The role of poets in building social cohesion on the African continent

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So, I am saying! All of this happened in one month.

South Africa has burnt, four siblings were killed by their father in KZN, our beloved country had several femicide & gender based violence reports against women and children. Xenophobic attacks were all we could inhale, the #AMINEXT campaign came to open our eyes about the violence and rape culture in South Africa.

The air has been toxic. We have been faced with the complexities of a failing and broken country. The waves of fear, desperation and grief that are both masked by and manifested in recent events which are a witness of the state and continent at war with itself.

We have been talking about all these chaotic times in our country ad continent but we are honestly hearing nothing from our African oral poets- we only hear them during sophisticated ceremonies where rich people are gathered- for example during the state of the Nation Address- poets are scattered in every corner of parliament because that’s where fame is achieved with social media glorifying their every step.

This then yields concerns about the role of poets in building social cohesion on the continent. Social cohesion is an indispensable precondition for sustainable development everywhere. At the same time, it is associated with some of the key development challenges our societies are facing, such as inequality, poverty, migration, and conflicts.

In Africa, these problems may be exacerbated by the increased demographic pressure and urbanization. It is expected that more than 2 billion people will live on the African continent by 2050. When one considers the position of oral poetry in Africa, an obvious element that emerges is that this medium of expression takes the form of a collective activity from time immemorial, it has been expressed at funerals, marriages, child naming, protests, wars and other ceremonies.

Whether a particular oral poetry translates the human ephemeral phenomenological experience in general into words, or translates the experience of one group of people to another, one thing is for certain: poetry isn’t going away anytime soon. An instant, collective response is achieved because generally, oral poetry is expressed through a language and an idiom which the entire community understands.

When I grew up in the rural area of former Transkei, now known as the Eastern Cape Province- I was exposed to oral poets. They worked closely with chiefs and kings in our villages. And these poets I was exposed to were actually channels of communications between the ancestors and the leaders, in this context- those were the chiefs and traditional leaders. Poets were the voice of the masses.

In my childhood, no society existed without poets and the wisdom they possessed from the guidance of ancestors was one that could save and protect nations. When there was a heating issue which needed an intervention, you would hear a poet in the village randomly chanting, condemning, warning and guarding.

You would see men gathered and women collected in one place to analyze, review and debate the words expressed by the poet. Men would sit around the kraal respectfully and engage the chief of that particular area and the focus would be on the role of poets and on the effects of the aforesaid poetic in precipitating change.

That is the world I grew up in and have been exposed to. Poets had a significant role in community building, activisms and addressing uncomfortable issues of the society.  The impact and importance of such messages cannot be overlooked in a country with a young democracy as South Africa- where the voices can traditionally serve an important role in collective identity formation and the nation-building process. 

I agree, a good number of social justice issues cannot be solved overnight but I believe in this way, the cathartic role of poetry is even more important than a social commentary one. There is no singular role for poetry.

Rather, poetry is meant to be our companion throughout every stage of societal awareness. This is evidenced through poetry’s multi-faceted ability to inspire us to action, highlight a previously unknown narrative, make us think critically, or simply to allow us to feel our humanity

I am surely stalwartly bothered because today, I sense some silence from our poets. This makes me wonder as to what happened to oral poets who wouldn’t keep quiet until things are fixed or addressed in societies.  What happened to poets that healed countries, connected continents and people?

Zemk’inkomo magwalandini! Because we have poets who have lost their plots to protect and build the African continent. There is now an urgent need for African poets to face the existing social and economic reality as genuinely as possible.

Siwaphiwe Myataza is the founder of Village Girl Creatives.