Monday, June 25, 2012

Nontsizi Mgqwetho

Nontsizi Mgqwetho is South African poet of the Xosha language. Her poetry frequently appeared in a Johannesburg newspaper between 1920 and 1929. Little is known about her beyond what surfaces in her significant body of work.

The enemy she confronted was often as much the apathy of black men, as the unequal treatment by whites. She struggled with the irony of being a Christian, exploited by whites, when whites had brought Christianity to her country in the first place. She speaks with the voice of a preacher, although the newspaper provided the only pulpit a woman would have access to in her day. She would never have been allowed to be an “imbongi” (a rural praise poet) speaking in the presence of the chief, for that role was always a male one; however the newspaper gave her a platform where she could challenge tribal leaders.

The following poem, translated by Jeff Opland, is from The Nation's Bounty: The Xosha Poetry Of Nontsizi Mgqwetho (2007).

Show Me The Mountain That Packed Up And Left

“Come back,” mountain that left.
There are your people frantically scrabbling,
knowing full well that this country
will stand to the end of time.

Mercy, she-dove of Africa!
Distinguished elephant commanding an army
stretching from earth to the skies,
tall as an ironwood safe from the axe.

We raise our cry, saying “Come back!”
Though you disdain it, ochre suits you.
We’re befuddled because we’re adrift,
like plains cattle lost in the mist.

Mercy, she-dove of Africa!
Furry spider of Mthikrakra’s place!
Christians still favour courtship dances,
they say “Come back” but they don’t come back.

We Christians tend to see
the mote in another’s eye.
Africa, today we make a forest of you
in which to conceal all our sins.

And yet even Jesus, who bore our sins,
was a man, cracked on the cross;
He was the Word, and He became flesh:
through Him we wear a crown.

What do you want of Africa?
She can’t speak, she can’t even hear;
she’s not jealous, not vying for status;
she hasn’t squandered her people’s funds!

Where is this God that we worship?
The one we worship’s foreign:
we kindled a fire and sparks swirled up,
swirled up a European mountain.

This is the wisdom of their God:
“Black man, prepare for the treasures of heaven
while we prepare for the treasures of Africa!”
Just as the wise men of Pharaoh’s land

commanded the Jews: “Use grass to bake bricks,”
leaving them empty-handed at sunset,
so it is for us black people now:
eager at dawn, at dusk empty-handed.

So come on home! Remember your God,
a borer of holes in cracked ships,
Ancient Bone which they sucked for its marrow:
may it still yield them marrow in Africa.

So come back! Make a fresh start!
Remember the Crutch you leaned on as lepers,
let Him lead you dryshod through the Red Sea.
Food from another man’s pot makes you fart.

Please listen!!

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: