Arts for Life: African Voices

Episode 1

[MUSIC] — This is Art for Life: African Voices, the podcast series highlighting the work of African artists and cultural workers involved in social transformation. I'm your host Kitche Magak, head of the Department of Literary Studies at Maseno University in Maseno, Kenya.

This podcast grew out of a program called The Theory and Practice of Social Transformation through the Arts, hosted at STIAS, the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study in South Africa. For five days in December 2015, a colloquium at STIAS brought together a multidisciplinary team of scholars and practitioners from South Africa, Rwanda, the Middle East, Ireland, the US, and Canada to explore social transformation through the arts.

The team considered questions such as, how do the arts contribute to conflict transformation, resilience, and well-being, How do the arts play different roles at the individual and collective levels, and what potential do the arts have to make a better world? Today's episode features excerpt from a presentation given during the colloquium by the well-known South African storyteller, author, and anti-apartheid activist Gcina Mhlophe. To introduce her, we are going to hear from Kim Berman.

— I'm Kim Berman. I am one of the four conveners and fellows at the STIAS Program, and I teach at the University of Johannesburg.

I started Artist Proof Studio. I'm a visual artist, not all of the time but some of the time. Gcina Mhlophe is South Africa's national poet storyteller, so she's very recognized by every Southern African who watches TV, who listens to the radio, who buys children's books. They would have seen her if you watch sports and the World Cup. She is always being that interface of African storytelling, of appraising [inaudible 00:02:58], the way of introducing South African culture to the world, and so I think in that way she's somebody who has done a huge amount for social cohesion in that being able to bring everybody together and have a sense of pride in having an African voice to represent us. So those transitions of the Old South Africa, the pre-democracy and democracy, she helped bridge those transitions very fluidly, and so she has played a huge role in that. Although she's very aware of her power as an artist, she's using that power and that voice to also create a legacy.

— Thank you so much.

I'm calling on the spirit of Enoch Sontonga. Enoch Sontonga is the man who wrote our national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. He had the foresight not to say, God bless South Africa. He said, "God bless Africa," the continent. It was in the 1950s. We were far from our freedom in the 1950s. At that time as well, Enoch Sontonga was the choirmaster, and I wish to believe that he had stunning voices in his choir. Not in his wildest dreams did he imagine a woman with a double bass voice messing up his song.


But I'll do it anyway.


I added a few verses because things are difficult on our African continent, but please bless our efforts. All the things that we are trying for a better future, bless those. Bless the very young and bless the very old. Please shine a light in the minds of those who hold positions of leadership. Please open the ways for us to do better. Open the ways for us to do better.

Please bless Africa. You are the God of our forefathers and foremothers. You are the God of our parents. You are the God that placed all human beings on this earth. What ever nationalities, please bless us. We are your children. This is the song of Enoch Sontonga who wanted the Lord to look into this African continent. Now we're talking about a continent that is the land of beginnings. Many people come to Africa, and they say, "I think I've been bitten by this African bug." Good news for you, there's no African bug. It's just the umbilical cord remembering.


This is the place of beginnings. We say, "Welcome back home." You're coming home. It doesn't matter how far back your ancestors were here, you're coming back. This is the place of beginnings, and no matter how much development, even if they want to go to Mars and further, they're going to touch the ground again. Where's the ground? It's here in the African continent. When we talk about ourselves, we don't call ourselves black. People who are brown like the Earth.


Next, the poems "In the Company of Words" and "Sitting Alone Thinking". [MUSIC]

"It is truly wonderful, marvelous, and comforting

To know that I have eyes to read

Hands that can write And an enormous love for words I am truly blessed to be speaking a few extremely beautiful languages

For I love words - language's ancestor

When I'm happy, words define my happiness When I'm sad and confused Words turn into clay. They allow me

To mold and remold my muddled up thoughts

Till I find inner peace in my soul

Had I choose between weeping and reading I'd most definitely choose reading,

A good book

For I have proof, for aches and tensions

It works!

Countless times I've turned my back on pain

And found friends in characters from far off lands

Countless times I've defied anger

And caressed my nerves with an old comic book


Countless nights I have triumphed over insomnia

And I've had a heart to heart talk with my pen and paper.

I come to my desk in the dead of the night

Without a clue as to how I wish to start

But then, before I knew it, words of all types and sizes

Come rushing unto my fingertips, then I feel my whole body smile

As I welcome them every single one of them

Like the good old friends that they are

And then when they start dancing in large circles around me

Throwing teasing wordy shadows on my walls

I am convinced that I was not born to be bored. For how indeed can boredom even begin to penetrate

My timeless word circle

Now you see, why I am so content

In the company of words."

[APPLAUSE] Thank you so much. Sitting Alone Thinking.

"Lately I have more than once

Found myself sitting alone, thinking

Not that I have such a lot of time

To just sit and think -

I'm a busy woman with a heavy schedule I have to try and keep up

With the fast world around me

But then somehow it happens

Right in the middle of all the hustle and the bustle

I find myself sitting alone, thinking Would Mr. President be a better man

If he had a womb and breasts full of milk?

Would he be impressed by the number of children jailed All in the name of law and order

If he had a womb and breasts full of milk?

Would he be so pleased if he had one 10-year-old in jail?

Would the smell of tear gas and bloody bullet wounds

Be so appetizing as to bring

That familiar smile on the President's face

If he had a womb and breasts full of milk?

All of these visions come up to me

When I'm sitting alone thinking

Thinking about my very best friend

As she sits in a jail cell

Longing for her little baby

And have painful breasts so full of milk."

That's "Sitting Alone Thinking". [APPLAUSE]

Thank you so much.

A friend of mine, Matilda was arrested. She had a three-and-a-half month old baby. We were running helter skelter from the police, and sometimes the best places to hide was in the white suburbs. They didn't look for you there. Also, soon after that, four friends of mine were killed in different situations in exactly two weeks. I had to go and perform in Lesotho.

I came back from Lesotho. On the way there, we had a long chat with the Boers at the border, and they allowed us, and we finally went to perform. Then the following day we came back early in the morning 4:00 AM, they stopped us again, and they told me they could lock me up right now. I said, "Yes, sir, I know you can." But they let us go through and then I decided not to go back to Alexandra Township where I was living. I went to Elaine's house who lived in Fairview in a white suburb in Johannesburg. I went to spend the rest of the few hours till morning when I could catch a bus and go back to Alexandra. So I slept there. At 7:00 AM, the phone rang, my friend who was sharing the room with me while I was living in Alexandra. I was living in a single-sex women's hostel, so that's the accommodation we had, and especially when you're not from Johannesburg. So Nontembeko called and said, "Don't come back. Don't come back." I said, "What do you mean I mustn't come back?" "Don't come back. The police were here." "Oh, did they interrogate you?"

She said, "No, they didn't." They climbed on a Hippo, one of those armored vehicles, and they climbed on top, and they shot my pillow. It was full of bullets. If I had been sleeping there, I would have been history, I would have been number 5 of the four friends who had passed on. So I didn't go back to Alexandra Township, and a few days later, a friend of mine helped me to go and fetch all my belongings. I met the police outside the women's hostel, and they said, "We know you are traveling on Sunday. You know we can stop you." They knew where I was going, what time my flight was, and they knew all of that. When we had banned books, they knew. That's why I'm amazed that they don't know who's killing the rhinos in South Africa when they knew there was a banned book under my mattress.



They don't know who's killing the rhino. [NOISE]

Anyway, I left, and I never lived in Alexandra again.

So I went and found different accommodations and things like this. But I remember we're rehearsing at the market theater, preparing to go overseas to Edinburgh Festival with the show "Born in the R.S.A." In the middle of the rehearsal, I was not coping. Things were like crawling all over me, and I didn't know what was going on. I just had to run away from the rehearsal. I went to the bathroom, and I stood in front of the mirror and looked at myself. I didn't like what I saw. I looked away, I looked in the mirror, I looked again. Oh, no, I started talking to myself in the mirror. "No, hatred is not allowed in my heart. No accommodation here. No, hatred is not." I had to keep repeating to the mirror that hatred is not allowed in my heart. There's no accommodation here, no accommodation here, over and over again. After I had said that, big glass of water, I went back to the rehearsal, and I told Bonnie, "I can't continue rehearsing. I need to go back." So they let me go. They knew what had happened to me. But that decision to look at myself in the mirror and say to myself, "Hatred is not allowed in my heart," because I know, hatred is a cancer that eats on the host, I know. So I had to expel immediately. So don't get used to this place, it's not your home, my heart. It has been a very important thing then for many people who come from this difficult conditions, even worse than for people who came from Rwanda, far worse than other countries like those. But you have to deal with this thing. Do you hate the people who do these things to you? Then when you hate them, you gain what?

What do you gain? For me, I understand hatred is a cancer. I don't want it inside me.

Because of that, and also this thing that is, song, if we didn't have song as part of our freedom-fighting journey, there would have been so many mental asylums in South Africa. If we didn't have song, I promise you, we would have so many mental asylums. We sat and we sang with one another. We sang whether you were arrested or not, whether you were in hiding, we sang. [MUSIC]

Without those freedom songs, government was


You're putting us in camps.

What exactly have we done? That's what the song is asking. You're gathering us in jails, in places of hiding. [FOREIGN]

What have we done to you?

Just because you want our country, you want our wealth, you want our labor, you want everything that is not yours. [FOREIGN]

You're locking us up for wanting the freedom,

for wanting the fruits of our labor. [FOREIGN]

Without those freedom songs, we would have gone mad. This has happened in many countries around the world. People have got different ways of dealing with the struggles they are facing. I'll do one more poem now. It's called "Leader Remember." "Leader Remember

The time you spent

Fighting for your freedom

And that of your people

The time you played hide and go seek

With the oppressor man

Till he caught you at last

Put you in chains and leg irons Threw you in jail

Believing in his rotten heart

That you'll never again

See the light of day

Leader Remember

How strongly you fought

Your freedom-loving spirit

Kicking hard and refusing to die

Your vision for a better day Giving you power and endurance immeasurable In that cruel torture chamber While your body lay on the cold cement floor Your spirit escaped through the window

And went to mingle with other spirits

Of countless freedom fighters

Deep in Africa's rain forests

Where the equatorial moisture whispered

That timeless message all freedom fighters know;

'Don't give up,

don't give up.

Here, take with you




Fight for your people!'

Leader Remember

The day you walked out

The very minute, the very second As your right foot stepped outside Outside the gates of that jail Fist in the air, smile in your face.


The joy that washed over you

Like bucketfuls of honey

The pain that touched your soul

Like a poison arrow

Of wasted years and potential

At the same time you eagerly greeted

The mammoth task that lay ahead of you

You vowed and promised

To do all in your power

To build a better future for you and your people Leader Remember

The long-suffering women and men

The dignity they lost Think of the very young and the very old The hunger they learned to live with

In the land of plenty

Leader Remember

The promises you made

The hope you represent Leader Remember

You now stand, at history's cross-roads

Compass in hand

The walking stick of your people's experiences Helping you fill the potholes

As you lead the way

Leader Remember, corruption and lies

Will no doubt, double the pain they once knew

Please remember, betrayal hurts

Much more than the sting of a million scorpions

Leader Remember

We wish you peace in your heart

We wish you the Eagle's sharp vision We wish you the Ancient African Tortoise's wisdom We wish you the Mighty Elephant's memory So Leader Remember

The Mystic Equatorial moisture whispering

That timeless message all freedom fighters know;

'Don't give up

Don't give up

Here, take with you




Fight for your people.

P.S. The struggle is never over. Leader remember." [APPLAUSE]

Thank you so much.

When I wrote the poem I thought,

they wouldn't get that really. When I wrote the poem, I was so optimistic


of corruption and all the lies.

It happens in other countries. [FOREIGN]

Do you remember that old man who said,

when the mother hen dies, the chicks go helter skelter? It happened to us, what was happening in other countries, the enemy was so common. We knew who we were fighting, and the freedom fighters, the battle lines were clear. We knew, but now


it's so difficult.

Now people are referring to this poem so often,

and I'd never thought it would make sense.

I never wished for it to make sense in my lifetime. Hello, here it is. Thank you so much for affording me this opportunity.




- To conclude today's episode, here, again, is Kim Berman, speaking in an interview about Gcina's presentation.

- I think each and every person sitting there got something very different. I think that each and every person was able to engage in their own way, in their own personal space, and get what they need from that exchange. That it wasn't prescriptive, that it wasn't, "Here it is. We've been looking for this answer. Here it is."

I think it's a reciprocal space, the space in between and becoming to know that what is it you are knowing? What are you coming to know? What is that reciprocal space? What happens there? What is the shimmering that happens between receiving and giving? I think that space is a very rich and fertile space. I think that engagement, if we are open and if we are receiving it in a way that we can direct it both inwards and

outwards and start thinking about possibilities for our own exchanges in our own work, our own practice however we use it, I think that's the gift.


- I'd like to conclude this episode with some final thoughts. To a large extent, the transformative power of art, in my opinion, lies in what I would call social enterprise. Whether conceived by individuals or collectives, art is a creative social mirror that has an enduring power to change the society it reflects and beyond.

Although,Gcina's presentation pieces a bonus of South African experience, they copy the spirit of human existence that transcends socio-political boundaries. She points out that, without song and dance in the struggle against the psycho-physical devastation of apartheid, South Africa would be littered with mental asylums. In saying this, she highlights some of the many crucial roles of art in social transformation, affirming life, healing, revitalizing,

and fostering resilience in the society at large and in those directly engaged in the struggle for justice in particular. [MUSIC]

- That's all for this episode of Arts for Life: African Voices. Gcina Mhlophe is the author of many books and plays. Her album, Songs and Stories of Africa, is available on iTunes. More information about Kim Berman's Artist Proof Studio is available at

The STIAS colloquium was supported by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Arts for Life: African Voices is a collaborative project of Maseno University in Kenya and Brandeis University in the US and was produced by the program in Peacebuilding and the Arts at Brandeis, with editing and music by David Briand. You can listen to these podcast on our website. I am Kitche Magak.

Join us next time for another episode. [MUSIC]