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Areas Act that prescribed that people of different races (Black, Whites, Coloureds and Indians) lived separately got repealed when the country’s new constitution came into effect, but people who lived in those divided communities with their different traditions are still trapped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

1 comment:

BLUE said...

i could not flinch as i read this ... and yet i wanted to. so much of the simple truths are here that the rims of my eyes get sore just trying to take it in. this response from Vonani begins some crucial questioning about identity and the anchor(s) of "home" (wherever that is for whomever is deciding). he's so dead-on with his questioning. and you are so honest about the ... air ... you breathed when you got off the plane. personally, i think of all the nostalgia that rises when people who have never set foot on the continent of Africa begin to romanticize about a "return" there. it really is not a return, is it? it is "arrival" ... if you open yourself to that. and "arrival" is full of wonder and disappointment, bitter and sweet. so much of my journey lately gives me a glimpse into the glamorized notions of Africa as home that i embraced as a young (very young) woman. this entry i read in your blog intersects my encounters with three young poets in our city ... one is a woman who runs an "Afrocentric" nonprofit org; the other two are spoken word artists who seem to build the bulk of their work on browbeating black artists into "revolution" (whatever that is in 2005 ...). i am both amused and silenced by them all. i used to BE them until i got to know myself. anyway, thanks for helping me make so many connections and being the barometer for how the notion of liberation and revolution have evolved in me. it all starts (and maybe ends) within ... light! ~BLUE