On 24 September South Africa will celebrate Heritage Day in ways that honour our cultural diversity and heritage as much as it reflects our desire for unity. 

From unpacking the wood and buying the charcoal, to preparing the boerie rolls or chesa nyama, the day will be spent relaxing, perhaps reflecting and, after that leisurely lunch, most definitely digesting the mouth-watering results of our rich cultural diversity.

Food for thought

Yet, as much as cuisine is key to our cultural heritage and the enjoyment of the day, food for thought is equally important.  Spare a thought, for example, for the way in which the AVBOB Poetry Project has been harnessing the existence of 11 official languages – not to become a Tower of Babel, but to extract unique truths from each; from the individual to the collective, from the heart to the soul.

“Poems are objects at work in the world, reflecting, reproducing or contesting our shared culture,” says Emily McGiffin, Canadian poet and PhD candidate in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University in Toronto.  “(Poets) are also activists, enabling others to perceive hidden aspects of reality by noting and questioning aspects of the world we too often take for granted,” she explains.

Speaking in mother tongues

Rarely in the world has poetry had the power to do all this, and more, as it has in South Africa. Not only in one language, but in 11 mother tongues; not only with pen or pencil on paper, or fingers on a keyboard, but by word of mouth, from the ancient venerable art of oral poetry and praise singing, to the poetry clubs that are appearing in all shapes and forms across our country. And not only from the wisdom of the wise but, in a manner of speaking, from the mouths of babes, as is evident from the oldest poet (to-date) entering the current AVBOB Poetry Competition being 90-years-old while the youngest is 12.

On travels through South Africa to study poetic interpretations of land and environment, McGiffin initially found that the majority of literary scholarship on poetry was confined to white authors, predominantly male, writing in English.  Moving beyond lecture room halls and university campuses, however, she soon discovered an infinitely more real, profound, and pulsating reality.

Spending a year in South Africa, travelling through Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban and living in townships and villages in the Eastern Cape province, McGiffin sought out poets and poetry written and performed in isiXhosa, the second most widely spoken of our languages, denoting a rich literary history and traditions predating the arrival of colonial languages and people by millennia.

Talking about oral poetry

During her travels, McGiffin spoke with practising oral poets and their rural and township audiences. “Almost unanimously, people considered these poets and their poetry to be ‘very important’ in amaXhosa society and to deliver significant messages,” she explains. “People told me that poets remind them of the beauty of their language and of their history, heritage and identity. They also told me that poets perform an important role as healers with a rare ability to move people by touching them with their words”.

Worthy words from winning poet

A poet encapsulating the best of what McGiffin has experienced, is Simphiwe Nolutshungu, winner of the isiXhosa category in the recent AVBOB Poetry competition. Nolutshungu describes poetry as a translation of emotions into words that should be read through feelings. He defines culture as social behaviour and norms as well as certain universal truths found in human societies, including expressive forms such as art, music and poetry. “Our pains, confusion, happiness, love, abhorrence and everything else can be painted in the lines and stanzas in a poem,” he explains. “Poets are at times like prophets and poets are the conscience of the nation. Poetry and our culture are not dating or flirting but are officially married and their marriage certificate is hanging on the walls of our being as human being”.         

On this high note, let’s celebrate the time-honoured and richly layered art of poetry in South Africa. Long live poetry, long live AVBOB’s commitment to its Poetry Project and long live the rich and diversified culture that has given and continue to give birth to this art of the highest order.

To enter the latest AVBOB Poetry Competition, visit www.avbobpoetry.co.za. The competition closes on 30 November 2019.