Elliot Ziwira @ The Book Store
“IF I know who I am, I will be free”, reasons the nameless hero in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”. The search for identity is always a pricking issue in African literature, as the individual feels alienated and confined to the periphery of existence. Wondering whether the word suffering was invented for him, he watches his dreams perishing in flames whose ignition source he scantly discerns.
People of colour should understand who they are, for them to realise the great potential that lies within. Since the beginning of time, new words have always found their way in alien lexicons in an attempt to describe a new outbreak, man-made or otherwise, whose designs have been to decimate people of colour, yet surprisingly, they remain in the dark about who they are in a world that purports to fight for their cause.
As Africa Day approaches, it is imperative for us to put shoulder to the wheel of the gargantuan African chariot and steer it to kingdom come; for a dream cherished always finds purpose within yearning hearts, whose desire remains the fulfilment of the Motherland’s pledge to provide for its own, seeing how its womb is laden with vast resources. There is a whole gamut of honey and milk to aspire for, yet the queen bee remains in flight for a new predator has crouched on its hive; the cow in milk and the calf have been separated by alien gangs from where the sun sets.
A revolution is never won in a day, but a dream can erupt in explosions within hours, if it is not sanctified by a collective ideology. Because a mirror is Man’s creation, it simply reflects and does not create images. Therefore, the African has to take a closer look at the form reflected in the mirror with a dawning that therein is his own creation, which can either be bloated with hideous acne or glowingly ravishing depending on his take.
For him to be able to confront his foes the African has to know them; but that knowledge is largely dependent on him – as his first enemy. He has to know who he is before he casts aspersions on others. He has to learn to drink to the dregs of the African brew before he imbibes to a stupor from the Western chalice.
As the sun sets, it will certainly rise. From the cradle to the grave, life changes forms a million times, but the African remains unchanged. He still flees from his shadow and throws petrol bombs into his mother’s abode.
“If I know who I am, I will be free,” so certain is the nameless protagonist in Ellison’s “Invisible Man”. Knowledge of the self is the beginning of freedom, for it is identity that gives one liberty. So hearken well gentle reader, fellow African and friend, in the Diaspora or about; do you sometimes wake up in the dead of the night wondering why you could be so poor in a land so much endowed with riches untold? Who are you? Who are we? Who am I? Have these questions ever crossed your mind?
“We are…” (2008), a poetry anthology edited by Natalia Molebatsi and published by Penguin Books, proffers answers to questions pertaining to the African and his or her dreams. It is a concerted effort by 16 South African poets, 11 of whom are women, that chronicles the African journey from the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial eras.
The anthology engrosses the reader into the inner world of the poets, not so much as to reveal their feelings, but to identify himself/herself (the reader), for it is within these immortal words that everyone’s story finds base. The poems evoke the five senses because of the disregard of conventional poetic forms which usually makes the reading of poetry cumbersome, as well as the adept use of imagery and symbolism. Through the power of words, the poets invite the reader into their space.
The reader’s world mingles with the poetic experience which allows for the creation of interfaces that merge onto a collective discourse.
The poets, whose experiences as African journalists, performing artistes, social activists and film-makers, have shaped the landscapes of their existence, do not trouble themselves asking questions about their identity; for they know who they are: they are Africans whose voices cannot be gagged and whose story seeks a tomorrow that will never fail to come.
It is a story that has been said over and over again, yet it remains refreshingly new.
Most of the poems highlight the pain and suffering that colonisation brought to the African’s doorsteps, and how the struggle for independence has not really brought much change on the menu of the blacks, who remain sidelined as the gravy train whistles by. The glaring disparities between the rich and the poor are still cause for concern, not only in South Africa, but throughout the continent. In this state of affairs women remain lodged at the deep end, as the colonial set-up which relegated them to housewives and housemaids does not seem to relent.
Because of lack of opportunities for black people, crime and other vices like corruption and prostitution become rife. This is especially explored in Makgano Mamabolo’s “City Living”, Maakomele Manaka’s “In the Belly of Fire”, Sabata Mpho Mokae’s “Streets of Johannesburg,” and Aryan Kaganof’s “Hijack”.
In the poem “Hijack” one of the scums who rob Joel of his stuff and car at gunpoint apologises: “I don’t want to do this/it’s because of the poverty.”
“If These Hills Could Scream” by Sabata Mpho Mokae takes a swipe at reconciliatory olive branches that African governments extend to architects of evil atrocities during colonialism. Apartheid killed, maimed and displaced millions of people of colour and yet the perpetrators remain clinging on to the means of production — the land, while the majority wallow in abject poverty as perpetual victims. The poet moans: “When skeletons confess/in selected skeletal parts/these hills/only if they could take a stand and scream truths/into our minds.”
However, instead of taking corrective measures that will arrest the escalating inequalities whose roots are steeped in colonialism, the black governments tinker on indecisively. On the other hand, the suffering masses are so blinkered that they see enemies within their own ranks instead of directing their ire where it should go. They rise against each other in taxi wars, throw petrol bombs at fellow travailing Africans and call themselves heroes.
Shelley Barry, who is a victim of the 1996 taxi wars which left her wheelchair-bound, refuses to be subdued by her condition. Her poems “Beads” and “Bound/aries” are testimony to the resilient nature of motherhood, which has made it possible for the Motherland to free itself from the yoke of colonial subjugation. Disability does not mean inability; hence it should never be used as a weapon to fight imaginary enemies in search of alms, as is illuminated in the following lines: “What this talks/of ‘wheelchair-bound’/these wheels are not my prison/I am a king! this is my chariot! / I’m not stuck in this chair/watch me dance whistle stomp/watch me spin/flip backwards/toss out.”
The title poem, “We Are” by Natalia Molebatsi candidly outlines the African quest for total freedom and emancipation of the feeble and vulnerable through art. The poet reveals: “We are images/songs/symbols revealed through lives/like layers of story unfolding the tips of our pens and our/ hands,/our brushes and our microphones . . . we are remembered members from dismembered bonds…” The poem is both confrontational and revealing as it hits on the power of the indelible word, spoken or written in ferrying a people’s aspirations.
Although toiling appears to be the order of the day, there is hope for the African. If all the dirt is scrubbed, a glowing diamond will reveal itself, but who really should start scrubbing except the Africans themselves? Africa rise and shine, the time for redemption is now.