Desperate to make small talk, I received a salty taste of my own mlungu (white sea-foam) medicine when I asked the charismatic leader of the uMhlathuze Zulu Poets Society;
“What does your name mean?” Whilst I simultaneously attempted to shoo away a grazing cow that was slobbering on my favourite shirt. He exposed his broken teeth with a crooked smile as he answered guilelessly;
“The baas on the farm where I was born, told my father that Duncan would be a good name for me. My father dared not ask him to explain what it meant.”
A week previously, after reading an advertisement for his writers group, I had enjoyed a perspective altering experience when I met Duncan the Zulu Poet for the first time, on neutral ground, at the Mugg and Bean.
Our three hour bottomless coffee discussion so inspired me that I wrote in my journal that night, what I like to think, is my first poem.
I shared a vision with a young Zulu man
as disenchanted as I am
with the way we are teetering
on the edge of genocide.
We put that aside
and he told me how
putting running water into homes
has destroyed his culture.
Angazi I said
placing my hands palms upwards on either side of me,
level with my shoulders,
in the Zulu language gesture that means
I don’t know.
“You see, today when an unmarried maiden needs water
she goes to the kitchen in her parents’ home
and opens the tap.
Before the tap they would go down to the river.
The young men knew this and would court them there
and so the Zulu nation would bond, breed and thrive.
Now the maidens stay at home
and the young men spill their seed
upon the dry earth.”
Hey! I think I wrote my first poem!
Then I shared my vision with him.
A Rosetta Stone.
In the middle A Zulu Poem
on either side
English and Afrikaans translations.
On every school desk in South Africa
Building understanding and reconciliation
bringing fame and fortune
to its authors.
Excited, Duncan invited me to address his group meeting at a crèche in Ndeleni Township to explain the concepts and to share our dream. Despite misgivings and white angst, I agreed. Feverishly I prepared a Death by PowerPoint presentation for his Zulu Poets Society, to prompt me in explaining the history and significance of the Egyptian Rosetta Stone and to share the vision that Duncan and I had birthed at the Mugg and Bean.
I did not think to ask whether they had electricity, or if their meeting venue had a blank wall upon which to project my electronic thoughts. If I had I might have been better prepared for my unfortified, seat of the pants presentation instead.
My education was taken several steps further when this under-twenty year old group read their half Zulu, half English, poetry aloud to the group. I learned that AIDS has another acronym, BMW, because they are both something desirable that can kill you.
They tried to explain other nuances to me but I was lost between their Zulu idioms and their polite laughter as I shook my head in bewilderment.
One young woman composed an evocative poem, just for me, tapping it out on her battered Nokia phone, right there and then. It shocked me as I realised that none of these excellent young minds owned a computer or even had access to one.
I am still reeling at the power of the shoot-between-the-eyes lessons I received from this apartheid-free generation and the realisation that it’s either Pen and paper or Blackberry and nothing in-between in rural Zululand.
On my way home, in my arrogant mlungu way, I swaggered up to a roadside stand in the village, like a foreign tourist in a game park and rudely snatched a photograph of some melon sized white and brown balls arranged in pyramids alongside neatly stacked bundles of dried weeds. I touched the spheres, sniffed them and asked fruitlessly what they were. The adult shopkeeper in the tiny stall had no English and so she asked a young girl, comfortably seated in a green wheelbarrow whilst she minded the adjacent store, to translate. She shook her head, clucked her tongue and muttered in Zulu before eventually I was given to understand they were named uMcako.
When I returned safely home once more I consulted the Google oracle for an insight. None of the information the “don’t-be-evil-one” provided to me explained the blushes of my male host or the shy girlish giggling and reticence of the streetwise and tough young poetesses who I begged to enlighten me.
I wonder, can black skinned people blush? I think so; I certainly felt the heat that day.
Following this experience you may well ask if I believe the Zulu Rosetta Stone will help to bridge the culture gap?