Miscast

20 November 2021, 10:40 am

(Review of the Miscast exhibition/installation by Pippa Skotnes; originally published in Southern African Review of Books, Issue 44, July/August 1996, alongside reviews of same by Carmel Schrire and Yvette Abrahams. Reproduced here unedited.)

I catch a train into Cape Town and walk to the South African National Gallery to view the Miscast exhibition. Ungraced by deodorant, I will later smell like those children of my youth whom my father, among others, called boesman, hotnot. Lazy hotnots who wanted to do nothing but sit in the sun and suck marrow from bones, teachers called us all. To a South African child, one of the harshest whips language wields: stupid/ lazy boesman/ hotnot; whips we too used on our peers.


I have been following the Miscast story: Pippa Skotnes’s discovery of Khoisan skulls in the British Museum; itself in the wake of the Griqua National Conference’s attempts to retrieve Saartjie Baartman’s preserved brains and genitals from a French museum; and, from an acquaintance involved in Miscast, the surrounding controversy. She couldn’t name the organisations, but mentioned their objections to whites once again re-presenting the Khoisan.

I dismissed these reported criticisms as knee-jerk reactions. Who, my academic training cautioned me, can claim the authority of authenticity? Who can really speak for the Khoisan? Who is Khoisan?

My first visit to the gallery, I hesitate at the main entrance, take a wrong turn, try again, and finally enter the Miscast exhibition.

I start at what must be the frame of the exhibition: cabinets of material culture below panels of photographs. My imagination cants, as it always does when I see the utensils and clothing of ancient peoples. I wonder at the challenge of environment overcome in the implement, and by the imagination.

My mind wanders to the collection of Native American artefacts in the Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis. An insignificant, young museum, but my first encounter of the Native American exhibited. And in that museum I saw them too in photo-realist paintings: romanticised Injuns; fantastic yearnings for absolution from the guilt of genocidal silence. But this is Cape Town, South Africa.

Spanning the material culture are photographs of the Khoisan, in loincloths, in Victorian dress. Young adults fettered by their necks. Group hangings, the attendant white commandant or veldkornet striking the obligatory pioneer’s pose, one foot on a block. A pose I often jokingly strike whenever someone aims a camera at me. A pale-skinned woman in Victorian dress, a touch of Khoi in her cheeks. Lucy Lloyd.

Then I recognise faces: my acquaintance who helped with the project; an academic whose views I respect. And more. Somewhere must be a photograph of Skotnes. I cannot remember what she looks like.

These photographs recall Skotnes’s implied agenda of questioning past representations of the Khoisan (Mail & Guardian, 16-22 Feb. 1996). But the contemporary faces gaze from their actual role of mediators. Here but for our grace, they say. Or do they claim authority? Ancestry? Who aimed the lens at the exhibitors. (For the sake of brevity, I refer to all the contemporary faces as ‘exhibitors’.)

Ask photographers whether one can take a shot of them and they respond as if one wants to train their own guns on them. After enough nagging, the photographer might hand over the instrument. But it always returns to the original owner’s hands and the order of power that the wielded camera expresses is restored.

So, while photographs of the exhibitors among those of the exhibited ironise the former’s power as exhibitor, the structures of that power remain intact. Who, for instance, and in what context, trained the camera on the exhibitors? One photograph comes from an exhibitor’s book jacket: a photograph willingly agreed to, in a professional context perhaps. Certainly the face smiles at the lens with confidence.

In no way is the exhibitor-photographer relationship even close to the exhibited-photographer one. In no way does the exhibitor as exhibited even approximate a subject position close to that of the exhibited Khoisan. Isn’t the outstanding feature of the history of representation of the Khoisan their subjugation? So that a starting point in any project challenging this history would, for one, interrogate the representational politics of, say, the photographer’s colonising gaze?

In Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, the film maker’s futile quest to interview the chairman of General Motors places Moore in a position far less powerful than normally associated with the one behind the camera. The film sides with retrenched workers, and Moore goes further to reinvent even this partisan mode of documentary film: in his quest he is denied the documenter’s conventional access to power and knowledge. In Miscast, no such gesture obtains. The photographs of the exhibitors do not raise even an oblique challenge to the history of the relationship of power underlying representations of the Khoisan.

If these photographs alert us to, ironise and thematise the fact of representation, why not use them too as a site where the history of the present exhibitors’ power to represent may be displayed. All the variables: childhood, hard work, education, funding, artistic vision, collaboration, friendships. How, in other words, does a particular contemporary face come to be there, on the wall, mediating to us? How, I want to know, does Miscast otherwise challenge past and (its own) present representations of the Khoisan. How does it say, This is how we looked at the Khoisan; here is a new way to look? At best, the photographs appear as faddish lip service to post-modern notions of self-aware representations.

Another site where Skotnes miscasts a prime opportunity to dislocate conventional subject-object relationships of representation is the cabinet of ‘face masks’. These are pieces cut (by Skotnes)* from old Khoisan facial casts, cut in such a way that the pieces look like masks; some, in fact, with glass fibre tufts left at the edges, like a fancy mask one would wear to a masquerade ball, say when the Cape was still Dutch. Surely masks present a fine moment for playing with representation. Why not facial masks cast from the exhibitors’ faces? Or the exhibitors’ names placed under the existing masks? Or would that be misrepresentation?

My parents trace lines to exotic origins: Turkey, Indonesia, Wales. They never mention the kink in our hair. In age though, their cheekbones speak silenced lineages.

But I am not Khoisan. I know not the ways of Karretjiemense. Nor do I speak the Afrikaans of the Northern Cape, or in clicks. Similarly am I not Turkish, Welsh, Indonesian. Nor white – not semiotically, not economically. Neither am I black, unless intentionally, rhetorically.

But the whips of language have left their weals on me: hotnot, kaffer, kerrienaat (curry-arse); traces of who I could/ should have been. And I view the first chamber of Miscast more and more now in agreement with Khoisan activists; more and more as the exhibited. How the structures remain intact.

For many minutes the boxes piled high – the colonial collection and codification of artefact and body – wrench at me. Then I circle the lit body casts, linger self-consciously at the cast of a naked woman, and pass through into the other two chambers.

I spend some moments on the media floor and ignore the questions that rise to me here. But I do wonder whether the miscast caption under a photograph of a man smoking (‘Roy Sesana making a fence for his garden’) does not reveal the casual, inattentive treatment of the subject matter. How can an artist (vision and imagination?) who has spent time researching the Khoisan overlook prime moments where her ironisation of representation could have been politically interesting and not fashion-driven, surface gesture without motion?

At the slide show, I sit down and think about the above as the projector loops through its ironisation of representation: slides of other representations; of the conventional Bushman coffee table book; of white children staring at Bushmen; of graffiti over rock paintings. How do these quotations of quotations necessarily invent a new mode of representation?

Homi Bhabha writes:

The Other is cited, quoted, framed, illuminated, encased in the shot/ reverse-shot strategy of a serial enlightenment. … The Other loses its power to signify, to negate, to initiate its historic desire, to establish its own institutional and oppositional discourse. However impeccably the content of an ‘other’ culture may be known, however anti-ethnocentrically it is represented, it is … the demand that … it be always the good object of knowledge, the docile body of difference, that reproduces a relation of domination …. (The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994) p.31)

How things remain intact.

The show ends. Behind the screen, the projector clacks unendingly, like train wheels over rail joints. Like a train bound for a death camp. Boegoenwald.

Also behind the screen, English spoken with a heavy Afrikaans accent. The confluence of other histories of concentration camps.

The white owners of the voices emerge and leave the room. Almost immediately, a black attendant enters and restarts the show. Moments later, three black men huff and puff as, guided by a white man, they carry-drag a big crate behind the screen. How things hang together, I think and leave.

On my way to the station, I stop for coffee at the Off Moroka Cafe Africaine, Adderley Street. A white woman serves me. The wall to my left sports a naive watercolour of a Bushman hunter. In the kitchen, black women. On another wall, graffiti – Albie Sachs: ‘Viva the lekkerness of life’. Outside, black workers walk past, oblivious to this Cafe Africaine. A woman appears from the kitchen, Khoisan cheekbones. Her name tag reads ‘Catherine’. Our eyes meet momentarily. I feel like a voyeur who has seen Catherine’s genitals. I want to drink myself to death. Someone screams outside. My back to the door, I imagine a taxi war breaking out in Adderley Street. I fear any moment now AK47 slugs will rip into my back. How things hang together. It is time to go home.

On my walk home from the station, I buy a bag of avocados. I grip the plastic netting and feel my fingers negotiate history. I wonder how past (ancestral?) hands felt clasping a net of leather thongs, such as a nomad might use to carry his possessions; such as the one I saw at the gallery.

In my kitchen, the bag tears and the fruit roll all over the floor. I am too tired to bend and pick them up. I have walked a lot today. And, ungraced by deodorant, I smell like a hotnot, as my father would say.

* Pippa Skotnes’s correction as an aside in her response to mainly Yvette Abrahams’s review: “Rustum Kozain is also mistaken in thinking that I cut out pieces of the casts. The eyes which remind him of masks were cast separately later to be slotted into the heads, as part of the original casting project.”


The wind in the morning

14 November 2015, 4:11 pm

The wind in the morning

The man wakes from dream
to nightmare,
his night-aged knees
buckling
over rubble
outside when he emerges
from the black mouth of his house

its burnt shell a meagre shelter
from the wind
now tugging at a loose something
and the blight it brings
like a scythe through the valleys.

Let the sun rise if it must.
Let it burn through the wind.
Let it dry them eventual white
and broken as the earth –
his neighbours the two lovers

charred in copulation
on the blackened bed
as if they unleashed the starbursts
of the bombs,
that burning burning out their love.

What’s left are the wind-worn harvests:
the neighbours’ ache,
friends’ unanswered calls,
a mother who cries,
who wanders
until death
among the millions of the unconsoled.

We who also wake
but turn away cowed, unshamed,
we whisper only to each other
of the murdered and the maimed:
single, multiple, mass –
the killing fields the index of our regress
back from Auschwitz-Birkenau.


For W.

30 December 2014, 8:22 am

For W.

1. Ohio, 1994

When the shutter clicked, you jumped back
and hated me for that one moment
you had glanced into my camera,
as if my shutter had fallen
like a guillotine
through parts of you.

I should have known. Weeks before,
smoking outside after class,
we both mauled Gary Snyder
for playing the vegetarian
shaman astride the turtle back
of his American mountain.

Somewhere down a parent’s line,
you said and looked earthwards
at your toecaps pawing grey
Midwestern gravel. Somewhere
down the line, native blood pushes
at your insides. As if you had said

too much, you looked over my shoulder,
shook your head and blew smoke
through pursed lips at the stars and stripes,
its rope sounding the flagpole.
Native, you said again and reached back
to smooth your ponytail.

Then you lifted your sleeve
and showed me the tattoo:
inked thickly inside a circle,
a brave’s head; and dangling
from his stiffly banded ponytail,
two feathers breaching the ring.

2. Cape Town, 1995

Now, reading again of Wounded Knee,
the Trail of Tears, I test
names by my tongue: Oglala Sioux,
Lakota Sioux, many Sioux;
difficult ones: Wampanoag,
Kwakiutl; the easier Mohawk,

Iroquois, Shawnee. And I measure
the distance and proximity
from Choctaw to Xhosa, Arawak
to Hawequas; probe velum and palate,
wondering how names here might sound
if you curled your tongue

around Goringhaiqua, Khoi-Khoi
and tasted the many trails of tears
of all of us, the salt lick of wounds,
the many long lines that lead,
always, from pox to romance,
from colony to the encircling museum.

 

(from This Carting Life, Kwelabooks/Snailpress)


Christmas Eve

23 December 2014, 8:43 am

Christmas Eve

Almost all is ruin –
the Mozart fugue that fails
its promise
of deliberate consolation,

the unending ticker and swish
of a sprinkler outside,
and the roads angry
with traffic

in last-minute errands
as the year breaks again,
breaks again
into its manifold terrors –

Christmas Eve and its solitudes
for the holy and the damned;
and the thin disguise the lonely wear
as if shirked by God

or shirked by friends
who vanish to gods
in small towns
where the earth’s bounty lies:

jungle, waterfall, placid lake.
But the earth is weary.
The thin earth
will admit it’s lonely

as it makes the jagged cliff its own,
the arid plain,
its bare spaces
where some still go.

 

(from Groundwork, Kwela/Snailpress, 2012)


This carting life

15 December 2014, 5:34 pm

This carting life

I met History once, but he ain’t recognize me.
– Derek Walcott, ‘The Schooner Flight’

On pilgrimage down damp steps, deep inside
the British Museum, among boxes stocked
roof-high, I rummage. And sniff like a dog
and pause, snout snuffling for my nearest quarry,
for the tacks to my own, final shit.

Which box fell from Father’s cart
knocking about through the Karoo, farm to farm
as he tendered his art to anyone
who’d pay him a bauble or some jot of tripe
for shearing a sheep, planting a split pole?

In regulation tatters, did we children
skulk behind Mother as Father would
talk over terms of trade with the farmer
or foreman: yes, you may pitch there
draw water here; firewood you find yourself?

Did we all pitch in? Unpack and pile
box and sack and pole? And Father swore
and hammered, tied all into a bigger box,
our pitching home for a few days
until we had to cart it off again?

Did I search for the giant spiders
tempered overnight into tangles of dead wood,
their many legs that make good kindling
shadowed like webs under gutless bodies?
Did I drag back bundles, scoring long lines

that led to our fire at night?
And how then we did dream. Learning to play
the bow, did I pluck at hamstrung song, coddling
my instrument? And the others rocked?
Swinging his dregs out in a dark arc

did Father cough and rise, and from his box
fetch shears, a jar of used, black oil
and a heavy lump wrapped in greased cloth;
then, hands trembling as if it were our saving
charm, bare the ever-dwindling whetstone?

While my string thrummed, stopped, quivered again,
like the incomplete tongues troubling in me,
was the slap and slick of stone on iron
Father’s reluctant percussion?
Did he sing? And Mother too? The young ones

staring at the flame and coal? And I fixed
on the stars to try hold the course of my string?
Was this how sleep stalked us, as song rung
in our cambering heads, the children
soon propping each other, then carried

to bed down in the smells of smoke and sand,
of gods and people, burled like kooigras?
And we did sleep until dawn brought the clang
of cup and shears strung to Father’s waist
as, stooping, out he went to work?

Did I later take him shards of potbread
spread with fat? Kneeling on the spine
of a sheep, did he withhold his shears, look up
and say the sheep are nearly done, tonight
we roast tripe, but tell Mother to pack

we go north tomorrow, yes we go north …?

Did we then lose the box, when we left?
Fallen from the cart over some unbidden bump?
Or with wind in our heads did we forget
the box, a lone tombstone among footprints,
the tools a rattle of charms, like bones,

like runes without which we were turned
from farm to enclosed farm? But north,
always north we trekked,
until we hung from the cracked lip
of a vast, somnolent desert?

And did we stray there many days?
Did we turn south again and, hungry
at the first fence, did Father unroll
his bow and quiver,
long forgot?

*

But all that came later. And somewhere
in these many cunning passages must lie
a box that holds our shears and whetstone.
For now, I reach for the nearest box.
It shifts and pitches in my hands
as unknown weights rollick unbound inside.

I steady it and place it down, kneel
and blow at the dust. Then wait for history
to settle around me. Is this box my own
making? To hoard a craft predating carts
and shears? Or did I roll into it

among others tossed too like bones?
Predicting life running, wandering, skulking?
And death? And after death
enclosure in boxes? And kept from
boxed-in earth and sky?

Did we see it coming? And now can do
nothing but roll and bump our heads?
And stare visionless, with sockets
hollowed by science and filled with baubles,
at our own lives our interrogators?

My lips drawn but caught in mid-cry
as I screamed not for help but yearned
the province of the mantis? Stalled
in prayer, cut off from grace?
Because in supplication we refused

the first fences that already ran
from sun-up to where night pummelled the sky?
And kept our arrows trained on cattle?
Belly-slow after a feast,
could we not run fast enough? And sought

to meld with moon, rock, inadequate shrub?
Close to the ground, did we hear the hooves
drum, the horsemen, the dedicants of prophecy?
Did we crouch and wait
for seven muskets hanging from the clouds

like unequivocal fingers of some foreign god?
And then lead balls did prod us
to silence for the real work
of bayonets punching stars in our bodies?
Stagnant stars that in days would turn blue?

Blue stars by whose unsounded frequencies
vultures would tack on course, dip into
cartwheels and circle unseen above us,
to triangulate the closest hopping distance
so that in feast they may unburden the earth?

By then our disremembered bodies
asserting their span of land only
by the reach of that temporary smell
of bloat? All this unseen by us boxed-in
heads, heading for port?

How we did feel the thrum of blades
on our necks. Like gods run amok
under the skin, the madness that sings
before the first nick; as the nick promises
the first inch opening, and so on,

unzipping further as bayonets sawed
through our necks. Was I alive still?
Even as in their cold ecstasy stars
untimely had spangled my body like some pox?
And I did feel and smell the hand

that tilted my jaw and had not charity?
Did I scream then and it was cut
out of me, stopped short of godhead? And how
did they negotiate vertebrae, cartilage?
And did a bookbinder, fingers adept

at pampering vellum, tuck flaps of neck-skin
under our jaws, sealing thus the servants
of the praying mantis in their foreheads?
Our souls now caught as recompense
for some flank of beef just-begotten?

*

Is this then the infirm box I stall before
and play at wiping gloves of dust
from me, as an intercom intones
closing time: five minutes to go
before I’m enclosed in the museum?

Will I leave this box unopened too,
heads unrolled onto my lap, and break
into a brisk walk into damp London?
And will a drizzle soon clot the dust
on my clothes as I run for shelter,

fugitively wiping at my knees and elbows?

(from This Carting Life, Kwela/Snailpress, 2005)


Self-portrait in blue

7 May 2014, 1:04 pm

Self-portrait in blue

 

When you look sometimes,
when you don’t mean to see,
but on a turn
from reaching for something else –
analgesics or the shaving brush –
you catch

the fugitive blur in the mirror

where should have been
someone like you,
bagged eyes, heavier jowl,
that pull of the mouth –
what you’d rather not see

or taste again:
the bitter, repetitive defeats
of a country where death is king,
all proudly trapped still
in the chauvinist isolations
of the past, or cocooned
in barren superstitions
that yet grow and multiply;

the poets, past comrades
who jump and prance
to render their rhymes to power
the venal rottage in the veins,
tendering mouths agape in metastasis,
lips glistening
with fat from the banquet

or who wander distracted
in every valley or hollow-treed glen,
mimics of empire
in the quiet, restful corruptions
of self-scrutiny.

So you turn rather away
from the indictments of the mirror,
focus not on the burdens
of this historical self.
Look less, see less.
Say less and settle back
through the self’s wordless fog
into the dull stasis of anodynes.


A Manuscript belonging to a girl whose body tasted so sweet – Aslan Abidin

5 February 2014, 7:52 pm

A MANUSCRIPT BELONGING TO A GIRL WHOSE BODY TASTED SO SWEET – Aslan Abidin (transl. from Indonesian by Mikael Johani)

—circa 1789
what could be crueler than our own beaches?
they ran many ships aground, stuffed with
colonialists, missionaries and rats.

—they once greeted speelman* and
palakka** who came to destroy
the kingdoms of gowa and tallo.—***

i remembered this
beach, which has never ceased to
produce traitors. i was born
on the sand of this beach
that night, before i said:
“your body is as sweet as aren juice.”#

i got drunk on your body,
i could not find my way home.

“it destroyed me, trying not to remember you,”
you said one morning, as you were packing to leave.

—dutch flotillas came
to take away slaves, to sell them
alongside pigs at the cape of good hope.—

then foot soldiers brought you to baron
van reede tot de parkelaar, exiled ##
far away at the palace of the surakarta sunan.###
the senior resident loved to read the bible
while you sucked him off.

what could be crueler than our own beaches?
these ports have destroyed our bay
these ports have forced us to say too many goodbyes
these ports have shed many tears.
“it destroys me, trying to forget you,”
you said, as if suffering can have an end.

Makassar, 2008-2010

Notes
* Cornelis Speelman, governor of colonial Dutch East Indies, 1681-1684
** Arung Palakka, Speelman’s Buginese ally.
*** Gowa, Tallo: places in Southwestern Sulawesi (formerly known as Celebes), where Makassar is situated. The rebel, Sheikh Yusuf, as well as many slaves were brought from there to the Cape, thus Macassar in the Cape, where Yusuf was buried.
# aren – feathered palm
## Van Reede tot de Parkeler – Dutch colonial merchant
### Surakarta Sunan – Sunan = ruler

Poem taken from What’s Poetry – Antologi Puisi, Henk Publica 2012, pp.240-241


October, Java

19 January 2014, 11:56 am

October, Java

The buzz of scooters die down
past the bamboo compound
revamped for tourists
tramping to and from an ancient temple.

Fresh and flushed by showers,
groups and couples compare their pics
and laugh and cluck, and muse
at what they can only describe
as the riches of the land:

the rice, the strange fruit,
the smiling waiters
and the call to evening prayer
hardly heard above the rain
rushing from the eaves and gutters,
roaring in the ears and in the head.

The rain stops as it started, sudden.
A moment’s hush
then the click of knives on bone and plate
and the global benefits
of American, English, Dutch.

Under the grinning moon
the river runs by silently, runs
mercurial by bridge and bamboo,
by crabs sidling like henchmen
past the tourist’s dream,
through the sleep of history.

The foreigners will cluck and leave,
heaving bolts of batik and temple curios
wrapped like careful metaphors
for their inner peace
bought with rijksdaalders, pounds, murderous dollars.

Only the sun tomorrow will cast its eye
on river-rock brown like fingers
clawing at the shore;
on a tree stump stuck in the stream
like a torso shorn of limbs,
streaking red, its banners long washed out to sea;

Only the sun will raise its weary eye
on the gecko fled from the burning walls,
its tail left twisting in wordless testimony;
on gods in flames,
their ashes falling on the killing fields.


Derek Walcott, A Far Cry from Africa

17 December 2012, 11:23 am

A Far Cry from Africa

A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa. Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon  the bloodstreams of the veld.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
“Waste no compassion on these separate dead!”
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?

Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilisation’s dawn
From the parched river or beast teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

(Derek Walcott, from Collected Poems, 1948-1984 (1986/1992); originally from In A Green Night (1962))


It has been such a long road – Alfred T. Qabula

6 November 2012, 8:31 am

This poem is one of the last pieces composed by Alfred T. Qabula (1942-2002), a poet from the trade union movement in Durban in the 1970s and early 1980s, famous for “Praise poem to FOSATU” and as one of the poets of Black Mamba Rising (1986). “It has been such a long road” was published in World Literature Today in 1996 and it is thus interesting to note this early critique of former comrades, now become moneyed government functionaries, from a worker and trade unionist’s perspective. (Here is an obituary and commemoration of Qabula by Ari Sitas.)

It has been such a long road

It has been a long road here
with me, marking the same rhythms
everyday.
Gentlemen, pass me by
Ladies, pass me by
Each one greets me, “eita!”
and adds:
“comrade, I will see you on my return
as you see I am in a hurry
but do not fear, I am with you and
understand your plight.”

“Do not worry
no harm will greet you
as long as I am alive.
We shall make plans with the guys
and we for sure will solve your problems.
You trust me don’t you?
I remember how hard you struggled
and your contribution is prized.
In fact everyone knows how hard it all had turned
when you were fighting for workers and for the community’s emancipation.”

Nothing lasts forever
and our friends now show us their backs
and they avoid eye-contact
pretending they never saw us.
Even those whom by chance our eyes did meet
would rush and promise and leave behind
a “see you later.”

“What is your phone number comrade?
I will call you after I finish with the planning
committee on this or that of the legislature
and then we shall work something out for you, be calm.”
Days have passed, weeks have passed
years have also passed
with us waiting like the ten virgins in the bible.

I remember the old days
when we had become used to calling them
from the other side of the river.
Some of them were in the caves and crevices
hiding when we called
but we hollered loud
until they heard and they responded to our voices.
As they came to us dust sprang up
and spiralled high all the way up to the sky.
When the dust of our struggle settled, there was no one there.
The dust covered my body
it cursed me into a pathetic fate
disguising me, making me unrecognisable
and whoever recognises me
is judged to be deluded, deceived
because the dust of their feet still covers my body.

And now we, the abominations, spook them
as the dust of their feet covers our bodies.
And they run away
each one of them saying: “hold up the sun
dear friend, doesn’t the fog cover each and every mountain?”

Although you don’t know us, we know ourselves:
we are the movable ladders
that take people up towards the skies,
left out in the open for the rain
left with the memories of teargas, panting for breath.

Winter and summer come and go and leave us the same.
The wind or the breeze has not changed us. Here is a summary of our praises –
the iron that doesn’t bend, even
Geneva has failed to bend it,
the small piece of bath-soap about which
meetings and conspiracies were hatched
to catch and destroy it.
It still continues to clean men and women
who desire to be cleaned.

It has been a long road here
see you again my friends
when you really need us
when the sun clears the fog from your eyes.

Alfred T Qabula, 1942-2002


%d bloggers like this: