While walking through Athambile Masola’s debut poetry collection, Ilifa (uHlanga Press, 2021), I found myself accompanied by the words of Gabeba Baderoon. In her introduction to Makhosazana Xaba’s Our Words Our Worlds (UKZN Press 2019), Baderoon writes, in response to the question “What can poetry do?”:
Black women could write poetry of an entirely new kind – visionary; dealing not only with trauma, but also pleasure; giving unceasing attention to injuries to women that had become ordinary in their familiarity; creating more layered visions of Black life, including the forbidden memory of the joys of Black life …
At the launch of this collection, alongside Mthunzikazi Mbungwana’s Unam Wena, umamGcina (Masola) uthi:
“le mibongo ngamabali okuzazi, okuzithanda, okuziphilisa”.
Ilifa, an inheritance. Something that is passed on. Something received and something that can be given. On the cover, a vintage photograph of uBhele – Vuyelwa Gladys Mashologu – her grandmother.
Inside, three parts, Umyalelo Wentombi, Uthando and Apha. This collection is a delicate weaving of memory, commentary, affirmations and song. A deliberate act of resisting erasure and a love letter to both the present and future self.
Zibhale ngelizwi lakho
Abo baneendlebe bakuve
Zibhale ngeenyawo zakho
Abo bafunayo bakulandele
Zibhale ngobuqu bakho
Bungaze buvuthululwe nje ngothuli.
uMamGcina is a teacher, historian, academic and storyteller. Ilifa reaches into the lessons of our mothers, how we have learned resilience through the niceties of holding the blade by the hand while finding well-mannered ways to open the curtains in the morning and keep our legs closed in public.
These poems are reminding us that elingakhaliyo lifela embelekweni. Linyamezela “amehlo abomvu exhego”, “ikhwelo lo mfana erenkini”, “isimemo somfundisi”. Iinyembezi zethu
zifika kuthe cwaka
Ngezinye imini zezam
Ngezinye imini ndikhumbula ezikamama.
Ngezinye imini kuthi qhatha ezkatata.
Zisikhumbuza ukuba siyinyama ephilayo
The collection is an invitation to remember uBhele’s warning:
…ekhe bakhululeka abantu abamnyama
izakuba yikak’ apha, yikak’ apha, yikak’ apha…
An invitation to love. To find our own tongues in these languages. To find our own feet in our mothers’ shoes. To find ourselves here, and not without hope. Uthi umamGcina:
Vula intliziyo yakho.
Awuqali yaye awugqibelisi
Ukuba ngumama opethe intliziyo ngesandla.
This collection renders some sterling moments of layering and cooking beneath the surface. Ibhabhathane, lendza umbilini. The use of songs as invocation alongside Umnquma,Izithunywa zemvula and Imihla ngemihla echo both the weight of being the recipient of ilifa layizolo and the responsibility of being the custodian of ilifa langomso. uMamGcina, especially in how she uses isiXhosa, is demanding space for a complex mesh of abantu abadala, iibhatyi ezibmvu and her own complicated relationship with “Model C” schooling. She transfers English tools into isiXhosa (“Uxolo ‘va. ‘Iza ndiphuze”) and speaks colloquially (“siyabana mna nawe”) in a way that does not alienate those of us who did not do Xhosa A eskolweni. Uthi: ndiyavuma… andikwazi ukuzithutha ncam kodwa lona umzimba lixhanti lam. And umhlaba wethu siyawufuna. ILifa is heavy with the legacy and the disappointment of ivumba laseZiphunzana and wispy with the intimacy of izandla namacephe. A yearning for love and a knowing of what love is.
There are moments where I wished for more dancing between the structure and the rhythm of the poetry. In Ubomi, the call and response is seamless. And in the poem Ukukhanyiselwa, there is an opportunity for shorter line breaks to bring out the musicality of the words and strengthen the image of disappearing names. While her more narrative poems such as Ikaka and Umlung’kazi could have benefited from a tighter edit to accentuate the voices and humour of amabali. “Akhonto iluchuku lomlung’kazi.”
In her seminal essay, Poetry is Not a Luxury, Audre Lorde writes:
For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.
Ilifa lika Athabile Masola is both an archive and the beginning of a manifesto. A manifesto written alongside many women whose names we no longer remember. Here, umamGcina is carving scripture, song, memory negagu lika Bhele into stone.
Ndiye ndiyiqonda into’kuba