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

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