Language is a means of communication, identification and unity, and all 11 of South Africa’s official languages were in the spotlight at the Avbob Poetry Project awards ceremony in Pretoria last week.
Poets were invited to submit their work online, and were encouraged to offer unconventional formats and approaches in this annual multilingual competition. This further opened up the space for new poets to compete among established ones. Age was also not a limiting factor.
An anthology of the top entries plus some commissioned work, I Wish I’d Said, was also unveiled on the night. The winning poems are most commonly themed around love, hope, birth and death. Each of the first-place winners took home a R10 000 cash prize and a book voucher worth R2 500.
Dr Mantoa Mkhendana, who is head of African languages at the University of Cape Town and who co-edited I Wish I’d Said, says the Avbob Poetry Project is important for heritage.
“The project has become the revival of our languages. It has allowed people the space to speak about emotion and things that matter to them, which is very difficult to do in a foreign language. It has made people fall in love with their language all over again.”
Nolusindiso Penxa agrees. She bagged the first prize for her poem in isiXhosa. The mother of four works as an administrative clerk for the department of justice in Port Elizabeth.
“Whenever I’m emotional, I just write, whether I feel good or bad. Poetry is a comforter, a joy bringer … it’s everything,” she says.
What saddens her is that poetry is “hidden” and people rarely experience it.
Mosima Phakane, who won in the Sepedi category and who is from Ga-Matlala Korotong in Limpopo, says: “I actually never thought that my language could do this for me.”
She started writing in primary school.
“One day, I wrote in the back of my school book and my teacher saw what I wrote when he was marking my work. He called me into his office to tell me that I was writing poetry and I needed to take it seriously because there was something special about my writing,” she says.
Tieho Mkhendane won the prize for his poem in Sesotho.
“When I performed a poem I wrote at my grandmother’s funeral, everybody was in tears and that’s when I realised I had a gift,” he says.