Speech of Lebogang Mashile at the Opening of 10 years of lyrikline.org festivities
26.10.2009 Palais (Kulturbrauerei), Berlin
Mr President, Ms Köhler, Ladies and Gentelmen,
Africa is home to a vibrant and dynamic oral tradition. Before the word was written on paper, it was written on the minds, hearts and memories of human beings. Oral tradition, or living language, has been used to record genealogy, movement patterns, wars, significant events, and scientific information for millennia. Texts travel from person to person through time and space. Memory serves as both the page and the archive. Each human being who is in possession of stories, poems, and songs about their people is a living library. Therefore human life is valuable not just in and of itself, but also as a storehouse for knowledge that has been passed down for generations.
In South Africa, where I come from, every African family has what is referred to as an isithakazelo in isiZulu. This family poem is a source of immense pride and is perceived as an invaluable cultural heirloom. Children are taught how to say their family praise poem from an early age. This poem is recited at important gatherings and is often used to affirm an individual who has achieved something significant in his or her life. Although in most instances these poems are passed down the paternal bloodline, a woman who marries into another family would retain the praise poem of the family she was born into. In some communities, a married woman’s in laws would address her by the family names in her family praise poem.
A family praise poem contains a collection of anecdotes and metaphors that describe the forefathers of a particular clan. It tells you what achievements and admirable qualities they are noted for. It describes the totems and special clan names that hold a place of reverence for the members of the family. Sometimes it lists the places where forbearers lived and traveled, the rivers from which they drank, the wars they witnessed and the characteristics they bear because of what they have been through. It is as powerful as oral DNA, and it is a primal source of communion and identification.
Poetry has always served a vital societal function in our corner of the planet, and the poet occupies the very special position of interlocutor. Poets play political, spiritual, and artistic functions all at the same time. Many kings and chiefs travel with an accomplished poet or praise singer, an imbongi in isiZulu, who will address the people side by side with their leader. It is the responsibility of such a poet to serve the best interest of the community while he is in the circle of power.
A poet is placed in a privileged and difficult position. While a poet has the ear of the king or chief, he must communicate the needs, dissatisfactions, wishes and concerns of the people. Similarly, the poet also publicly expresses the will of leadership to the people, and he has the discretion to add his own interpretations based on his view of the current political climate.
In isiZulu, a poet is referred to as inyosi, or a bee, because a poet’s words can either sting or be as soothingly sweet as honey. The poet uses language as a veil and as a mirror for the harshest of truths, truths that leaders would not be willing or able to hear directly from the people. In this respect, a poet’s ability with language is his weapon and also his saving grace. A leader would find it very difficult to alienate a poet who speaks with a critical voice, as long as that voice is a capable of stirring the people.
Poets are held accountable to their audiences for what they say publicly. African people expect to hear the truth, however complex, from their most revered artists. Poets, who are worth the name, are expected to articulate the undercurrents of society. At the same time, they are also expected to help leaders and ordinary people see beyond the struggles and tribulations of the present time.
The historical context of poetry in Africa has shaped the most fundamental aspects that define a poet’s role in society. The poet lives in a realm without borders. The poet moves fluidly between the powerful and the powerless, between the past, present and future, between the tangible and the intangible, between the physical and the spiritual. The poet is expected, allowed and mandated to do that which many people fear – that is a poet has a responsibility to tell the truth to power.
In more recent history, poetry was used as a weapon to challenge the might of the Apartheid regime. Arts and culture were major tools in the fight against Apartheid, and poetry, in particular, played a critical role. It was not uncommon to hear the voices of poets at political rallies speaking out against the horror and brutality of the time. Poetry was recited at the funerals of the fallen, and many of our most celebrated poets of that era were either jailed or exiled for their words.
Fast forward a few years and we arrive at the present. Since the first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa has been in the process of building a new, inclusive national identity. Included in that mammoth task is the process of understanding what role and position we occupy in relation to the rest of the African continent. South Africa was designed by its colonizers to be a developed, industrialized European outpost on the African continent. In order to achieve that end, African cultures, philosophies, and methodologies were systematically devalued.
The colonization of the African mind included the imposition of another way of passing down information. Another logic was forced upon on Africa, which stated that in order for words to have any authority, they had to be written down. The voice of God was written in the Bible. The voice of the state was contained in its laws. The voice of recorded history was found in books. Anyone outside of the realm of ink and letters, outside the boundaries imposed by the page, did not have a voice.
This process of bludgeoning Africa with the written western word also denied the fact that there were highly civilized societies in Africa who engaged in the practice of writing. The Timbuktu scrolls and the libraries of Alexandria are examples of this. Why were some Africans writing? Who were they? What did they choose to write down? Why? How was this information hidden for so long?
As an African feminist writer in post Apartheid South Africa, I actively inhabit many worlds. I move fluidly in and out of the ancient and the modern, and as I do so my lens into both worlds is re-shaped and re-defined. I am tainted by the impact that these worlds have had on me, but I am also actively tainting the way in which my society sees itself though my work.
I do not think that there is a place in the world that would afford me the level of access and influence that I enjoy as a poet and a public figure in the same way that Africa does at this moment in history. South Africa is looking for new ways to tell its stories, and poets are a meaningful part of the expression of a new national discourse. Moreover, South Africa is the only country on the African continent with a first world media infrastructure. Right now, it is not uncommon to see a poet reciting their work on TV, or to see them being profiled in a newspaper or magazine, or to hear the voice of a poet on a national radio station.
South African media practitioners are currently trying to figure out how to present a reality that is reflective of an authentic African experience in mainstream media. Most African people living in South Africa have a direct cultural reference point for what poets do, so that makes it possible for poetry to live in mainstream media. Added to that is the fact the main entry point for most people into poetry is live performance. A poet who is able to command the stage and the page is in a position to make a considerable impact on the cultural landscape.
As a black female writer, I am actively writing into existence a voice that has been rendered invisible for centuries. African women are usually spoken for, about or to in literature. I belong to a community of writers that are part of a monumental shift that is taking place in South African writing. As African women, we are writing ourselves out of invisibility, out of subjectivity and out of the state of being voiceless. We are writing our voices into history.
The realm of poetry in South Africa is historically male dominated, with few exceptions. Every time I perform publicly, I, and the many other women writers who share this vocation, challenge the status quo. Women entering the poetic domain are also shifting the nature of the subject matter and themes that are normally discussed in South African poetry.
One of the legacies of “struggle poetry” – the poetry that was written during Apartheid in defiance of the Nationalist government – is the voice of the poet as the judge, accuser, victim and/or observer who looks at a particularly unjust situation and comments on it. The problem is always outside of the poet. With more female voices entering the landscape, the site of struggle is now shifting to a much more internal and personal terrain. Women are writing about the intersection of politics, love, relationships, identity and spirituality. Apartheid did significant damage to our psyches and women writers are helping the society to rebuild the emotional vocabulary required to heal from the trauma that has been left behind.
Writing, reading and access are major concerns for a writer, like me, who lives in a country where you have a better chance of being raped as a woman than you do of learning how to read. South Africa is not a reading society, and when I say this, the implied message is that black people don’t read. This sad, self-mutilating reality is a legacy of poor education, under-equipped or absent libraries, a publishing and bookselling industry that is very euro-centric in its nature and content, plus the fact that the cost of books in South Africa is far too expensive – more so than in Europe or America.
The same audience that comes to my performances, or watches me on TV will not go out and buy my books. I have accepted the fact that I will reap the rewards for my efforts, materially and spiritually, at another time. Right now, part of my responsibility is to make poetry and literature less alienating for a society that has been told that there is nothing for them in books.
I write for the canvass of memory, personal and historical. I write so that young black girls growing up in my country can construct bigger and better dreams for them selves. I write to twist the English language into subjugation so that I can free myself. I write because Shakespeare, Stevie Wonder and Audre Lorde didn’t know how much joy their words would bring me, and similarly I do not know what joy will be extracted from my work in future, far off, places that I cannot see or touch. To quote Bessie Head, “I write because I have the authority from life to do so.”
I write poetry because it is an elemental part of my environment, and I have been steeped in a culture that is as multi-faceted as it is articulate. Poetry can live in different spaces. It can live in the world of Presidents and parliamentarians. It can live in a book that I carry in my handbag. It can live on CD or on DVDs. It has arms that twist and stretch into other art forms like film, theatre, music, visual art and dance. “Poetry is the highest register of language as expressed through the texture of life”, says South African Poet Laureate Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile. Poetry is the language of the soul that is distilled by the heart’s experiences and given voice by the choreography of thoughts in the brain. Its place is anywhere and everywhere.
I think this is the reason behind the growing popularity of poetry, especially spoken word, around the planet. In a world where nearly 250 years of industrialization and western hegemony has produced a global elite that is too pre-occupied with facebook and reality TV to think, there has to be a backlash. Mass media is exposing all of us to the dumbing down process of the richest segment of our planet. We have been given an opportunity to make thinking cool again. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could inspire people to think over, through, above, beyond and across mental borders?
Against the backdrop of the gross commercialization of the global (American) mass media and cultural machinery, we are returning to the original form of disseminating information. In the face of technology trying desperately to keep us separate, the spoken word is forcing us to listen. It is speaking to our natural inclination to want to hear one another, to want to hear the truth.
In my country, we are afraid of books but we have more cell phones than people. I am deeply inspired by and hopeful for an era where the new generation will record their heritage using technology. Before it disappears. Before our logic vanishes. Before we forget who we are forever.
Whenever I come to Germany, I am touched by the similarities between our two countries. The changing face of Germany means new ideas, new people, new races, new sounds, new dialects, and a new logic. Germany also has a wounded history like my home, and even though you are three generations removed from World War II, it cannot be erased from the lifeblood of your experience. We can never erase colonialism or Apartheid, but hopefully with distance we will find new eyes through which to see ourselves.
Lyrikline has for the past 10 years, attempted to distill the cacophony of our crazy world into one poetic voice that lives and loves through languages, space and time. Perhaps it is befitting that it is the voices of poets that forms a digital world without borders. Poets move in between zones like time, race, nations, class, philosophies and artistic genres to sculpt ideas and give life the landscape of emotion. There can be no borders in such a world. The poem is the in between.
Lebogang Mashile (Poet, South Africa)