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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Ellen Kuzwayo

Ellen Kuzwayo, South African activist, writer, feminist, icon, died 3 weeks ago. Obituaries and tributes to her ran in every major media outlet on the African continent, not to mention the New York Times, Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper. So what can I possibly add to the chorus?

I met Mama Kuzwayo when I was a student in the UK, at the University of York. As Minority Rights Officer on the Student Union, I received a call one day from Agnes Sam, South African author of the short story collection, “Jesus Is Indian”. Living in York at the time, she told me that The Women’s Press was arranging a book tour for Ellen Kuzwayo, to promote her autobiography, “Call Me Woman”. Would we be interested in having her appear on campus?

I’d never heard of Ellen Kuzwayo. Or “Call Me Woman”. The irony of my Kenyan education was that my access to African writers and writing was confined to text books in our literature curriculum. Outside that, we read Danielle Steele, Harold Robbins, whatever European and American writers we could find in our school libraries.

So I had no idea that she was the first black writer to win the CNA Prize, South Africa’s highest literary honor. I knew nothing of her illustrious history as a teacher, social worker, anti-apartheid activist, until I read “Call Me Woman.” Then I was riveted. Not because it was great writing. On the contrary, her style was pedestrian, a chronological recounting of facts and events. It was clear that she did not write from a love of language or literary craft.

And yet, each page of “Call Me Woman” rings with a uniquely powerful and utterly compelling voice. The voice of Ellen Kuzwayo brought the reality of a whole generation of black South African women to the world. Women dispossessed of their land, their freedom, their very bodies; women who survived displacement, disenfranchisement, violence at the hands of both apartheid state and husbands and fathers. In a narrative all the more striking for its lack of embellishment, “Call Me Woman” painted a portrait of courage, resilience, intelligence that would not be extinguished, all harnessed to the struggle for dignity and self-determination.

Mama Kuzwayo wrote her autobiography to tell the story of lives that were unseen, unknown. During the 1980s, a time of terrible repression and violence under the Botha regime, in conditions of daily struggle and uncertainty, she took on a task that would have daunted far more experienced writers. Simply because it had to be done. Her life story still holds up as an outstanding historical document of South Africa’s history in the 20th century, told from the viewpoint of black South African women.

By the time of Mama Kuzwayo’s arrival at York, I had read “Call Me Woman”, and I was in awe of her. I wondered why someone of her stature would come all the way to the North of England, to speak to an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and politically provincial student population. At the time, there was still debate in British media and society over the wisdom of sanctions against South Africa. Only one other African had ever spoken at York: Kenneth Kaunda in the 1970s. It was a lesson to me in global hierarchies of of power: that a 76 year old South African woman, already a legend in her own country, should need to generate the support of white British students, younger than her grandchildren.

When she arrived, I was mortified that we had to make her walk across the campus, for over 20 minutes, in the icy, windy dark, to get to the auditorium where she was to speak. Clearly tired from travelling, she made no complaint – she radiated patience and humour. It made me deeply uncomfortable that the associate from The Women’s Press who accompanied her, a young woman only a couple of years older than me, addressed her bluntly by first name, as “Ellen”.

When she spoke, to a half-empty auditorium, she was a mountain. She spoke without notes, of the episodes that had shaped her as an activist and a woman, she laid out the economic and political extremities facing her people.

In the Q and A that followed, I listened to her dissect both ignorance and racism with unwavering dignity and rapier analysis. To the clichéd: “Don’t sanctions just hurt poor black South Africans?” she responded:

“If we said we want sanctions to stop, we would be saying we want to be slaves forever. Who wants to be a slave forever?”

A British male student began, in the guise of a question, to lecture her about overpopulation in Africa. She answered him with a pithy and devastating exposition of the dismemberment of African famiies and communities under apartheid.

After the talk, and book signing, I took her to her room for the night – another icy, windy walk across the dark campus. She stumbled several times, and I realized again how old she was, how exhausted. Her room was a stark college bedroom, tiny, cold, unwelcoming. I made her a cup of tea, rubbed her feet, tried to make her comfortable. We talked of Desmond Tutu’s recent visit to Kenya, where he declared that detention without trial anywhere on the continent was a violation of human rights. The speech had drawn a hailstorm of abuse from the despotic Moi regime. There was so much I wanted to ask her, but I was both shy, and reluctant to tire her further. When I said goodnight, she took both my hands: “Thank you my dear, for spoiling me a little.”

The next morning, the feminist newspaper on campus, which I had helped found, interviewed her over breakfast. Three of us from the editorial collective reveled in the richness of her relaxed conversation. She introduced us to Ubuntu – now a standard catchword, but then a concept little known outside South Africa. How it was explained, contained, in the Zulu proverb: A person is a person because of other people. She had the most eloquent hands I have ever seen. They etched her words on the air, punctuated her phrases. 15 years later, they still speak from the yellowed newsprint photographs we took of her.

After that breakfast, she left to return to London. She hugged me warmly, gave me her address in South Africa, made me promise to send her a copy of the interview when it was published. I did. I never met her again. But over the years, she remained an icon and hero for me. A reminder of what it means to claim your power, in the face of every force that denies your humanity, and then to offer your whole self in service to that humanity. I remembered her when I came across a quote from St. Francis of Assissi: “There is no use in walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” And even later, when I encountered the words of Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

As I browsed the web for her obituaries, I came across an interview with her by British writer, Nicci Gerard. It was published in the New Internationalist, in 1985, five years before I met Mama Kuzwayo in York. Of everything I read about her, this was what stayed with me:

“She says: ‘I am who I am and my life is my own.’ She knows that ‘before you feel hopeful for your country you must feel hope for yourself; if there is no hope for you, you can’t look ahead.’ She says that she lives with fear but that she is bigger than that fear - ‘you must go ahead and damn the consequences.’ “

I have often regretted not having the courage to ask her, when I had the opportunity, to say more about her time in detention and how she survived it. How she endured a violent marriage with spirit unbroken. I wanted to mine every nugget I could from the wealth of her political experience, her years of activism, writing, organizing.

These words seem like the answer. As does her book – which I return to again and again, and continue to find fresh value in. As does the memory of a woman larger than exhaustion, larger than the ignorance of those around her, larger than fear.

static electricity

Do you ever have days of almost unbearable restlessness? When no matter what you're doing, something else seems more urgent, but the moment you jump to that, the thing you've just dropped looms large? You want to move, all the time. There's jumpiness in your body, itchiness in your bones, and currents of irritation zing the length of your body below your skin.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Listening to

Buffy Sainte-Marie

whose lyrics always cut right through me.

From The Big Ones Get Away:

if I had a way
to reach the sky
I'd grab that crescent moon
wield it like a knife
save you from the lies
of the ropes that bind you

Yesterday I saw

a play about the Rwandan genocide, World Music, by Oakland's TheatreFIRST company.

Incredible piece of theatre, compellingly staged, powerfully acted. Go see it if you're in the Bay Area - it plays from Thursday to Sunday this week.

What's haunting me today, though, is the industry of 'cultural offerings' about Rwanda. Everything from Hotel Rwanda to graphic novels. A part of me sees it as artistic necrophilia - the desire to make art out of horror, after the fact. A part of me wonders why British and American playwrights, filmmakers, aren't turning the same lens on the devastation their own military is perpetrating in Iraq. A part of me is angry at the futility of art - that all we can do is tell the stories, delve into the moral complexities, over the graves.

what I read last night before I fell asleep

Promises, promises, promises! The tongue jabbers, the heart
strives, fails, strives again. The world is perfect.
Love, however, is an opera, a history, a long walk, that
includes falling and rising, falling and rising, while
the heart stays sweet as a peach, as radiant and
grateful as the deep-leaved hills.

Mary Oliver, Rhapsody
From The Leaf And The Cloud

I don't agree that the the world is perfect. Or that the heart stays sweet. Mine certainly doesn't. But the lovely certainty and cadence of the lines was in my head when I woke this morning:

sweet as a peach / radiant and grateful / falling and rising / rising and falling
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