There are three passages. War is an opened Pandora’s Box.
The odysseys of orphans in an apocalyptic Africa banging painted drums. They don’t read anything. Because the armies and the child soldiers under the orders of the government of the day have destroyed everything. Africa is a nation made up of a government of police spies in plainclothes. There are ‘ghost whisperers’ everywhere.How these ‘forces of nature’ work on the acute dopamine, serotonin levels and dendrites. How they create mass hysteria in their pilgrims, a fragmentary-world-drama, hallucinatory delusions, and psychosis.
There is no African writer who has written a bildungsroman in their mother-tongue. Nobody thought it was a necessity. These ‘little people’ live in a wilderness-history. And every day the body count grows. Girls are not allowed to go to school. Women are raped. The red seed of an abortion flowing out of the woman’s body. Nobody talks about backstreet abortions anymore in Johannesburg. You can go to any clinic. The red seed growing and growing of cancer cells. How can I be delivered from those things? How can I escape, forget? I ran away before to another city but I don’t think I can do that again. I’m too grown up. I am too set in my ways.
I’m safe here. Amongst these houses. In this house. In this suburb. The elite. Those are two words that mean absolutely nothing to me. What does being wealthy mean for humanity at large? It is a meagre one percent. I do not count myself amongst them. It is not my money. It doesn’t belong to me. I didn’t work for it. I’ve wasted years, energy on a variety of things. I tried to educate myself but the real world is a machine and it spits you out if you do not fit. If you’re unconventional. If you’re ugly and emotional. Bessie Head’s Botswana, her gathering rain clouds and Maru is so beautiful, all her doll parts. I’m obsessed with her. I eat to live; that’s my survival-mode, my mechanism to survive another day in modern society, although it stinks to high heaven with shadows, insecurity and squalor.
Write. Write words. Anything that takes your fancy, pleases you, makes you glad and see the loveliness in the world. Now that’s a mantra.
War rots everything in inches. Like snow it’s cold. Knits-ice-into-brain-cells. The president’s speeches have become dead things. Cancer.
Ingrid Jonker wrote about kindness, words, their purity, clarity, poetry, dryness. It came like a flood out of her, pouring out like machinations, Marechera’s liquid black sunshine. I think it became necessary for her in a way like writing has become necessary for me.
I’m scared. I do not want to go back there again, held hostage by spiritual poverty. Where are these words coming from? I do not know. To question it means the death of me.
Peace-the-cousin-of-war. This is the second passage. To-understand-war’s-death-grip-we-must-right-about-it-in-all-seriousness. There’s a dumbed-brightness in the garden-of-death-and-peace. The blood of the sun is on their hands, spots of blood, human stains that cannot be swept away. It’s an open and shut case study. A mother that opens her arms to you and says, ‘Come to me. Forget this place of weeping.’
What is this that is surfacing from kitchen table wisdom, mass graves, body farms, Hitler, Rwanda, genocide, mysterious gases, sulphur, explosive devices, atomic bombs, evil scientists, white masks and innocent civilians abandoned or murdered? Young children, girls, boys, mothers, fathers, child soldiers, God’s children? Battlefields, a nightmarish wonderland, prizewinning journalists and guns. Mass graves stick out like sore thumbs, blisters, sticky fingers caught in the jam tin. This is heartbreak, this is warfare.
This is flotsam and jetsam. It makes no sense at all. All this rape, this maiming and this killing all in the name of war. How soon we forget the hopeless and the pathetic helpless in newspapers and news bulletins at night. In the morning we stare deaf, dumb and blind, sometimes furious, sometimes passive, angry, crazy-mad, morose, feeling bereft.
Sometimes we look away, can’t look anymore. We are tired and sad and what do we say to the crippled and the disabled? We can’t wait to blame government diplomacy. Those insensitive brutes. Men and women we voted for in the name of beauty, freedom, integrity, liberty, fairness and decency. They lied to us through rotting, stained yellow or white, black or gold teeth, through dentures, gummy, fake grins, fake identities, wished they could take up some sought of other personality, rich American or Middle Eastern sheikh.
They sate their thirst with fine wines and their appetites with heavenly meats served with congealed gravies or orange-pink fish. I wish I was gone, that my desperation was no longer clasping on me like a daring demon, or a sexy beast at my invisible voice, at my throat clawing desperately on my sanity in dappling sunlight, at my honesty.
War is an insatiable, terrifying and corrupt monster and contributes nothing to the closed state of mind to the dapper boy soldiers it feeds solemnly. Truly an unpleasant waste of the beauty, purity and innocence of youth. It’s a stale loaf on my kitchen table. Where’s the secret intelligence in sacrificing family-connections?
Who cleans up the filth in the minds and the mess the bombs leave behind? Who continues to say their prayers at night and who doesn’t? Who gets left behind, gunned down, called a killer, blown to smithereens? Who puts these small fragments, these pieces back together again and keep them safe? What stance do good parents take to cover their children’s eyes and protect them? Who marches, protests, holds up placards, risks limbs? Who covets life if no one’s left?
Like beaches with their wet and slippery surfaces, driftwood, fishing boats, surfers, sand, shells, birds, acid pink fish, orangeade, hotels, a Holiday Inn, beachcombers, the awful legacy of war, incarceration, pools of vivid imagination rush through me, linger long after the sun sets.
As waves steeped in the history of riverbeds break gently against the shoreline so does the memory of war. Flummoxed soldiers march on towards near death experiences. Far away from home. Left in a state of bewilderedness. Bereft and even going mad sometimes.
There is more than an English translation of the fragments of human bodies in war. There are translations in millions of languages.
In the dead of night when the world is fast asleep child soldiers shake in their boots to keep their chins up and their bodies upright. Every line of their fingerprints is marked by rations, imprints of their memories of home and the killing of time.
Watching the news daily I finally knew what hot, happening war zones, orphans, living in this heat, this sweltering climate and poverty meant and its burden on those who suffer the most.
Reconciliation. Closure. The final passage. The point of no return. The companions of poets are strange for they are always estranged. They are the voices of ghosts from the past, present and future. For the poet to think out of the box there must be illumination and illusion.
Africa has been colonised by France, Spain, Portugal, England and America with the result that there was gross exploitation of the people who were in this process. They were deprived of education, their sole dignity, integrity. At heart their morale and decency.
The point is that I am writing from the point of view as a woman, as a writer, as a poet and as an African. I am writing as a representative of Africa. Some of you might ask what my gender has to do with it. But for years, even now women have been second class citizens in Africa. They have been denied human rights and a voice to speak out against the brutal injustices and abuses that have fallen against them.
Africa has been drained dry by the exploitation and the violation of its natural reserves of gold and diamonds and all its mineral resources. This affected the standard of education and the level of literacy on the continent for generations.
For this reason there has been a scourge of promising writers and poets coming out of Africa. This has been particularly so in my own country South Africa which only twenty years ago gained its independence and threw off the yolk of Apartheid, with it the Group Areas Act, the humiliating forced removals which meant that people were smothered into tiny two-roomed homes with their families which made it difficult to raise their children to be upstanding, law-abiding citizens.
Although many changes have to be made the change after hundreds of years of oppression, discrimination and prejudice has brought about a novel, unique, relevant and compelling freedom which brought to light the injustices of the past governments’ patriarchal system.
Many South African writers whose literary ‘voice’ and ability was stifled now can write freely without any censorship, detention, torture or banning orders about the different cultures, languages, faiths, mores and the racial boundaries that existed before.
No more will the words ‘kinky’, ‘nappy’ hair, ‘kroeskop duchess’, ‘Bushy’ be used as expletives; as curses. No longer will they be known as vile. Mocking the pedigree or breed of a person.
As a South African writer I write from the point of view of a black South African whose parents experienced and grew up in the struggle. Who for half of their life experience battled through to obtain a suitable level of education? They grew up in difficult, turbulent, trying times. They were deprived of an adequate education and thus could only qualify to do menial jobs or become nurses or teachers.
My grandmother worked as a domestic servant for a white family and my paternal grandfather worked as a barman at an elite country club for White golfers and their posh wives and bratty, spoilt children. She was treated in a demeaning fashion and nothing more as a servant or a nanny. However, my parents were prepared to see their children get the best possible education under the circumstances which seemed like the bane of our existence.
I grew up surrounded by books. A love of reading instilled in me by both of my parents who became teachers. The attitudes that the Whites had against Blacks were abhorrent. They were of another breed of people. They looked down on the lower classes and saw them as being a sad, pathetic species that they had either an obligation towards, or they remained aloof, indifferent towards or whom at best they tolerated with disdain.
Now is the time for African writers to write with a passion, in overdrive, to write what they like with their own personal signature style and to not be afraid of breaking the mould, breaking new ground with humility, with the milk of human kindness and tenderness that was so lacking in their White contemporaries who could only show hate, self-hate, a deep lack of self-respect, treachery and wickedness. The ones who upheld that unholy law of the division of all the races in South Africa.
Yet it is still not so different – other countries on the continent are not as free or do not experience freedom in the sense or the way we do in South Africa. In other African nations on this beautiful, diverse, vibrant, cosmopolitan continent filled with communities that are filled with joy, life, love, colour and laughter, despite their devastating poverty stricken, marginalised and disadvantaged status quos, they are trapped in white hot war zones or the trembling precipice of peaceful reforms and democratic elections and the election of the first female president ever of an African country.
Their voices are quelled. Their histories are quelled as is their individual pain, the innocence of their children, their sorrow and suffering for all the world to see in shared light but it is invisible in the darkness of their sadness, helplessness and their hopelessness for the situations that they find themselves in.
The nursery of any writer is school, literacy and education from a young age. Yet schools are still divided. There are schools for the rich and schools for the poor. There are writers and poets for the rich and writers and poets for the poor. There are writers for God’s children knocking on every conceivable door in this day and age. Orphans, children growing up in poverty; weak, innocent, malnourished, abandoned and neglected.
Yet one cannot look past the fact that service delivery has become a moot point. The television brings across daily many disturbances where people are dissatisfied that they do not have clean running water, service delivery, electricity and sanitation. There are still disruptions in normal living in the townships that have sprung up and flourished across the country in South Africa. Slums. Ghettos. Flats. Matchstick houses built for families of ten.
I for one would like to see more African writers addressing human rights, social awareness, feminism and change, wars, coups, revolutionaries in their poetry and their writing instead of shying away from their responsibility and not accepting the platform that they have been given for their voices to be heard.
The difficulties facing the African writer today is that there are still White professors, educators, teachers that foster the culture of the colonial past. Very few Blacks hold high positions in management, in tertiary institutions which nullifies Blacks from being motivated to write about the past. Much of the history is written from a White perspective and makes it so much more difficult for African writers to articulate and write profusely in their mother tongue about their past.
African writers now more than ever, must take up the mantle of responsibility and accountability, must nurture an unbreakable and sustainable paradigm shift throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the continent in its entirety for Africa to succeed, to bridge the divide, the gap, to build successes from their progeny. The African Renaissance must create doing and undoing, invent every gesture of love medicine and give pleasure, store refuge the way the sea stores fish (schools-of-them).
Sufi poet Amir Khusrau said, ‘People think they are alive because they have soul in them, but I am alive because I have love in myself.’ I want the children on the African continent, globally and from different nationalities to realise that expression of their inimitable talent or gift, that expression of their creativity, that is gold and that all people are born equal second to none.
Man will reach such a level of perfection through education, writing, and literacy, through learning, that he will only see God (everywhere), despite the undeniable reality of the brokenness, heartache and wrongdoing of humankind that exists daily on the African ‘planet’.
African intellectuals and writers more importantly must not be led by blind faith. We must rebuild, mend the fences of the decline of the empire. Write with a wholehearted passion, commitment, dedication to honesty with a lack of ego.
We must never let the murmuring intellect cease nor diminish. Intellectuals and writers must no longer declare a rigid doctrine or philosophy for this generation or the next. They must challenge each generation to be unique freethinkers.
African poets and writers have long realised that it is the love of words that manifests itself in the love of humankind and as our history is being rewritten daily. It is being rewritten in blood, skin, through tears and perspiration through the annals of time. In the corruption of our leaders, the politicians we voted into government. We rant, we strike, we march, we protest. Alas, it all falls on deaf ears. There is no temple of delight where we feel emotionally and financially stable and secure. We go home on strange highways. We go on like beasts, red devils on wild Saturdays breathing in the vitriol, bucolic air, the stench of capitalism, of liquor in taverns and of the West.
It is new radicals, rebels with a cause who delight in issues prevalent to present day society, that deploy knowledge and principles through administration, legislature, government and literature, poetry, performance and through word.
The words signal a messianic calling to the writer, fundi, linguist, intellectual, sociologist, the cultural anthropologist, and scientist. In the realm of writing as in dreams there are no boundaries. There are no limits.
It is difficult to be a Black writer in South Africa today and to get your work published. It is difficult to get bursaries and funding for printing and for publishing the work. All the publishing houses are still in the hands of the White minority. Publishing your work becomes a gigantic, a mammoth task that lies ahead of you.
There is a great need for Afro-centric publishing houses to fill the need of publishing the work of the African writer. I am amazed at the vibrancy and the quality of the work that has come out of African writers which should motivate each and every African to tell their stories in autobiographies.
Books have always been the friends of a wounded heart. The libraries and the museums have all this time been English orientated. They have been made unavailable to people whose second language is English and scant if any regard has been given to the history of the indigenous people of Africa.
There is no misrepresenting the decline of recording authentic literature and the decline of civilisation, as we know it in Africa from urban decay.
We mustn’t eclipse the divine vision from our inimitable foresight.
However pious, charitable, virtuous or learned we may be at this door we must not let our own dogmas and philosophies eclipse the divine vision from what we want and what we need from our sight.
I want the ink on the page to be like the rivers of time and to keep on flowing ceaselessly. Writers are seekers, miracle workers, as they always have been through the ages of time. There remain histories to be written and we must never lose sight of that.
Image: Surian Soosay