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"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,
But inside is a hole
From a locust and the drought.
My heart is tired.
Flooded by cascades of blood.

("Give Me Love, Rwanda")

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 BilaVonani 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 Berold
Bila'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 burgers
We chew the fresh ones
Rosebud catwalk girls
Those with protruding pointed breasts.

("Dahl Street, Pietersburg")

Bila 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;
For you refuse to dream higher & louder.
The halitosis hits you in the nose,
And you stand on the cusp of cataclysm.


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
"What I found particularly fulfilling was the visit to schools to run workshops with teachers and pupils. There is much interest in poetry out there, and it is only a pity that most schools do not have sufficient, if any, new South African poetry books in their libraries, if libraries exist. I donated Timbila books to some schools because it's critically important that new poets get nurtured when they are still young - and there are lots of them out there.

"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:

Beautiful Daughter

Beautiful daughter
Stop walking at night
It's too dark
There's no light in this land
The sun has long died
You'll be pricked by thorns
Fall into a donga

Beautiful daughter
This morning eagles discovered her
Your petite friend with brazen long hair
The girl with dark-liquid eyes
Song-bird, leader of the church choir
Eagles discovered her this morning
Lying in a pool of blood
Skirt torn apart, a rag
Her throat throttled
Her sharp, pointed breasts missing
Virgin girl, now a frozen corpse
No white sheet nor blanket
To cover her disfigured body

Beautiful daughter
In the field near the post office
Opposite our big house
They chased her like a deer
Crushed her knees with steel
So she could stop galloping
Four of them huffed and puffed like animals
On top of her
She was from the party -
But not too drunk
She went to the nightclub to dance
Four men gave her a lift
From town to township
They stabbed, hacked her many times
With butcher knives
Her ribs were broken with bricks
Four of them took their turn
Huffing and puffing
Crying like hyenas
As they ejaculated
They cut her clitoris with a pair of scissors
Left a screwdriver inside, between her legs

Khanyisa, Khanyisa
She wanted to be a doctor in the township

Beautiful daughter
I heard her scream painfully
Ndza fa minoo! Ndza fa minoo!
They stuffed her mouth
With a blood-tainted panty and a pad
So she would stop screaming
Then they cut her tongue
Making her mute
Guns fired, five times
They used bullets not pellets
To crack her skull
They drove away
This new year
Thugs killed a scholar

Beautiful daughter
Stop walking at night
It's too dark
There's no light in this land
The sun has long died
You'll be pricked by thorns
Fall into a donga

Car Watcher

She stands in the cold night

A gentleman heaves from a Mercedes Benz
Gonna eat at the Spur
Can't be her father
Her father is from Mafefe
Coughing asbestos dust
Poison left by British miners will kill him
She prays to her mother
Who died after giving birth to the tenth child
She goes to church and confesses
I've slept with men for bread,
I was hungry, God
She plays lotto and three cards.

She stands in the cold night
Watches the beautiful cars at the Checkers centre
She has no bicycle
She walks on foot
Fifteen kilometres from home to town
Her friend is a car washer
He plays zwepe and madice
Always in tattered clothes
Clean thoughts.

Ship Out

This ship is sinking,
so low, deep into the ravines

The wild whirlwind is quiet,
The angry treacherous sea so still.

I want to jump off,
like a surfer & ship out.

Crocodiles & sharks, come,
tear my body into pieces.

This love-ship is a wreck
damaged beyond repair.

In the name of Amandla

In the name of Amandla
Tell me what has changed in this village
There's no food in the kitchen
Bare children with chapped lips can't go to school
Another hungry child knocked down by a rich man's car
The child is gone, the rich man contributed a cheap coffin
Everyone thought he would rot in prison.
It's winter, the school has no desks, textbooks & windows
Our leaders send their children to private schools
Ask them

In the name of Amandla
Tell me what has changed in this village
The tap is dry
Coughs hot air
The pump is off
Granny has no cash to buy diesel
She walks distances to draw dirty water
In the still pool
In the poisoned dam
Where people share water with animals
Granny washes in a cracked red plastic basin
She buys water and pushes a wheelbarrow
She is old, 70!
Her hut collapsed during the days of the flood
She survived, because she was busy collecting wood in the bush
She waited for her pension at 60 years of age
She stands in a queue, shoving and shuffling
Someone of her age collapses in the smothering sun
She closes her eyes, sniffs snuff
She sneezes, tears run down her cheeks
She gets her pension, it's a cheque

In the name of Amandla
Tell me what has changed in this village
Magogo takes a taxi to town
Young ones don't want to sit next to her
They say she smells of urine
She buys a tin of paraffin, a blanket and chicken
She buys a bag of mealiemeal on account
Her daughters, now mothers, want their share
Government gives R110 per child
Granny pays the burial society every month,
She does not want to be buried with a blanket
People won't come to the funeral if a cow is not slaughtered
She talks alone, predicts death any time from now
She is called a cheque by her own daughters
Their husbands are unemployed,
They weave & sell baskets, smoke BB & drink mqombhoti
They wait to reach 65 to caress coins
Magogo washes in a cracked red plastic basin
She wants to take a shower before she dies
She calls Mandela Mondela
She only votes for the ANC

In the name of Amandla
Tell me what has changed in this village
We are in trouble
Our electricity is weak
Switch off everything else when you use a stove
It stops when it rains
It flies away with the wind
Come winter - the municipality will cut it off
Poor black man in arrears
Back to mbhawula and malahla
Magogo is cold
She sleeps by the fire
Burning her feet,
The brazier emits gas
She will cough blood clots
Health worker at the clinic will give her panados

In the holy name of Amandla
Tell me what has changed in this village
Our RDP house leaks when it rains
We can't fit, it's a toilet
We hear & see them making love
In a room divided by a curtain
There can't be any secret
We sleep in the kitchen
Wake up like elephants early in the morning
Verwoerd, my enemy, built much bigger houses
Trevor Manuel can't stop buying submarines, corvettes and jetfighters
Our taxes can do something better
War is coming we are told.


Purchase your copy of In the Name of Amandla, only R70 including VAT, by emailing timbila@lantic.net. Other Timbila Poetry Project publications can also be ordered from Timbila Poetry Project, PO Box 470, Elim Hospital, 0960, or by emailing timbila@lantic.net.

LitNet: 01 November 2005

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