Friday, February 08, 2008

The racial nuances deftly sprinkled as an unobtrusive backdrop to J.M. Coetzee's BOYHOOD, reminded me of a poem I'd not read in years, and had to trawl through my shelves to find; italicized words have explanatory notes at the end provided by the editors of the volume I took this from; do ask in the comments if there's anything still not clear though:
KHOIKHOI-Son-of-Man by Modikwe Dikobe, South Africa, born 1913

I thought I was soul and skin
Pedigree muntu
Until yesterday I heard the truth
Grandfather was a Khoisan.

A slave of a trekboer
Fleeing from the Cape laws
Freeing slaves.

At night
He was tied to an oxwagon wheel
Day by day leading sixteen span
Fleeing from the Cape.

Night by night
Somewhere there was a cock-crow
A barking dog
A smell of damp fuel
Then he realized that beyond that ridge
Could be a village
Of people like him.

He unfastened himself,
Trotted out of the camp,
Vanished into the night.

At dawn he was at a village
Begging to be taken into the tribe
'A tribesman, hunter, chief's servant and messenger.'

Swift as an antelope was he
Outstripping runners
Chased by dogs.
'Ka modimo', they swore.
'He is a man of the cloud.
'Ompone ke tswa kae?'
A legendary tale: where have you seen me?
'I have seen you from the cloud.'

I knew since yesterday
that he was my grandfather
muntu Slang term for a black African; now considered degrading.

Khoisan Hunter-gatherer tribe (initially called Bushmen) indigenous to the Cape; now largely exterminated.

trekboer The 'trekboers' were farmers of Dutch descent who left the Cape and travelled ('trekked') with wagons drawn by oxen into the interior of the country. One of the reasons they left was to escape new laws that made slavery illegal, and that would have freed their slaves.

'Ka modimo' 'By God' or 'I swear on oath' (Tswana).

'Ompone ke tswa kae?' These words are translated in the next line [of the poem].

"Dikobe was born in the Transvaal and raised in Sophiatown, a black township that was known for its cultural diversity and liveliness before it was rezoned as a 'white' residential area, and demolished by the apartheid government. He had limited access to schooling, and gained much of his education through correspondence. He held a variety of humble jobs, including selling newspapers. His first novel (The Marabi Dance), together with his poetry, identified him as a writer passionately concerned with black oppression under apartheid." (p. 138)

from SEASONS COME TO PASS: a poetry anthology for southern African students, 2nd edition, edited by Helen Moffett and Es'kia Mphahlele.



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