Poetry And Medicine

This article follows the International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine which took place on 7 May 2011 in Warwick, UK.

Road to Cecilia Makiwane Hospital artwork

Poetry, art and medicine have been together since the time of Hippocrates and the History of Medicine is abundantly endowed with examples of Art, Literature and Poetry.

Renowned medical journals like Lancet and the British Medical Journal (BMJ ) have published scholarly articles on Medicine and Poetry.The 2011 International Symposium on Medicine and Poetry to be held at the Medical School at Warwick, organized by the University of Warwick would be focusing on the role of Poetry in the field of Medicine with a special mention on HIV.

My Art and Poetry dealing with my trauma work in the Cecilia Makiwane Hospital, Mdantsane was been accepted for viewing at this conference.

The same art on the township of Mdantsane has been published as a coffee table book titled Mdantsane Breathing and has been reviewed by Daily Dispatch.

This is the first time that Art and Poetry from a township hospital of South Africa would be exhibited at a Medical School in UK.

Mdantsane goes to Warwick, UK.

Bantu, the language

I do not remember much from the time when I landed in Kansas. I think there was much emptiness, and a decent quantity of desolation keeping it company. I saw both from the sky as the aircraft landed, so I guess they could not have come from inside me.

Have I memories of the time I wish they are of those two falling without the father knowing of it.

I have naught but the madness that comes from personal choices.

When I heard a voice ask “Ndiphi?” I thought my personal choice had come for me. It was not. Disappointed, I had to focus hard to recognize what I was experiencing. Bantu, the language, impinged on my senses. It must have been this out of place experience that made me think of the Germiston train station. When I first went to Africa I had also thought of Germiston. But this was not Africa. I was in America. That is not what I told the language. To it I said, “In Kansas.” I said it in English.

Have I memories of that instant, I wonder at the collision of insignificant moments, words. People.

I remember feeling cheated later. I should have given Bantu a Wizard of Oz line with a township twist.

I could get a taxi to Lawrence, if I was willing to pay R500. It really was not so bad in dollars, less than a hundred. But I was not counting in dollars. Was there a cheaper taxi? Yes, R220. No, was there a taxi I can take to Lawrence, please, not a maxi taxi. No. A train? No. Where could I get that $35 transport again? Someone calls, they give the person on the other side a description of me. Just out the door, Sir, and wait for them to pick you up.

All the while the presence of Bantu on my senses, insistent, insubstantial, out of place. Perhaps the Dorothy line would not have been very funny after all. In JFK, where the last leg of my journey started, the last call for passengers to Johannesburg had not tickled me much either.

Walking to the door and into the sunlight of Kansas must have been hard on the language, for it asked again, “Ndiphi?”

“Kansas,” I answered, “then Lawrence and the University.”

I wanted to, but did not ask why it had come with me.

The Appeal of Black Consciousness

In 1954 Hendrik Verwoerd, one of the main architects of the apartheid system, said that blacks ought not to be trained above certain “forms of labour”.  This was intended to limit the prospects and possibilities of black people in South Africa   The statement, viewed from a post Apartheid vantage point, can easily be dismissed as words of a twisted old crank.  It would, however, be very naive on our part to adopt this attitude.  For one thing, the thinking behind the statement was to shape policies and programmes that were to affect generations of black South Africans. Black people’s possibilities were to be limited in ways that threatens their human being-ness; their agency; their capacity to being human in their own terms.  The Black Consciousness philosophy is essentially a response to this thinking and its social, political and economic consequences. 

To be sure, there is a certain arrogance in the historical black consciousness movement’s response to the white supremacist Apartheid thinking.  One can almost hear Biko, the black consciousness theorist, telling Verwoerd and his cronies “who the hell are you to tell me what I can and can’t learn?  Who are you to tell me how far I can go in life?”  The title he adopts for some of his articles is telling “I Write What I Like”,  and to fool the system he refers to himself as “Frank Talk”.  This is a man who, in his “writing” and “frank talk” dared to defy the limitations and restrictions set by white supremacist ideologies and politics on himself and his ilk. 

The Apartheid system buttressed by Verwoerd, set definite limits and restrictions on the possibilities of black South Africans.  In thought and practice, the Black Consciousness response to the system was to defy these limitations.  Black Consciousness has articulated black defiance and the rejection of standards set for black people as a precondition for freedom.   A refusal to conform to standards set by the system is accompanied by a call to take initiative, to test what the realm of possibility is and to shape a future.  “On his own, therefore, the black man wishes to explore his surroundings, and test his possibilities. In other words to make his freedom real by whatever means he deems fit.”  “Black man you are on your own” became a rallying cry for a generation of BC thinkers and activists in the 70s. 

Within the context of a society still addressing the legacies of the white supremacist politics, ideologies and economies, Black Consciousness remain appealing to some of us.  It remains appealing in its nullification of historical limits set on blackness.  It remains appealing in it capacity to inspire the speaking of truth to power.  It remains appealing in its call for imagination, initiative, the creation of a different reality and the expansion of our human possibilities.

Infantilizing writing in African languages?

I was at a reading of Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome To Our Hillbrow and K. Sello Duikers’ Thirteen Cents and The Quiet Violence of Dreams yesterday, as part of the Keleketla Library’s contribution to WALE, the Wits Arts and Literature Experience festival. The Keleketla investigation of the legacy of Mpe, Duiker and Moses Molekwa is part of ‘Dislocating the Studio’, a residency programme in the Wits School of the Arts. Siphiwo Mahala and I were re-reading these books of our friends and I think we all found that they still speak to obstacles to freedom, to limitations on our literary imagination.

For example did you know, as Welcome To Our Hillbrow tells us, that if you write a book in an African language, you are likely to be asked to tone it down for a young audience? That’s because supposedly, the only economically viable readership for a novel in an African language is schools; and therefore the book must be edited according to what educational publishers deem appropriate for children to read. Phaswane’s narrator comments that our whole system of reviewing and publishing confuses writers by making them believe that “euphemism equals good morals” and that “Calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers, who had for a long time been reviewing works for educational publishers and who were determined to ensure that such works did not offend the systems that they served.”

We are still in the process of replacing those systems, and it seems as if we haven’t completely shifted this outrageous assumption that novels written in African languages have to be infantilized before they can be published. Siphiwo Mahala is one of the very few writers who ahs published his novel, When a Man Cries in English and in isiXhosa and had the latter reviewed in the English mainstream press. Yet, he said that he had to tone down the sexually explicit parts of the isiXhosa novel, as if “euphemism equal good morals.” How do we persuade the public and the publishers and the reviewers that there are readers for good, innovative new writing in African languages? How do we continue the libratory work of Phaswane Mpe and K Sello Duiker?

The Keleketla performance for WALE is called Nonwane and will be held in Hillbrow May 11 at the Summit Hotel For more details contact Ra at rangoato@keleketla.org. WWC events for WALE include the launch of the play The Pump Room by Allan Kolski Horwitz on Wednesday May 11 at 18h30- 19h30, Graduate Seminar Room, South West Engineering building; People Power, readings of new writing from the mentor protégé group sparked by recent events and an invitation to write, on Thursday May 12, 16h30 -18h30, at the Wits Writing Centre; launch of the novel Ngiyolibala Ngifile (I will forget when I am dead) by Dumisani Sibiya on Friday May 14 at 17h30 -18h30 at the Graduate Seminar Room, South West Engineering building; and lastly launch of the poetry cd Roots and Branches, featuring performances from a treasury of Johannesburg poets, including Lionel Murcott, Ike Muila, Siphiwe Ka Ngwenya; Myesha Jenkins, Khanya Magubane, Yoliswa Mogale, Phillippa de Villiers, Lesley Perkes, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Mark Espin, James de Villiers, Chantal-Fleur Sandjon, and Mphutlane wa Bofelo.

Writers and Public Libraries

It seems to be a well kept secret that during Pallo Jordan’s tenure as minister of Arts and Culture, the national network of public libraries was allocated over R1 billion for book acquisitions and for the building of new libraries. I say it is a secret because, though this budget allocation is advertised in a pamphlet released by the department and is rightly a source of great pride, in practice very little delivery has taken place. And in a country where functional illiteracy is so high amongst adults and where 70% of children do not have a library at their schools, it is criminal that the library service is so slow to take advantage of this massive cash pile. However, this should not surprise us because, in general, transformation of the library service, like so many other organs of state, whether with respect to understanding its social role and then setting up a delivery mechanism that succeeds in meeting working class needs, has been inconsistent and largely ineffective.

Public libraries should be more than just places for book lending. They should become cultural centres which provide a space for study, for readings by writers and poets, for book clubs and for discussion groups. As such librarians have to go beyond their present administrative functions and become coordinators and initiators of cultural programs for people of all ages. They should also be able to liase with local schools which do not have libraries so that children can still access books and share the excitement of readings and other literary activities. Sadly there is minimal recognition by the library service of this potential.

With regard to making new and classic South African and African books of all genres available, the library service is similarly ineffective. The current system of book purchasing is highly bureaucratic in that each province has a single procurement office which is dependent on an incomplete (if very glossy and expensive) catalogue and rarely engages with small local publishers. Moreover, the library officials responsible for purchases do not seem familiar with our new writing and make very little effort, even when new books are purchased, to display them prominently so that people are aware of their presence. As such, the large commercial publishers selling prescribed education books and American and British best sellers have a considerable advantage.

As far as building new libraries is concerned the pace is similarly slow. To my knowledge the service has not advertised its program. We are aware that many new residential areas (both formal and informal) have mushroomed over the past twenty years and do not have a library – not to mention long existing ones that never had a library or had a poorly resourced one.

Another factor to consider is the role of the public library network in sustaining the publishing of contemporary writing. The book market in South Africa is very small. The high price of paper combined with the high margins charged by booksellers and distributors means that publishers of new creative writing struggle to reach financial self sufficiency. Many of these publishers rely on grants from the National Arts Council, the National Lottery Development Trust and other foreign funders to survive. The local state and parastatal funders have become increasingly indifferent to literature and put up bureaucratic obstacles that slowdown and/or kill projects. The time taken to process applications is often years rather than weeks or months; the requirements such as tax exemptions etc are unfair and seem designed to frustrate rather than ensure accountability.

Botsotso has proposed to these bodies that they convene a meeting with the national library service, the different education departments and publishers of new South African writing to map out a way in which the library service and schools/universities/colleges purchase the books generated by these publishers. This would ensure both a new level of mass distribution/readership as well as building financial self sufficiency brought about by the economy of scale of large printing runs. If the 2,000 national library/education system libraries each purchase such books – whether of creative writing genres or non-fiction – the face of South African publishing will certainly be strengthened and our general cultural level will be greatly raised.

For any liberation struggle, self expression of its authentic identity and freeing the mind of colonial and racist stereotyping is as important as the satisfying of material needs. The national library service needs to act accordingly.