The spoken word has, since time immemorial, been the vessel that carried Africans, their identities, culture and norms, through the ages, and ensured they stayed true to themselves.

While present generations find it impossible to think of a time when the Internet, let alone books, did not exist as a source of information, the humble spoken word was, for the African a conduit through which lessons learnt and events of an era got passed down and documented from generation to generation, across one era to the next.

From occasions of immense joy, great feasts and victories, to catastrophes like famine, strive and wars, Africans immaculately marked, and kept track of it all. To this day, it is common practise in the area I’m from, for a praise singer to be in full cry at a burial, at the very end, when all the rites have been performed. Of course, throughout all the key points in life, such as lebollo (bogwera) or bojale, young men are taught their clan poems or totems as part as the process of initiating them into adulthood.

Incidentally, the world is grappling with the devastation that the coronavirus is wreaking, and South Africa is not immune. It is in times like these that we look to great poets in our midst to rise and comfort us, help us understand and even make us smile, through our pain.

African people have, historically, understood that one’s knowledge of himself is, unlike land or livestock, a treasure it was impossible to dispossess him of. That knowledge determined how he carried himself in the world, and what his purpose was. And this was not always a literal expedition – totems are, for example, one of the more apt examples of how Africans left footprints on the sand for their children and grandchildren to walk through life in.

Tracing back this rich history, and getting an intimate grasp of different tribes’ interpretations and expressions will most likely provide a touchstone for the direction the Poet Laureate proceed in.

Until the advent of settlers, who not only disposed and enslaved them, but looked to stamp out most of the rituals and practises that made us who we are, the greatest education were conducted at night, around fires, where old men and women would tell riveting tales, as the rest of the family sat spellbound, listening to the exploits of these greybeards.

As small children, my siblings and I loved nothing more than to lie with our mother in her bed in the evenings, as she regaled us, from memory, with stories about Tselane le Dimu (Tselane and the ogre) or Samothakalatsane, the humongous, child killing beast, whose demise was brought about by a mere ant. The tiny ant, the legend (or my mother) goes, crept up the indestructible beast’s nostril one day, eventually felling him, after countless attempts by challengers a thousand times bigger. Needless to say, lessons abound in those stories that can still be applied to contemporary life.

Much like storytelling, the myth that poetry is a Western invention has to be disputed. Believing in it is yet another example of Africans re-purchasing what belongs to them, just because it is wrapped up in fancy words and shiny packaging.

Batswana people, a people I am born of, pride themselves on their versatile use of poems (maboko) to mark all occasions, be it a birth, initiation ceremony, wedding or funeral.

A Setswana poem, in the right hands, can be a devastating, insult-strewn, profanity-laden scread directed at whomever the offending party happens to be, or it can be a glorious, glowing praise ode.

“Maboko a Setswana are a teaching tool. The praise poems (go ipoka\ go ithoka) where one basically recites in enthusiastic, glowing terms in front of an audience, their lineage is essential for parents to pass down to their children. It keeps one connected to their ancestors and is a unique identifier of who Africans when they move amongst other nationalities,” my mother, Same, says.

Besides poems and stories, Setswana is also rich in idioms and sayings, which also serve the same purpose – educate, guide, warn, instil values to live by, and help in the navigation and understanding of the world. A Motswana parent may tell their wayward offspring that ‘ngwana o sa utlweng molao wa batsadi o utlwa wa manong’. The saying warns loosely warns that should a child not heed the parent, they are digging their own grave, manong being birds of prey, vultures.

And this characteristic is not a respecter of artificial boundaries for Africans. An English journalist who years ago followed and documented former US President Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, as Obama travelled to Kenya.

There is a wealth of information in there about all kinds of things related to the trip, but what struck me personally, was the residents of Obama’s father’s supposedly complaining that he (Obama) did not “sit around a fire with the rest of his family, to hear about everyone else’ day” and to basically just get to know the rest of his family. Instead, they went on, he went off to a swanky hotel, with the Secret Service in tow.

My two most important takeaways from this particular excerpt was, one, Obama’s kinfolk’s bewilderment was more about their regret in missing the opportunity to pass down the family lore to this grand relative of theirs in the authentically African way; and two, in abandoning his son, Obama Snr had he been alive, would have had a lot to answer for, for a big chunk of Barack’s identity, the part that he should have seen to, simply is not there.

When TshiVenda (spelling) historian Pfanani Lishivha ponders what the role of poetry in society is, he lists its ability to engage, influence and inspire with mastery of language as intertwined with ideas and emotions as key. He also singles out the following: Poetry helps society to make sense of the world and the environment, land and animals, traditionally crucial and central to Africans’ way of life included;
 a moral guide to the society;
 reminding men of their role in society as husbands & fathers – how to treat women with love and care, and being responsible fathers;
 holding a mirror to society to reflect on its behaviour;
 repository of the knowledge and knowledge systems of society as passed down from generation to generation;
 providing proper context of certain traditional practices that are currently being misinterpreted to suit certain agendas; and
 Ensuring that societal taboos are observed since most taboos have hidden meanings that are aimed at protecting society and ensuring its longevity.

Lishivha in explaining TshiVenda culture and its inherent relationship with the poetry, points to a website dedicated to telling the history of Vhavenda, www.luonde.co.za, which has a Tshivenda poem, www.luonde.co.za/culture-religion/zwirendo, that recites the history of different Vhavenda clans at different times in their history and development.

The poem contains a stanza that refers to the conflict over the chieftainship of Dzimauli, also known as Ha-Rambuda. It states ‘U farese thavha Siphuma, vhalidzi vha ngoma ndi manzhi.’ Loosely translated, it says ‘hold on to your mountain Siphuma, there are many people beating the drum’.

‘When one considers that poetry is rich in idioms and proverbs, one realises that the correct and factual interpretation is ‘hold on to your throne Siphuma, your brothers are beating war drums to dethrone you.’ The paragraph tells the story of the bloody conflict that arose when Khosi (Chief) Vele Rambuda died, and his 14 sons got involved in wars of succession. At some point, Siphuma Rambuda was installed as the new chief, but he was heavily opposed by senior members of the Rambuda royal family, as well as by King Makhado.

“The poet who created the stanza was well aware that Siphuma would be dislodged if he didn’t fortify his area and strengthen his army. As warned, Siphuma was dislodged by his brother, Tshikosi, who was assisted by King Makhado’s most trusted battalion, Mavhoi Battalion”.

Lishivha also singles out the massacre of the people of Moletjie and Ga-Matlala in 1887, where chieftainship was at stake.

A covert operation was put in motion when Makhado arranged with Kgoshi Moloto, to stage a matangwa dance at the latter’s royal residence. For the occasion, Moloto invited his subjects and dancers to be entertained by King Makhado’s dancers.

Moloto’s subjects responded positively and gathered at his royal residence. Makhado’s dancers were dressed in appropriate costumes. Princes wore hyena skins, chiefs wore porcupine quills, while commoners wore impala skins and headgears made of jackals’ skins.

“There was no sign of hostility or impending danger in the way they were dressed, as Makhado’s team started to dance, with many spectators witnessing the happy and joyful event. As the dancing continued into the evening, those dancers wearing headgears made of jackals’ skins started howling like jackals. The dancers immediately started attacking the people of Moletji. The attack was so sudden and so ruthless, leaving dozens dead. The following day the disguised army departed and invaded Ga-Matlala whose inhabitants were caught unaware and dispersed in many directions without offering any resistance. Their chief also surrendered and paid tribute to King Makhado.

This event has survived in the form of a poem eulogising tricks applied by King Makhado. This praise which is known throughout Venda and Botlokwa states that ‘matangwa ndi mutshinyashango. Phunguhwe ya lila Muleji, la Ha-Madala li a fhalala (Matangwa dance leads to catastrophe. When the jackal howls in Moletji, Ga-Matlala disintegrates.’

In terms of adherence to taboos, Lishivha points to an animal that has recently been suspected of being the originator of the deadly Covid-19, the pangolin (known as khwara in Tshivenda and Khilobedu, and kgwara in Sepedi).

“Khwara is a highly respected and most feared animal, even though it isn’t venomous and appears not to pose any physical danger to human beings. But ancients knew that certain animals were germ carriers and humans needed to stay away from them,” Lishivha said.

In his culture, Lishivha says, anybody who hurt or killed khwara was severely punished. They and their family would even be driven out of the village. Any person who spotted it next to a village was required to report its presence to the village elders.

“The Tshivenda taboo states that if khwara blood is spilt, the village and surrounding areas where its blood was split would receive no rain for a very long time. But the actual story behind the taboos associated with the killing of khwaras is the fact that they are known germ carriers. Today the whole world is battling coronavirus which is believed to have broken out as a result of people eating pangolins in China. It is believed that the virus jumped from pangolins to humans at a wet market in Wuhan,” he says.

Deference and respect for khwara is reflected in numerous Tshivenda poems and sayings. For example, a problem child/person is referred to as a khwara. In one Tshivenda traditional song, the lead singer (a woman) sings: ‘Ndi ya haya ndi ya u dzhiani ndi sina muvhuye nga dzanga. Ndi do bva nga ifhio ndila? La Dolidoli lo thivhiwa. Li vho dzula Magidimisa. U vho do gidimisa na khwara.’ Translation: Why must I visit my parents’ home when I don’t have a sister-in-law whose dowry was paid for by the cattle my parents received when I got married? Anyway, which route would I use since the village of Dolidoli is blockaded? It has been invaded by Magidimisa (he who chases people). Soon he will be chasing a khwara’.

Lishivha also delved at length into the practice of ukuthwala as an example of how certain well-meaning practices have been distorted over time, and are what they are today.

This practice has been described as the phenomenon whereby a girl’s parents accept money, without the girl’s knowledge, from an older man who wants to marry their daughter by force. The man then abducts the girl, with her parents’ connivance, takes the girl to his home, rapes her and forces her to become his wife. If the girl runs away, her parents force her to return to the old man since she is no longer a virgin, and therefore no longer able to get them a lot of dowry money when she gets married.

“This is not really true and it’s sad to see that these inaccurate descriptions are even on the internet,” Lishivha says.

Online, ukuthwala is described as as ‘a form of abduction that involves the kidnapping of a girl or a young woman by a man and his friends or peers with the intention of compelling the girl or young woman’s family to endorse marriage negotiations.’ (www.scielo.org.za)

“Traditionally, the practice of ukuthwala (also known as u taha in Tshivenda) has absolutely nothing to do with a girl’s abduction and forced marriage. In the days when marriages were arranged, some young women would fall in love with young men their age. But since this was forbidden, the two lovebirds would see each other secretly. When the young woman’s family accepted dowry from an older man she didn’t love, she would arrange with her lover to elope with him to his home. She would then spend the night or a few days with him, and then send a delegation from the young man’s family to the woman’s family to tell them their son had broken the young woman’s virginity. The woman’s family would then be obliged to inform the older man who had paid dowry for their daughter. Since virginity was prized by the would-be husband, the man who had paid dowry for the woman would resent her and demand his dowry back. The woman’s family would then return the dowry from the older man, and accept dowry from the young man who eloped with their daughter”.

Arguing that the current practice of ukuthwala is a traditional African practice is wrong – a foreign practice has been introduced under the guise of the true traditional practice of ukuthwala, Lishivha says.

Feminism and Poetry

In terms of contemporary South African poetry, women are driving the poetry industry, Playwright and Director Refiloe Lepere, tells me.

“They are visible and loud, unapologetic and bold. Women have been creating spaces and opportunities, viable initiatives. Impepho is a great example of what I’m talking about”.

Impepho Press is a publishing house, founded by three women, Vangile Gantsho, Sarah Godsell and Tanya Pretorius. It identifies as ‘a Pan Africanist, intersectional-feminist publishing house committed to the sincere telling of African and International stories, celebrating both the fragility and resilience of human experience”.

Godsell speaks at length about the role and space that feminism has in poetry, and the kind of themes explored in the works that have been coming out in the last few years.

“Within the poetry circles that I’m in, there’s a huge relevance to feminism and especially – and I know that this is maybe strange coming from a white woman – especially black radical feminism. There is a blanket feminism of women poets – there is a sense of collectively in feminism in poetry spaces. A lot of the work that has been released in the last few years by women, particularly by black women, has spoken explicitly to place in society, to patriarchal oppression, but also to issues of womanhood that are not often spoken about. I’m thinking about Megan Ross’ book Milk Fever. It is about pregnancy and birth, but from a very interesting perspective of really exploring depression, pain and the parts that just aren’t pretty, the parts that just aren’t generally allowed in discussions surrounding birth. That’s one example of how poetry speaks to feminism, and to our place in society as women. Poetry explores nuance, even in those issues that are seen as ‘women’s issues’.

“There’s also a strong strand of Spiritual Poetry. I am specifically thinking about Vangile Gantsho’s Red Cotton. It is a work that’s very unapologetically black, very unapologetically woman, very unapologetically spirit. She is very much a feminist and this comes through in her poems. Not because she writes that she’s a feminist but because her poems are around themes of grandmother-mother-daughter relationships. She also writes about love relationships between women, about support and about family relationships between women,” Godsell says.

The theme of feminism and how it manifests in the local space has not only been a realm solely inhabited by women, however.

“There’s an interesting move by male poets to look at ‘brokenness’, and I’m using the word because it comes up in Thabiso Afurakan Mohare’s poetry Broken Men, which looks specifically, at black men. It looks at, not only the violence that has been enacted by society on black men, but also at the violence that black men often enact on black women. The thing about the poetry space, is that these conversations can be had within communities where there’s an understanding of ‘I see you and I love you, but you are hurting me’. Without so much of the white gaze being there”.

Godsell acknowledges that has some of the patriarchal patterns would, without fail play out even in this space.

‘Sometimes I feel like some of the guy poets that are doing this kind of work are usurping feminism a bit, not really listening to what the women poets are saying. Poetry is kind of echoing a voice and echoing a silence”.

Godsell then alludes to a particularly savage, specifically South African practise – the so-called ‘corrective rape’. This is the haunting crime that has played out in many different townships, where perpetrators rape homosexual women, claiming to be ‘turning them straight’, and then murdering her. Unsurprisingly, queer women in townships live in a state of terror.

‘On the subject of black radical feminist poetry– there is a very strong wave that is not only unapologetically black woman, but is also sometimes black queer. This particular voice is speaking to their multiple oppressions and speaking to the strength between women, and how they hold each other up. I’m thinking of Kholeka Putuma’s Collected Amnesia. In the one poem, she talks of queer women dying, and there’s a line where she writes ‘I don’t want to die with my hands up and my legs open’.”

Although many of these of treasures have not been consumed by multitudes, Lepere reckons that is not the point, and that poetry has quit emphatically claimed its space in the South African consciousness.

“I struggle with the idea that poetry needs to be taken to mainstream. I think it already is in the mainstream,” Lepere says.

“You only have to look at the outpouring of South Africans when poet Sandile Dikeni died two months ago. Similarly when Laureate Ntate Keorapetse Kgositsile died. We as a nation were moved. As far as women’s place, Mama Makhosazana Xaba released an anthology of poetry of just SA women poets. Gabeba Baderoon won the HSS award recently for her collection of collective Amnesia, Koleka Putuma is making waves. Many people don’t know that Msaki and Busiswa are spoken word poets’.

Poetry, however, does not have to be Amapiano, Lepere concludes.

HOW THE OFFICE OF THE POET LAUREATE CAN TAKE POETRY TO THE PEOPLE:

1. Creation of the Provincial Poet Laureates2. Form alliances with people and organisations like Impepho, since they have found creative ways to ensure poets thrive. The ingenious online platform which showcases Pan Africanist poets beyond South Africa.3. National poetry tours, with an emphasis to areas which would ordinarily be ignored when these kinds of events are planned.