Malibongwe: poems from the struggle by ANC women

Malibongwe: Tending our Mothers’ Garden
Uhuru Phalafala

I have been teaching a course on Black Consciousness poetry in the universities for close to seven years and have been nagged by the silence and absence of women in that unfolding radical moment. For about five years now, every August, the month that in South Africa marks women’s month, an image of Minister Lindiwe Zulu from the 1980s circulates on social media. She looks away from the book in her hands to confront us with a direct gaze into the camera, with a Kalashnikov resting easily next to her hip.

The image represents a battle fought with both ideological and military warfare; what the Cold War machine would have called soft power (culture) and hard power (artillery). That image of a female guerilla looks as provocative as it does organic: the people closest to the pain should be closest to power, driving and informing the contours and contents of a revolution. The country’s history dictated their constitution: black, hypermasculine, clandestine, and Molotov-wielding. The battle lines were drawn along racial lines exclusively.

When the white oligarchy peddled fear in their white subjects through the image of swart gevaar what they conjured was not black women. But history absolves them today. Their variegated voices erased by national liberation narratives shall be heard. Black women were at the frontlines and in the underground confronted with a distinctive battle, against the white supremacist machine impaling their families and communities, and often against hetero-patriarchy within their ranks, which came to symbolise the notion of nation. To be a female guerrilla was to submit oneself to multiple warfares. They were in the trenches of Tanzania, Angola, and Mozambique as fighters, teachers, students, guerillas, and nurses.

Lindiwe Mabuza championed the Malibongwe book project. She drafted a letter to the head of the ANC’s women’s section, Florence Maphosho, to propose the idea. Mabuza asked Maphosho to disseminate the letter to all the women in the camps, offices of the ANC around the world, and at the nascent Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco). There was great interest as hand-written submissions from all the camps began to arrive in Lusaka. Angela Dladla-Sangweni, Mabuza’s sister in law, helped to type all the poems. Mabuza had the full manuscript by the time she went to Sweden in 1979. At the time she was also at the helm of fundraising to construct the new Somafco, and had arranged for artists within the Angola camps to contribute drawings and illustrations which she could sell to advance that cause.

She sold the originals to several Scandinavian countries as she was ANC’s official representative to the entire Nordic region, but kept copies for inclusion in the first edition of Malibongwe’s English version. She approached then-secretary at the Center for International Solidarity in Sweden, Bjorn Andreasson, to help raise funds for the publication of the poetry anthology. While this was in the pipelines, the German translation became the first to be published by Munich-based Weltkreis-Verlag in 1980. Translated by Elizabeth Thompson and Peter Schütt, this edition was expedited by the ambassador of the ANC Mission for the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria, Tony Seedat, and wife, Dr. Aziza Seedat. They had already been in liaison with the publisher in 1980, who was at the time publishing another South African poetry collection by Keorapetse Kgositsile titled Herzspeuren/Heartprints (1980), at the behest of Aziza Seedat.

In 1981 Bengt Save Soderbergh of the Centre for International Solidarity of the Labour Organization in Sweden had taken over oversee the full publication process, and published 2000 English language copies. Most copies were distributed by ANC officials around the world, at the discretion of the party’s chief representatives. At subsequent ANC meetings and rallies people were reading the women’s poetry. Meanwhile Soderberg approved funding for Erik Stinus to translate the anthology into Swedish and Danish, published in 1982 by the anti-apartheid solidarity group Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke. Later in the decade (date unknown) the Finnish Peace Committee had a smaller batch of the anthology translated into Finnish and published in Helsinki. The demand for Malibongwe’s German edition resulted in the second edition being reprinted in 1987, this time carrying five illustrations by ANC member and eminent abstract expressionist Dumile Feni, one emblazoned on the cover. This was inspired by the illustration and design of Kgositsile’s collection. We carry the spirit of collaboration in this edition through the awe inspiring Feni masterpiece. These networks of international solidarity and support attest to the power of culture in fostering strong political tools for revolution.

Some of the poets in this anthology have used pseudonyms as they were underground. The following contributors have since passed on: Belinda Martins, Thuli Kubeka, Phumzile Zulu, and Mpho Segomotso Dombo. May their revolutionary souls rest in peace.

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Within and Without the City: Investigating the role of the city during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown – Kristen Harding

Day: 20                    Recorded cases: 1170                Total deaths: 0

As lockdown progresses, so has my perception of time. I find myself constantly questioning what day of the week it is. However, the flash of a news notification on my phone signals a new day: ‘235 new cases of COVID-19 in SA’. The headline triggers a mental calculation: ‘If South Africa had 935 cases yesterday, that means today we have 1170.’ We are constantly updated with daily statistics and discoveries regarding the spread of the virus. Statistics have even become geographical markers. Regions are demarcated on maps according to their number of positive cases and deaths. Thus, despite the city dwellers’ retreat away from the physical space of the city, the overstimulation present in city life remains with us. Georg Simmel is known to be both a global and marginal thinker who pays attention to overlooked everyday phenomena. For him, the metropolitan experience is characterised by ‘rapidly shifting stimulations of the nerves’ and because of the persistence of the stimulations, humans eventually become immune to these sensations (Simmel 329). Simmel calls this form of indifference the ‘blasé metropolitan attitude’ (329). I suggest that it is possible to explore the blasé attitude outside of the metropolitan context. Therefore, I pose the question of whether, through our immediate access to the steady flow of information during the national lockdown, the blasé attitude has infiltrated our private spaces. 

As the number of recorded cases in South Africa continues rising and the death toll starts nearing the double digits, I find that my obsessive calculations and refreshing of news pages lessen in frequency. Rather than a reaction of disbelief to the new statistics, I border on apathy. This estrangement from experience is an area of focus for the theorist, Walter Benjamin. He notes that the ‘value of information’ can only survive in the ‘moment in which it was new’ (90). As evident in the appearance of local news channels specifically dedicated to the COVID-19 crisis, the temporal relevance of information is key. This necessity is crucial during a time in which citizens depend on the latest reports to know how to proceed safely. For example, South Africans rely on President Ramaphosa’s regular announcements regarding the lockdown status. Benjamin maintains that ‘information’ has emerged as a new ‘form of communication’ because of the middle class’s use of the press as an ‘instrument’ (88). Furthermore, he explains that the temporary nature of information stands in contrast to that of a story which ‘does not expend itself’ (Benjamin 90).

Day: 27                    Recorded cases: 1505                Total deaths: 7

Benjamin believes that the story ‘preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time’ (90). Living in self-isolation has led many people to turn to various forms of entertainment that depict pandemics. This is noticed in the abundance of articles with titles such as: ‘Coronavirus: What can we learn from a Hollywood pandemic?’, ‘The plague writers who predicted today’ and ‘The 20 Best Pandemic Books to Read during Coronavirus’. It is asserted that the ‘story’ is distinct from the novel because the ‘reader of a novel…is isolated’ (Benjamin 100). In the context of social distancing, it is through the isolating act of reading that a person can escape the reality of self-isolation. Not only does this offer a mode of escapism, but our continued consumption of entertainment contributes to the home as a sphere of capitalist consumer culture. I link this to my arguing that our experience of the city is not contained within the city space. In Achille Mbembe’s article discussing post-apartheid Johannesburg, he notes that the ‘city of consumption’ is conscious of the role of ‘the arts’ as a form of ‘commercial entertainment’ (402). Thus, our homes do not guarantee freedom from the capitalist commodification of culture. Through streaming services such as Netflix and Audible, homes are just as saturated by consumption as the city.

Day:  36                    Recorded cases:  2173                Total deaths:  25

Theodor Adorno’s work reveals a concern with consumer-culture. He proposes that ‘people prepare themselves’ for certain terrors by ‘familiarising themselves with gigantic images’ (115). Therefore, I argue that by turning to stories, humans attempt to desensitise themselves to the dystopic quality of the new reality. I see constant reminders that the world will not return to its previous state because this is the ‘new normal’. In order to grow accustomed to this reality, we have had to shift the ways that we interact with the city. Many of these changes are characterised by a heightened sense of caution when in public. Zygmunt Bauman writes about the figure of the stranger in the English city. He states that ‘one person’s home ground is another person’s hostile environment’ (130). Lockdown has caused the city’s population to perceive anything outside of their home as a ‘hostile environment’. I have become vigilant of any space outside of my ‘home ground’ as it has the potential to be a carrier of the virus. Thus, the ‘inside’ offers a sense of security that the ‘outside’ cannot guarantee.

The walls that ‘encircle and shield’ houses construct an observable spatial ‘duality of inside and outside’ (Mbembe 385). This duality is emphasised during the national lockdown while also providing a false sense of security. The physical seclusion created by walls appears to function as a form of protection from the perils that communal places in the city now hold. The walls mean that only those belonging to the household are allowed into that space and thus it forms a safe distance from the uncertainty in the city. I propose that this is a misleading sense of comfort because of the unpredictable encounters we have with strangers outside of the home. There is a connection between Mbembe’s establishment of spatial duality and Bauman’s notion of an ideal ‘defensible space’ which has ‘effectively guarded borders’ (135). Bauman indicates that the ‘inhabitants of that outside turn into carriers of threat’ and thus need to be ‘kept away’ so that the home can remain a space with no ‘incalculable risks’ (135). The antagonising of the stranger is intensified during the pandemic because their unfamiliarity poses a much greater threat to our wellbeing. For this reason, through actions such as hand sanitising, we make a conscious effort to cleanse ourselves of engagements with city strangers. However, strangers are not the only embodiment of the virus. It may be living on the objects we bring into our homes and in the air through which we move. Therefore, the reason that walls are perceived as guards against the virus is because they prevent the intrusion of strangers. However, this belief is suspended when it is acknowledged that strangers are not the only carriers that can infiltrate our homes.

Day:  42                    Recorded cases:  3034                Total deaths:  52

My father brings the strange into our home every day when he returns from work. He brings home traces of his encounters with patients, nurses, and other staff members. Essential workers in hospitals, pharmacies, and grocery stores are strangers we cannot avoid. The creation of the ‘essential workers’ category means that some citizens are excused from certain lockdown rules. Yet, I question the value of these freedoms in the context of a viral pandemic in which the limitations placed upon us are for the protection of our wellbeing. It becomes important to discuss how a nation perceives the lives of essential workers. Karl Marx’s notion of the worker as a commodity is useful in my exploration of the worker’s role during the national lockdown. Marx posits that workers are treated as cheap commodities through which valuable material objects are produced (2).

Although Facebook is saturated with posts showing gratitude for essential workers, this does not change the fact that the lives of these workers are put at risk in their fulfilling the obligation to work. It is this obligation that I link to Marx’s examination of the relationship between the labourer, the product, and the means of production. Marx explains that the process of labour is ‘external to the worker’ and thus the worker is alienated from both the product and the act of production (4). It is as a result of this estrangement that the worker ‘falls under the domination’ of the capital they produce (Marx 2). Concerning the role of the South African essential worker, I propose that it is an instance of ‘forced labour’ because it is a ‘mere means to satisfy needs outside itself’ (Marx 4). Marx concludes that labour and the product thereof belong to a person, other than the worker, who gains pleasure from the product (8). This is amplified in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic because essential workers provide services and commodities to those who can still afford to sustain themselves during this time of financial instability. Moreover, the workers labelled ‘essential’ are often the lowest paid class of workers. This suggests that there exists a population of people who the state regards as necessary yet expendable.   

Essential workers are expected to expose themselves to the possibility of contracting COVID-19 in order to provide for those who are living in strict lockdown conditions. This can be connected to Marx’s idea that labourers experience a ‘loss of reality’ (2) by working in the service of more powerful people (8). I make this argument because the reality of essential workers is distinct from that of the majority of the population who remain guarded in their homes. Because this ‘loss of reality’ is, in a sense, a matter of life or death, I tie this to Michel Foucault’s theorising about a form of power he calls ‘biopolitics’. Relating Foucault’s biopower to Marx’s writing on labour is supported by their common theme of ‘man-as-species’ (Foucault 243) or ‘species-life of man’ (Marx 7). Foucault claims that power is exerted through the regulation of humans as a population rather than as individual bodies (243). An example of this is evident in ‘power’s hold over the right to preserve life and administer death’ (Mbembe 392). I propose that essential workers provide evidence of the state’s command of ‘making live and letting die’ (Foucault 247). These workers are often people of colour who live in lower socioeconomic classes and this may indicate the demographic of labourers that the state is ‘letting die’ by ‘increasing the risk of death’ (Foucault 256) through exposure to coronavirus. The idea of the state viewing certain human lives as disposable appears in Mbembe’s discussion on the notion of ‘superfluity’ when he states that there is an ‘indispensability and expendability of both labour and life, people and things’ (374).

Day:  48                    Recorded cases: 4220                Total deaths:  79

Marx’s work is said to ‘trace’ the value of material objects back to the ‘human labour whose appropriation produces capital’ (Stallybrass 284). This appropriation of human life is apparent in Marx’s characterisation of labour as the ‘objectification of the species-life of man’ (7). Not only has the pandemic exposed the exploitation of particular classes of workers, but it has also revealed the extent to which capitalism has permeated our lives. Despite our physical distance from commercial centres in the city, online shopping and delivery services have provided the means through which we can still actively engage in commercial activities from home. The doorbell rings. I give my mother a questioning look and she gives me a similar look in return. Hearing the doorbell ring during a time in which wandering the streets is prohibited has proven to be quite unsettling. It turns out to be a delivery for house number 56. We are 58. This mix-up has occurred maybe four times this week. We wonder what ‘essential’ items our neighbours could possibly be needing so regularly.

For Marx, the ‘objective world’ is a ‘result of human practice’ and can thus be altered accordingly (Eagleton 132). Furthermore, Marx posits that humans can only confirm their reality by engaging with the ‘material world’ (Eagleton 135). With this in mind, I aim to explore how our understanding of what makes a commodity a necessity has shifted because of the new reality we face. ‘Panic-buying’ is a phenomenon that emerged upon the first case of COVID-19 in South Africa. Suddenly, the South African population decided that their homes could never have enough toilet paper, cake flour, or salt. Panic-buying can be interpreted through Marx’s understanding that conscious life is determined by interactions with ‘material surroundings’ (Eagleton 135). Because of our intensified anxiety about the rapidly changing world, we are likely dependent on material objects for a sense of solidity in our new living conditions. The accumulation of commodities may guarantee a way in which to cope with the ‘rupture’ between the then and now (Mbembe 404). Capitalism thus remains the consistent structure upon which we can rely in times of radical transformation.

A necessity for a family in a higher social class might be considered a luxury for someone in the working class. Marx’s domestic life was defined by calculations to determine the value of a ‘pleasure or luxury’ in relation to ‘the sacrifice of another pleasure or even necessity’ (Stallybrass 192). On a similar topic, Simmel notes that poverty is relational because ‘each social class has typical needs’ and the ‘impossibility of satisfying them means poverty’ (172). Therefore, each social class has a different point at which ‘wealth or poverty begins’ (Simmel 173). It is significant to consider this in the context of the pandemic because it becomes evident that products form the foundation for various lifestyles. This is described in Mbembe’s stating that ‘luxury, pleasure, consumption, and other stimuli’ are crucial factors in the ‘process of subject formation’ (374) as well as the ‘production of lifestyles’ (400). Therefore, despite the concerning state of the national and global economies, a subject’s position in the social order is maintained through their perception of what is considered vital for their lifestyle to be sustained in extreme circumstances.

Day:    53                    Recorded cases:  5350                Total deaths: 103

In Simmel’s writing on the subject of the poor, he indicates that social structures are based on ‘extreme manifestations of social differentiation’ and it is through assisting the poor that social order is affirmed (172). While those of us who could easily adapt to the demands of self-isolation settled into new habits to survive working from home, those living in South Africa without permanent housing were depending on the government’s aid. In light of Simmel’s argument, the government’s actions to ensure the wellbeing of the poor and homeless further contribute to the preservation of the social hierarchy. This is not to say that the government’s assistance is not vital but it is a useful example to illustrate the way that certain people are cast into specific social classifications. The ‘sociological category’ of ‘the poor’ is not determined by ‘specific deficiencies and deprivations’ but it is rather a result of ‘those who receive assistance or should receive it according to social norms’ (Simmel 176). Our current social norms are characterised by social distancing as well as physical hygiene precautions. And because these regulations were established for the wellbeing of the South African population as a whole, those who cannot satisfy these expectations are regarded as somewhat separate from the totality.

Prior to the first day of lockdown, South African news reports drew attention to the government’s solutions for helping people living in poverty. Educational workshops were offered and accommodation was arranged. The media coverage of these initiatives furthers the creation of a particular image of ‘the poor’ as a social category. As a group of people, ‘the poor’ are not ‘united by interaction among its members’ but rather through society’s mutual attitude towards them (Simmel 176-177). I argue that the portrayal of the poor in the media makes the public aware of their receiving assistance and thus establishes the people who should be called ‘poor’. The labelling of particular people as ‘poor’ is a separation that positions those people in a ‘very specific relationship with the whole’ (Simmel 172). This relationship is defined as being ‘materially outside the group’ (Simmel 158) yet functioning as an ‘object’ within the group (Simmel 170). Simmel defines this as a ‘particular form of being inside’ (170).

Day:  56                    Recorded cases:  6336                Total deaths:  123

A person plays the ‘specific social role’ of ‘being poor’ only when the population reacts towards the person with assistance (Simmel 176). This reasoning is also applicable to the ‘concept of personality’ which is determined by the way in which ‘the totality’ acts towards a person (Simmel 176). One’s personality is not ‘defined by an inner characteristic’ but rather depends on external reactions (Simmel 176). Therefore, it is noteworthy to discuss the effects of self-isolation on our understanding of personhood. Ultimately, I aim to explore the question of who we become without the city and without those who contribute to the formation of our personalities. The classroom is not the only social environment that has had to relocate to virtual spaces. Instant messaging and video call services such as WhatsApp and Facebook offer platforms on which we can stay in communication. However, as opposed to merely complementing our face-to-face interactions as in the days before lockdown, these social media platforms are now replacements. Our current reliance on remote communication may mean that we exhibit a different version of our personality that is distinct from the persona realised in material social reality.

The limitation on our social activities may prove to limit the construction of our personalities. Lockdown is a unique event in which there is an attempt to entirely regulate the movements and behaviour of a population. Mbembe states that ‘the potential for freedom’ is founded ‘as much on the sensory flow of urban experience as on the contingency and unpredictability of everyday life’ (390). On this basis, our separation from the urban space removes the probability of encountering moments of randomness and thus threatens our sense of freedom. In fact, it can be said that the purpose of lockdown is to transform urban places into predictable spaces because the lack of spontaneity offers the reassurance of personal safety. Foucault’s notion of the ‘norm’ can also be used in this context because the norm can be applied to ‘a population one wishes to regularise’ (253). For example, a new norm is found in maintaining a certain distance between bodies.

Day:  61                    Recorded cases:  8323                Total deaths: 138

Our detachment from the city has not only impacted our personal lives, but the city has also changed in character because of our absence. The city is described as consisting of ‘wide networks and complex, long-distance interchanges and transactions’ whose ‘flow and motion’ contribute to the city’s capitalist structure (Mbembe 376-377). The continued ‘circulation of commodities’ during lockdown illustrates how necessary the mode of capitalism is for the survival of the state. Although delivery services make capitalist transactions possible, the city still lacks people and their interactions. Mbembe indicates that the ‘material life of cities is made up of people and things’ (377). Therefore, I argue that despite the endurance of material exchanges, the nature of the city has fundamentally altered because of our disappearance. The city is an incoherent space that represents ‘different layers of historical time superimposed on one another’ (Mbembe 404). I believe that we have all become aware of the fact that we are witnessing a historical moment as well as a period of transition. The city becomes a physical manifestation of this transition as we reminisce on the meanings that buildings, streets, and images held prior to the pandemic. Humans are constituents of the city’s infrastructure and because we are no longer there, we can expect the city to change in both appearance and quality. In the words of Mbembe: ‘our sense of urban totality has been fractured’ (404).

In Minima Moralia, Adorno states that only in the ‘nooks and crannies of the cities’ can nature be found (116). This implies that humans have created an environment in which nature cannot survive despite our attempts at preservation. Foucault notes that we do not live in a ‘natural environment’ because our spaces have been ‘created by the population and therefore has effects on that population’ (245). Furthermore, he states that this is an ‘urban problem’ (Foucault 245). While we do have reason to grieve the loss of the era before this pandemic, these points made by Adorno and Foucault offer an additional perspective. We, as humans, are responsible for the spaces we have created. It seems we have created urban environments that allow this virus to flourish. And perhaps the very nature we have fought against has found a new way to gain power over our species. Vacant city spaces around the world have been flaunting new wildlife inhabitants who seem to be reclaiming their territories. And maybe the captions of these images are right in saying: ‘Nature is healing. We are the virus’.  

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Difficult Women: A Review of ‘Otherwise Occupied’ by Sally Ann Murray

By Beverly Rycroft

I came to this collection with scant knowledge of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E or concrete poetry. But even if the lively conversation between Profs Hambidge and Murray at the Cape Town launch hadn’t pointed me in the right direction, the poems themselves would have drawn me in.*

Otherwise Occupied is a playful yet fiercely hard-hitting meditation on being a woman: wife, mother , daughter, lover, sister, friend, observer. It’s a panorama of meticulous observations on women, men, the POTUS (President of the USA) our country and our history, presented in an array of voices. Most of all, it’s an energetic and finely-tuned exploration of language and what, in the words of WS Graham, “the language (is) using us for.”

The collection’s title demonstrates the multiplicity (and duplicity) of language. Partnering “Otherwise” with “Occupied” suggests, firstly, that the writer is occupied with serious matters like thinking and creating (as opposed to, say, cooking and cleaning). But it also suggests the writer is actively occupied with being “Otherwise”.

This is confirmed in the poem Little Joys, where the speaker exults in her otherwiseness : “Call me cynical. A bad-mouthed bitch not anyway feminine” (12), then goes on to claim, “I will never be voted Miss Congeniality…” (16). The “first and last time someone called me Baby was at birth” (18). That “and last” is crucial in a line that delivers one punch after another.

The tone of sassy self-knowledge in the poem is impossible to resist – or, for that matter, deride. By re-appropriating words like “bitch” as well as notions of being ladylike (“I can touch my toes and all the other / unladylike bits” [20-21]) the speaker disarms with laughter. At the same time, she highlights the ludicrous nature of the impossibly idealised female image in media.

This controlled, sharp and compassionate observation is directed, throughout the collection, to relationships ranging from love to grief; from Lady Gaga to Saartjie Baartman to self-harm; from a Lonmin widow to the world’s first lobotomies (practised on two unnamed women).

But it’s not just the language and its uses that provide the shock of the familiar.
The aesthetics of page and typography are carefully arranged to both challenge and reward the reader’s attention. Diagrams, use of white space, blocked-in headings and text, are employed to maximum effect.

In Also in 1948, for instance, two neurosurgeons duke it out in performing
lobotomies :

each man had his single turn on stage (15)

The fragmentation of these lines mimics the disjuncture and confusion of a tormented brain, while the lengths of white space between the words mockingly salute the self-importance and competitiveness of the surgeons. The detailed technical descriptions of the procedure (not for the faint-hearted) are aligned to the right of a block of white space, below which in stark contrast – lies our only information about the patients (other than that both are women):

(Fate of both patients: unrecorded.)

This manipulation of space and line is just one example of how the collection questions our passivity as readers.

The title Incredible But True Phoenomenon!, oozes irony in its mimicry of “click-bait” language used as far back as Henry Cesars’ exhibitions of Saartjie Baartman in Europe. The poem itself is an artful arrangement of prurient contemporary accounts of Baartman, archival documents (posters advertising a Private Exhibition, further “freak show” exhibits) and a poem written in Baartman’s own dignified, clear voice. In doing so, Murray creates a context for voyeurs to be judged on their own words.

It’s challenging to present tragedies like Baartman’s, as well as those of our country, in poems that are not clichéd, patronising or haranguing. Murray’s courage in tackling these subjects is mixed with a humility and skill that ultimately put the spotlight squarely on her subject. Read, for instance, Do not deliberately for a controlled anger that is also deeply moving.

Then there’s Darwin’s Deliberations. Headed and framed by quiet authorial comments , Murray presents words written by the great man himself on the verso of one of his notebooks: a debate on whether or not to get married.
In the “Marry” column Darwin writes

“…companion…who will feel
interested in one – object to be
beloved & played with – better than a
dog anyhow – ”

Murray’s titling and organization of Darwin’s text need say no more about how the father of evolutionary theory felt about women. The poem itself is a palimpsest of a 21st century female writer and thinker (“better than a dog anyhow”) superimposed on a blinkered (though eminent) Victorian male. Behind it, a mischievous inter-textual whisper from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem on Mrs Darwin, visiting the Zoo :

“I said to Him
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.”

From love to grief, anger to laughter, this collection offers an exhilarating ride. Lady Gaga’ s Super Bowl Performance Divides America is a must, as is Skyromancescope. And if you read nothing else, read Afterward for its poignant winding down from the anger and pain of grief to its human (and non-human) antidote.

Otherwise Occupied made me grin, weep, think and admire. Murray’s spirit and daring are underpinned by dexterity and rock-solid craft . Yet what I admire most is her humility and fearlessness in writing from whichever place – or person – calls out to her.

Previous generations might well have labelled this delightfully “otherwise” writer “a difficult woman”. For “difficult” read smart, curious, defiant, ironic, passionate, angry, witty and challenging. All of which characteristics are to be found in her poems.

*Read this interview on Joan Hambidge’s blog:

Sally Ann Murray, author of Otherwise Occupied
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Mom, I’m a freelancer

Thoughts on anxiety around graduating, entry-level employment and making a living out of the arts

By Elodi Troski

I recently graduated from university and, much to my disappointment, it wasn’t as eventful as one might think.

I paid the equivalent of about 40 dollars for a much-too-large graduation gown (clearly modelled on the wardrobe of the Harry Potter-franchise, but lacking sufficient pockets to house bare necessities such as Chocolate Frogs and the magic wand of the witch or wizard in question), sat through a four hour long ceremony of which I spent a generous approximate of 10 seconds on stage, and, to top it all off, didn’t even get a fridge-worthy photo in commemoration of this joyous day.

As I’m writing this, my degree scroll is lying on my desk, serving little to no purpose except for sometimes doubling as a strangely shaped pillow for my cat to rest her head on. Three years of student loans, Harvard referencing, anxiety meds and prayers before, during and after French grammar exams: all neatly rolled up into this little cylinder.

Don’t get me wrong. This “little cylinder” is one I am very grateful for. But perhaps what is clouding my gratitude for completing my undergraduate studies are the questions that come with what I’m going to do with it.     

Trust me, as a student from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, I’ve been dealing with comments from condescending engineering/economics/science/agricultural students for longer than a while.

“You’re majoring in English? But you’re already fluent?”

“What can you do with your degree? You can probably teach at a school?”

“Do you ever go to class?”

“Do you ever write exams?”

And, my personal favourite: “You’ll be fine as long as you marry rich!”

There’s a saying in Afrikaans that goes “BA-manvang”, which roughly translates to “BA-catch-a-man”, insinuating that a wealthy spouse is the art student’s only saving grace. This is a saying mostly used in a sarcastic, self-deprecating manner by BA-students themselves, much like Taylor Swift making millions, if not billions, out of the public by turning the tides on their criticism towards her. Which brings me to the real message of this article: if you consider yourself a student of the arts in any form, Taylor Swift has lawfully adopted you as her child. No, that’s not true. Don’t tell her I said that.  

My usual response to anyone reminding me of my money-deprived future has been that I don’t need a rich man when I can be my own rich man.

But I’m not Cher and I’ll probably never say the words “Mom, I am a rich man” out loud without lying about the state of financial affairs. More accurate would be, “Mom, I am a freelancer, which means that I often find myself living on nothing but instant noodles and have trouble applying for health insurance but nonetheless I am very happy and extremely content in my career”.

What a wholesome life to live. 


When I first told my mom about my post-graduation plans – to travel through Southeast Asia while vaguely “doing freelance work” – she didn’t say much except that need to be careful not to end up in a foreign jail somewhere. This had me questioning what she thought I meant by “freelance work” but I promised her I would try my best to stay out of trouble with the Asian authorities.

Now two months into my solo traveling adventure, I’ve narrowly escaped a late night arrest for driving without an international license (something I am yet to tell my mom about), spent about 30 hours on an airport without eating or sleeping because I didn’t have enough money to get a taxi or train to my hostel, DIY-treated the terrifying second-degree motorbike burn wound on my lower leg because I couldn’t afford to go an actual doctor, and bravely dealt with a minor rat infestation in the kitchen of the Airbnb I lavishly spent the last of my savings on.

But I’ve also watched more sunrises and sunsets than I’ve ever done before, had a novel-inspiration-worthy dinner with an Australian drug dealer (“I only do ‘soft drugs’ right now because of customs”), shared a dorm room with a 70-year old vegan surfer from California, celebrated my 21st birthday all by myself in a beach town in the south of Thailand and have been greeted with “same as yesterday?” every time I’ve gone to the canteen across the street from the apartment I’m sharing with an Indonesian rat.

My best friend is making 700 dollars a week babysitting for a rich family in Connecticut and when she told me her salary, I let the information sink in and waited for myself to start feeling jealous. But the jealousy never came.

I don’t mind having an empty bank account when my notebook is full of poetry and sketches and pieces of hasty travel writing. I don’t mind staying in crappy hostels and drinking cheap instant coffee when I know that I’m paying for it with my meagre but raw, earnest freelance income. I’ve learnt to appreciate paper thin dorm room mattresses as though they’re 5-star hotel beds and I’ve convinced myself that the complimentary coffees sachets in hostel kitchens are top class foreign blends that my taste buds are at the very least privileged to be burned by.

I’ve never read as often as I do now. I’ve never written as much as I do now. And sometimes I even get paid for it. Isn’t that crazy? I’m doing the one thing I’ve loved my entire life – the one thing I’ve never gotten bored of – and I get paid to do it?

There is a peace that comes with being content in your working life that I’m not sure I’m able to put into words. I wish I could. I wish I could explain to those condescending engineering/economics/science/agricultural students the incredible lightness of crossing over the dark lines bordering what it means to have a ‘successful’ career.

There’s no harm in dreaming about a comfortable life and I’m in no way trying to belittle any career choice, however different it may be from mine. But at what point in human history was material luxury inherently prioritized to doing what makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? Why have I spent so many years panicking about the day I’ll have to face the world with my degree scroll in my hand and no idea what to do next?

I’m here now and everything is okay. Nothing is easy but everything is okay. And I have no ambitions of becoming a ‘rich man’.

Sorry, Cher.

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Review of Gaël Faye’s Small Country

Small Country is a fictional memoir of a childhood spent in Burundi and abruptly brought to an end by the outbreak of violence in Burundi and neighbouring Rwanda in the 1990s. It is the first novel of French-Rwandan musician and hip-hop artist Gaël Faye, who started life in Burundi before having to flee to France as a teenager. Small Country has won a number of awards in France where it was published in 2016. It has now been translated into 35 languages, the English translation appearing in 2018.

The events of Small Country are told from the perspective of Gabriel (or Gaby), a 33-year-old man living on the outskirts of Paris. It is his birthday, and alone in a bar he reflects upon his life in France. After twenty years he still does not feel at home.

"Living somewhere involves a physical merging with its landscape, with every crevice of its environment. There’s none of that here. I’m passing through. I rent. I crash. I squat. My town is a dormitory that serves its purpose. My apartment smells of fresh paint and new linoleum. My neighbours are perfect strangers, we avoid each other politely in the stairwell."

Gaby’s life, as he sees it, has been ‘one long meandering’ in which nothing evokes real passion. His life in Burundi frequently infiltrates his thoughts. Looking out of a window, ‘through the grey sticky drizzle’ he notes that ‘there’s not a single mango tree in the tiny park wedged between the shopping centre and the railway lines’. Absorbed by the idea of returning, Gaby recalls his childhood in Burundi.

Ten-year-old Gaby leads an exuberant existence in a neighbourhood of expats and prominent Burundians, outside the city of Bujumbura, the former capital of Burundi. He lives with his French father, and often sees his Rwandan mother. He worries over whether or not they will get back together. His days are spent roaming the impasse,the cul-de-sac in which he lives, with the other four boys who live there. They call themselves the ‘Kananira Boyz’ (inspired by the name of their neighbourhood and Boyz II Men), designate an abandoned shell of a VW Combi ‘headquarters’ and an older boy, Francis, is declared their arch nemesis. Together they steal mangoes, float down the river in dugouts made from banana trees, build tree houses in nearby fig trees, and discuss their futures. The boys are bolstered by their friendship and antics: ‘we felt at one with the world, in our hideout on the patch of wasteland by our street’.

In the book’s most vibrant chapter, Gaby recounts his eleventh birthday party, attended by most of the neighbourhood. Akin to a panning shot, Faye moves between the scenes of the party: an eccentric Belgian telling stories on the veranda; partygoers drinking and dancing in the moonlight; waiters fetching beer and serving a crocodile barbeque; Gaby and the Boyz lounging on the pick-up parked outside; and a disembowelled crocodile lying at the end of the garden. A fight breaks out between the boys – two of whom end up wrestling in the grass, comically rolling over into the crocodile carcass and emerging ‘smeared with crocodile innards’. When the electricity is cut, the party continues, and live music is played to a dancing crowd in the rain. It is an exhilarating passage, brimming with energy. At the close of the evening Gaby recounts:

"Soon my birthday would be over, but I chose to savour that minute before the rain came down in earnest, that taste of suspended happiness as music joined our hearts and filled the space between us, celebrating life, this moment in time, the eternity of my eleven years, here, beneath the cathedral that was the rubber fig tree of my childhood, and deep down I knew that everything would turn out all right."

Fatefully, it is not long after this party that Burundi and Rwanda descend into civil war. From within his privileged community, Gaby is at first insulated from the conflict, only hearing the sound of distant gunshots at night. Gradually, however, the war infiltrates every corner of the country, seeping into Gaby’s world, as he bears witness to the mass killings in Bujumbura. He must also cope with the effective loss of his mother, who descends into psychosis following the mass killing of her family in Rwanda. It is an abrupt and premature end to Gaby’s childhood, as he tries to make sense of the violence that surrounds him and is himself dragged into its torrent.  

Small Country is written in sparse but poetic prose, in what is a beautiful translation. Faye moves at an easy pace, evoking a tangible world for the reader without being excessively descriptive. Faye also successfully constructs the perspective of a child. While the narrative is framed by grown-up Gaby’s lyrical reminiscing, the most compelling insights come from young Gaby as he exuberantly embarks on escapades with his friends, frets about his parents’ relationship, and contends with his increasingly destabilised environment.

A flaw of the novel is its occasional departure from this perspective in order to educate its reader. 11-year-old Gaby happens to overhear conversations of the grown-ups in which they explain the intricacies of the conflict in Rwanda and Burundi, going so far as to detail the plans of the Hutu insurgency, the failure of the Arusha peace agreements, and the reluctance of the United Nations to intervene. These kind of textbook explanations of the conflict are jarring, as they could not plausibly be understood and remembered by a child, and disturb the evocative perspective of the child.

This blemish notwithstanding, the novel is a rich addition to literary accounts of a childhood spent – and disrupted – on the African continent. Alexandra Fuller, the author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, has written that:

The memoirs that have come out of Africa are sometimes startlingly beautiful, often urgent, and essentially life-affirming, but they are all performances of courage and honesty. Far from the tell-all confessionals more usual in western memoirs, the African memoir lays bare the bones of what it is to be a child, survivor, or perpetrator of oppression and conflict.

While a work of fiction, the authenticity and clear reliance on Faye’s own experience in Burundi, make Small Country such a book: Faye courageously delves into what it is to be a child wrenched from security and happiness, and thrown into the depths of a conflict he does not understand. A bestseller in France, Small Country also deserves a wide readership in Africa.

By Isabeau Steytler

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