Thursday, 12 November 2015

My time in KwaZulu part 1

It’s the late 70’s or early 80’s. BBC TV is showing a documentary on South African poets, I think from Soweto. I’m in my late teens. I’ve recently been exposed to lyrics from a track by Steel Pulse called Tribute To The Martyrs. A tune that lists African diaspora heroes murdered by Eurocentric regimes around the world. There are names I don’t know on the track. I bought the album because I’d fallen in love with funk and reggae, I wasn’t expecting to be educated. But these names….No internet, I fumbled through my mum’s encyclopedia to learn more. I caught references to one name that had also been in the news for a killing as the song talked of the murder of Steve Biko. I bought a book about him and read it on my commute to work. That’s why I turned on that BBC documentary.

This documentary was about poets. I had no care for poetry, but this was different. This was poets using a voice to subvert the evils of a system, a white supremacist system, and to ensure a voice was heard no matter what the risk was.
I video taped what I could of the programme and was so taken by one of the pieces, that I wrote it down word for word and stuck it on my bedroom wall. The words and my teenage bedroom have long since gone, but some I remember even now, 

Go Man Go
Black Man Go
Go Man Go
Black Man Go

(then I recall references to Africa….)

Egypt My Head
Azania my toes
Rivers my blood
Letting it Flow.

I wake up from my memory of this moment that I’d forgotten about, and I look up. I’m in a bus surrounded by poets from all over South Africa (or should that be Azania), driving through KwaZulu-Natal, or should that be (KwaZulu). The sudden jolt to that memory while sitting in that bus, listening to a language so conceptually different to my own being spoken around me. I was moved, not by some kumbaya moment. This was a moment of connecting with my youth, the development of my morality, but more than that personal emotion, it was humbling. Here I was in the legacy of greatness, with poets who connected right back to that moment, but still needed to speak. Still needed to speak OUT. 

For a week, my head was driven with poetry and music at the Poetry Africa festival. I listened, watched and tried to learn from poets (including my partner) that shared stories as poets do. But there was fire and urgency and honesty in these performances that captivated me. Even the poetry that was not in a foreign language, so I didn’t understand it, was so powerful, and the way the audiences would roll back and forth on the words spoken or sung. I fell in love with poetry again that week. What art is supposed to be…. communication of what needs to be told. I try to do the same with my gift of photography. All I can do is try and capture the love I have for the performers and their stories. What they and the moment mean to me is what I try and capture, their essence.

I visit schools and see my partner connect with children. She talks openly to them about police brutality and living in Europe and the world over about what the African Diaspora has to fight every day. That connection through struggle and survival.  I’ve seen how she connects with children back home in London. To see it here, especially how young girls feed off her strength, you can see the empowerment spread through the room. No white person could ever resonate like that.

Of course there’s so much more to recall, like a DJ who blew me away, sampling local beats with hip hop…. That was just off the hook. Also moments of music mixed with poetry and guitar cross beats that were just mesmerizing. Trying to photograph when your eyes keep watering is not an easy thing.
On one trip, I’m talking to a poet who knows the very documentary I’m referring to. I don’t know how many times I said “wow” on that first week. You see that, was my first week. 

If I said “wow” so much on my first week, I probably said “Fuck” more often to myself in the remaining 2 weeks.

The journey switched from being around African artists and the privilege I was afforded by being with them, and some friendships that were made, to 2 weeks of a predominantly Eurocentric experience in an African country. That’s not to say the time was spent living in a European world. That is not the case, but I was supporting my partner through a poetry/ theatre piece on race, which was dominated by the backdrop of a white population trying to deal with its conscience (or lack thereof).

There were exceptions though in the last 2 weeks. We were fortunate to hook up again with some of the poets that we had met and got to talk and also see some parts of KwaZulu land that we may not have otherwise seen. These were moments of deep observation and learning. Moments of a lot of fun. But also moments of new heights in my despise of everything white people stand for.

We also went on a student protest #FeesMustFall. I tried to capture again with my camera, not as a tourist or voyeurism, but to spread the word in my circles, and to share with my family and friends what it meant to witness history being made. The power in the students was, well, overpowering. That was one of the most incredible days in my life. The problem with having a camera on protests (in London too), is people mistake me for a journalist. No, I’m there because I believe in the protest. I love the power in youth, and in their free spirit is wisdom in action.

Let me end this part of the blog right here. We’re on the cusp of me laying into my people. Let me not tarnish the beauty of my experience with Africans in Africa with how I feel about Europeans in Africa, and the lessons I learned or feelings that were reinforced about white people. 

I apologise for any naivety in this blog. Any kumbaya moments. I am always concerned that somewhere my white self might trip up on itself. To be honest, I’m not actually normally concerned by that. Most of my friends in London and worldwide Facebook and real life connections have known me for a long time, and know where I come from in terms of fighting Eurocentric bullsh@t. I’m aware that I have a new audience from friends and connections I made in Durban, who may have put trust in me, or because of the partner I have. My background and personal history is not known to you. It is to you I specifically hope I have written appropriately.

I will end this part as a prefix to my next blog. That same DJ who blew my ears off in Durban, played one of my favourite Fela Kuti tracks, which even got me 2 stepping. It became the theme of the next 2 weeks:

“You Africans listen to me as Africans. You non-Africans listen to me with open minds”


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