Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’

Phillippa and I at Citi FM

Phillippa and I at Citi FM

On Sunday, I was on air with Phillippa Yaa de Villiers and some other artistes on Citi fm 97.3fm in Ghana, reading two poems. I wrote this response to the first and only Caribbean poem I have posted on this blog and I want to share it with you. Roger Bonair-Agard’s original poem How Do We Spell Freedom posted here and my Nigerian blogger acquaintance Ibiene’s How Do We Spell Nigeria, posted here, are exciting predates to this one that you should read if you want more after this.

How Do We Spell Ghana?
(for Roger Bonair-Agard)

We began to spell Ghana in 1957. In Two thousand and fifteen, this is where we’re at!

A is for Answers
B is for Black Star in the middle of a half mast
C is for cut, cut, cut! Cut the drama and the lights.

Who dared us dream of utopias?
Unrepeatable dreams dreamt only yesteryears
By a generation before us?
They were ready to manage their own affairs
We, are not!

So D is not for dreams.
D is for Deception.
D is for ‘Do you believe it’s the same Ghana?’
D is for Dumsor
And this is where we’re at!

A could have been for Akosombo
But A is for Answers cos we need answers now
Or even for Aboadze, Asogli or Akuse
But just give us Answers now.

Just yesterday,
Elite and De-light were two innocent pieces of grammar
But today you’re e-lite if you have not been Dee-lighted
And if you still don’t get it,
A is for Answers!

E is for ECG
E because, that’s just enough said
F is for FPSO
This one makes me laugh!

There was another Ghana nobody told you about
So G is not for Ghana, or which one do we mean?
G is for governments
And the chameleon-skin-type-two-sides-of-the-same-coin-none-better-than-the-other-whichever-one-you-have governments!

H is for Hospitality
Because you don’t want to know the state of the hospital.
I is for Independence
At the same time J is for Just a little dependence
Are we getting anywhere with this?
Because I just don’t know!

K is for Kwame Nkrumah, Osagyefo Emeritus
But let a man’s name rest
K is for Kofi Annan, Busummuru and a few other things
But please let a man’s name rest
L is for Lamentations
M is for morning off, till tomorrow morning, on!
And if you still don’t get it, remember
A is for Answers!

O used to be for Opportunity
But after we wasted it,
O is for Opinion
O is for the Circle we’re caught in, like a circus of name-calling and pointing fingers
P is for pointing fingers.

We could have the other Ghana back if we work for it
Q is for Questions, remember? Those questions for which A is for Answers!
R is for Rise and rise and rise
S is for the sorrow of all that could have been.
But there is a T for which
T is for tomorrow
And maybe because of tomorrow
D is back on for Dream!

In 1957 we learnt to say our alphabets
In Two Thousand and fifteen, this is where we’re at!

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers – Image via BooksLiveSA on Flickr.

I am happiest when I am able to make connections with other writers based on the work I do here on my blog. I should tell you this story.

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers is one of South Africa’s acclaimed poets. I say South-African even though she is Ghanaian/Australian by birth. There’s story behind that. I’ll tell you a summary as I have it from her wikipedia page.

Phillippa was born to a Ghanaian father and Australian mother but was adopted into an apartheid-era white South African family when she was 9 months. She grew up to 20 before she knew she was adopted, and did not meet her biological father till years later. Her writing has reflected her obvious internal struggles of identity. Phillippa lectures creative writing now at Wits University in Johannesburg. She has published two poetry collections, Taller than Buildings and The Everyday Wife, among a host of other featured publications.

Well, back in January, having discovered this blog, Phillippa got in touch with me and we begun discussing literature and the common language of our poetry. After so many emails back and forth, guess what? Phillippa is in Ghana! And we are going to be on radio together on Sunday reading and talking poetry on Writers Project on Citi FM 97.3. That’s more exciting than I just made it sound..haha! Please tune in to us at 8:30pm GMT on Sunday 26th April or online at http://www.citifmonline.com.

And not only that! She will take Dr Mawuli Adzei’s writing class at the University of Ghana on Monday 27th at 3pm and then we have the German Goethe Institut hosting her for a reading of her works and book signings on Wednesday 29th at 7pm. Good immersion into the arts scene in Ghana, this should be. All times are in GMT. Thanks to Martin Egblewogbe and Nana Yaw Sarpong of the Writers Project Ghana for making all this possible.

Please tune in online to the radio event if you’re not in Ghana and attend these events if you are. I am happy when blogging jumps from the screen and translates into tangible realities of literary adventure. I will be back to share the fun with you when the week is through.

Nelson Mandela: Pic. cred: Guardian Las vegas

Nelson Mandela: Pic. cred: Guardian Las vegas

The world has lost an icon with the news of the passing of Nelson Mandela yesterday. We can’t begin to find the words to say all he stood for in the history of humanity that can go so crooked at times. Mandela was hope where it was hopeless and light where it was dark. If he had not lived in that era of South Africa’s life, the country may never have been the country it is now.

In the cell opposite Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, was our poet friend Dennis Brutus, who wrote It is The Constant Image of Your face and A troubadour I traverse, all reviewed previously on this blog. Both of them were partners against apartheid, working in the quarry together, cracking stones and being tortured. It is fitting we honour the memory of Mandela today with poetry that was written by a man who knew him first hand. Dennis Brutus wrote this poem after Mandela was released from prison and was on his way to finally assume presidency of South Africa, unify a nation standing at a point of indecision on its future and teach humanity a lesson on forgiveness.

Here is Dennis Brutus’ tribute,

For Nelson Mandela

Yes, Mandela, some of us
we admit embarrassedly
wept to see you step free
so erectly, so elegantly
shrug off the prisoned years
a blanket cobwebbed of pain and grime;
behind, the island’s seasand,
harsh, white and treacherous
ahead, jagged rocks
bladed crevices of racism and deceit
in the salt island air
you swung your hammer grimly stoic
facing the dim path of interminable years,
now, vision blurred with tears
we see you step out to our salutes
bearing our burden of hopes and fears
and impress your radiance
on the grey morning air

 

My name is Dela. Even before I was old enough to know anything about this world, my cousins called me Man-Dela, in tribute to the greatness of a man whose life touched everyone who believes in the greater humanity, irrespective of country. I bid him peaceful rest. We will tell our children this, that we lived in the time of Nelson Mandela.

POET’S PROFILE

Dennis-Brutus-001Dennis Brutus campaigned for freedom in apartheid South Africa and as was normal, he was persecuted by the apartheid government. He tried to flee from detention after being handed to the South African authorities by the Mozambiquan authorities and was shot in the back at close range. On partial healing, he was sent to the notorious Robben Island where he was kept in the cell next to Nelson Mandela’s. According to the apartheid code, he was considered a coloured person.

Dennis Vincent Brutus was a South African activist, educator, journalist and poet best known for his campaign to have apartheid South Africa banned from the Olympic Games. He lived between 28th November 1924 and 26th December 2009. He was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and had ancestry of mixed French, Italian and South African.

His activist life likens him to a crusader for his country. A knight on duty for a mistress; and this has so often appeared in his poetry. He loved South Africa deeply and did everything to win its freedom. In this poem, “It Is the Constant Image of Your Face”, he closes the first stanza by saying “my land takes precedence of all my loves”. This was his passion. While he was in prison, news broke that South Africa had been banned from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as he had campaigned for.

IT IS THE CONSTANT IMAGE OF YOUR FACE
It is the constant image of your face
framed in my hands as you knelt before my chair
the grave attention of your eyes
surveying me amid my world of knives
that stays with me, perennially accuses
and convicts me of heart’s-treachery;
and neither you nor I can plead excuses
for you , you know, can claim no loyalty –
my land takes precedence of all my loves.

Yet I beg mitigation, pleading guilty
for you, my dear, accomplice of my heart
made, without words, such blackmail with your beauty
and proffered me such dear protectiveness
that I confess without remorse or shame,
my still-fresh treason to my country
and I hope that she, my other, dearest love
will pardon freely, not attaching blame
being your mistress (or your match) in tenderness

REVIEW

This poem is a typical Dennis Brutus poem. As is characteristic, he compares his love for South Africa, to the love he has for some other person. Maybe, a woman!

He opens the poem by saying ‘the constant image’ (line 1) of his woman’s face and the ‘grave attention’ (line 3) of her eyes which survey him amid his ‘world of knives’ (line 4), accuse him perennially. This is all coming to him as a memory because in line 2, he makes the allusion to a period gone when his love was knelt before him with the frame of her face in his hands. His ‘world of knives’ can mean so many things at once. It could mean that Brutus was surrounded by apartheid South Africa with its numerous brutalities. It could also mean that he was conflicted inside him, in a way that struck him like many knives piercing at once. Again, he could be talking about the conflict between his two loves as the poem tells us as we read on. And we are yet to know what she accuses him for, but Brutus doesn’t make us wonder long. She accuses him of heart’s-treachery (line 6). No, not even accuses but convicts! He has accepted that he has been treacherous to his woman, going on to probably share his love with another. But he does not apologise for it. He tells her that none of the two of them can ‘plead excuses’ (line 7) for his seeming infidelity because apparently, he cannot stop his love for his land and she can also ‘claim no loyalty’ (line 8). I want to risk saying that he is saying that he’s not bound to be loyal to her because ‘my land takes precedence of all my loves’ (line 9). He loves his land more than all his other loves. His land is his woman’s rival.

The second stanza is an attempt to pacify the heart of his woman who has been brought to the saddening realisation that she cannot have her lover all to herself. He begs mitigation (line 10), meaning that he admits that he has done wrong but is ready to give reasons for it. He calls her lover an ‘accomplice of my heart’ (line 11). That is like saying that she is equally guilty of his betrayal of his greater love. The woman is so beautiful that she has blackmailed him with her beauty (line 12) and made him a backslidden lover when it comes to his land. He has given his heart to another one outside his precedent love. In fact, her love for him has been so sweet and protective that he finds no shame in confessing his denial of his country. He calls it a ‘still-fresh treason’ (line 15). But in this confused place, a world of knives, he pleads, hopes (line 16) that his dearest love (line 16), South Africa, will pardon him freely (line 17) and not blame his woman. He ends by revealing more of his confusion, saying that South Africa, his first love, is his woman’s ‘mistress (or your match)’ (line 18), not knowing which to say is more tender. He loves one, he loves the other. One was able to conspire with his heart and steal his affection from the other, and now he does not even know whether the two are matched or one is dearer to his heart.

The greater emotion here is Brutus’ guilt of diluting the apartheid struggle with other cares. His love of his land is shown here overwhelmingly. This poem is another beauty that has added a little more tonnage to my love for this most romantic of poets coming from Africa.

POET’S PROFILE

Mtshali

Mtshali

I had to review this poem by Mtshali because it has come up, along with others, as most-searched and leading to traffic on this blog. I find also that Southern African poets are probably the most read along with Nigerian poets and many enquiries to my blog have brought up same names and demographics. I intend to obey that wind and review more Nigerian and Southern African poetry but also, I will wander into the hinterlands for poems from Sudan, Ethiopia, the Arab African nations, Francophone and Lusophone Africa for what goes through their literary minds as well.

Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali is a South African poet who was born in Vryheid, Natal. After his early education, he left for Johannesburg with a dream to pursue further schooling in the University of Witwatersrand but he fell victim to the endemic workings of the apartheid era in which he was born. He did not gain admission and resigned to live in Soweto, a Bantu suburb of Johannesburg, about which he writes this poem. His dreams took him to an M.A in the United States and lectureship at Pace College, a U.S-funded model College in Soweto.


NIGHTFALL IN SOWETO

Nightfall comes like
a dreaded disease
seeping through the pores
of a healthy body
and ravaging it beyond repair

A murderer’s hand,
lurking in the shadows,
clasping the dagger,
strikes down the helpless victim.

I am the victim.
I am slaughtered
every night in the streets.
I am cornered by the fear
gnawing at my timid heart;
in my helplessness I languish.

Man has ceased to be man
Man has become beast
Man has become prey.

I am the prey;
I am the quarry to be run down
by the marauding beast
let loose by cruel nightfall
from his cage of death.

Where is my refuge?
Where am I safe?
Not in my matchbox house
Where I barricade myself against nightfall.

I tremble at his crunching footsteps,
I quake at his deafening knock at the door.
“Open up!” he barks like a rabid dog
thirsty for my blood.

Nightfall! Nightfall!
You are my mortal enemy.
But why were you ever created?
Why can’t it be daytime?
Daytime forever more?

REVIEW
This poem sees Mtshali going almost emotional in his protest against the treatment of black South Africans under the Soweto night sky.

Soweto is an acronym for South-West Townships and is located in that bearing from Johannesburg. It hosts some of the largest populations of slum-dwellers in the world and is the setting for Mtshali’s poem. In review, nightfall comes like “a dreaded disease” (line 2) that ravages beyond repair. (inf. line 5). Obviously, the poet sees a worry about the fall of night and we are yet to find out why so.

But he does not make us wonder long!! In the next stanza (how good is it to say “strophe” here?), Mtshali uses four lines to graphically describe the cold murder of the helpless victim (line 9). Note that he uses the definite article “the” to describe the victim, indicative of the fact that these deaths are commonplace. Then we begin to see why nightfall calls his wrath.

The poet puts himself in the place of all the murdered, calling himself the victim and the slaughtered (lines 10-11). “Slaughter” gives us a feel of the animalistic way in which human life is treated and brings more attention to the worth of the life of the black man hiding in the Soweto nightfall. He goes on to say (lines 12-15) that as the representative of all the victims, he fears every night in the streets, knowing that his death cannot be far off. “Gnawing” in line 14 paints the picture of something that is slowly being bitten off in small chunks and the comparison is this: for all the many black men- estimated to be more than a million- living in the shacks of Soweto, taking one or two lives a night is a slow, albeit sure way of killing the population off. Mtshali is talking about the apartheid era, certainly, and we can only deduce the murderers to be the law-officers whose duty it was to enforce the tyrannical decrees of the regime during the times.

Lines 16-18 sum up the whole poem. “Man has ceased to be man” shows that either way, the human race has changed. For the good? No. For in the ensuing lines Mtshali likens Man to a beast and then to a prey. This Man has become the hunter and the hunted.

The law-officers never took men in broad daylight and killed them. They came marauding in the night as if unleashed by night itself from its cage of death. This is pathetic. And why night is a conspirator in this heinous crime earns it the accolade “Cruel” in line 22.

It was a hopeless situation then and houses were as impotent to keep one safe as it was to just stand outside in the night and get shot. A desperate “barricade” (line 27) against nightfall was useless even as the offenders march straight to doorsteps and order men out to their death. Hounds and mad dogs “thirsty for my blood” (line 31).

So the curses of Nightfall continue as Mtshali signs out embittered. If the night will bring death to the black oppressed man, then it was a sworn mortal enemy (line 33) and in the conclusion of his rant, our poet wishes that we had “Daytime forever more”.

The irony of the poem is that Nightfall refuses to bring the rest that is deserved and common. A long poem and review too but as I have often said, it is with reading the sacred lines of Africa’s great poets that the history and tomorrow of this great continent can be appreciated.

POET’S PROFILE – DENNIS BRUTUS

Brutus-Poetry and Protest

Brutus-Poetry and Protest

Dennis Brutus campaigned for freedom in apartheid South Africa and as was normal, he was persecuted by the apartheid government. He tried to flee from detention after being handed to the South African authorities by the Mozambiquan authorities and was shot in the back at close range. On partial healing, he was sent to the notorious Robben Island where he was kept in the cell next to Nelson Mandela’s. According to the apartheid code, he was considered a coloured person.

Dennis Vincent Brutus was a South African activist, educator, journalist and poet best known for his campaign to have apartheid South Africa banned from the Olympic Games. He lived between 28th November 1924 and 26th December 2009. He was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and had ancestry of mixed French, Italian and South African.

His activist life likens him to a crusader for his country. A knight on duty for a mistress; and this has so often appeared in his poetry. He loved South Africa deeply and did everything to win its freedom. In his poem, It Is The Constant Image Of Your Face, he closes the first stanza by saying “my land takes precedence of all my loves”. This was his passion. While he was in prison, news broke that South Africa had been banned from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as he had campaigned for.


A TROUBADOUR I TRAVERSE…

A troubadour, I traverse all my land
exploring all her wide flung parts with zest
probing in motion sweeter far than rest
her secret thickets with an amorous hand:
5 and I have laughed disdaining those who banned
enquiry and movement, delighting in the test
of wills when doomed by Saracened arrest,
choosing, like unarmed thumb, simply to stand.

Thus, quixoting till a cast-off of my land
10 I sing and fare, person to loved-one pressed
braced for this pressure and the captor’s hand
that snaps off service like a weathered strand:
– no mistress-favor has adorned my breast
only the shadow of an arrow-brand.


REVIEW


“A troubadour I traverse…”
is a poem written on chivalrous themes. It is a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet, made of a full octave (rhyming abbaabba) and a sestet (rhyming abaaba). First off, a troubadour is a medieval European poet-knight whose duty it was to ride alongside and defend a mistress. Until the troubadour retires from service, his duty is to die defending her. And he often praised her high unattainable love in his lyrics.

But Brutus is a troubadour for his homeland, seeing South Africa as a mistress for whom he must live and die. In the title and first four lines, Brutus talks about his romantic traverse (or travel – line 1) across the land, exploring its wide-flung, spread-out or exposed parts in a movement that is sweeter than any other that he knows. He does so with zeal and with his “amorous hand” (line 4). And in this ecstasy, he has laughed at all those who have sought to stop or question him even though he knew that a crusade in the name of love for South Africa under apartheid meant that he will die protecting her or be doomed to Saracened arrest (line 7). Saracens were Muslim Arabs against whom Christian knights fought the wars of the Crusade. Significantly, South African police armoured cars were also called Saracens. And in the face of this threat of arrest, he chose only “simply to stand” (line8) unarmed.

So he continues the protest, enjoying the romance with his land while tempting the apartheid regime for an arrest, quixoting till he is cast-off from his land (infer line 9). Don Quixote was the protagonist of the Spanish novelist Cervantes’ book and he spent his life fighting imaginary monsters and enemies, earning him a laughable reputation. So Brutus makes himself a quixotic fool for his homeland by a love that presses him (line 10) and which makes him prepare for an imminent arrest (captor’s hand – line 11) till he is snapped off service (line 12 – killed for his mistress South Africa or made incapable by detention). No mistress-favour or emblem of service adorns his breast as is usual for a troubadour but only the shadow of an arrow-brand (lines 13 and 14). The arrow-brand is the standard British symbol for a convict and Brutus’ reference to an arrow-brand could be the scar he keeps on his back from a gunshot for trying to flee from detention.

It is amazing how romance, the story of a man’s life and apartheid themes can be merged into this one poem of fourteen lines. Brutus is an African hero for giving us a chronicle of the fight against apartheid through the eyes of an African poet.

POET’S PROFILE – ANTONIO JACINTO

Jacinto

Jacinto

The man Antonio Jacinto was born a white Angolan in 1924. He schooled in Angola and became an office worker. But I have realised, and in fact it is true, that most of his poetry reflected an identity with the down-trodden black Angolan colonial subjects of the time when the Portuguese ruled. Jacinto was a critic of the Portuguese inability to educate the Angolan people and he was loud in this regard. He was arrested for his activism and sentenced to a fourteen-year prison term served in the Cape Verde Islands. He was released in the eleventh year of his jail term and sent to serve the Portuguese government as an accountant. He escaped and returned to Angola where he joined the independent struggle, becoming Minister of Education and Culture and later, Minister of Culture. This line from his poem: POEM OF ALIENATION is a summary of what he stood for in his work; “my poem is the suffering/of the laundress’ daughter”. Of all the Lusophone poets I have read, his poetry appeals to me most. I am always falling to the left of popular opinion, I know, as the greatest Lusophone poet in Africa is touted to be Agostinho Neto.

LETTER FROM A CONTRACT WORKER

I wanted to write you a letter
my love,
a letter that would tell
of this desire
to see you
of this fear
of losing you
of this more than benevolence that I feel
of this indefinable ill that pursues me
of this yearning to which I live in total surrender …

I wanted to write you a letter
my love,
a letter of intimate secrets,
a letter of memories of you,
of you
of your lips red as henna
of your hair black as mud
of your eyes sweet as honey
of your breasts hard as wild orange
of your lynx gait
and of your caresses
such that I can find no better here …

I wanted to write you a letter
my love,
that would recall the days in our haunts
our nights lost in the long grass
that would recall the shade falling on us from the plum
trees
the moon filtering through the endless palm trees
that would recall the madness
of our passion
and the bitterness
of our separation …

I wanted to write you a letter
my love,
that you would not read without sighing
that you would hide from from papa Bombo
that you would withhold from mama Kieza
that you would reread without the coldness
of forgetting
a letter to which in all Kilombo
no other would stand comparison …

I wanted to write you a letter
my love
a letter that would be brought to you by the passing wind
a letter that the cashews and coffee trees
the hyenas and buffaloes
the alligators and grayling
could understand
so that if the wind should lose it on the way
the beasts and plants
with pity for our sharp suffering
from song to song
lament to lament
gabble to gabble
would bring you pure and hot
the burning words
the sorrowful words of the letter
I wanted to write to you …

I wanted to write you a letter …
But oh my love, I cannot understand
why it is, why, why, why it is, my dear
that you cannot read
and I – Oh the hopelessness! – cannot write!

REVIEW

How could there be another poem of more beauty than this? Jacinto sums up all his mastery in these lines and they are enough to make him my favourite Lusophone poet, his other works notwithstanding.

A contract worker was an illiterate Angolan recruit whose duty it was to serve the colonial government on supposed contract terms in mines in South Africa. But the money was held by the government, with only a bit going to the worker to live on while the rest was purportedly saved for him. On his retirement from duty, the government deducts what it claims as tax and gives him the rest.

In faraway South Africa, he had no access to his family and they were not permitted to visit him either. So Jacinto, in the mind of a contract worker many miles from home, is writing this long lyrical piece to his love. He tells her of the longing he has to see her and the fear that she might belong to another man by the time he is back all in the first stanza.

In the next stanza, he compares her features to fruit and natural pleasures which he cannot even find where he is. He tells her also that the letter is about “intimate secrets” and “memories of you.” Evidently, he has missed his lover. In the continuing stanzas, he keeps on reminding her of some of the things they did in the past that highlighted their passion and how bitter it was to be separated. He claims that his letter will be so passionate that even if the wind loses it on its way to sending it to her, all the other creatures and trees, all sympathetic to his cause will pass it on, one to another, until it gets to her as hot as he wrote it. This is serious passion. Romance at the highest. But at the lowest too, a pathetic fallacy.

And we are just getting carried away when Jacinto brings us down quickly with the words, “but… I cannot understand” and the repetition that somehow confounds us “why, why, why”. These tell us that something is terribly wrong. And before we know it, he has confessed that it is hopeless that he cannot write and she too cannot read. Oh! What a waste.

This is a powerful poem by any standard. It reflects the single stories of men which were lost in the greater story of the independence struggle. If great men fought for independence, they surely had personal stories too and this could well be one of the many untold personal stories that died with the unheard colonial subjects. God bless Jacinto’s heart.