas, we must not attempt to control processes. Let us facilitate. Collaborate. Corroborate areas of transformation. When we share, we must promote the collective ways of making decisions. Where possible let’s have consensus, or worse, vote. We must encourage dialogue and monologue. Otherwise we end up in total control, that makes us bosses. Others can call us dictators.

When we share, let’s think before we open our big or small mouths. It’s better to contribute by listening other than blathering. Sometimes I speak without thinking! And when I do so, I make no sense at all. What’s your take on this matter, bro?

Should artists be sharing? Yes, and what if you don’t click? Maybe Caversham should run a group dynamics workshop and deliberate team building exercise as part of the residency. I take it most of these concepts are being implemented, for instance, we normally eat together as a group. Malcolm and Ros often invite us for dinner. Why don’t we invite them for supper too? Does this kind of tradition/ exclusion signify uneven power balance between participants and management? What do you think?

II Sharing skills and abilities – a reflection on workshops

Every member of the group must share. If Peter the maestro does not have time or skill or energy to drive interviews using video, the maestro must then pass the baton to another artist of writer to do the job. Time is ticking. I promised to write a press statement about the work of Caversham and this residency, and if nothing comes of it, Vonani must be reprimanded. The group must tell me to have a clear focus and set realistic objectives. Sharing skills and abilities is dependent on expertise, selflessness, confidence, love, readiness, compassion and a feeling of ownership.

The workshops conducted during the residency were fine. Peter shared his poetry through his own voice and the video which featured other notable South African poets like Ingrid de Kok and Michael Cope. Lionel shared his life in Robben Island and the harsh conditions in District Six. He raised the question of identity and deconstruction. Ayo, you made us think fast, free writing exercise. I tried to get people talk about their personal history, and write a poem or something about ‘tree of their lives’. Gabi took us to the river, orienting us about Caversham. She trusts us with her computer, and radio, and plates and… she drives us to Howick and Lidgeton. Ros invites us for dinner, she drives us around Howick to do some shopping at the Gravevine and Spar, to the Falls and to that overflowing Dam.

Mr Caversham or should I say Malcolm shares love, passion for creativity, his hour-glass model for development, deep concern for the poor and peaceful working environment.

When writer and poet Kobus Moolman visited, I sighed. It was good meeting a prolific writer of his stature. I am sure we shall share a lot, now and tomorrow. When story-teller gem Gqcina comes, it will be marvelous. Fireworks. That’s what we need. More fire. More energy. You have a lot of fire, energy, sir.

Best regards,

Vonani wa ka BilaCaversham Centre for Writers and Artists

Friday, February 04, 2005

South Africa to African America: 2 Poets Correspond (Letter #5)

04 February 2005


It is so interesting that you bring up the issue about the name, South Africa. When I was in Atlanta preparing for my journey, I happened to mention to a couple of people that I was traveling to your country. Here was a response:

“South Africa?”


“Well, what country in South Africa?”

“Um, that is the country.”



“Oh, right, right-“

People sometimes associate the country name ‘South Africa’ with the regional names, ‘West Africa’ and ‘East Africa’. So, I can see why a change of name might add more clarity.

The act of renaming public institutions is a touchy one. In Atlanta, we have a similar issue with streets named for the city’s Confederate/slave-owning legacy versus changing their names to reflect the city’s Civil Rights/liberation legacy. For instance, we have a well-known thoroughfare that was known for decades as Ashby Street (which I did not know, until the name was being changed, that it was named for an 18th century Civil War general {who fought for state rights to keep Blacks enslaved}). Ironically, the street ran right into the heart of the Atlanta University Center, a complex of 5 Black colleges (Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark-Atlanta University, Morris Brown College and the International Theological College) which comprise, as I understand it, the highest concentration of Black college students on the entire planet.

About 10 years ago, the name of Ashby Street was changed to Rev. Joseph Lowery Boulevard, newly named for a very well-respected 60’s Civil Rights leader who fought to grant Blacks equal rights. Even though shiny, new street signs have gone up, you’ll be hard pressed to find locals (including myself) who will call the street Lowery Boulevard. As a matter of fact, if you’re an out-of-towner asking for Lowery, that’s one way to surely get yourself lost.

And on the same note, after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, many American cities renamed prominent boulevards in their Black neighborhoods for the Civil Rights leader. One might think that such a name change would inspire civic and social change, but I can tell you from my personal travels across the stars and stripes that from Savannah, Georgia to Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, California, if one follows a street named MLK, one will more likely find oneself in the government projects than in the promised land.

Some argue that name changes are just a waste of paint.

But I would beg to differ. I would just add that a change name must be accompanied by a change in spirit. When I received the performance name Ayodele, which means a joy arrives in the house, it made all of the difference in the world for me. It gave me something to live up to, something to be accountable for. And from what I have seen in the Kwazulu Natal province, especially at Jabula High School today, South Africa/Azania’s spirit is nuclear, enough to power a continent.

Before I came here, I had read about South Africa’s onslaught of social and economic issues – HIV, unemployment, unequal land distribution, poverty. I feared the situation was hopeless. But I must tell you, after two weeks of being here, just with the small segment of the population I’ve encountered in Howick, Petermaritzburg, Lidgetton, Durban, and Johannesburg, I couldn’t imagine a people better equipped to – not only overcome but - flourish.

Which brings me to the performance today at Jabula High School –

As I am sitting here typing this message, Terri has just plugged her laptop into the phone line next to me. She has begun a conversation about, ironically enough, the children at Jabula High School. I have read this statistic over and over about the province of Kwazulu Natal: in some areas, over 30% of the residents are HIV-positive. But it was not until Terri just now said, as she was in the car with Malcolm returning from Jabula, that he mentioned to her that of those hundreds and hundreds of bright-eyed adolescents, 30% - roughly one-third - would likely die before adulthood, much less reach my age-

As we sat before the student body of 500, her voice shot like a bird from the floor of the auditorium. Then, imagine a harmony of three birds flying in a triple helix – like some far-out DNA molecule – but going up, up, up. And within seconds, 500 Zulu voices fluttered around her. What on God’s Earth could make a more beautiful sound? I can see why the name Zulu means heaven/sky.

Then, after the principal made a few announcements, the same thing happened again. Only this time, dozens and dozens and then hundreds of primary school children filed in the doors in their maroon uniforms on the floor, on tables, in the aisles, wall-to-wall filling every imaginable space, until the space was covered. It was as if the future was rushing in behind me, lifting me up, in an uncharted black ocean. And just that overwhelming. As my fingers and my toes tingled, I fought back my tears.

It was a wonderful performance indeed – both as a performer and as an observer. You really connected with the audience. Without prompting, you had them singing along. My brother, you give yourself far too little credit as a performer. It was wonderful to see you in your element. I am glad you left books for their library. It is a small thing, but it is one of the rocks that builds a community.

And speaking of communities, I had a very interesting time in the community of Howick this afternoon. As you know, Gabisile took me to run a few errands as she picked up her son from boarding school. One of those errands included my getting a haircut:

“Do you know where I can get my haircut?”

Gabby looked at my head, thought. “Hmmm. Well, the men in Howick get their haircut on the street,” she said in her melodic Zulu accent.

“The street?”

“Yes, the side of the road. The barbers, they set up chairs on the side of the road and men sit there and get their haircut.”

I looked at her a little puzzled. Exactly how sanitary is that? I thought, but before I could open my mouth she said:

“But I don’t think you should get your haircut there.”

I wanted to push the issue. “Why?”

“’Cause you’re a tourist.”

And I left it at that.

So, Gabby takes me to a real-live salon where there are mainly White women – one White man - in chairs, an Indian woman the receptionist.

“Can you ask for me?” I asked.


I remained behind her, saw Gabby point toward me, saw the receptionist shake her head. I walked in closer.

“You can go to this place,” the receptionist said, handing Gabby the flyer.

“Monique’s. It’s…,” and off we went.

When we got to Monique’s, there were no White people at all – but no men either. Two Black women sat in chairs getting their hair processed and permed. As Gabby spoke to one of the hairdressers in Zulu, I saw a roomful of eyes shift toward me. The hairdresser to whom Gabby was talking nodded.

“Have a seat,” she said to me. I sat and waited.

“It’s going to be 10 Rand.” Gabby said.



10 Rand? That’s not even two dollars. I could get five haircuts for that back home. (This is the one thing that actually is cheap in this country.)

Within minutes, I was in the chair.

“You just want a brush cut?”

Not only was I happy that she was speaking in English, but she was speaking my language. “Yeah, a brush cut.”

As she shaved my hair off, I watched myself in the mirror, watched her dark chocolate hands moved back and forth over my head like a magic wand. Not bad, I thought to myself. Not bad at all. She kept mumbling something in Zulu under her breath.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“Huh? Oh, yes sure.”

And she shaved and shaved and shaved. She kept mumbling something to the hairdresser next to her. But I ignored it.

When my haircut was over, I reached into my pocket to pull out a R20. I was so thankful, I figured it was the least I could do. But when I turned around to give it to her, the hairdresser had slipped inside a curtained door.

I waited for her to come back out, but she beckoned me to come in instead.

I tried to hand her the money, but she beckoned me closer. Then again, as if she were impatient. She was holding a notepad.

“Your name?”

“Uh, Marvin.” (Caught off guard, it was the first time I had given my birth name since I’ve been in the country.)

“Marvin?” She asked, as if I had just said Monkey or Cow.


She shrugged it off. “Cell phone number?”

Okay, this is getting strange, I thought. “I don’t have a cell number. I’m not from here.”

“Shhhhhh!!!!” she said. “That’s right. Now, your e-mail address?”

I wrinkled my brow.

“Your e-mail address? Give me your e-mail address and you will be getting an e-mail from someone here tonight,” she said with an emphasis on tonight. “You understand?”

Suddenly, I understood.

Interestingly enough, when I tried to check my e-mail from the computer at Caversham tonight, the host was down.

M. Ayodele Heath
11:58 P.M.
04 February 2005

P.S. I would be honored to submit material to you. The work you are doing in the community here is what this is all about.

P.P.S. Prayer in public schools is absolutely forbidden in the United States. At Jabula High, not only did the students pray at the beginning of the assembly, but a reverend was on-site to give a sermon for the new school year. How common is this?

P.P.P.S. I never imagined that I would visit Africa in the summer and see people wearing turtlenecks. This place is wild!

Thursday, February 03, 2005

South Africa to African-America: 2 Poets Correspond (Letter #4)

03 February 2005

Riperile Ayo (Good night Ayodele, that’s in my language, Xitsonga).

I. Who is Mr Howick?

Thank you for a heart-rending missive. You asked, who is Howick? I asked Gabi, she didn’t know. I wanted to ask Malcolm, I forgot. Perhaps I should have visited the tourist office to find out the history of this area: Howick, Lidgetton, Balgowan, Caversham, Pietermaritzburg… The answer is, I am inadequate.

I can only make assumptions: Howick was a white man who probably served in the colonial army as general. Maybe a missionary who taught people to pray with their eyes tight closed. Perhaps Howick was a writer– a poet who never got a chance to be published widely! Ignorance is not an excuse. I am a South African, and should fully comprehend this country’s history.

Notwithstanding, Howick should simply be renamed after a bird or lush vegetation and the name must be in Zulu. Once again, I shout my slogan: Africa for Africans! I support the move of changing names of towns and streets and so on. It’s important that we do so. I wonder what would be the attitude of government if we had to change South Africa to Azania. The ANC has never liked Azania nor its BC exponents. So unlike other African states that changed names, we are still a Republic of South Africa or is it South Africa only?

When most African countries gained independence, they shed European names. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. Lourenzo Marques became Mozambique. Southern Rhodesia became Zambia. South West Africa became Namibia. South Africa, what did we become? Same old stinking nameless Jack in the southern tip of Africa. If blacks are in control, why are the many voting black masses disgruntled and viewing their freedom as piecemeal? Who is in control? My sense is the ANC comrades are in office, not in power. The economy is still in the hands of industrialists and farmers who have tracks and tracks of fertile land, including ownership of mountains and rivers and caves!


The story of a six year black street kid at Howick is a tragic one indeed. Lack of language is a barrier, and often, the abnormal becomes very normal. Ignorance is a sickness and arrogant attitude must be cured. In this country, like many other developing countries, we have masses of underfed, hobbling kids who sniff glue to warm their thin bodies throughout the year.

The half-measured attempts to fight poverty by government seem fruitless. The government is encouraging the poor to start projects and small businesses, but when the courageous poor entrepreneurs ask for money from government funding bodies, they are often told the budget is exhausted. When they ask for credit from commercial banks, they are asked for collaterals. Frustration sets in. Good people, talents and sacred souls are but wasted. The six year black boy hovering in Howick will certainly grow bigger (well if he survives the HIV/AIDS pandemic and hunger) and join the army of the unemployed young South Africans. This time, the young man will be very ungovernable. He will not beg in the street. He will break people’s houses, hi-jack cars, rape beautiful girls and educated women. He will knife away those who dare to challenge his ways of making a living. He will break his parents’ hearts forever. No rehabilitation institution will be able to bring him back to life. He’ll be arrested many times. Stay long periods in jail. He’ll crowd the prison with his hunger for killing and money. He’ll be released on parole. He’ll go back again in prison (which me and you are probably afraid of.. like I said ‘I would kill a man if a prisoner attempted to penetrate my ass’.)

The story of a six year black boy is a painful one, especially when we are looking for a positive black future in a liberated South Africa. Blacks will forever remain slaves in their own land, when opportunities for growth are closed down. Piecemeal solutions won’t eradicate poverty and want. South Africa needs a political and community leadership with ‘balls’ to fix broken down families and communities. There is a need to dialogue about an appropriate economic policy that will be friendly to the poor; a policy that will secure the future of that six year black at Howick Falls.

All over the world, people are saying out loud, “Another World is Possible”. This must happen in the lifetime of that six year old black boy at Howick Falls, who probably lives in a derelict.

III. Of aloes and birthdays

When Malcolm told me of Gabi’s birthday, yesterday, and suggested a poem, I did so.

for gabisile nkosi

you are a burning aloe

your warm leaves
brave the dryness
and stillness of winter deserts,
deep roots firmly anchored
to the ground.

your staccato laughter
is like bursting aloe leaves
spreading seeds
across the land.

gabi, you are calm
deep sea of love.

Tell me what you think of this beautiful and respecting Zulu woman, who humbly says, “ngiyabonga”, njalo? For me, she’s amazing. She is kind-hearted. Shares her stories of pain and joy. Without her, Caversham can’t be complete.

IV. Print making

It’s now making sense to me. When Malcolm explained a range of possibilities to be explored with what we have already produced during workshops, I noticed the connectedness of process and the product. He also made my work certainly clear and manageable, and exciting. I love making books. Perhaps is the obsession of many writers to want to appear on the printed page, in bookform. Orthodoxy or innovative…just fine. I’ve trying to take care of what I’m producing. As you pointed out this morning, it’s not always easy to produce a solid literary work within three weeks. My writing process requires chiseling and chiseling and chiseling… which sometimes takes months before I’m satisfied with the final poem. Every poem that I write I leave it to ferment, gather steam, then explode. I go back to it, listen to raw music of the words; search for better phrases and lines; examine the structure; read it out loud alone in every space possible and then to a group of friends.. even strangers. When I am satisfied, then I can throw it away to editors of literary magazines like Kobus Moolman, the amazing spirit that visited Caversham yesterday.

IV. Poetry at Jabula high school

It was wonderful to visit Jabula School. I reckon for a performance poet like you, you probably shed a tear of joy. The pupils came in droves to pray, and the poets pumped them with additional prayers. The pupils sung popular Zulu Christian gospel songs. Even the primary school children filed on the floor added their tiny voices. Pupils clapped and screamed. Ooohh. I realized I’d forgotten my light-hearted poems about love and so on, I felt the Mandela, Have You Ever Wondered poem still served the purpose I needed: to get the audience burst in song, in my presence and long after Vonani’s absence. I strongly think through rhythm, one is able to get people up, up, up and dance.

I liked your energy on stage. Hot gun powder. Fireworks. An explosion. Boom! Boom! Indeed home is colourful buddy! The dramatics really worked. I envy your energy and passion for words. Your powerful voice, and shift from character to the other was amazing. No need for electronic gadgets to amplify the voice. The content so refreshing. You are a poet with subject matter. It’s the reason pupils screamed. Even the children who covered the cement floor screamed.

I therefore invite you to submit 4-5 of your poems (old and new unpublished/ original work) to Timbila – a journal of onion skin poetry. If you have time, I would like us to work on a comprehensive interview about yourself, poetry, politics, the state of contemporary US poetry and spoken word, your experience here at Caversham Press, etc. I would be glad to include both selected poems and an interview in the next Timbila edition (which will come out before April this year). I’ll also ask the maestro to send me a few of his unpublished poems for the journal.

I am grateful for the opportunity to read a poem at the school. I am sure I’ve inspired some potential writers and poets. (Unless they saw a monkey yelling on stage. You never know what you look like when you are doing a poem!) I donated two copies of my poetry collection, “In the name of Amandla” and hope to donate more books that I publish under imprint of Timbila and Bila Publishers to the school library and the Creativity Centre initiated by Caversham. I hope the teachers will encourage potential poets and writers to form book circles and poetry reading clubs. Poets indeed need space to share. A platform to rant, evoke feelings and heal hearts.

V. Writers’ needs

Since we all agree that writers play second fiddle at Caversham at this stage, there is definitely a need to reflect on ways to accommodate writers fully. I am sure there is no ill-intention on the part of Caversham management to have writers on the periphery and secondary to visual artists… it’s just that a print-making facility is much more handy to fine artists. Of course writers and poets are important, and wanted badly here, otherwise we would not have been invited. It’s a natural battle to balance interests. Perhaps if I ran a similar facility, I would give poets (not even prose writers or those who write children’s interests ) a much more louder voice. It’s my area of passion. But I also need other writers and artists. It’s not an easy task. And I think Caversham is doing well (as one of the very few centers catering for the needs of writers and artists) in South Africa. Surely one man can’t do everything. There is a big shortage of thinkers in the world. What do you think?

But writing, like any other job, requires special tools. I was so happy when Ros showed me a Thesaurus the Caversham Press bought today. As a second/ third or perhaps fourth writer and speaker of English, this particular tool came very handy. Every writer needs to refer. Ass you pointed out the other night, for Caversham to satisfy the minimum standards of hosting writers; the following require attention: computers with Internet access, community workshops and readings, meetings with local writers, technical support in the form of a mentor editor, media coverage of the residency, a library with adequate books (well, we are not asking Caversham to build a state library… just some classical works, poetry anthologies, history, philosophy, art…in the writers’ cottage), a stipend (of course, but toilet paper runs out, the writers must not use leaves or newspapers just to save money!).

Some guidelines would need to be developed to establish what can be done in a writers’ residency. Importantly, writers must find ways to collaborate with artists. It’s an amazing experience. A writers’ residency can aim to achieve the following: dialoguing about Caversham hourglass model, writing, editing, publishing, and production of single editions of books and link up with a book publisher to produce in mass (a brilliant idea that Malcolm has shared with me). I think writers of all orientations must find Caversham as home. Well for, I will always motivate for poets (perhaps not too blindly!).

VI. Conclusion

Yes, let’s explore ways of doing projects together. Let’s collaborate with artists. There are benefits. Every opportunity created must be utilized to the fullest. Observe, appreciate, critique, question, reflect, listen, digest, write and read until your eyes hurt. Learning and sharing is what unite true humanity. Let us do all the things that are humanly possible.

Best regards,

Vonani wa ka Bila
Caversham Centre for Writers and Artits

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

South Africa to African-America: 2 Poets Correspond (Letter #3)


My brother, you are a whirlwind of ideas! Where to start? I suppose I shall just fling open the doors and step right in.

Yesterday, on the way to the market, you will recall that we visited the tourist attraction known as Howick Falls. Riding in the backseat of the Audi - observing the mostly German cars whiz by, kilometer after kilometer of workers walking home in the dust, in pairs or alone, the faceless faces of the last women of this dying tradition of balancing packages and pails atop their heads - I was saddened as I dwelled on the name of the place. Howick sounds nothing like Nguhungunyane, Makana, or Biko, or any of the heroes you spoke of. Who exactly is this person for whom these legendary falls are named? My guess is that Howick is not a Black African.

And as we turned off the main way toward the attraction, and as I saw the bi-level explosion of quaint shops with their manicured European facades, selling cell phones and traditional clothing and insurance - my heart gathered like a thunderstorm cloud. All of its signs were scrawled in colonial English – noticeably lacking all of the Z’s and Xh’s and Q’s which, seeing engraved in the public buildings of Pietermaritzburg days before, had made me so proud. If I were perhaps a little drunk, I could easily have mistaken the entrance to this attraction as the Confederate monument, Stone Mountain, back home.

We climbed out of the car and before the six of us could spill onto the observation ledge, all of these thoughts were washed away. Out of nowhere, the Falls.

Beyond the shiny, silver fence of the observation ledge, from the unending expanse of green, tons and tons of thunderous waters poured. And poured. And poured. A Black child in a school uniform - his shirt untucked from his knickers, his nose a little runny - loitered nearby. My first instinct was that the boy was going to ask me for money. He looked up toward me, opened his mouth, and my heart broke.

He spoke Zulu or Venda or Xhosa or Sotho or Ndebele or Tsonga or Sepedi or Setswana – all I know is that he was not speaking English. And unlike with European languages, in which one can often fish some semblance of meaning from a familiarity of sound or in which I could rely on my high school Latin, here my line came back empty. My mouth froze as I watched the boy’s lips move. My skin had communicated something to him, which my mouth could not. I literally had nothing for the boy – not even words. I felt ashamed.

And when I turned to Lionel - who was identified as Coloured under apartheid, though just perhaps a little lighter than my own complexion – who did not even acknowledge the boy, it occurred to me that Lionel, who is a native South African but was raised to speak English and Afrikaans – It occurred to me that Lionel possibly could not understand the child either. Here we were – Lionel, 68; I, 30, and the boy, perhaps 6 – three generations of Black and unable to communicate with each other.

And this was just within one province in one country. What happens when the leaders from all over Africa come together with all of their different tongues? Not only do they lack a common culture, but – having their own different indigenous languages and having different languages of colonialization (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German) – they lack a common language to communicate.

Which brings me back to this notion of home. For Lionel, home is clearly Capetown – District 6 – which is worlds away from this place at Howick Falls, which is worlds away from Atlanta. Through this dialogue, it is becoming apparent to me that, even moreso than landscape and soil, home is about culture and customs - about music and art and language. Home is something you carry with you. It is what made me feel so foreign in the presence of this little boy.

It is the culture here in South Africa which is so powerful, which is a source of inspiration: to turn on the radio and hear deejays in Zulu and Xhosa, to turn on the news and watch Black mouths fill with the syllables that built such enriched mythologies. Herein lies beauty.


Regarding beauty, the ride back to Caversham from the market with you and Gabisile and Lionel was one of the most beautiful rides of my life – the windows down, the gentle breeze caressing my face, the hilly countryside of Zululand rolling like around us like a great green sea; Jill Scott scatting on the radio, Gabi singing along; chicken & bread & scallions & protea & samp & beans; quiche in the trunk; a caravan of Blackness & beauty. When have I ever felt more at home?


I am looking forward to the upcoming collaboration. I think that I will work with Gabi and with Terri. I’m naturally attracted to Gabi’s figure-driven works which tell visual stories and I’m attracted to Terri’s work because of her lack of figures, her emphasis on landscape, and the challenge it would provide to my own writing. Perhaps we, too, could work together on a small book – a sort of South African to American dialogue in verse. What are your ideas?

M. Ayodele Heath
02 February 2005

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

South Africa to African-America: 2 Poets Correspond (Letter #2)

Tuesday, 01 February 2005

My brother Ayodele,

Thanks for your moving letter yester night. It evoked strong feelings in me, and got me thinking about the notion of home, desirably an African home. Or should we talk of home within the tight global village? Well, welcome to Motherland. I’m happy you took time off to join the residency here in Kwazulu Natal. The trip across the Atlantic that you’ve undertaken should certainly enrich your appreciation of African mysticism and mythology. I’m not just sure if the current African in South Africa today, me, can trace African history without being trapped in the web of confusion tailored by apartheid colonialism.

But Africa is home, I’ve no where to go. I’m safe here on this continent whose name I don’t even know where it comes from. I’m proud of the legacy of African warriors such as Shaka Zulu, Nghunghunyane, Hintsa, Makana, Sekhukhune for taking head-on the ruthless colonialists. I pay tribute to freedom fighters and thinkers such as Steve Biko, Sobukwe, Cabral, Tomas Sankara, Sekou Toure for their sacrifice in the struggle for African liberation.

But my brother, even in South Africa, and Africa in general, people still ask, who’s an African? Are Indo-Africans part of our heritage? Are whites born and bred in South Africa African enough? Even after South Africa’s liberation in 1994, apartheid racialism still lives on. Take this example, an apartheid legislation called Group Areas Act that prescribed that people of different races (Black, Whites, Coloureds and Indians) lived separately got repealed when the country’s new constitution came into effect, but people who lived in those divided communities with their different traditions are still trapped there. The poor blacks are worse, because their mobility is limited. Their home is still the ghetto which is not properly serviced. People are crammed there. Unemployment is sky-rocketing. HIV/AIDS pandemic is claiming lives. Townships and rural villages are settlements called ‘home’ by South Africa’s biggest supply of cheap labour, for old white and new black elite bosses. So welcome to the land of real African struggles.

As you probably know, South Africa is currently celebrating its ten years of democracy, but it is the third most unequal country in the world, surpassed by Brazil (can’t remember the other country). This most unequal society, where the largest population of black people that live under sordid conditions, is home to patriotic souls, whose lifespan has been drastically curtailed by HIV/AIDS. Can you call living in abject poverty home? The paradox is that whites who benefited under apartheid through receiving so-called better education, with access to health care, decent jobs continue to enjoy in those gated suburbs of Johannesburg. As a poet, I find it difficult to run away from my country’s grim reality.


Back home at Elim, in a tiny forgotten Shirley village where I was born, the colour of earth is blood red. When rain pours down, which only happens in Summer and when God and ancestors want – mud grows between toes. Gravel roads become dongas. So impassable. Children swim in dirt. They play games colouring their bodies with mud. You can imagine how difficult it gets burying our loved ones, every Saturday.

In 2000, there were floods, and Elim Hospital, one of the oldest hospitals built by missionaries in 1899, was nearly swept away. Electricity was cut off. Water supply was so erratic. That time, my mother Fokisa N’wamahatlani at 63 in 2000, had a swollen throat and had to go for surgery.

First, when she consulted, the doctor gave her anti-biotics which she took for a few weeks. She was told to come back to the hospital again in a month’s time. She did that. This time, the admin staff had lost her records – she was a complete new patient who had to stand on a snake-like queue, sit on a hard bench and sniff the familiar hospital smell the whole day. They opened a new file for her, and told her to come back after a month. Her swollen throat kept on growing, and hurting. She battled to eat and her voice was running away. She went to the hospital, and that’s the time, a Nigerian surgeon carried the operation with perfection. She came back home the same day reinvigorated. My mother told her working children that that she would be fine, no need to panic.

“I am a pensioner. I get free medical treatment. Save your money”, she told me when I suggested to take her to a better health clinic in Johannesburg or Cape Town.

Elim Hospital is the only serious health center in my area. Poor people go there. There’s a ward called Giyani, if you end up there, it will be miraculous if you come out alive. It’s a slaughter house.

Elim is where I was born in 1972. that where my father worked as a cleaner for thirty odd years. But if Elim, as home, can’t be safe to my mother and many people who live around the area, where am I supposed to go when I’m ill?


When I read that you visited the Lions’ River, and touched the dirt, I was moved. Where I come from, I touch blood red earth. It’s the red earth that holds families, communities and nations together. On soft sticky earth, especially in my village, we grow maize, vegetables, beans, avocados, mangoes, peach trees, etc. for subsistence. The unemployed vast majority of South Africa in rural Limpopo province depend on subsistence farming. From the red earth, we enjoy mealie mealie, and cook pap, our staple diet. It’s poor man’s food, but it has kept families, small and huge, of chiefs and servants, intact for years. When I travel without eating pap, I don’t feel good. (You’ll notice that I bought a packet of mealie-mealie, even here at Caversham, to keep me alive).

Drinking Mqombhoti, a traditional corn beer, on special ritual occasions like birth and remembrance of the dead, has become a way of accessing my beautiful ancestors. Although my mom is a staunch Christian, my relatives still talk to spirits by making feasts, drinking and dancing over a weekend. We drink beer with our ancestors, and we conduct our rituals under the nkanyi tree at the break of dawn, singing tsika, tsika. Tsika is a Xitsonga word implying penultimate showing of respect to ancestors. We say tsika as we sprinkle beer and snuff on the red earth.

It’s in Africa, where the gods of fire, of thunder, of disease, of water, of the forests reside. But South Africa does not reflect true African images. I suggest you come back and travel to the heart of the continent. Since you wear the Nigerian name Ayodele, next time you come to Africa, make sure you visit West Africa, and Nigeria in particular. There you’ll meet confident Africans not the tamed ones we have in South Africa. There in West and East Africa, you’ll meet Africans who are not mentally dominated by the white man.

But since you are in South Africa, Africa’s economic growth pole, remember where the country comes from. It’s this country that haboured the worst form of racialism called apartheid. Since you came, we’ve been talking about this matchless barbaric oppressive system almost every day. Under apartheid, just like in US before rights were given to citizens, white supremacy reigned supreme. Whites saw themselves as Gods. At Elim, the missionary grounded everything black and communal. Churches to promote white supremacy were built. Blacks were given white names. Chieftainship was condemned. With the police on their side, resistance to white domination was never tolerated. That’s where I grew up, on Shirley farm, at Elim. Home for whose belief systems? So the notion of home, in a land belonging to others is odd.

In South Africa today, 85% of South Africa’s prime land still belong to the few propertied whites. This is land acquired by force. Even after liberation in 1994, the new government did not prioritize land reform. This means, the red earth that I am proud of in the village, does not belong to me, nor my mother. But that’s the red earth that has covered the souls and spirits of the Bilas. My access to my ancestors is not guaranteed, because I do not hold a title deed to a piece of land that I live on. It’s in the custodian of our chief, who is a mere token.

I think what we call home requires close scrutiny. As much as home is linked to accessing spirits, imagined or real; a reasonable and worse so, a people’s government, can’t call a shack, a mud hut, a derelict, sub-standard housing home. Even though South Africa is liberated, not everyone has a home. Not everyone can call this country home. Political freedom and the right to vote doesn’t guarantee a place to be called home. It’s a transit station, until the poor are taken seriously.

Although I currently work and live in a three bedroom apartment (which belongs to white landlords) in Polokwane city, the capital city of Limpopo province, if one day I settle down (I mean find the kind of woman I can call wife or pass on), I’ll return to the red earth of Elim. Why, there won’t be space for me to rest in Polokwane. The graveyard belongs to residents of the city who have title deeds of property owned.

IV. Caversham

What do you think of the residency brother, as a performance poet? Is the residency programme opening new spaces in your creative process and growth? For me, Caversham is home away from home. I enjoy the company of all the participants. But literary, I get an impression that the center caters for visual artists than wordsmiths. I just don’t know why I have this feeling. It’s not entirely a negative feeling, but check, there are more visual artists than writers.

On my first day, I reflected on the notion of dialogue, remembering the teachings and writings of poet Amilcar Cabral (first leader of independent Guinea Bissau & Cape Verde) who wrote incessantly about the link between dialogue, creativity, development and love. I like Malcolm’s hour glass concept (and I must confess, I had never seen an hourglass in my life). For me, action-reflection, ownership and the model in general is development/creativity friendly and works in the real world. Artists live in diverse communities, and want recognition. Artists live to guide communities and satisfy themselves. I am sure when I go back, I’ll continue working with poets and the broader community through the Timbila Poetry Project and related formations. I am ready to explore how art can be used to change communities. It works.

My impression of our group… or are we a team… is that we have bonded well. We do shopping together. We eat together (even under the threat of being blown away by thunderstorm and lightning; like that other night of rumbling and groaning thunder under the veranda). We do things together: most of us have had a chance to run a workshop for the group; discuss content; drink tea together. But Peter’s generosity of spirit is amazing. He smiles. He reads feelings contained in his folder during tea-time. I agree with Malcolm, we should make prose and poetry reading a ritual—and it is secondary to none. That’s another notion of home.

Caversham is home, despite the tombstones that greet derisively. I’m no longer afraid of wraiths. I like the sounds I hear in this peaceful place. I like the predictable weather. What a paradise! My biggest worry is, will I create anything meaningful as a poet, that will get everyone or half the group actively involved? Somehow, I have a feeling that creating images as artists will do, will become easier and appreciated than writing a poem or story or essay. The process of making a poem requires support: someone to hear the music of the poem; perhaps a keen reader who could also edit and space to see words dance on the page. Perhaps I’m just too anxious. Relax Vonani, everything will be fine. I did it in Belgium!


The American dynamic will shortly manifest itself. You are black. You write from a strong black conscious perspective. Terri is white, in search of her complete identity. Or should I say, I get an impression that she, like most US whites, does not bother to establish her line of ancestry, and identity…? I like her, she is a wonderful person. I still need to make a connection with her images that are inspired by the landscape, flora and fauna. I think there is nothing wrong articulating experiences of happiness and grief through flowers. But I must say, it’s innocent award-winning art for. It does not speak to my reality of grey buildings. Perhaps it doesn’t have to address my anguish and plight as an African. I seem to have issues with art for arts sake. In South Africa, there are artists and poets, mainly white and the new comfortable blacks, who do not want to rock the boat, because they fear to lose privildge. I am not afraid to be victimized or censored. I think art making or writing and performing a poem is an act of courage, confronting your own skeletons and those in the cupboard of society. Most white South African artists and writers do not have content, and if the content is guilt created by stormy years of imperialism; they still do not share it with everyone. Still, the landscape, flora and fauna can be presented in such a gripping way that speaks to you, even in the third world.

Some reasons we share a lot in common is because we are all black, and are poets, and we abhor capitalism (or elements of it), and we are outspoken (careful or reckless) and are committed to serving the black community and the Third World. A better home for all of us, at least for now, is through black poets ancestors that we have carved. Be it Amiri Baraka, Mutabaruka and you name them. In your own view, what is the commitment of typical white US artist and poet today? For you as an American, the connection between yourself and Terri should be established. If it does not surface, perhaps you should gaze at each other’s eyes more! Maybe Terri is an artist to collaborate with.

And this time of the day, in our journey of creativity, are you driven enough to create. What is going on in your head bro? What will you take back home to Atlanta? How is this letter writing? I find it exciting. Perhaps it will excite other members of the group too. In the meantime, let’s explore spaces for WORD to be treated equally as IMAGE. You am a poet and you create images and music in your artform like any other artist. That’s a fact we can’t ignore. RESPECT TO AYO, THE POET.

Yours sincerely,
Vonani wa ka Bila, Caversham Centre for Artists and Writers, Howick