Vangi’s Voice: Poetry gave me presence

By Vangile Gantsho (@Vangi22)

‘If poetry has taught me anything, it is that my voice comes from somewhere beyond me.’

Not too long ago, I had the misfortune of eavesdropping on a conversation between two young women in their early twenties maybe. The one said that she didn’t see why she had to know her mother’s maiden name because her whole family uses her father’s surname anyway, and it had no effect on who she is today. The other affirmed this sentiment and shared how she finds it ‘annoying’ that people expect her to remember her clan name because it’s so outdated and no one needs them anyway. This reminded me of a Nilotic proverb that goes: “Youths look at the future, the elderly at the past and our ancestors live in the present.”

When I first began performing poetry in Pretoria, I remember waking up in the middle of the night and writing what became ‘my intro’. In hindsight, it wasn’t really a poem and was really cheesy, but it did have a profound effect on my finding my voice. The piece was a bilingual take on ukuzithutha (tracing one’s lineage through clan names and family totems), and every time I shared it, I felt stronger. It was as if calling on my ancestors meant that I was connected to the source of my voice somehow. Later, I learned that this is where my ‘presence’ would come from.

Sometimes, I feel like this country is a giant rainbow-painted blender and we’re all turning into one big grey smoothie, which is quite ironic if you consider how much airplay we give the term ‘diversity’. Even though Zulu is still the most predominant home language in the country, more and more people believe that eloquence in English is directly related to current or future success. So young parents are teaching their children to speak English before they learn their home languages. But it’s not just in the language.

The conversation between the young women in the taxi was not my first encounter with that kind of thinking. I have heard many black youths proudly declare how they do not speak their home languages or know much about their cultures. We are teaching our children to be nuclear. To own more and share less (except maybe with those in our own immediate circles). Clan names, family trees, great grandparents and third cousins are becoming old wives tales. It feels like we are forgetting ourselves. Becoming less present. And this, for me, is the saddest thing because it means that we are becoming less and less connected to our source. Growing trees without roots.

If poetry has taught me anything, it is that my voice comes from somewhere beyond me. Beyond my father even (because he was my first reference of an orator). I learnt how to stand my ground from my mother’s aunt in Zwaartwater. I learnt to share from my father’s uncle’s daughter in Indwe, who had much less than me when we were growing up but always let me sleep on her mattress when we visited. I am, because they are. All of them: roots and branches.

It was through this lesson, that I discovered what presence means: that I do not walk alone. Whenever people see me in the physical, they also encounter my ancestors. Perhaps this is the wisdom of the Nilotes’ proverb.

Vangi Gantsho is a poet, first and foremost. She is a firm believer in Africans telling African stories and has shared her stories on various platform in South Africa and abroad. Her voice is that of Black Woman, because that is the only truth she knows.

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