I have spent most of the early morning thinking of what I want to say to you: there is so much. First of all I want to say that I am in your country, have been drawn to your country, the beautiful South Africa, which for some years in our own struggle we referred to as Azania, because of a deep love of you, of your heroines and heroes, of your long, long struggle toward positive humanity for yourselves and for all oppressed people on the planet. You have been a great inspiration to all people on earth who are interested in and devoted to Justice, Peace and Happiness.
I was asked to provide a title for my talk and this is what came to me: Coming to See You Since I was Five Years Old: a Poet’s Connection to the South African Soul. The reason I have been coming your way for over sixty years is because when I was five years old my eldest sister Mamie Lee Walker, all of seventeen years old herself, came home from college her freshman year and taught my eleven year old sister and myself your National Anthem, Nkosi Sikeleli’Afrika. (Sung). We were the only children of any color who were taught this song in our tiny, totally segregated town in the deep South of the United States, in Georgia; the somber, intense passion and dignity of the melody entered my heart. It has lodged there for the last sixty years.
It did not just lodge there, it propelled me into the deepest of curiosities about who Africans might truly be. Because, in the deeply racist United States of the Forties and Fifties, when I was born, Africa was shrouded in the most profound mists of distortion, racially motivated misperceptions, gross exploitation, and lies.
Africans were almost cheerfully despised. Considered to be savages. Certainly. And yet, for me, and for my sister Ruth, there was our sister coming home from college, whose fees my materially poor parents sweated to pay; there was the sound of Nkosi Sikeleli’ Afrika.(Sung). “God Bless Mother Africa” was sung so earnestly by her loving sons and daughters, her horribly abused children, that it made an impression on our psyches never to be erased.
Here is part of the poem that goes with this awakening to Africa. In the poem I changed my sister Mamie’s name to Molly.
For my sister Molly
Who in the Fifties knew Hamlet well and read into the night
And coached me in my songs of Africa
A continent I never knew
But learned to love
Could carry a tune
And spoke in accents never heard
(Our small town where we didn’t actually live. We lived in the outlying countryside of Putnam County, which was far more beautiful.)
When I myself went off to college it was that song, Nkosi Sikeleli’Afrika”(Sung) that sound of so much humility, love, devotion and trust that led me to the most important friendship I encountered during my student years – my friendship with an African woman named Constance Nabwire who hailed from Uganda.
From that friendship, and the understanding that Constance and I were sisters, developed my deep interest in and concern for Africa and its peoples, its animals, its rainforests and its diverse cultures. Through the writing of Africans both male and female I began to encounter an intellectual and moral thoughtfulness that bordered on, and often embodied the most astonishing profundity. I remember reading The Concubine by Elechi Amadi and The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye, for instance, and just being stunned. I would go on to read Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta, the great, troubling, Bessie Head, the Ugandan poet Okot p’ Bitek (part of whose masterpiece “Song of Lawino” would preface my first novel), Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya and of course the incomparable author of Two Thousand Seasons, Ayi Kwei Armah, who, years into the future, would become a friend.
It should not have been surprising that as soon as I found a way to do so, when I was around twenty, I made my way to East Africa, to the land of Constance Nabwire’s birth, to discover for myself what made her such a wonderful person – wise and gentle beyond her years and certainly beyond that of most of the other girls at our school. I am happy to say I encountered a Uganda that bears little resemblance to the one we see today.
Uganda was referred to by Winston Churchill as the “Japan” of Africa, because of the people’s courtesy and kindliness. This was a colonialist view, but even so. It was also a land of the greenest hills and valleys; where there was a palpable feeling of peace and patience with the stranger.
I was taken in immediately by a Ugandan family who sheltered and cared for me during my visit, dispelling forever any sense I might have had that I would not be recognized as one of Africa’s children.
From this encounter in Africa, and later in Kenya, where I joined others in beginning the construction of a school, I followed my curiosity about the African continent in many of my works.
It was in Kenya that I first learned of female genital cutting. I was so shocked that I hid from this subject for many years. And then, because by now I knew I loved Africa, whatever was going on there, I set out to learn all that I could about this practice and then I set out to write about it as fully as I could. This I did in a novel called Possessing the Secret of Joy.
I was driven to find the answer to the question: Why would any parents who loved them willingly hurt their children?
One of the things I began to understand about oppression, as I worked on this issue, was how The Oppressor, whoever it is, will happily steal everything we have, but they will leave us our self-inflicted suffering. They will leave us, gladly leave us, our scars. And they will then help others define us by the wounds and scars we give ourselves. They will take all our land, our water, our minerals and our dances, even, and they will feel justified in doing so, but they will leave us with visibly very little, except that which is gruesome to outsiders and painful to those of us who must suffer it.
The resonance of “Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika” (Sung) is also deeply embedded in The Color Purple . Half of that novel is set in colonial Africa, among Africans, and explores what happens to the Africans, as their land is confiscated by foreign rubber plantation owner/thieves. The discovery that Africans are enslaved on their own land is of grave concern to the African American Missionaries who come to understand that they too, in America, have been stolen from the African people and the African continent in the same way that the land has been. This is a horrifying realization and sends them into intense pain and grief. They are also awakened to the sham of their missionary mission to “‘uplift’ the hapless ‘natives.”
Many readers fail to realize this, but The Color Purple is a theological text. It is about the reclamation of one’s original God: the earth and nature. It is about re-examining that word that most colonized people are taught to loathe: Pagan. One who loves and worships nature, venerates and protects Mother Earth; one who cares for all of Her creatures with a degree of acceptance and tolerance. There is a built in humility toward nature that means it is respected for the very wonder of its being and that if a tree must be cut down, for example, one must beg its pardon.
This respect for nature is one of the biggest losses to African and other indigenous peoples since our domination and colonization by people who think about nature entirely differently than we do. Those unfortunate sufferers in the northern part of globe from the ravages and hardships of the last Ice Age.
Nkosi Sikeleli’ Afrika (Sung) God Bless Mother Africa.
Hearing this song, learning this song, hearing your heart and soul coming through it, even as a five year old, how could I ever leave you?
And so I have taken you, your spirit, the spirit of Steve Biko, of Winnie Mandela, of Nelson Mandela, of the Children of Sharpeville, completely into the very marrow of my bones.
In our own struggles to end American Apartheid you have been with us.
In our struggles against nuclear weapons that threaten to end all of our lives, your struggle has encouraged us.
In the infinitely long struggle to affirm the rights of women, your example of never giving up, sustains us. For we have seen in your struggle the completely complementary nature of male and female solidarity in the pursuit of the common objective: freedom.
In my ongoing befriending of the other animals of the planet, it is your struggle that is part of my passionate defense of them. For who knows better than black South Africans what it has meant to be treated as if one did not deserve to live.
Another poem, from my very first visit to East Africa: when I didn’t yet understand that while the white man was wantonly slaughtering almost all the buffalo in my country, he was also busily destroying the animals of Africa. I saw this in a shop window in Nairobi, but naïve as I was, I did not understand what I was seeing.
It is a short poem; if you blink you could miss it. Only this, a haiku:
In a store
And today, when I write about Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma (Myanmar) or visit Gaza to see the devastation caused by the Israeli assault on a people under present day apartheid laws, it is as if a tiny recording of Nkosi Sikeleli’ Afrika (Sung) is lodged in my brain.
And because it is there never ceasing, just as your desire to be free never stopped, I know that whatever disaster I am witnessing will have an end. The people of Palestine, like the people of South Africa, have a right to their land, their resources, their freedom. I know, from the world’s gradual embracing of the South African struggle, that the same will be the fate of the Palestinians. And the why of it is simple: no lie will live forever. And when a lie is exposed: that Africans are merely savages, that Palestinians are merely terrorists, that women are basically servants of men or whores, there in the bright glare of our collective awareness it dies. When lies die, people live.
And that brings us to consciousness. And to Steve Biko.
Steven Bantu Biko is known as the father of Black Consciousness in South Africa. He taught that black people must investigate and validate their own existence, irrespective of other people’s opinions of them. That they must see themselves in the warm light of their own genius – the unique gift that they come into the world carrying to deliver to all of humankind. That they must have faith that they are made perfectly for the singular expression of The Divine that they are.
This is why one reveres Steven Biko. Because, in short, he fully understood that the foundation of any true liberation is self love.
And that reminds me of an earlier poem that I wrote about missing things like car keys, glasses and where one parked the car. That short poem, in my book Absolute Faith in the Goodness of the Earth is titled: Where Is That Nail File? Where Are My Glasses? Have You Seen My Car Keys? It is very short and goes like this:
Nothing is ever lost
it is only misplaced
if we look
we can find
There is also a lovely phrase from poet Galway Kinnell that comes to mind here: that “sometimes it is necessary to re-teach a thing its loveliness.”
This is perhaps where South Africans are, many of them, at the moment. Needing the rest of us who have been so deeply inspired and imprinted by your courage, dignity and beauty of soul and body, to remind you of all this; to remind you of who you are.
It is with so much sadness that one reads about South Africa in recent news. As an activist, a revolutionary, a poet and writer, and yes, for all my daughter’s criticism of me, as a mother, I am unable to comprehend how you now have a president who has three wives and twenty-odd children. A president who has been accused of atrocious acts and who seems to have little of the restraint in his personal life that would mean more dignity and respect accorded to his people.
I am by no means the only person in the world scratching my head over this.
I have been in your country for three or four days. Each day has brought a new disclosure in the news of rampant greed and materialism that quite takes one’s breath away. There is news about the desperation of the poor. News of violence and despair. A lack of faith in the persons guiding the country. The feeling that perhaps people have lost the will to guide themselves.
Was it all for this? Was Mandela’s incarceration for nearly three decades and Steve Biko’s death from torture, for this?
For people fighting over mines they own not simply in South Africa but in battered and bleeding countries, i.e. the Congo for instance, far, but not that far, away?
Perhaps my heart is heaviest regarding the Congo because I was recently there. As you know it has become known as the worst place on earth to be a woman. And indeed, while I was there I witnessed what is happening to our brothers and sisters because of the greed that is devouring their land. On a level almost too horrible to contemplate, the people themselves are being devoured, sometimes literally.
I know I am not the only one in this room who remembers the beauty and dignity, the grace and eloquence of Patrice Lumumba. That last view of him, his hands tied behind his back, his torturers attempting to force something into his mouth. His proud refusal to open to whatever it was. Then, the news later, that he had been tortured, had been killed. His body thrown from a plane. And then later, the colonialists placed another African in his place who was not bothered by the rape of his country. In fact, he profited from it. Is this to be the fate of South Africa?
Nkosi Sikilei’ Afrika. (Sung). (Sadly).
South Africans of that era, as well as black activists in the United States saw exactly what was going on, and we wept for the dream of Africa for Africans that we witnessed being lost.
All true revolutionaries, like Lumumba, love us. They want us to have abundant, joyful life. Tenderness, said Che Guevara, is at root what revolution is about. Caring for each other, honoring the other in ourselves. Ourselves in the other. Namaste.
I have seen the hovels, the shacks, the unpaved roads, the unkempt children on one side of Johannesburg. And the mansions behind the highest walls I’ve ever seen around dwellings, in another. What to make of this? What to make of the words of your constitution – where you profess such an understanding of the unique sufferings of the poor?
What to make of the stories one sets outside one’s mind, they are so troubling: the young woman stoned, years ago, for admitting she had aids? The rampant rape and other brutality against women and children that appeared everywhere in the news. The disdain, often, for those who have fallen ill with a disease; the documented homophobia? the turning away of the “human face” Steven Biko wanted us all to have?
And also there is this: My love for Winnie Mandela whose voice throughout the Apartheid years kept alive for millions of us in the U.S. the reality of the South African struggle. What happened there? We in the United States ask ourselves. Can it be that if she is guilty at all of any bad behavior it is because, being human, and having been treated, under Apartheid misrule worse than many of us can even imagine, she broke? And after giving us all of her love and substance for so many years, what was the new South Africa’s response to her? If we cannot extend compassion to those whose lives prove their devotion and love, who are we that Life should smile on our stinginess of heart?
We do not understand, nor will our children ever understand, why a country does not have both its parents: it’s father, yes, but also it’s mother. Neither of them perfect, but both of them necessary for our birth.
It was deeply disturbing to many of us in the United States to see that Bill Clinton (who could not respond to the genocide of 800,000 Rwandans) and even deKlerk are going down in history as more honorable, more smiled upon by many South Africans, than Winnie Mandela. How can this be?
When I was shown the house where the Mandela family lived I was struck by the fact that this woman, this soldier, this “man among men” as Abraham Lincoln once said of the indomitable freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, is portrayed ironing. I have nothing against ironing – I don’t do very much of it. But it seems a strange choice, lovely as Winnie Mandela looks while ironing, for someone who spent so much time harassed, firebombed, jailed, stuck in solitary confinement – 200 days. Whose every move was monitored and contested brutally by white supremacist, Nazi/Fascist police.
It was outside what was formerly the Mandela home in Johannesburg that I heard a version of Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika (Sung) I’d never heard before. It came from the mouths of young men who were making a condescending parody of it while holding out their hands for money. Knowing that moment would live forever in my consciousness, I felt I, and the South African struggle, had lost enormous ground.
The African way with woman leaves much to be desired, and I am not faulting only the men. Some women are content to be potted plants. Here and elsewhere. But most are not.
I have a poem about this:
A Woman is Not a Potted Plant
A woman is not a potted plant
Her roots bound
To the confines
Of her house
A woman is not
A potted plant
Her leaves trimmed
To the contours
Of her sex
A woman is not a potted plant
Against the fences
Of her race
Her trained blossom
Turning this way
To follow the sun
Of whoever feeds
A woman is wilderness
Holding the future
Between each breath
Walking the earth
Only because she is free
And not creeper vine
Nor even honeysuckle
These stories of coldness, cruelty, and lack of compassion would make anyone doubt their people’s loveliness. And yet, “Nkosi Sikeleli’ AfriKa”(Sung) you are so lovely. It is, this loveliness, who you deeply are. But you have forgotten, as so many of us have forgotten that we are beautiful, and it is not all our own fault.
We have entered a period of such instability and impoverishment of spirit that even though they are charged with our soul care, our ministers, our teachers, our spiritual guides, are in a state of fright themselves.
Never before has humanity faced losing the earth itself, which is exactly what we are losing as global warming increases, and greater climate disasters affect us, worldwide. We are, all of us on some level, living with a degree of terror that humanity has never experienced before.
It is not so surprising therefore that there are those who feel the need to protect themselves behind vast barriers of wealth.
But such “protection” is an illusion. Mother Nature presents a very different kind of army than the ones we are used to fighting: the armies of poverty, colonization, weapons of all kinds; media double- speak that keeps us confused. In fact, what is so chilling about Mother Nature is how indifferent She can be to who should be punished for the crimes committed against her. We are all being punished. And this is because we have forgotten one of the most basic of the things that made us beautiful: that we must never fail to have respect for her. And we must cease, at once, from taking more than she is willing to give.
And here I will insert another poem from my collection: Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965-1990.
We have a beautiful Mother
We have a beautiful Mother
Her hills are buffaloes
We have a beautiful Mother
Her oceans are wombs
We have a beautiful Mother
The white stones
At the edge
Of the water
The summer grasses
Her plentiful hair
We have a beautiful Mother
Her green lap
Her brown embrace
Her Blue Body
Everything We know.
Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika:(Sung) God Bless Mother Africa.
I would remind you that this beautiful Mother of whom you sing and of whom I write, is not an intellectual idea. She is real and She is Nature. She is Earth. She is this world. She is the cosmos, the moon and the stars. Grass and planets. She is your lions and elephants just as She is our buffalo and bears. She is the Everything of Life, our Mother. Our Goddess and God. It is this Everything of Life we must return to, bow to, protect and nurture. It is largely because we have forgotten the beauty of our Mother that we have forgotten the beauty and wonder of ourselves, for we are one.
On a practical level, what is to be done?
I realized, during the Bush years in the United States, which were all but unbearable for many of us to endure, that we must in no instance rely totally on external leadership. That each of us has a leader within us; it is our conscience. One of the ways of developing this leader within is to sit during some portion of the day in meditation. Or in contemplation, if the thought of meditation seems too far-fetched. This is the time, all the old Africans knew, when the soul is permitted to catch up to the run-a-way body and the speedy, chattering mind.
During this state of inner development it is sometimes revealed not only that we are all connected to one another but that, indeed, we are one another. Our separation is largely illusion. Realizing this, there develops the intention of caring for the totality of Life, not just for our selves.
I have been a political, social and spiritual activist for most of my life, and feel connected to peoples and struggles all over the globe. The foundation for this work, as an adult, lies in the circle of women (at times including men) I have instigated or joined. And this is the medicine, today, that I bring to you.
That at the moment, from what I read in the papers, your government is not listening to your cries for a new and better way to exist. That “democracy” of which much has been said, is still radically unclear to the people who still hunger and thirst. As well, the old methods of protest have left a great weariness and disappointment.
It is time to circle.
I advise that everyone of you in this room call up between seven and eleven of your staunchest, smartest, and most thoughtful friends, and that you create of yourselves a circle that meets at least once a month in each other’s homes. There, in the safety and privacy of that sacred space, enter thoroughly into dialogue about what you wish for and will work for in your country. There need not be a specific agenda. In fact, it will work better if there is not.
What I have found, especially with women’s circles, is that when a certain number of women get together, leaving all agendas outside the door, whatever is most urgent gets addressed anyway. There appears to be magic simply in the willingness to tackle life’s hardest problems from the humble position of being simply one among many in a circle of individuals caring for the common lot.
I began my writing life as a poet, went on to write seven novels, dozens of short stories and essays, volumes of poetry, children’s books, etc. but now I am re-embracing poetry as a priority, which is what, in my opinion, current movements for liberation and justice desperately need. Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness. And it is the raising of consciousness that is the most effective way to ensure lasting change. About this Steve Biko was absolutely right. Once our consciousness changes, so does our existence.
I believe we must spread the idea of circling around the globe until all our circles merge, transforming the face of the planet organically. Making our public political leaders, those who refuse circling with the people, as obsolete as they frequently show themselves to be.
We are capable of leading ourselves if we can develop the capacity to listen to, to hear, what we ourselves believe. This will undoubtedly require releasing our attachment to many of our gadgets, which are drowning out our inner voices.
Lastly, I would advise you to dance.
Over a period of about a year I wrote a book of poems that will be published in the United States next month. It is called Hard Times Require Furious Dancing .
I believe Africans, who have suffered so grievously and who obviously have also experienced a great depth of joy (you see this sometimes in your smiles and eyes) have always known this. That this is why dance, like song, is prominent in the culture of all Africans.
In writing this book I revisited the times in recent years that my heart was heavy, nearly bursting with sorrow; times when losing family, friends, or the earth itself, felt like more than I could bear.
And yet, just as springtime makes us forget about winter, my own love of the wonder of existence, in any condition or form, forced me to wish to celebrate Life.
And so I hired a band and a dance floor and invited friends and family to a gathering at which the only directive was: dance!
Times are hard. Everywhere. Mother Africa also known as Mother Earth is very irritated with us. We may be on our way to extinction as a species. I wish Her happiness in any outcome.
Hard times require furious dancing. Each of us in this very large room is the proof.
Nkosi’ Sikeleli Afrika. (Sung with hope).
And with all my love,
The 11th Annual Steve Biko lecture, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 9th, 2010. Delivered in honor of Willie Lee Walker, father of eight, who exhibited as long as he was able, a courage and spirit like Steven Biko’s in the American apartheid South.
Note: this written talk has been edited and amended to include the names of additional writers I wish to honor. Also, it appears there are more than one official way to spell Nkosi’ Sikeleli Afrika. I have used the phonetic spelling based on the sound I learned as a five year old.
Oddly, on my old website which I recently closed down, no matter how I tried to narrow it, there remained a wide gap in the text. Loving to think of ancestors as ever-living beings, often with attitude, I came to believe it was a space made, perhaps mischievously, by Steve Biko himself. He also seemed the reason the print became, in that version, toward the end of my piece, very big! In any case, I am used to playing with the ancestors in this way. Who knows if they are at all into it.
Perhaps brother Steve was waiting for this photo of eternal daughter, Obenewa Amponsah, whose irrepressible spirit and ability to handle with grace and humor whatever came our way made our visit to the Motherland a Wonder from beginning to end.