A gift of a Thousand Words……

Akhona Metu Reading extracts from her poetry book titled " A gift of a thousand words"
Akona Metu reading extracts from her poetry book titled ” A gift of a thousand words” Pic: Lwazi Mashiya

It was a beautiful conclusion to International Women’s day( Friday 08 March 2013) in Johannesburg South Africa.  Women as young as four years old to about 80 gathered together in their most regal outfits to watch as one of their own prepared to take flight.  Like proud mother hens, their wings fluttered protectively over  poet and writer Akona Metu – as she stepped out to the world to reveal the garden of her heart  etched in her debut poetry book  “A gift of a thousand words”.   It was an atmosphere that brought to life  Simphiwe Dana’s  debut hit song “Nidredi” lyrics to life.  The song opens with a call so hypnotic one can’t help but want to fly as her voice delivers the words “Ndiredi Ukundiza  Ndiph’umoya” which in English translates to a less poetic  “I’m ready to fly give  me some air”.

The setting was even more special.  The venue:  the Kippies  International Jazz club in Newtown, Johannesburg – a historically significant, center for resistant art(music) in South Africa. The building now part of the country’s increasing cultural heritage sites has been refurbished into a smaller more intimate venue – a structure not far removed from a traditional African hut or rondavel.   Clean high walls stand reminiscent of  a sacred space; a church, an ashram perhaps even a synagogue.  A heavy wooden  grand piano stands grounded at the corner on one side of the room, as if waiting for a master pianist to come play.

Delicate lanterns made out of lace paper hung above the high ceilings created  a lightness of being in some kind of a fairly- tale. The shiny glass doors to the north, west and south of the building gave the space a larger than life atmosphere as well as a  feeling of being in a transient  place  – a pit stop on the amazing race  of life.

Akhona book launch 2
Akona Metu outside Kippies Museum in Newtown Johannesburg. Pic: Lwazi Mashiya

Soweto performance poet  “Mak” Manaka, who was both guest poet and master of ceremonies, was not blind to the significance of the moment. He too, now a power house of performance poetry in the country launched his first  book of poetry (If Only; 2002).  when Kippies was Kippies  Jazz Club.

“He accuses me of being too kind” Those were the first words Akona Metu “hostess with the mostess ” at the Afrikaan Freedom Station – a new venue for all artists young and old from painters, writers, singers and musicians  to showcase their work, experiment  and support each other’s  talent in old Sophia town Johannesburg.   On sitting down with her (it was not a scheduled interview) she allowed herself a moment of giddy nervousness.  “ It’s like standing in the middle of a busy street naked, and no one wants to sleep with you” she said of the impending book launch.  Of the book itself she said “Oh it was something that was long overdue, it just had to be done”

I have always been a writer she says, but I never thought I was any good until I got to university where I was exposed to lecturers who were also authors and had  published books.  When they said my writing was good I decided to run with it. It allowed me to free myself  and my writing from the hazards of comparing it to other more accomplished writers. For the first time I did not restrict my writing to emulate any set formula or style. I just allowed my voice to come through as it pleased. “I stopped putting restrictions on myself” she confessed as if to herself while attending to her four-year old nieces’ intimate confessions of her own.

However  Metu , 27,  is not new to the world of publishing. She has published articles and short stories in the  new Drum Magazine.  In fact  Akona was first published during  high school,  revealed her  two older sisters  who sang her praises during the book launch.   That  was the  first time the Metu family realized that she had a gift.  She wrote a high school essay following a school trip to one of the  eastern capes correctional facilities – the essay received the highest praise in her  class later spreading  from the schools assembly to the  community’s local paper.

A gift of a thousand words is a collection of poems  she wrote before and during her two-year stay in Korea where she worked as an English teacher and a singer in a band to pass time she told the audience at her book launch. ” I found it was necessary for me to go in order to remember who I am and what I valued most in my life”

Metu is the youngest in her family.  Her two older sisters dotingly described her as a fragile, perfectionist, humble and stubborn, quick to laugh and cry, someone who is at ease with herself.

A gift of a thousand words reads like a prayer, intimate conversations with herself and the loves that surround her, an invitations into  her deepest desires musings on life and its meaning.  Poems like Child You Belong, written for one of her sisters is one of hope and encouragement  in which she says she wanted to remind her sister that she belongs  even in the  very  discomfort of life.” It’s not just for her” she said looking in my direction” it’s applies to everyone, we all belong here, even in our discomfort.  “I am the gap that fills up your spaces” is a tribute to the  kind of love American academic and  author Bell Hooks says  “we all want to receive but are afraid to give”. Mother of Mercy is a call out to God, a deity she describes as her mother because she knows her mother loves her more than anyone in the world.  It’s a poem penned, during despairing moments of  being alone in foreign land.

Her voice is fresh,honest, passionate and energetic, a reminder, an inspired call to change our minds about  who  we (think) are and who we have become a call to be  brave and dare to look at life with a different eye – a conciliatory eye of love.

“This moment reminds me of the first time I really, really fell in love” Said her uncle on behalf of the family. “This reminds me of the first time I fell in real love for the first time 36 years ago – I didn’t know she could write like, she melted my heart”.

Master of Ceremonies, Mak Manaka barely caught his tears from falling on to the grand piano as Metu delivered  her final poetic kisses to an audience hungry for love. Her words were like a string of precious pearls she draped around each of her  guest, to Honour  and soothe  reminding  all of us that we are  loved.


A 21 Shutter Salute for An Eye Like No Other

A man like no other : Alf Khumalo

How do you honour; where do you begin to pay tribute to a man whose eye albeit behind the camera has seen you in your most vulnerable, intimate, private and perhaps, powerless moments.  A man who risked his life to bring your mother, aunts and cousins to see you while you were in exile? Or who brought you shoes “izimbatata” from home to soften your feet when your soul was starving  between the meshed  cold Skycrapers  of  New York City.  Or better still how do you pay tribute to a man who captured your defiance at the Evaton Bus Boycott, the hopeless despair of the Treason Trial, the bloody pain of the Sharpeville Massacre, when you were silenced during the banning of liberation movements, during the rise of the angry voice of the Black Consciousness Movement, the nervous states of emergencies in the 80’s, the glorious dawns of the release of Nelson Mandela, The Codesa Talks of the early 90’s and the triumphant rainbow moments of Nelson Mandela’s Presidency? How do you pay tribute to a man whose plea’s you turned a deaf ear to, refused to hear until it was too late? That was the hard and painful question that confronted some of the dignitaries, media executives, artists, musicians and politicians who attended veteran photographer and journalist Alf Khumalo’s memorial service at The Forum auditorium in Gauteng Legislature offices in Johannesburg.  Among them sat, singer Sibongile Khumalo, Judith Sephuma, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbuli  Sipho Hostix Mabuse and Keorapetse Kgositsile, including Pulitzer winnining photographers, Joao da Silva and Greg Marinovich.  The auditorium  proudly displayed eight larger than life panels depicting the history of the liberation party the African National Congress ‘s centenary celebrations through photographs many of  them taken by Alf Khumalo, 82, himself in over  50 years of his illustrious career as a photojournalist.  There was not mention of him on the panels, no mention of the man who former President Nelson Mandela, described as a historian, taking ordinary moments he shared with his dog at his home in Soweto or the man who former President Thabo Mbeki honoured with the order of Ukhamanga ( ), No even a single panel gave tribute to the man Winnie MadikiZela Mandela described as “one of the few photographers who fought oppression through the lens”.  Khumalo adopted the Mandela family back in 1951 when he was a young photographer experimenting with his camera” Winnie invited the audience into her world.  Khumalo was then a  part-time journalist with the Bantu World Newspaper, documenting life under apartheid by taking pictures of everything that was newsworthy including arriving uninvited and taking photographs of the goings on Mandela home in Orlando West, Soweto, which was also turned into a Museum [Nelson Mandela Family Museum] three years ago, around the same time that Alf Khumalo turned his Dobsonville home into a museum and school of photography in Diepkloof, which as his obituary read, “young men and women growing up in the dusty streets of Soweto, Alexandra, and Evaton, could literally walk into and learn photography directly from bra Alf Khumalo.”  If the audience was blind to the irony displayed so elegantly on the towering plinths, the Chief photographer of the Saturday Star newspaper and a representative of Alf Khumalo’s Photographic Museum in Diepkloof Soweto, Paballo Thekiso, gave voice, almost involuntarily to Alf Khumalo’s pain of not having realized his dream of building a photographic museum and photography school before his soul left his body, on the 21 of October from renal failure.  Through tears, Thekiso described Bra Alf’s dream which he shared with him while they were sitting under a tree one day “he said you see this place I want us to make it into a double storey, oh no-no let’s make it a triple story. On top it will be the  hall of fame , in the middle you can put whatever you want, and  leave this bottom part the way it is” Thekiso  who described himself as a living example of  Alf Khumalo’s legacy described the conversation he had with his mentor  of  ten years almost  verbatim. “I am sad that he didn’t live to see his dream, he asked, asked everyone, everyone. I saw him do it. He’s been knocking on doors, and no one listened and today he’s gone” Thekiso’s voice broke into a searingly sharp wail that made former ANC Women League President, Winnie Mandela including the audience whose heads were already bowed to wince in pain.  He interrupted attempts to console him through song insisting “I want to speak about this thing. Let us celebrate people when they are still alive. Today I have a family, I have a wife, I have a stable life, because ubaba gave me his time to teach me, he gave me a future, this unfortunately stopped because in 2007, 2008, 2009 we didn’t have funding”.  And as if to continue where Bra Alf Khumalo had left off he continued to knock on doors. “If you are sitting in here today, and you have money please give some of it to the museum”.  Thekiso deftly answered jovial requests by some  including musician Caiphus Semenya to have some of their more private  images taken by Mr Alf Khumalo  returned back to them  by saying “ until those boxes of negatives are scanned properly, you will never see those pictures”.   Perhaps it was veteran Poet and writer Don Mattera who opened the door wide for Paballo Thekiso to bravely deliver his pain-filled tribute. The poet and scribe was  one of the first people to speak, asking the newspapers for which Bra Alf Khumalo worked for almost half a century to put their money where their talk of legacy is and preserve and nurture Alf Khumalo’s dream.  Mattera whose prominence in South Africa’s literary landscape  rose with his seminal book, Memory is Weapon also spared a moment to address the political situation in the country “This is a beautiful country, we must not allow issues like Marikana  and others  to destroy who we are and what we are. We must not bring our country down because we don’t like a government. What we must do is help to heal the wounds of our past ….so that our children can have something to hang on to.  Winnie Madikizela Mandela joined him later saying “one bullet fired under a democratic government to workers asking for bread to eat is difficult to justify”. “Our country “she emphasized “Will be lucky to survive the negative image it projected to world of itself. On that day (August 16th) I was proud of the journalist in this country.” Madikezala Mandela concluded her tribute with a pledge to “realize bra Alf dream of his museum in Diepkloof, by knocking on my own doors and opening them”.  Mattera who looked frail at 77   described Alf as a soft and gentle man whose rivers flowed deep.  “ By the way” He reminded the audience “ it’s on your marks, get set, ready, before you go, turn around to see who you can take with you, that’s what bra Alf did, hola hola,” he greeted in the language  of the old township, Sophiatown.  Perhaps there were those in the audience who wished the memorial service was one of those irritating moments described to laughter by his colleague at the Sunday World newspaper Juby Mayet, when he would stall at the moment when everyone was ready to go on assignment saying “sorry please, just two minutes I’ve forgotten something”.

By: Jedi Ramalapa

The Foreignness of HOME

Today the 19th of October. 1977.

How strange.

I have never really lived in any other country other than South Africa.  Yet I feel distinctly alien to it.

It’s been four months now since I have been back from  a six-month-working holiday in the West African city of Dakar,  in Senegal the land of the Lion and the Baobab.

And still I cannot make sense of this, my home, South Africa.

What happened to me? To them. To us. Am I once again lost in my country’s constant transitions.

A constant foreigner?

In the desert-sands of my Senegal, there lay somewhere beneath my despair a hope…

That there is a place called home. For me.

I thought I found it.  One day. On the 25 of December  between the Atlantic Ocean, and the River Senegal.

On a strip of Sand.

For a moment, I was at peace and swam  among  sea creatures and crabs.

This morning as I joined thousands upon thousands of the country’s working massive, labourers, maids, garden boys, mamas, gogos, aunties, uncles, tellers, cleaners, students, struggling artists, myself.   I wondered how one could find peace in a place where each morning one is greeted with headlines  such as this one:

Child Hacked with Axe.

and still remain.


A New York Kinda Day


For Each of You

Be who you are and will be
learn to cherish that boisterous Black Angel that drives you
up one day and down another
protecting the place where your power rises
running like hot blood
from the same source
as your pain.

When you are hungry
learn to eat
whatever sustains you
until morning
but do not be misled by details
simply because you live them.
Do not let your head deny
your hands
any memory of what passes through them
nor your eyes
nor your heart
everything can be useful
except what is wasteful
(you will need
to remember this when you are accused of destruction.)
Even when they are dangerous
examine the heart of those machines you hate
before you discard them
and never mourn the lack of their power
lest you be condemned
to relive them.

If you do not learn to hate
you will never be lonely
to love easily
nor will you always be brave
although it does not grow any easier.

Do not pretend to convenient beliefs
even when they are righteous
you will never be able to defend your city
while shouting.

Remember our sun
is not the most noteworthy star
only the nearest.

Respect whatever pain you bring back
from your dreaming
but do not look for new gods
in the sea
nor in any part of a rainbow.
Each time you love
love as deeply
as if it were
only nothing is

Speak proudly to your children
wherever you may find them
tell them
you are the offspring of slaves
and your mother was
a princess
in darkness. 

Audre Lorde.