The following is the response by Eugene Skeef to the speeches given at the conference:
I greet you all in the spirit of the demolition of walls of division and the raising of bridges of connection.
In times of crisis all living creatures naturally turn inward to draw from the reservoir of their inner resolve. Humans are no exception to this default constitution.
Of necessity, the COVID-19 pandemic brought us face-to-face with ourselves as individuals, communities, nations and an altogether besieged world order. For the artist, this unavoidable compulsion has led to a personal and collective culture of deep reflection and a search for creative and innovative ways of continuing to be meaningfully active in the expression and dissemination of our art for the benefit of humanity.
As arts practitioners, our fundamental craft is to tell stories through our various mediums of expression, be it writing, dance, music, film or visual arts. This has been the case from our very first emergence as visionary innovators on the plains of the African mother continent.
While this is not the first pandemic to befall humans, it has to be viewed from the perspective of its global impact in this time of our planet’s most advanced state of disrepair at the hands of our species. The constrictions of lockdown have all but removed the signs of cheerfulness that are the norm in a harmonised society’s public pulse.
Artists are blessed with the gift of providing comfort, hope and the inspiration of life’s embedded sustenance to their audience and community. We achieve this through the enchantment of our art, which inspires those who indulge us with their gracious attention to occupy a temporary inner world where their dreams can seed a new reality free from the constraints of fear, which is the most powerful force that is naturally calibrated to work against the transformation of their lives.
During the pandemic, the government regulations, in all their guises, force the populace to change our lifestyles in a fundamentally restrictive manner. A central consequence of this is our reversion to smaller, more intimate groupings where families are compelled to reach into their inherent creative gifts and share narratives that would hopefully inspire them in ways that are not the norm of largely Westernised urban cultural models.
A visualisation comes to me at this unforeseen social juncture. I see the people closing their eyes in enchantment, they begin to dream; and in their dreams they witness the wisdom of their ancestors through the direct, unambiguous straight-line flight of the African honey-bee – the bee that creates honeycombs that produce the sweetest honey in the cleft of pronged branches of the tallest tree. Only the dreamtime can reveal these narratives of transcendence; and the African writer is imbued with the capacity to narrate the essence of these dreams. This state of creativity is not bound by the proscription of imposed realities.
I have personally found myself in the creative permeance of this state during lockdown; and it is from this point of view that I share these observations about the African writer.
In this arena of our gathering to honour the excellence of the convention of African writing, allow me to invite us to meditate on just a few names that come to mind in our testimonial celebration, listed in no particular order:
- Sol Plaatje
- Mazisi Kunene
- Bessie Head
- Chinua Achebe
- Miriam Tlali
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
- Nadine Gordimer
- André Brink
- Cheikh Anta Diop
- Es’kia Mphahlele
- Wole Soyinka
- Breyten Breytenbach
- Léopold Senghor
I remember the great South African wordsmith Es’kia Mphahlele chairing the PEN International Writers’ Conference at Wits University in 1980. In his opening address, he told us that English was lying in state, and that writers from the ex-colonies were gathered at the ceremonial service of the language’s passing. We performed the last rites and inhaled the African incense of renewal as we usurped ownership of the former tongue of our repression and transformed it into a tool for the creative expression of our reclaimed identity. I would like to emphasise that for an African writer, writing is the art of integrating the otherwise disparate forms of creative expression into an organic whole. Authentically African writing stands firmly in the sun like a flower, where each petal could represent dance theatre, sculpture, architecture, anthemic song or the incantation of ancestral spirits. The holistic manifestation of the creative life force is the true motivational tool that informs the technique of the African writer. The African writer, therefore, is never far from the fireside of their ancestral homestead.
In the exact same spirit that permeates the forest in its natural return into the density of its full identity for replenishment, African writing is about reclamation of its inner soul. A profound process of intellectual inversion must take place for the writing to speak its truth to the world.
And the world cannot but be ready to hear the full symphony of the song of Africa. For the soul of the world is in dire thirst for its own truth, which lies buried in the heart of Africa, whence cometh the pertinent pulse of all hearts.
We must accordingly accept that the index of any society’s attainment of sustainable development is the guarantee of the collective joy, fulfilment, hope and spiritual and material wellbeing of its populace. All the cogs in the propulsive machine of society must be oiled with the promise of meaningful transformation. This advancement in the name of change is a key component of the African writer’s obligation, if you like, to his or her people. Gone are the days of the imposed fallacious European notion of art for art’s sake. The African writer incontrovertibly embraces the ethos of art for the sake of life.
The erudition of the African writer should necessarily be founded on the maxim that knowledge is action – if we know, then we must act. And we do know, because we live what we know. When we do not know, it is because we have either closed our eyes and ears to what we should know, or that what we are being led to know is irrelevant to our collective experience and pursuit as a people, or deliberately designed to mislead us in our quest for the truth about ourselves and others.
Contrary to the ideology of the European supremacists, the worldview of the African is not about conquering the natural environment, but that of embracing it in its infinite bounty. The African writer knows that we grow as a people, the more we harness our surroundings with the intention of intensifying our vigilance against all forms of wanton destruction. It is with this in mind that the African writer of meaningful erudition will remember that the ancient African custom of burying a new-born baby’s umbilical cord in the earth and then planting a tree over the spot, is the quintessential manifestation of environmental conservation. In this traditional act, we Africans make a statement that informs all that the wanton chopping down of a tree is tantamount to suicide. Such is our connection with the natural environment as an intrinsic part of our being that we regard it as sacred.
This is also why many adulations or praise names of African clans, family lineages and totems bear the names of animals and other facets of the natural environment – such as the water theme in the case of the Mseleku clan: Duma (Thunder), Lwandle (Ocean), and so forth.
Relationships are expressed through an elaborate system of kinship, which goes beyond the conventional European concept of family and community and spreads symbiotically into the rest of nature’s bounty.
Allow me to read a poem that echoes some of these sentiments concerning the African person’s relationship with the wider environment and its internalised resonances. I wrote the poem on the 12th of December 2013 as a tribute to my close friend and fellow writer, academic, intellectual and cultural activist, Mbulelo Mzamane, almost as an unconscious premonition of his death on the 16th of February 2014.
This prophetically subtle revelation of another deeply embedded cultural consciousness, universally spread across the African continent and diaspora, is a pertinent quality that should not be ignored in celebrating the African writer. This form of telepathic empathy is a central feature of the soul of the creative African who allows themselves to submerge into the invisible depths of the spirit world. For herein will be found the liminal latitudes that link us through magical connections to the poetics of the unconscious conscious.
And now the poem:
dream of the initiate
(in memory of mbulelo vizikhungo mzamane – 1948-2014)
i am the initiate
chosen without asking
to be the voice
of my people’s unsung melody
i am the initiate
my head anointed with lotions
excavated from sacred forests
where my navel string is buried
my brow crowned with the gall bladder
of a bull of oblation
i dream of slaughter
sacrifice of our custodianship
of the bounteous harvest
that glorifies the hills
of our long story
i am the initiate
witness to the wilting
of our verdant valleys
my veins flow
with the waters of spirit
irrigating my parched soul
so that i dance
with the rejuvenated vigour
of the gods who speak through me
with the vocabulary of rhythm
in the dead of night
when only the moon
in its gentle fullness
and summons my people
to the arena of healing
i am the initiate
the shades buried
beneath the demolished mountain
for the protection of the seedling
that must be nourished
and nurtured to grow
beyond the hidden light
on the rusted memory
of forgotten victories
i come unarmed
but with invincible knowledge
of how to protect
from the annihilation
of the spirit
the flame that breathes
in the embers
of their soul
i am the initiate
my bearing trembles
with the piquant flavours
of medicinal barks and roots
culled from the forests
at the source of our migration
when our ancestral sages
to imbue them with unfathomable courage
when i tilt my head
it is as a receptacle
for the fluent poetry
of incantations from the heavens
my clan name speaks
of rivers that rain
from the homestead
of the stars
i am the initiate
my waist is fortified
with a girdle of charms
carved from the ore
that bleeds from the murmuring springs
at the tides of our origins
show me a king or queen
that does not yield
to the enchantment of my song
rhyme with the flow
of the eternal seasons
i am the initiate
under the spell of my ancestors
the serpent emerging
from the ceramic jar
in the ceremony of becoming
whose purity has been defiled
in the contrived narrative
of evangelised nativities
my vessel of oracles
was moulded from clay
dug in the valley of prophesies
and allowed to dry in the sun
with the evaporation
of my people’s tears
i am the initiate
The following quote is from a comment that the award-winning South African author, and friend to both Mbulelo and myself, wrote in response to reading the poem, which I had posted on my Facebook timeline.
Mandla Langa and I were activists during the Steve Biko-led Black Consciousness Movement in the seventies. Like me, he was an early reader. I am proud to say that Mandla, who is regarded as an expert on the African American writer James Baldwin, read the iconic author’s first book through my unique resources at the time. In the BCM, I initiated a practice whereby I would “repossess” banned literature from an Englishrun bookshop on West Street in Durban called Adams & Griggs. We did not use the word “steal” because we felt we were liberating what was essentially ours in the first place. I lifted the books through an elaborate system that involved me conscientizing young candidates from the surrounding townships such as KwaMashu, Clermont and Lamontville to the point where I could rely on them to find menial employment at the bookshop – feather-dusting shelves or making tea for the “madam”, for instance – as a ruse to procure the targeted books and prepare them for my arrival to masquerade as an innocent customer.
These books would become part of the BCM’s roving library. Members would pass books around the group after reading them. I remember there being two fundamental rules that every member was expected to observe. These were:
1. not to make dog ears on the pages;
2. not to scribble notes in the margins; and
3. never to hang onto a book instead of passing it on when you’d finished reading it. Breaching this last rule especially earned the guilty person serious punishment in the form of a physical beating that was referred to as “workshopping”.
Anyway, this is how Langa got to read Go Tell It on the Mountain or some other Baldwin novel for the first time; and, finally, here’s what he had to say on Facebook: “One of the most sobering disservices of the modern times is its intrusive technology. In the past, poets were scribes, like Eugene, whose calligraphy was irreversibly intertwined with the important words on the page or scroll.
Eugene must also showcase his poetry using that age old sensibility where the hand is also part of the written word.”
These words from Mandla, for whose highly cultivated skills as a writer I have the utmost respect and admiration, sank deep within me. I am not over-romanticising the quality of resonance and liminal oscillation I mentioned earlier as a prerequisite to writing with a truly African sensibility; but I truly believe that, in articulating these thoughts, he was expressing with a perspicacity of prophetic magnitude what would happen a few years later.
This leads me to my own practice as a poet during the current pandemic.
I must subdue my temptation to apologise for personalising my narrative.
In having unwittingly exposed myself to criticism for possibly overromanticising my position, I must, however, persist in refraining from not making it personal. In my experience, all of life is personal, subjective.
This is the truth of existential praxis that requires no special mention, qualification or elucidation.
In March 2020, at the start of lockdown in the United Kingdom, I vowed to write a poem every day for the duration of the restrictions. I began by.typing these daily poems on my laptop and sharing them in posts on all my social media platforms. I was flattered and emboldened by the great number of people from different parts of the world who sent me positive remarks pertaining to the extent to which my poems were inspiring in.them a sense of hope to overcome the distressing effects of the pandemic. This transformative impact on the lives of individuals further inspired me to maintain my pledge to produce a poem each day, no matter what impediment I might encounter in the process.
I should mention two standout creative initiatives that arose from this appreciation of my daily poems.
One began in August last year, when the renowned London-based South African pianist/composer/singer Estelle Kokot sent me a video of her singing and playing piano to one of my poems, titled ‘towards a timeline of reclamation’. This was to become the first of many poems that she composed for; to the point where she now has about five albums’ worth of music written for a wide variety of my corona-verses. On the 17th of this month (November 2021), we will be conducting a masterclass, based on our collaboration, with young musicians at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, as part of the London Jazz Festival. We hope to take this project to South Africa, now that travel restrictions between.the two countries have been lifted.
Here is the poem. ‘towards a timeline of reclamation’, written on 23 August 2020:
a wanton royal craft
placed african ironsmiths
in shackles fashioned in infamy
of a maritime web of horror
now we must take
these evil instruments of capture
and return to our abandoned bellows
we must smelt them
in the furnace of our rediscovery
and forge bells
to sound a timeline
for the new rhythm
of our reclaimed souls…
This appreciation of my daily poems inspired a second initiative, this time by the brilliant Welsh violinist and singer-songwriter called Sianed Jones to paint some of these poems onto her street wall in Splott, Cardiff. In April 2020 she sent me the following message:
“Dearest Eugene – another of your poems has found its way onto my wall in Splott. Thank you for your thoughts in these extraordinary times. It was a perfect poem for the day. Thank you. sending big love and virtual hugs to you and your family and loved ones. XXX Sianed”
Here is the URL of Sianed’s blog of 16 April 2020 titled The Pears of Pearl
“My dear friend and beautiful inspirational musician, teacher and many other things Eugene Skeef has been writing poems in response to the place we find ourselves today. This is a poem he wrote just a few days ago. After my wall of instruction, I wanted a wall of love to balance the fear with hope and sustenance. I am sure many more of Eugene’s poems will find their way to the wall.
Enjoy! Thank you, Eugene from the bottom of my heart. Sianed”
I was deeply moved by Sianed’s words. The power of love cannot be impeded by anything in this world. This is testimony to the fact that the coronavirus lockdown is a time to open up our creative minds, not to shut them down.
This is how, ‘a cherished self’, the poem of that particular day, goes:
though the windows
may be tightly closed
the fragrance of love
will always filter through
even when nobody knows
what promises may unfold
dreams of better times
can still come true…
Time permitting, I should add that yet another magically meaningful response to my poetry happened. In September 2021, my friend and colleague, Dr June Bam-Hutchison, Director of the Khoi and San Unit at the University of Cape Town’s Centre For African Studies, sent me an audio clip. The file contained the voice of Pedro Dâusab, a speaker of
Khoekhoegowab, one of the endangered indigenous languages of southern Africa. Pedro was reciting his translation of one of my daily lockdown poems, a very short one titled ‘telling our stories’. The poem was a central feature in UCT’s San & Khoi Heritage Month Colloquium:
“Unburning the fire”, an obvious reference to the recent fires that obliterated the un-digitised archives of the Centre For African Studies.
Here is the poem, followed by Pedro’s translation: