Poetry for Africa

2010-10-01 15:42

Black people are not free. The oppressed have become the oppressors.

You can’t tell an Eskimo to become a vegetarian, but you can write a poem that tells him to ­protect the environment.

These are some of the slogans that Jamaican activist and poet Mutabaruka – born Allan Hope – carries with him on his latest ­series of performances in Southern Africa.

By the time you read these words, he would have appeared on platforms in Cape Town, Harare in Zimbabwe and Blantyre in Malawi.

His tour culminates with Poetry Africa – an annual international ­poetry festival now in its 14th year – in Durban., it begins tomorrow.

Mutabaruka is 52 and bold oldenough to talk without needing to impress. He is no politician. He merely aims to deliver a sense of truth – that commodity we collectively crave in these uncertaintimes of information overkill.

Apart from writing and performing poetry, he also shares his views on a radio show that has ­exposed African music to Jamaicans for ­almost two decades.

Last year he started presenting a TV show, also in Jamaica, that tackles “current events from
African-centred perspectives”.

All the while Poetry has been the driving force that has journeyed with Mutabaruka across the globe here and abroad.

“My poetry is about sociopolitical ideas. It comes from Rastafarian ideas. It relates things that are from African ­people and humanity,” he says of his writing.

“I talk about where black people are heading and where we shouldn’t go. We want to change the consciousness of people.”

When Mutabaruka reflects on a career that has spanned decades, he notes with unease that black people are still stuck with the same dilemmas.

“Poems that I’ve written years ago are still relevant today. Bob Marley’s music is still relevant. It’s like one step forward, two steps back. It shouldn’t be,” he says.

“These poems and songs should be in archives and museums. They should have been written for
another period. Today people still feel the poems have been written for them. We need new poems. We must evolve.”

He says that black society seems to be “going on a merry-go-round”.

“We don’t need to be fighting for our economic and political freedom against the people who have fought for this. The oppressed has become the oppressor. We are still fighting even though we claim to have freedom.

“Freedom is not necessarily free. Black people are not free. Free is what you are able to do. But what are you free to do? In this age of fast food, environmental depravation and economic depression, what are we free for?

“There’s no African way that is perpetuated. We are mimicking ­European and American ideas and standards. Are we free to wear Italian shoes and designs from ­Europe and America? Is this ­freedom that we speak of?”

But Mutabaruka has not fallen into the trap of pessimism. Instead, he encourages consciousness and warns that we “shouldn’t look to artists for solutions”.

“Artists awaken consciousness so you can realise the situation you’re in. Our histories may be the same, but our environments are different. I can’t solve the problem in your environment. I can’t tell an Eskimo to be a vegetarian, but I can tell him to protect the ­environment,” he says.

Mutabaruka will share more of his insights at the Poetry Africa festival, which boasts more than 20 prominent poets from 12 countries on its stellar line-up.

»? Poetry Africa opens tomorrow night at The Elizabeth Sneddon ­Theatre and all the participating poets will be there. A full programme is ­available at www.cca.ukzn.ac.za

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