From SABC to The Imbongi

Strange to see as I wake.   My friend Pitika Ntuli  was speaking  on television this morning ( SABC)  about literature and South Africa.  The line  below him said Professor Pitika Ntuli  Cultural Commentator.   I remember  reading with him on stage about seventeen  years ago in London  where he was  exiled.  We read on stage together on various occasions
until he left to  return to a free south africa.

We last met  only a few years ago in Durban where I ate at his home.   He is a sculptor. He has a garden of sculptures and a poet.   And here he is saying  good  morning to the South African nation, to his people.  “The literature of Africa is where people condemn and praise at the same time.  Our writers today are absolutely silent.  We call our people our writers  to reassess themselves to know what their mission is.”

At 10.30am an Africa Centre van takes us, twenty poets and performers to a Gugas’thebe
community centre in Langa
on the outskirts of Cape Town we pass the mountains of  and curl into the suburb. As we step out of the community centre twenty children begin slapping their gumboots in complex rhythm stamping their feet on the ground and singing.  The lead dancer must be five years old.   He has a  cheeky smile. These children born outside of apartheid remember the rhythms of the miners who wore those same gumboots,  now a symbol of culture and celebration where once a symbol of revolution resistance and struggle.   The children stop.

The Imbongi: “The role of an Imbongi is a responsible one in African society, for it involves articulating the feelings of the community, and encapsulating these sentiments in concise
poetic phrases. Not only does the
Imbongi praise, but must also ponder, even offer
criticism. Like a jazz musician, the lines of the
Imbongi are never fixed – they are  improvised, at times melodic, at times melancholy. And not always guaranteed to please with tame platitudes.”

As we mingle outside the centre two Xhosa men, Imbongi,   in traditional dress cloth thrown over their shoulders cloth wrapped around their waists trailing to the ground and bare
strong arms. They stand with clubs in hand and scream a blood curdling scream –
their first words. The language is Xhosa. We stand in awe and silence. They thrust the clubs forward into the air. They are  men of the word and true improvisers. They are
welcoming us after a long and beautiful expression of power,  a fiersome welcome,  they turn and walk… we follow entering  the community centre in silence as they shout more  libations between song and scream  in Xhosa the click language .

As they speak I hear in the wide entrance corridor the sound of harmonised voices, the men continue their linbations, but the harmonized voices raise as we walk closer to the hall. The Xhosa men are now silent… I feel goosempimples ripple through my body and water arrive in my eyes to quench the thirst of my waking spirits as the voices raise.

 The singing voices get louder.  Deep south African tones mix with high south African tones dipping and swaying as a flock.   We are guided through a door into a hallway were fifty singers raise their voices to the sky even more and fill the room with melodic harmony.  We sit take our seats stunned as they sing.  And then as the harmonies rise they  stand and sway to a new song. They are louder now their voices diving into us, calling  spirits to greet us, those of their forefathers.  This is too much.  I an African, a British man, a spirit am in
tears as  my heart races my body  is swept away as if lifted by Kites.

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