IsiZulu in­spi­ra­tion

Fal­list Then­jiwe Mswane has taken own­er­ship of her Zulu her­itage by writ­ing and self-pub­lish­ing a chil­dren’s book

CityPress - - Voices - PHUM­LANI S LANGA voices@city­ Uyasabeka by Then­jiwe Mswane R135 Self-pub­lished

You may re­call the name Then­jiwe Mswane from last year’s #FeesMustFall move­ment at the Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand. Mswane is an an­thro­pol­ogy stu­dent. For her mas­ter’s the­sis she chose as her sub­ject mat­ter the de­colonis­ing of the lit­er­ary land­scape, es­pe­cially isiZulu.

The 27-year-old stu­dent ac­tivist taught her­self to read and write Zulu be­cause her school of­fered the lan­guage only in grades 5, 6 and 7.

Hav­ing learnt about her cul­ture from ev­ery source she could lay her hands on, Mswane has now writ­ten and self-pub­lished a book that cap­tures the beauty of this lan­guage.

Ti­tled Uyasabeka, the book com­prises a mix of isiZulu cross­words and eight short sto­ries. It is aimed at teach­ing young chil­dren the ba­sics of the lan­guage, as well as the essence of the Zulu na­tion’s cul­tural her­itage.

Mswane uses id­ioms and folk­lore to bring to light the val­ues an­chored in the cul­ture that, for the most part, peo­ple have un­earthed for them­selves dur­ing child­hood.

When asked if she thought that a book like this one would have ben­e­fited her as a child, she said: “If a book like this ex­isted when I was of pri­mary school age or even in high school, it would def­i­nitely have shaped my grasp of the lan­guage and my con­fi­dence in ar­tic­u­lat­ing in my mother tongue.”

The in­spi­ra­tion for the book, Mswane said, was her nephew, Asanda Mswane.

“Asanda is a seven-year-old lit­tle boy who is the ruler of my life. He is my eter­nal gift from my late brother, Nto­beko Mswane,” she said.

“Af­ter Nto­beko died, leav­ing me to take care of Asanda, I needed to fig­ure out how to raise him. I needed to in­vest more in teach­ing him how to love him­self and the women who shaped him.

“Those women are black and Zulu.”

In the book Mswane has in­cluded ba­sic in­for­ma­tion on the days of the week and months of the year, as well as a chap­ter on Zulu queens and princesses, which Mswane felt was par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to in­clude to en­hance read­ers’ un­der­stand­ing about the his­tory of the Zulu na­tion.

“I have been raised a Zulu woman and I know the names of many men who have led the Zulu king­dom. But af­ter re­search­ing Zulu iden­tity as part of my an­thro­po­log­i­cal stud­ies, I felt cheated. There is an en­tire his­tory of women who have shaped our out­look as a peo­ple, about whom I only found out when I read colo­nial books in li­braries that must still be de­colonised,” she said.

She was baf­fled that sto­ries of princesses Mk­abayi kaJama and Ma­gogo kaDin­uzulu, and Queen Mother Nandi kaSen­zan­gakhona and the Zulu rain god­dess Nomkhubul­wane, were al­most nonex­is­tent in the his­tory books.

“I won­der if the next gen­er­a­tion of black chil­dren, my nephew’s gen­er­a­tion, would un­learn misog­yny if they knew that we women also laid down our lives so that they could ex­ist,” she said.

Ad­dress­ing the ever-present ele­phant in the room, she added that not only was pa­tri­archy an im­mense part of Zulu cul­ture, it was also a huge part of the cis het­eronor­ma­tive, white su­prem­a­cist, pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety that de­fines our world.

So, can pa­tri­archy be de­stroyed in Zulu cul­ture? “Un­for­tu­nately, Zulu cul­ture does not ex­ist in a vac­uum. I don’t think we can ever change pa­tri­archy. I think we can create al­ter­na­tive spa­ces, where pa­tri­archy and all forms of op­pres­sion find no ex­pres­sion.

“I am not sure if I am still in­ter­ested in de­plet­ing my­self to change sys­tems that have been cre­ated to sur­vive decades. I would rather chan­nel my en­ergy to con­struct al­ter­na­tives.”

Writ­ing the book pre­sented a host of chal­lenges for Mswane, from get­ting the words on the page to ob­tain­ing fund­ing. She re­called how stressed out she be­came when plan­ning the chap­ter deal­ing with id­ioms.

“They may have been the most chal­leng­ing part of the book. Some­times I would know the id­iom, hav­ing heard it through my lived ex­pe­ri­ences, but I didn’t quite grasp what it meant.

“Read­ing and re­search­ing where th­ese id­ioms came from was exciting,” she said, adding that find­ing the strength to wake up and believe in the dream, in spite of a lack of re­sources, was an up­hill bat­tle.

Izin­ganek­wane (folk tales) are another strong theme in Mswane’s book. They are an­chored in an an­cient story that her grand­mother used to tell her. It cen­tres on three char­ac­ters: a young woman named Siphosethu, her grand­mother and uNog­waja (the hare).

“My grand­mother taught us, her grand­chil­dren, to en­joy our youth. She wanted us to be chil­dren for as long as we could – as if she knew it would all crum­ble when she died.”

The wis­dom of el­ders is a cor­ner­stone of Zulu cul­ture, and what bet­ter way to pay homage to this than to chan­nel her gogo and the lessons she in­stilled.

Asked what steps could be taken to de­colonise lit­er­a­ture, Mswane said: “My mas­ter’s the­sis is a bilin­gual, mul­ti­for­mat­ted [writ­ten and au­dio] work, told as in­ganek­wane [fairy tales].

“It draws from the mu­sic archives of um­baqanga, kwaito, Amer­i­can jazz and um­culo wemicimbi [mu­sic played at cel­e­bra­tions] to tell the story of umkhosi womh­langa Kanye nomkhosi kaNom­dende [the reed dance through the eyes of women who prac­tise it], as well as de­scribe vir­gin­ity test­ing,” she said.

To this end, she hopes to cap­ture the essence of isiZulu through its cul­ture and prac­tice. “De­colonis­ing the lit­er­ary space for me is not just about writ­ing in our lan­guages. It is about ques­tion­ing the forms of knowl­edge con­struc­tion.

“The ques­tion of what con­sti­tutes knowl­edge needs to be answered by al­low­ing all the forms in which we have learnt and shared knowl­edge to en­ter the lit­er­ary space.”

Her book is a step in the right di­rec­tion.

. Uyasabeka costs R135 and is avail­able via email at Pick-up points are Johannesburg and Dur­ban,

other­wise the book can be couri­ered

LIT­ER­ARY WORK Then­jiwe Mswane ex­plores Zulu folk­lore and id­ioms in her book

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