"Should I keep silent when my tongue is being chopped away?"
Michelle McGrane met up with Vonani Bila at Poetry Africa
My heart is peaceful, Africa,
National and international voices were heard in a diversity of poetic styles at the 9th International Poetry Festival in October 2005. The Durban festival gave me the opportunity to track down the talented and dedicated South African poet Vonani wa ka Bila, who along with Kobus Moolman and Allan Kolski Horwitz published my first poems in the late nineties and gave me the support and encouragement I needed to keep writing.
Over the past six years Vonani and I have corresponded sporadically, never having the chance to converse face to face. On Wednesday, 12 October, I finally met him. I was not disappointed. He is a great man, a true son of Africa; songs of freedom sing through his veins.
Vonani Bila was born in 1972 in Shirley village, Limpopo province. He currently runs the Timbila Poetry Project in Limpopo, which holds poetry workshops, organises exchange programmes and readings, and publishes the groundbreaking Timbila Poetry Journal as well as individual collections of poetry. Bila is a community activist, musician, founding member of the Movement for Delivery in Limpopo, Nhlalala Publishing Project and editor of the Community Gazette newspaper.
He is the author of eight storybooks for newly literate adult readers. His poetry books include No Free Sleeping (with Alan Findlay and Donald Parenzee), Throbbing Ink and In the Name of Amandla. His work has appeared in New Coin, Botsotso, Poetry of the 90s, Bleksem, Tribute, Kotaz, Win, NGO Matters, Carapace, Fidelities, Of Money Mandarins & Peasants, Community Gazette, The Educator's Voice, Glass Jars Among Trees, AIDC Alternatives & Turfwrite, The Land Will Heal, It All Begins, Global Fire and Southern Rain Poetry.
Bila has read and performed his poetry in South Africa, Brazil, Sweden, Holland and Belgium. He collaborated with guitar maestro Willy Manganyi on the Afro pop jive album Varhandzani which was released in 2003. In the same year, he released his music and poetry CD Dahl Street, Pietersburg.
Bila's work forges poetry of public protest with a gritty kind of rural realism. To do this in our weird times of don't-rock-the-boat censorship takes commitment. - Robert BeroldBila's writing has elicited broad respect. Robert Berold, former editor of New Coin, says:
Bila's work comes out of the expansive aesthetic of black consciousness performance poetry full of outrage, declamation and accusation. Bila writes graphically of the abandonment of the Reconstruction and Development Programme and the worsening of rural conditions.Madala Thepa of Sunday World writes:
Bila's writing style is simple yet has a powerful narrative tone. His voice is rough and wild - an anti-establishment echo and the voice of black pride.Vonani's own assessment is that he brings "refreshing thought-provoking poetry and contemporary African melodies beyond the borders of Limpopo." He was nominated for the DaimlerChrysler 2005 South Africa Poetry Award.
In conversation, Vonani is unaffected, reflective and gently spoken, belying the power of his poetic voice, which erupts with volcanic might and fury. Asked about the themes he covers in his poetry, he replies: "I celebrate humanity through poetry that uses simple and accessible language and imagery, and I hope to appeal to most readers of poetry. I challenge the continuing and glaring inequalities between the rich and the poor in the new South Africa. What kind of democracy is ours that leaves the poor behind? What kind of liberation is ours that forces many of the voting population to eke out a living in the dangerous streets as sex-workers?"
Sex-workers are burgersBila continues: "Did the people wage war against apartheid capitalism to remain trapped in the burning shacks of Filipi, Steve Biko Park, Winnie Mandela Park, Mshenguville? My poetry asks, why, after eleven years of so-called freedom, is the fertile land still in the hands of the propertied white few? When will the rightful owners of land get back what is theirs? My poetry is heavy on the willy-nilly mouthing of slogans about how being black is beautiful and quoting Biko and Fanon in speeches when the lips which speak of these people act against the doctrines of the same people, their heroes. I question free-market dogma because it is not working. It is so sad that over forty percent of South Africa's population is now drowning under the weight of poverty."
I believe one function I have as a poet is to critique both public and private life without fear of being victimised. I can be called an angry poet, not because I want to overthrow the ruling party, but because I am a patriot, I love this country and I have nowhere else to go. - Vonani Bila"Through my poetry I have conversations with Africa's liberation gods to save the continent. I write as part of a movement against global capitalism, challenging our uncaring leadership.
"I am concerned about the abandonment of progressive social policies like the Reconstruction and Development Programme that has been substituted by the Growth Employment and Redistribution Strategy. My poetry questions the rot in the government, in society, within people, and I seek guidance from the ancestors to show us the way.
"Most of my good poems come from the heart. I tell village narratives about the ongoing suffering of ordinary people as well as their will to survive. I write in Xitsonga and English. My language, Xitsonga, continues to get a raw deal in this land. Should I keep silent when my tongue is being chopped away? When something goes wrong, as a poet, I shout."
Dig harder and deeper;
The Poetry Africa Experience
"I enjoyed Poetry Africa," says Bila. "It brought together solid poets from all these countries. We influenced one another. During the festival, there was much poetic and musical collaboration.
"I enjoyed the accessible love and political poetry of Amadou Lamine Sall (Senegal), the honest feelings of the Nigerian poet Tanure Ojaide, the wit of Krip Yuson from the Philippines, Kaganof's unusual performance in the dark as a born-again, and the lyrical poetry of Domingo Alfonso from Cuba. The music by Pedro, Chiwoniso and Madonsini was amazing - it added flair.
"The poets gave their all throughout performances and readings, sharing jokes after the sessions. They talked about their countries and their lives. The world became closer to me. I can now say I understand why the people of Tibet are fighting for freedom. I had a rare opportunity to meet an Iraqi poet from Baghdad and he told me that the situation is bad in his city. He said, 'Beware of the Americans.'
"Of course, I enjoyed the poetry of fellow South Africans. I've learnt to take my poetry seriously, because the readers know there is a poet called Vonani Bila. From now on - whatever I write - I have to make sure it's well polished."
Visiting schools and conducting a writing workshop
"During the festival, I conducted a Creative Writing workshop together with Tanure Ojade at the BAT Centre. The room was full of energetic Durban poets. I was humbled by the participants' deep probing questions and comments. Poets want to be heard, and Poetry Africa is providing that space. How I wish the KwaZulu-Natal population could have come out in big numbers; they missed a lot.
"Who should participate in Poetry Africa next year from South Africa? I think Angifi Dladla, Phedi Thlobolo, Makhosazana Xaba, Mpho Ramaano, Mbongeni Khumalo and a host of others who write in languages other than English. They should be accorded a chance to enjoy being called poets.
"In Durban I felt like a practising poet, dignified."
Four poems selected from Vonani Bila's most recent poetry collection, In the Name of Amandla:
Purchase your copy of In the Name of Amandla, only R70 including VAT, by emailing email@example.com. Other Timbila Poetry Project publications can also be ordered from Timbila Poetry Project, PO Box 470, Elim Hospital, 0960, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
LitNet: 01 November 2005
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