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"Poetry is the language of the soul, the lingua franca of dreams"

Michelle McGrane in conversation with poet, playwright and writing teacher Angifi Dladla

Angifi Dladla is a poet, playwright, writing teacher and coach based on the East Rand. His poetry has been published in many anthologies and journals locally and abroad. In 2003 he was a playwright-in-residence in Geneva, where he wrote Kgodumodumo, a play about the protection of biodiversity and traditional knowledge. His poetry collection, The Girl Who Then Feared To Sleep, was published in 2001. In 1988 he founded the Community Life Network, a cultural organisation focusing on community building. In 1987 he co-founded Bachaki Theatre in Johannesburg. Their debut play Top Down - The Law of Nature, was the first in the history of South Africa to look into the belly of Bantu Education in the classroom, staff room and the headmaster's office. In 2006 he will publish his Zulu poetry book, Uhambo.

Angifi, like most children, I am sure you loved listening to stories. Were you lucky enough to have storytelling as a regular part of your childhood?

Yes. My grandmother and my aunts used to tell us stories during their leisure time.

In Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe wrote: "It is only the story … that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence." Are you concerned about how African oral tradition - the ancient wisdom and folklore passed down from elders and healers - is to be preserved in South Africa in the 21st century? What is the way forward?

We are in the age of globalisation where digitisation has narrowed distances. The way forward is thus to use the new technologies as other nations have done in creating masterpieces such as Shrek, The Prince of Egypt, The Way of Invisibility and so on. These technologies being developed, just like motor cars, are for the whole of mankind. We must not only be consumers, we must be producers of new technologies. In this way we can preserve the wisdom of the ancients and folklore and come up with new wisdom and healthy technologies to advance the human race.

Were you encouraged to read as a child?

Certainly, my aunts and my uncles had books. They encouraged me to read.

Can you name a few books which have made a difference to your life and recount why they have been influential?

The African Origin of Civilisation and African Philosophy - The Pharaonic Period: 2780-330 BC made me proud as an African as they celebrate the achievements of the ancient blacks. Everyone's Guide to Theosophy answered my questions about spirituality and led me to study Theosophy. At home there was a box of schoolbooks belonging to my uncle. His notebook where he drafted school compositions and letters to his girlfriends got me into the swing of things.

When did you start writing, Angifi? What is poetry to you?

In primary school - I was inspired by my uncle's notebook. To me poetry is the language of the soul, the lingua franca of dreams.

What music do you enjoy?

Good music. Music of the masters: Louis Armstrong-Duke Ellington, Phuzushukela-Phuzekhemisi, Handel-Beethoven, Abdullah Ibrahim-John Coltrane, Bob Marley-Peter Tosh, Caiphas Semenya-Busi Mhlongo, Angelique Kidjo-Youssou N'Dour, Fela Kuti-Papa Wemba, Nina Simone - Rita Coolidge, Brooke Benton-Willie Eason, Miles Davis-Eric Gale, Malombo-Mambazo, Art Ensemble of Chicago and the haunting flute of Abbey Cindi, the haunting voices and sound of the Khoisan, the Native American and the Chinese masters. Good music, ezingasoze zabuna, the music of the masters, even those I did not mention, including choral music.

How has your love of music and rhythm influenced the way you write and the way you read your poetry to an audience? Does music hold secrets for writing and reading poetry?

Strange, I cannot sing. My love of singing was destroyed by one old lady teacher in the lower standards. She used to beat me and tweaked my ears and nose instead of helping me with my voice. But I do sing when I am alone. So, I have not yet explored the art of music in my poetry, though I know there is poetry in music and there is musicality in poetry.

I'm curious to discover more about praise singers and the functions they perform within communities. You sing your poems at weddings, farewells, funerals, launches, motivational campaigns and graduation ceremonies. Does this make you a praise singer as well as a poet?

No, I am not a praise singer; I don't turn despots into roses and idols. Where are those who glorified Gqozo, Vorster, De Kok, Mobutu? They died with the dying, they disappeared with the disposable. A praise poet is a pathetic creature. When his demigod goes to the podium, the fanfare is gone, forgotten as if never existed. The despot does not even draw on his lines, because they are meaningless, they have no resonance. Wrapped in pelts and carrying a stick, the barefooted praise poet sings the same tune. When I sing my poems, speakers and programme directors quote me several times because I bring the whole experience of a situation. In 2003 when I sang at the funeral of a friend in Vereeniging, I was not praising the deceased:

If Death is what I saw, Death is peaceful.
If Death is the Death of Ntate Tladi, Death is beautiful.
If Death is Death Death is not Death
as we know it.

Alain Jouffroy wrote, "If you believe it is not possible to change anything then you can't be a poet …" Do you feel you have a responsibility to bear witness and speak out against the prejudices of race, class, religion and gender which categorise and restrict our lives?

I am a poet; I cannot change anything and I will not even try. I am just a matchbox for a person's inner match to unleash his or her human goodness. That is how I deal with prejudices. I appeal to the heart. Prisons have failed to change man, but all inmates I have met are now free and responsible.

In Es'kia Continued, Es'kia Mphahlele talks about the need to write about issues "subsumed under our national condition: poverty, disease, crime, laying a foundation for a public morality - corruption in high and lower places, misrule - all across the spectrum of our society." What role do you see the writer playing in the African Renaissance?

First, we must understand that Africa has had a lot of reawakenings or rebirths. Right from ancient Ethiopia, Egypt, Sahara, Sudan, Mali, Tanzania, Congo, Mapungubwe, Zimbabwe, thinkers, singers, writers and painters were the drivers of renaissance, not kings and chiefs, priests and politicians. So even today, the new paradigm demands that our knowledge workers be more proactive in approach and also draw on the ancients. That is what the European humanists such as Petrach, Boccaccio and Erasmus did. Jules Michelet, the French historian, would have said we are ushering in a 21st-century African!

Tell me about the poets who have inspired you.

Little children with their innocence, humility and chutzpah; DBZ Ntuli, the great Zulu poet whose poetry goes beyond the physical perceptions; Okot p'Bitek's dramatic Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol; the ancient poets of Egypt and Nguniland whose work still shines even today. Listen to the ancient Egyptian ushering eternal beauty:

She, the long-necked one of the radiant bust,
has hairs of true lapis.
The luster of her skin surpasses gold.
Her fingers are like lotus petals.
She of the delicate waist and slender hips,
she whose limbs affirm her beauty,
whose every step is full of dignity.
My heart is afire with desire for her embrace.
She makes every man's head turn
to see her.
Whoever she greets is filled with joy,
feeling himself first among youth.
When she steps out of her house,
one dreams he sees the lone star.

When we were in Cape Town in November 2004, I seem to remember your mentioning you kept a diary. Are journal entries a regular part of your writing routine?

Yes, wherever I am, there is a notebook in my pocket. Sometimes when I drive, I park at the side of the road and jot some lines and ideas down. Next to my bed there is a notebook and a pen.

In terms of prose and other genres, are you working on anything at the moment?

No, I am studying management. I have seen that a lot of our enterprises fail because we do not have managerial skills.

As a teacher, if there is one thing you can impart to your students that they will carry with them the rest of their lives, what is it?

We are creators of what happens to us, be it people coming into our lives, situations or experiences. There is no luck, bad luck, accident and devil. If someone hurts you, no revenge sister, no revenge brother, no revenge my child - you are love, you are peace by nature. Don't create what you are not, it will grow, materialise in time and haunt you. You will then blame God or the devil or witches.

You have also taught writing and theatre to inmates at Boksburg Prison. How have you benefited from the interaction; what has the experience taught you?

The inmates perfected my teaching techniques. The more I taught them, the more I learned how to teach.

Tell me about the Afrika Reads Forum.

The Afrika Reads Forum was launched in 2002 and the community of East Rand celebrated World Book Day for the first time. Our mission is to promote the culture of reading, storytelling and book-buying by empowering the youth and adults with reading and performance skills. Once a month there is public reading at a school, or tavern or hall. We have greats like Benny Moleko and Eric Mogale.

You're involved with the Community Life Network, a non-profit organisation which works to support community development in the East Rand …

CLN was founded in 1988 to fight the chaotic violence and systematic dehumanisation sponsored by the apartheid state. The role of CLN was to be a non-violent facilitator - whetting the potential in our people and make them active citizens even after the fascist regime had been overthrown. Under CLN there is Akudlalwa Communal Theatre, ERTON PRESS, Boksburg Progressive Press, Femba Writing Project, Afrika Reads Forum and Chakida Publishers. Through CLN we celebrate the WORD, the power of the WORD. We accomplished 90 percent of these things without funding. See the power of a great vision?

How does the medium of writing help victims of trauma and those impacted by conflict to develop coping mechanisms?

We are called the Wounded Healers, because the writing process itself leads to self-discovery. Once a person has discovered himself or herself, the pain is over. We are not deliberately aiming at healing, but this is inevitable as we encourage student writers to write about what they know best - about themselves, about their experiences and people they know. In this way, they write away their pain. As a writing teacher I do some conferencing, I become close to student writers, become friends. To others I am their loving "mother". In the past, through the intervention of Ma Chepape, a nursing sister, we worked with Natalspruit Hospital and the clinics of Katlehong. Next year we will be in partnership with doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers and librarians through our new programme, The Healing Word.

CLN has also developed the Akudlalwa Communal Theatre (ACT), a developmental theatre project. What are the project's aims? Do ACT performances concentrate on specific topics?

Just like with all CLN's programmes we aim at leading a person to discover himself or herself, to unleash the inner potential. That is how we improve the quality of life of our people. We demystify writing and performance. To us even a small child is a professional performer, because we are not taking chances. We work for excellence by creating the conditions for perfection. Our plays right from the 80s deal head-on with community issues, our issues. Our first play was on necklacing, burning of people with tyres. Even black journalists were afraid to write about this. Only one person, as far as I know, wrote about this afterwards, Rian Malan. In the 90s, young ones of Motloung Section, from 7 to 11 years old, improvised Sibangani in Sotho and Zulu. The play, under the direction of a young man, Tsitso Mqhaba, looked at the so-called black-on-black violence. There was no preaching or speech-making. It was action. Those who saw the play were touched by the quality and honesty of the work. The war was beyond UDF and IFP! They learned from the children, not from the TV, radio and newspapers.

Yes, we look at community issues - AIDS, TB, trauma, teenage pregnancy, and drug abuse. Even before AIDS programmes become fashionable, we were there with SADI. Even schools in the 90s called for ACT to train the students: Zibuko Primary School, for instance, trained by ACT little ones, was placed first in a competition organised by READATHON. Last year our play, which was first performed by ACT, was taken on a national tour by Bachaki Theatre. It deals with sugar daddies falling in love with schoolgirls.

CLN also runs Erton Press, a school newspaper project. Are the young South Africans you work with eager and enthusiastic about developing their writing skills?

Parents support Erton Press. Students have realised that writing is the way. They take writing as a profession. Erton Press students are leaders at school. They are articulate and have a way of putting something across. Teachers love Erton Press students. Next year, in partnership with the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in South Africa, we are going to start regional student papers. I am also one of IAJ's facilitators.

Are the numbers of aspiring young women writers within East Rand communities increasing? Do you think South African women in rural areas are being encouraged enough to step out on their own, to leave their traditional roles within the houses and stories of men, and create their own stories?

There is an explosion of women writers in the East Rand. The publication of Wa lala, Wa sala has inspired a lot of people - young and old, women and men. The truth is, everyone has a story, including rural women - they tell stories amongst themselves about their pain and joy. We need programmes such as ours even in the rural communities to help package these stories for a wider audience, even globally. The government must create opportunities and the infrastructure because, yes - the new economy is knowledge-based - cultural industries generate more wealth than mining industries. Ask Britain, America, Australia, France and Canada.

Ntozake Shange wrote, "Where there is a woman there is magic." Who are some of the "magical" women you admire?

I read Ntozakhe's book for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. The late Neo Chepape, a nursing sister from Vosloorus, was one of them. Thembeka Mbobo of Soweto and Pam Nichols of Wits are also "magical" women I admire. There are many!

Angifi, give me your thoughts on the way you see poetry in South Africa developing?

When one looks at poetry from the 50s, the poets of the 90s and 2000s are leading in content, quality and boldness. The 50s had great prose writers. I am proud to be a poet of the 90s and 2000s.

I know you have a strong commitment to developing your work and the work of other South African writers. What, for you, are the primary benefits of participating in creative writing networks such as Crossing Borders?

It is the sharing of experiences with a person from another culture, another world, in a humane way. In this atmosphere learning becomes natural. Both countries gain. And you get a chance of weighing yourself in terms of how you fit into world literature.

My British counterpart has captured this: "My understanding of the new South Africa has increased immeasurably, and the drama and rhetoric of your work has been an inspiration to me in my sense of what's still possible in poetry in the 21st century."

What does Wa Lala, Wa Sala mean? Can you briefly tell me about the collection of East Rand poetry you compiled and published last year? Is the volume available in bookshops?

You can get it at Clarke's Bookshop in Cape Town and at Sasavona in Johannesburg.

Wa lala, Wa sala is a great book. It means a lot to me and to the people of the South. It promotes reading in every way. Buy it, you will not regret it. It has demystified writing and publishing. It is the first time in the history of the East Rand that a book has been published in the township by ordinary people. Contributors are inmates, students and adults from Vosloorus, Katlehong and Thokoza - victims of apartheid savagery.

In 2001, Deep South Publishing released your poetry collection, the girl who then feared to sleep. How would you describe the collection and how can we get hold of a copy?

It can be found at Exclusive Bookshops and at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

I cannot describe it; I'll let critics do their thing. Alan Finlay says it is "a good example of how poetry responds to a violent and violated society. It shows those things beneath our noses that we are perhaps afraid to see." Greg Penfold says, "Angifi Dladla's first book of poems announces his status as a poet with a sober, practical demonstration of his ability to thrill, terrify or exalt his reader beyond tolerable word limits." Then listen to Vuyisile Msila: "Many of the lines in the anthology are unforgettable as they show the audience the depth of the poet within Angifi." And Pam Marshall: "... there is a sense of experimental freshness and raw power that breathes in these poems." The late Phaswane Mpe declared, "Dladla's collection of poems is an excellent, wide-ranging contribution to South African poetry, in style, tone and themes."

call me between your tears and eyes;
i'm the shadow, i won't drown.
draw me between your pain and faith;
i'm the shadow that leads.
will me within your heart of hearts;
i'm the energy that's divine.
hug me with the arm of your heart;
i'm reality, i am love …
listen to the silence in silence -
the dream materialising …
                 (song of a fertility doll)

Angifi, spirituality is an important aspect of your life. How would you define yourself spiritually? Do you have a life philosophy?

I am in this world, but not of this world, so I am Angifi: Ngangi khona, ngi khona, ngisazoba khona.

Your work as a South African writer and teacher has taken you to many different countries around the world. Do you have a favourite country after "home", a place you would like to keep going back to?

All places in the world are my home, because there are beautiful and humane people out there radiating ubuntu. Some of our South African intellectuals, without shame, tell lies and propagate the fallacy that ubuntu - humanness - is strictly an African thing. They lie like their racist counterparts! There is ubuntu in Europe, in the Americas, in Asia, in Australasia. I have experienced it, that is why I am comfortable everywhere. Never mind the governments, industrialists and their soldiers and police, the ordinary peoples of the world make all places my home. Wherever I go I meet people of my kind. That is how the universe works. I am not a liar, there are no lies within me, I am thus attracted to the lovers of truth. There are no drugs within me, so I cannot be attracted to drug people. On the day of my departure anywhere people are not happy, they feel the pain of separation. Some go to the extent of literally crying … Such is the bond …!

What is the best thing about living in South Africa at the moment?

Freedom of expression and the opening up of the continent. I now have friends in Zambia, Ghana, Kenya, Angola, Ethiopia, etc.

I know you have a very busy schedule. What is on the cards for the rest of the year?

We are working for good governance so that CLN will be more effective and efficient.

Baba, you have such a beautiful, powerful voice. If you're still singing at weddings in forty years' time, will you sing at my wedding?

How do you know? Are you a sangoma? There is a title already: "Song of the Heart's Sublime Delight". I will weave the song at the moment of the wedding. The Minister of Arts and Culture will be playing the djembe while women of Afrika Reads Forum hum and ululate.


The title poem from Angifi Dladla's debut collection of poetry:

the girl who then feared to sleep
(for my daughter)

doctors and nurses told her.
she was dying,
the girl who then feared to sleep.
doctors and nurses warned us.
we must fetch the dying,
the girl who then feared to sleep.

she did not fear the sunset,
she did not fear the sunrise,
she did not fear the disease that plundered her,
she did not fear the complications that maddened her,
she did not fear the pains that twisted her –
sleep was what she feared.

we wondered what images exploded in that head.

when sleep stalked towards her,
my girl, dazed, became a spirit dolphin
shooting herself up, recklessly
and rattled her exoskeleton to all the rooms
and made the blackest coffee
and let the cacophony of rattles, bleats, hi-fi and tv sets flare.

we wondered what images exploded in that skull.
we tried to help and purchased help. no, she feared.

when sleep finally ambushed her,
she would talk, groan and chew something
probably scaring off the claws of sleep.
on discovering she had slid into sleep,
my girl, taller than usual, would perform the ritual –
rattling up and down the rooms.

we wondered what images exploded.
we tried to help and purchased help. no, she feared.

one morning in spring,
she was all hope and health.
and all day long
she exuded life and joy
till the sun bled beauty
then, alone, she heard the steps.

she saw death.

she had no words,
but rattles,
she was all rattles
and jerks!

LitNet: 31 January 2006

Did you enjoy this interview? Have your say! Send your comments to webvoet@litnet.co.za, and become a part of our interactive opinion page. Or submit your own poetry to Michelle McGrane for consideration.

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