Extracts from Phosakufa (the epic)
Philly my brother comes fully armed in police uniform,
bullet proof vest,
Berreta M9 pistol in hand,
eyes hovering over the darkness, acacia bushes and weeds,
Philly is a police man, well trained at Maleoskop,
when I became a comrade in my teens,
he taught me how to use a Zulu home-made pistol.
In the 80s, he worked in rough & riotous places:
Thokoza, Sebokeng, Hammarsdale,
defeated Inkatha impis
with their hand-made guns, axes and muthi,
Philly finds me on the ground,
bleeding and begging for a second chance,
on a one way trip to the gods.
The journey to Elim Hospital is long and winding,
we zigzag through the narrow washed out road of sharp teeth,
teeth that can wound a tyre
like a mosquito defeating its prey with its injected poison,
from home to the main road is the longest ride –
it is like going to hell and back,
accompanied by many foul devils,
strange beasts with horns marching,
5 kilometres is like 5 hours,
I’m holding my breath,
blood covering the car floor,
eyes ajar like a slaughtered goat,
I’m conscious but in severe pain,
fearing the monster death.
we drive on the rock-strewn washed out path,
on sharp-toothed bricks, rubble, edges,
a back bone breaking expedition,
like a viper, breathing so heavily on gravel,
we drive on the encrusted red muddy road of potholes
the size of shallow graves,
we drive on the cattle path of gulleys,
this isn’t a wildlife adventure,
watching the rare black rhino,
or buffalo or kudu or white lion,
it isn’t a drive into Africa in a 4×4 WD,
criss-crossing the rundown towns, hamlets and villages,
laha ku nge ketiketi xichuvambara (a place of a burning paraffin lamp),
place of meat-covered with flies,
and make-shift bridges,
women carrying loads of produce,
firewood on their heads,
skinny babies following,
where cooking is done in tin-pots or no pots at all,
washing at the river of crocs,
catching and eating a raw fish,
or slitting a chicken’s throat and drink its blood,
this is not a wildlife adventure.
Smells of New Surgery Ward, Elim Hospital
Mhani Madisha mops and scrubs the floors,
here, at New Surgery Ward, the air is not generous:
smells of anaesthetics and chemical compounds jab and block the air swiftly,
it’s numbing smells that defy air sanitizers and disinfectants.
Smells of discoloured vomit in a tunnel of blood,
of wilting men with glazes of death,
the stenches of yellowed urine and loose poop,
and the sounds of chirring bugs.
Smells of fucked-up maleness trapped in a funnel of tears,
the stench of bodies pressed against each other,
sticky smells of patients smelling out of place –
of the forgotten citizens who can’t smell themselves anymore.
It’s the stenches of damp sweating old withering people,
smells of rotting flesh, fungating wounds;
of bodily discharges and spit,
the halitosis of a concoction of flagellating farts.
It’s the stenches of the living dead with unblinking glassy eyes –
whose sphincters may soon be loose,
pee bursting in the bladder, poo in growling bowels,
thrashing smells of misery and sickness of a flock in their last legs.
It’s smells of lurking shadows with heavy luggage,
shadows wearing long dirty flakes of dandruff hair,
shadows without medical aid that sway like a boat in heavy storm at sea,
shadows with one foot in the luckless grave.
Sometimes it’s smells of monkey fur and shit,
smells of dead rats, bats and cats scouring flesh,
the foul stenches of ghosts with thick phlegm in parched throats,
shadowy figures flashing long unclean nails in our nightmares.
Mhani Madisha is tired.
Too tired to sweep smells away,
marching smells that walk home with her,
smells that dwell on the canvass of her dreams.
She can’t wait any longer for her meagre pension,
thirty years of fighting revolting smells, sweeping the debris is hard life,
she wants to tender her garden,
grow the sweet fragrant shrubs, the Pineapple Broom and Star Jasmine in spring,
sweep the yard clean and smell the sweet aroma of simmering pots in the kitchen.
Mhani Madisha scrubbed and mopped the floors of deadening smells
with my father in this Elim hospital years ago,
though I smell out of place, I remain her papa Dan’s prodigal son.
I’m Papa Dan’s photocopy. I cannot smell out of place.
Even though the air is not generous in this ward,
this loud pain and hammering smells will not crush my smile.
Even though my skeletal body is wired with drips and tubes,
My spirit is unbreakable. At sunrise, I’ll be home to sip coffee.
After two weeks of breathing fresh air,
of watching sparrows and
sing melodiously in trees
in my garden,
I’m back at Elim Hospital,
in a squeaking bed
to remove the cast bandage,
surely the wound has healed.
the wound is rotting.
the young doctor squawks:
if this problem persists,
I will have to cut off your hand!
(So I will live on a grant…?
shit, join the out of gas grunting army of the jobless…?
wear a broken shoe from heel to toe?)
a human hand is not like a rhino horn,
a rhino can be dehorned –
its horn will grow again!
Oh God, why forsake me –
the last son of wheelchair-grounded mhani Fokisa,
how will I fight without a hand –
What kind of a poet shall I be?
without quills to dip into an inkwell to hold memories?
a poet who cannot strike the resonating blades of timbila
and make music that reverberates
beyond the hills and valleys?
What kind of poet shall I be?
he who cannot unfold his elaborate tail like a peacock,
and mesmerize her,
caress her breast,
& make fire in the sudden downpour?
if my hand is chopped off,
and my broken thighbone –
the strongest bone in the body
aches from burning gunshots,
with whom shall I hop and swing,
lock my arms with as I dance?
agh man, my voice was not mugged,
I shall sing songs of triumph,
with my padlock-free tongue,
no wound shall puncture my dance step,
I’ll dance with my head –
in my head,
spin on a vertical axis
like a Brazilian Capoeira dancer.
Remember Bila the karateka,
in kiba-dachi – that horse stance,
he who chants, taps and jabs with the heart,
softly screaming poems
I’m not dead yet!
I dip my scarred body in the warm Jacuzzi,
sprinkle aromatic bath salts,
glide on the bubbles – these gentle waves,
to ease the aching muscles.
I remove dirt & sweat with deep cleansing soaps,
brush bodily grease away with a sponge
deep scrub cracked heels with soft stone
and apply heel balm
so that the tissues can grow again.
Ah, water is a reflective mirror –
a pure healer; echoes and light,
dirt and grunge dissolves,
achy muscles are tamed,
but the unsightly, ugly scars don’t fade,
they grow sharp teeth,
persistently signifying signposts
of my haunted past –
a soundless & desecrated museum.
I want to dry brush these scars,
remove them like grease and grime
with silicone sheets or gel,
but my scars grow like creepers and climbers,
encircling my walking legs
and my writing right hand
like barbed wire around my head,
I writhe to free my body,
but creepers, like violent waves, envelope me –
crawl over my belly
and climb to my head.
Unlike the debarked wounds of the kiaat
that recover quickly through renewed bark growth
on the edge of the wound,
oftentimes I panic:
how will I get up from the bathtub,
while the restless scars grumble & groan,
scream & strike against my tearful health –
rebel against my stiff legs?
How will I lift my body,
while scars metamorphose,
become fresh sores,
and march to yesteryear’s stinging pain?
My dark scars are stubborn and bellicose,
unlike a sangoma’s incisions,
or surgeon’s excisions
that easily find the door and walk away
my ridged scars resist to go,
they are like a donkey
that plants its feet on the ground
refusing to move,
even when flogged
and mercilessly whipped.
My scars are not ink on paper,
on a hard prisoner’s torso;
tattoos can be removed,
past evils of its wearer can be erased –
washed out by the torrential rains,
or burnt down to ashes,
but my indelible scars are like a galloping creeper,
invading geographies of my anatomy.
I cry salty tears that dash and fill the fountains,
springs, rivers, lakes and the ocean,
often, my bloated tummy grumbles like rumbling thunder,
I shit hard, grueling stones,
lumpy keloids, like spikes on the back of a modern slave
refuse to fade – to die,
they are fresh running ulcers all over my body,
constantly laughing at my forlorn manhood
asking me to lie down,
to forget the past,
to limp forward.
My board-certified dermatologist knows:
my scars are not a result of some itchy acne,
or from bumps after shaving,
or menacing chickenpox,
or dog bites that cause rabies,
they are a result of hypnopompic hallucinoid experiences:
of red-hot nails planted deeper in my body,
cracking bone and tissue,
piercing sinews, nerves and arteries,
hence you think I’m paranoid
& salivating like a face-pulling
These scars are a dead wood
that burns around-the-clock
though the wildfire has died down.
They are like a poltergeist stum
along the blood-spilling road –
the road of angry dead soldiers,
once an old farm house with a red roof,
the house of creepy merry strangers,
the house that smells of stale tobacco and dust,
the house of old, rugged furniture
where long-dead dazzling lovers in white gowns
dotted with gold and pearls
and bandaged heads, gather,
cajole and stroke each other,
love burning like glowing coals,
before hysterical lovers –
a hypnotized couple
on a horseback:
& retire to their icy tombs
with shrunken limbs
heavy with [golden] dust
and purple wreaths in their hands
When the weather is chilly and bitter,
my raised scars howl like the wind,
hallucinate like a dizzy victim of rabies
they are clawed, hungry thugs
wielding a gun
nails biting on my flesh
to a gloomy figure
sprawled on the ground
with a bowed look
they are violent cats laughing
& swearing with delight
like our next door drunkard [neighbor]
who swears at everything in the house:
kettle, cups, plates, flies,
barking dogs and cats,
she swears at her husband
she says his dick is kaput,
and her children she says are ugly like a crocodile,
and when I open my eyes,
I see hunger written
all over their scarred, depressed faces,
in this broken village –
this broken earthenware pot.
Outside it is dark
it is stark dark
but I want to water my flowers,
herbs and young trees
in my enchanting garden
this is my home
I’ve lived here for bloody 43 years
all these years I feared nothing
not even creeping reptiles and crying gigolos at night
but now dimly figures lurk and camp on my mind
spooky voices clearly wail with the howling wind
like a laughing storm raging across the cloudy sky
plotting to leave me shredded in the lurch.
Outside my pale face-brick house,
tall & short well-dressed headless
& sloping shadows roam around the yard,
boys with hearts of fur hide behind shadows,
like jackals, skulk
behind trees and cycads
like leopards that live in an acacia thorn tree
ready to maul me,
clean my bones
and laugh in raucous merriment
When I’m hard pressed, nature calling,
I don’t mind the bush for emergency,
and mugabagaba leaves as wipes
better still, the outside toilet
but I can’t walk in the dark,
look over there, a not-so-tall, not-so-short black-white man
with balaclavas and a moon-sun-like face
has camped in the outdoor loo,
with a sharp object or a saw or butcher knife
waiting to slice off my genitals
as I lower my pants
grr, grr, gr
Or perhaps he is waiting with a steel rod
or a pick handle
to hit my head so hard
and drill through my skull,
burrowing like a viper in sand
he will laugh
when I squeal like a pig
wait until my eyes are shut,
drink and dance the day I’m thrown
into a mindless grave.
Nowadays in the new country of Mandela,
I am scared to open windows or the door of my own house,
scared to lower the curtains, or open the blinds,
scared to go outside, to sit on the stoep and have tea,
home is a max security prison,
and I am the prisoner locked indoors,
afraid of the howling wind,
and the hooting owl,
and the grunting monkeys that are dancing,
or racing raucously on the roof.
Bra Zinga, once a Sophiatown gangsta, says:
“Bila my son, get a revolver,
fire shots in the air every night,
intruders and enemies will go helter-skelter,
that’s how you brush off your enemies.”
villagers say that’s how a man binds his home,
so that no creeper or tokoloshe carrying a gun can enter the yard.
Bra Zinga, a revolver is a small gun!
perhaps I should undig my AK47 at the cemetery,
disassemble it, polish it while drinking intelenzi on my stoep,
then put on my fatigues and military boots,
hang my machine around my shoulders,
loaded with live ammunition,
then in a one-man army drill, march in the village,
entering house by house of suspected thugs and witches,
like a ghost gone berserk,
fire shots in the air,
against shadows and dimly figures,
releasing my pent-up rage.
Bra Zinga, perhaps I need strong muthi from Beira,
to get the guns of thugs not to work on me,
to jam when they pull the trigger,
and not emit death,
to burn on their hands,
or turn around and kill the owner,
or to pump water instead of fire.
It’s dark outside,
and the words of a white patient at Pietersburg Hospital ring loud and clear:
“Fred, get at least four pit bulls,
or even Rottweilers are good watchdogs,
they’ll do the job,
they are obedient unlike human guards who doze at work,
or drink on duty,
get them, four pitbulls,
you’ll have a good sleep,
snore and dream sweet things,
walk around your yard with nothing on top,
you’ll not worry about break-ins”.
I think of sanusi Credo Mutwa singing praises to the dog:
You are the watching eye that protects our slumbers,
You are the bark that frightens away thieves and other intruders,
You are the dog, the wise one on four legs, the diviner, the healer, the sangoma!
You are the dog, the one to whom tomorrow as well as today and yesterday are one.
You are the dog, whose loyalty is beyond question and whose love is deeper than the seas upon which
the white men sail their ships.
My friend Godfrey says pit bulls are good
but not enough:
“Vonani, put cameras in the house, in the yard,
one facing the east, another west,
one towards the tall trees and long grasses,
another by the gate and water tank,
in all strategic places,
link them with your mobile phone –
cameras have good eyesight,
that glow in the dark better than a tom-cat’s eyes,
their ears hear everything:
a screeching cricket,
a grunting unseen tokoloshe,
the whisper of a cat,
cameras are better than the armoured police
who are held hostage
in their police station
by boys armed only with toy guns”.
Prof Milubi says guns and dogs and cameras are good
but not enough:
“kneel down and pray,
you were not saved by guns,
and dogs and cameras,
all you need is prayer,
all you need is Jesus”.
Aunt Modjadji says bava (as she affectionately calls me),
guns and vicious pit bulls
and cameras with eyes and ears
and Jesus who walked on water
and resurrected the dead are good
but not enough:
“take off your ZCC badge,
(I am not saying leave your church),
you’ll not be the first to try alternatives,
I’ve seen priests consult sangomas in the dark night,
silently cross the Limpopo River,
famba u ya swekiwa hi Vandawu bava,
u tiya u ku tsetsereree!
u nga deleriwi hi mimphyandlani,
munhu wa swekiwa,
muti wa biyiwa, vana na nsati va sirheleriwa,
xivala xa tihomu na timbuti,
movha wa biyiwa,
ku tele vanhu va mavondzo”,
Xindzerere, the sangoma who was chased away from Chavani village
on allegations of witchcraft,
meets me as I go to collect holy water by the stream,
he reminds me that his mother is a Bila,
therefore he is my grandson, ntukulu
“kokwani, the people who shot you have angered me,
I can give you something to protect you,
all you need is to chew this stick or bark,
you’ll see them as they plot to attack you,
when they are walking right –
you turn left,
you can also tell the boys to make you invisible,
or turn you into a cat, horse, dog or fertility doll,
or you become a rooster singing cock-a-doodle-doo
or when they come closer, you become a burning veld,
or a field of corn and millet,
or a gurgling river full of crocodiles,
or mountain blanketed by ferns and moss,
what I’ll give you is more than phunyuka bamphethe,
it’s furry, muscular boys with a round snout
short hard-working boys,
with pointed ears and glowing red eyes,
ah, mzala wants to give me boys,
I don’t need a tokoloshe,
I’ve heard mudyiwa, (a tokoloshe) is bad news in the bedroom,
it prowls in the dark, remove a husband from the bed
rapes the wife,
gnarls, grunts and bliksems the husband with its long, sharp claws,
ntukulu, I don’t need to be beaten by a round-headed creature.
I am scared of the nocturnal lands,
my body is like an unsteady corrugated zinc house –
a hollow, soundless shack,
ripped apart by wailing winds,
shredded by storms and furious hurricanes,
grumbling floods and tumbling fires.
outside it’s dark,
a whiff of cold air in hot summer,
freezes my bones and toes,
with ghostly presence,
& a devilish laughter,
that turns my blood
When I die
When I die,
run to the rivers and waterfalls,
wash your faces and feet with running water,
or bathe with rain water,
to drive out evil spells and curses,
shave your beard, shave your armpits,
shave in the dark passages elsewhere,
cut your nails,
fast and mourn me enough,
crawl and roll on the ground,
cover your faces with dust if you can,
groan, sob and bellow because the poet is dead,
blow horns, strum guitars, beat the drums, chant prayers
and call my name:
I’ll appear and hold your hands, dance with you,
for I lived a pure life, deserving of honour,
unlike sorcerers and crooks,
with fingers in the till.
Plant my remains in the village of my ancestors,
beneath the umbrella thorn trees,
next to my father or grandfather,
in a lead coffin, not a plain wooden box,
a dead man is heavy like a bag of stones,
and I do not want to break your cheap coffin,
an underground stone chamber would be ideal,
but I know you won’t afford it,
bury me seated, facing the east, Bileni –
that’s where I come from,
let me return to join Bila the solar goddess,
leswaku ndzi orhela masana,
stick a pen in my right hand,
cover my coffin with a dry goat’s hide.
When I die, relatives please, abstain from all sexual pleasures and orgies,
if you do, please know you are inviting fires in your bowels –
floods in your houses,
your flocks and herds will perish,
I will send dogs to drag and slaughter you
roast you over a fire!
the land shall weep; plants shall wither –
famine will smite this beautiful land,
and once gurgling rivers will become playgrounds for rats and squirrels,
fish and krill will flee the muddy waters,
your children will be born with missing limbs
and empty skulls,
you’ll give birth to brute beasts,
don’t say I didn’t warn you,
wu ta tshwa mukhukhu ku sala mazingi.
Please do not pile up stones on my grave –
you’ll be making my mansion ugly.
please don’t throw my bed, wardrobe and kitchen unit on it,
neither planks, wheelbarrows, steel rods… no please!
do not throw thorn branches and logs either,
in case you think I will be pricked by thorns when I rise up
when I embark on my way home.
Please do not pin my corpse to earth with a chisel –
it took me so long to find a wife,
I am not a bachelor who should be crucified,
whose body is drilled with a chisel, holes ajar!
if you break my chest and pin me with nails and chisels,
believing that will prevent me from waking and walking and laughing,
When I die, accompany me with books of poetry,
because poetry is everything: roses, carnations, daisies, peonies,
lilies and camellia flowers,
let my aunt perform our family poem,
let her remind the mourners that my totem is a rat, mbeva,
so in my next life, I may return as a rat,
open paths for the curious.
let my aunt sing:
Bilakhulu xihlakala-milenge, mbilu a yi hlakali
khanimambo kondlo ra nkwinkwirimba
When I die,
pile up the grave with poetry books and music,
build a monument, a reading room down there,
erect a print and digital library for my illiterate people,
let me read and perform while in dreamland,
let me read despite my chin that’s looking up,
despite my chest that carries the heavy load of earth and stones,
if my commands are not clear, put your ear on the ground,
and use your third eye to interpret my vision,
the mist will vanish, and the vision crystalize.
When I die,
do not bury me along with arrows and spears,
or with my AK47, makarov, bullets and poison,
knobs and kieries and spears,
or army regalia,
I won’t need any of these weapons to fight my foes,
I’ll return in my own style, more determined,
and my enemies will dance in cycles,
in the storms that I will brew.
Do not cover my body with strange hides, flags and minceka,
take off the knots and rings from my body,
remove coins, mirrors and button knobs away,
remove all the zips,
I want to dance naked,
go home peacefully.
When I die
make sure you dispose of my body as early as possible, on Saturday,
I do not want to contaminate the soil and rivers with my fish-like rotting flesh;
but please, do not burry me in a shallow grave like a dog,
I do not want to feed the vultures, kites and crows
like a Parsi in the hills of the Towers of Silence,
far away in Mumbai.
Men who appear at the graveside without jackets or coats must be sent home
women, black or white, must cover their heads,
I will smile at their beauty
If you ignore my commandments, I’ll turn the roads and forests dark
fat and sturdy people weightless
fluttering butterflies will flee into exile
people will lose their ways; lie on their bellies
forget their names.
When I die, please no human sacrifice please …
I’m not a king,
so no planting of ordinary folk as my bed or mat,
I was born through normal birth; but only came out after ten months
no pouring and sprinkling of blood in the fields,
no offering of first-fruits and firstlings of the fields and flocks to the gods,
just let me go like a soldier of poetry,
let me go in the rain like a true Mosione,
let the khaki-clad men stamp the ground with manyanyatha,
leaping up and down, singing harmoniously:
famba eku vonakaleni, famba
famba eku vonakaleni, famba
Lastly, no thug should exhume my remains,
nor try to steal my corpse, resell my coffin,
I am happy to be consumed by worms,
happy to nourish the moist land and roots,
happy to be dust,
happy to be the wind.
Darling, when you hear thumping footsteps over the roof,
or the main door going ajar,
do not run away, nor cover your face with shame,
it’s me your husband,
returning to guard you in the hour of need,
driving witches away,
driving hunger out to the sea,
making sure our kids grow old
minhlana ya vona yi goveka
but if you bring a new man to our house,
and he lounges on my sofa, splay his legs with his stinking feet,
and he wears my pyjamas, shorts and slippers,
and you cover yourselves in one thin linen,
and roll in our big bed through the winter,
then you’ll feel the wrath of Bila,
especially when my belly hasn’t burst.
my beloved children, don’t wail on my grave when poverty hits home,
no one should toyi toyi, begging me to make them win the lotto,
no one should sprinkle corn beer, begging me to get them promoted at work,
no one should sprinkle snuff, asking me to give them luck,
hey, work hard, no picket lines, no marches, no wailings,
no blowing of vuvuzelas on my last home.
Leave my spirit to wander in the wilderness for a while,
let me enter my house, switch on the lights,
let me boil water with a red kettle,
make Rooibos tea in the kitchen and drink leisurely,
let me sit on my study and read poetry,
let me hum my music, my jazz,
and watch news or football in the television in the lounge.
Let me walk in my fields,
water my young trees, vegetables and herbs,
let me enter every head of wicked men,
quarrel with those that killed me with a gun,
yes, I still hold grudges with my killers.
The wicked will never be free
when I return, I will strangle them –
suffocate these unclean spirits,
I’ll chase them during the day,
and when they hide in caves and burrows –
I’ll grunt and snarl outside like a tiger.
Whether you are standing or walking,
I’ll take away your sleep or nap,
drive it to the burning wilderness,
yes, bells of hell will ring too loud, like thunder,
whether sitting or lying,
I’ll strangle you, throttle you,
pin you to the ground,
you’ll swim in your sweat and poop,
you’ll know that I am not dead,
but back like an ever present hurricane.
And when you drive in the comfort of your elegant car with leather seats,
I’ll throw and spray my putrid presence in your nostrils and skin,
and armpits and between your toes and tongues,
doors and windows will lock automatically, you’ll run nowhere,
when you drive forward, I’ll drive backwards,
or I may decide just to stop the car. Throw keys away.
You’ll be stuck with me – a figure with colourless eyes and translucent body.
When you are enjoying the cruise on the highway;
I’ll take over and face an oncoming traffic of trucks,
or swing the sterling to the cliff or ditch,
while you shut your eyes in fright,
I’ll laugh in merriment,