Poetry with power

2012-04-18 00:00

MBALI Vilakazi takes her words seriously. In fact, she believes they may have the power to change lives. This small woman delivers­ messages in soundbites with such passion and intensity that people sit up and listen.

Turning 30 last year was a big moment­ for her and she decided to give her poetry her full attention.

Vilakazi started her journey in Cape Town, where she grew up. On her website she writes: “I enjoy dried mango strips, I love trampolines, I am enamoured with crystals, I think willow trees are hauntingly beautiful, I burn impepho as part of my daily living­ and I am completely sure I am a butterfly who shares ancestry with the sea.”

As a student she studied media and communications at the University of Cape Town and believed that she would pursue a traditional career in the media. For the past 10 years she has dabbled in the field of performance art, while also doing jobs in the media as a radio presenter. Most recently she was the co-producer and presenter of a weekly youth show, The Radio Workshop, on SAfm which aimed to give children and youth a voice by using innovative media content made by and for children across the African continent, empowering them to contribute to individual and social change.

Vilakazi also presented Current s, a show on current affairs aimed at the youth. But poetry was always there underneath like a shadow and she now believes it’s time to acknowledge it as a true calling.

“My family don’t understand me. Both my parents are lawyers and very logical thinkers, and this urge to commit to an artistic way of life is crazy to them. But for me the urge to perform and to write my poems and to make them come alive on a public platform has been growing stronger.”

In 2007, when she was performing at a book fair in Cape Town, a Korean talent scout saw her perform and invited her to compete later that year in the Delphic Games. This is a similar but different concept from the Olympic Games where dramatic, cultural and musical talents from various countries compete.

Vilakazi entered the oral poetry section representing South Africa and won a silver medal. It was very affirming for this soul activist who realised that her passion could be taken seriously by others.

“I almost feel like it is a spiritual calling. Sometimes when I am writing it is like the words just flow. The next phase is deciding how to interpret them to an audience and to give them meaning.”

Vilakazi’s ability to cross the bridge between two worlds, namely the sophisticated first world where there are issues of global importance being discussed and the less-developed world, and her ability to break down these concepts into basic issues for grass-roots people, has been a major asset.

This happened when she wrote and performed a poem about climate change that gained international re-cognition. She had been through an artistic mentoring programme by the United Nations and was familiar with the concepts of global warming, but as a South African she knew that ordinary people would not really care about the ozone layer and their carbon footprint when they had bread- and-butter issues to worry about.

“I knew that I had to make this global­ concept real for the gogo who had just received the keys to her first RDP house. People who have never had electricity will not be concerned with saving it, so how do you make this issue real to them?”

Vilakazi’s poem managed to convey the importance of going green to people at all levels and it was so good that she was invited to perform on the Climate­ Train that travelled around the country just before COP17 at the end of last year. She also conducted workshops with budding poets.

“I was approached by many people who wanted to use the poem and I had to ask for legal advice on copyright. It was a good learning curve because I had never considered that my words could have such a huge impact.”

Vilakazi is currently involved in a poetry collaboration with two other female poets, Zena Edwards from the United Kingdom and Clara Okopu from the Netherlands. The three women will be performing at the United Kingdom Arts Council in October and are working on a piece to do with the Three Furies, a tale from Greek mythology. The three women, known as The Erinnyes or Angry Ones, were avenging goddesses whose task was to inflict harm on those who disobeyed the gods, especially Zeus. The Furies became associated with a guilty conscience and all concepts of vindictiveness and retribution.

Vilakazi said the process of collaboration has been a growth curve for her. “I have been chatting to the two others over Skype and we have been e-mailing and exchanging ideas, and I have realised how lucky we are to have technology. It has been so interesting to see how we perceive the issues.”

Vilakazi says her involvement with The Furies project has touched on her work in the past to do with women.

“In reflecting on The Furies we asked ourselves a number of questions — firstly, we wondered if it was fair to portray the women as ugly hags, because so many powerful women are portrayed in a negative way. Another question we raised was if we thought women are comfortable expressing anger, and if we could reflect on our countries’ gender issues.

“I had a lot to say on the violence and helplessness of South African women, but I also discovered that I was projecting the feelings of others. I had no authentic voice of my own. It was quite a disconcerting experience when this was pointed out to me. I had to do some soul searching. It was hard and quite emotional.”

The issues of women and gender are a pet topic for Vilakazi, but she says that men should not get angry at this process and they should also be examining their changing role in society­.

“Men should not be threatened by this exploration by women about their social evolution. Women are naturally better at communicating and discussing issues and men choose to be threatened.”

While she was a student, Vilakazi studied poetry, politics and cultural studies, but she did not really pay attention to poetry, yet all these subjects have seeped into her subconscious and have emerged as part of her creative tool kit.

When she was in her late teens and early 20s she began to use poetry as a way of expressing her emotions.

“I was always the talkative one who supposedly always knew what I was doing, but deep down I could not always voice my own self-doubt and confusion. So I used to write poetry as a way of expressing these deep feelings.”

“It has been a big journey for me, to get to the point where I am comfortable in my skin. I believe in my abilities and others are taking me seriously as a performer.

“But occasionally, when I have my doubts, I have to remind myself that my world is about possibility and I need to focus on the present and just distil the essence of my being into three words … living my truth.”

... and in other news


Uneven newspaper clippings

reveal the afterthought of the Fury that was caused

tearing away at the sides of the day

they leave out the details worse than photographs, and lie

in waiting.

The burdened desk groans with yet another of what it holds

as the stranger, veiled and marked by smoke

works the night with a strength they do not have

to return the humanity of people they do not and may never know

because someone who should have didn’t care.

‘Vicarious Liability,’ is what they called it

how someone should have but didn’t care

a courtroom, a known serial wife batterer, a confiscated 9mm

and a policeman

fingers let go, released and

lives followed

A Mother and her Daughter.

The bedside lamp fails to soothe the mess

the light shines but there is a bloodstain on the wall

Grief lives here:

‘Ramadimetsa Chaba watches her grandsons play

outside her modest home in Mashite Village at Lebowakgomo, South

of Polokwane’


in recognition of red dust and sentiment

for the patterned

lace curtains behind her —

my grandmother had them too.


• See www.mbalivilakazi. com

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