Sunday, May 26, 2013


So a bit of good news. I think. I recently got nominated for an award, the St Louis Top 40 under 40 is not only in its first year but is also the first local list of its kind. Late last year I was told the lovely folks at Arise Magazine were featuring a selection of African Changemakers and that I was to take up some page space in their latest edition. This time around St Louis which is, amazingly given its name, very much a local lager, concocted or whatever one does with beers, by a Motswana brewmaster is publishing features of young -ish Batswana across national media. My French compatriots assure me the export edition is quite the drink and so if I must :) be a catalyst... 

You can guess from my statement that drinking St Louis is clearly not part of the criteria for selection, rather the folks at SL say they seek change makers who have, and are willing to continue to actively contribute to their communities in one way or another. I think the idea here is that the folks on the list are ones to watch, a generation who will likely help shape the country and positively impact the local environment in the/for years to come.

As I'm sure you've guessed the nominees are all under the age of 40. I'm told they/we have been pooled from all corners of the land as well as various fields - entrepreneurs, musicians, activists, and yes poets(plural - I'm excited can you tell) etc. The panel of 3 judges will whittle down a list of 83 to 40 finalists but methinks if you got on the long list smile and go about your business.

A member of the judging panel Mr Solomon Monyame is quoted as saying, "In the midst of our search for Botswana's catalysts from North to South, we were pleasantly overwhelmed with the number of young change makers our country has. Working with our criteria, we had to choose the top 40, but there were many other catalysts who we hope to see in next year's Top 40 Under 40".

Anyway thats that, I'm off to co-edit a film script.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


"Our Art must become a process -- a living, growing thing that people can relate to, identify with, be part of, understand; not a mysterious world, a universe apart from them." Thami Mnyele, visual artist.

Let us treat the government of Botswana's definition of youth ie. 35 or under, as agreeable. If you talk to young poets in Botswana (and those who say that is what they are, are many for such a small country :), they will know the Live poets!(1990s), Exoduslivepoetry! collective(2000-2006 & 2011), Poetavango(2009 to date) but I bet you a tankard full of sour milk (a delicacy not some dodgy reference) that none of us know that before Exoduslivepoetry's Infinite Word Festival there had been a lot of activity in the late 70s and early 80s, other than the formation of the Writers Association of Botswana in 1980.

But before we delve heart first into the past, a fantastic initiative, Arts for Change which included graffitti and creative writing workshops recently took on the task of changing the living landscape of one of the most densely populated low income neighbourhoods in the city of Gaborone. Looking at a gorgeous mural someone said, not for the first time when faced with a creative happening, "Wow this is the first of its kind, writers and artists working together in Botswana". So I  remembered a link a frenchman (who also happens to be a good friend working out of Botswana) had sent me not so long.

Poster by Thami Mnyele of musician Hugh Masekela
We know that on June 14, 1985 the South African Defense Force (SADF) raided Gaborone, killing twelve people. What many of us don't know is that a number of houses belonging to members of Medu, a cultural activist organisation were targeted, destroyed and that those 12 people included South Africans - artist Thami Mnyele and Medu treasurer Mike Hamlyn. Three years prior to the attack, Medu had hosted the country's first (and only as far as I know) Gaborone Culture and Resistance Festival. Between Medu's formation and its cessation overnight these cultural workers, for they apparently never referred to themselves as artists, hosted poetry readings and book discussions, prison workshops on art, theatre productions, composed and played music and created processes for political POSTER design.  

"The visual arts unit of Medu included: Thami Mnyele (exiled 1978), Miles Pelo (exiled 1981, left Botswana 1982 for Cuba, Tanzania, England), Heinz Klug (1979 - 1985 in Botswana), Judy Seidman (American-born, in Medu 1980 - 85), Gordon Metz (in Medu 1979 - 1985), Albio and Theresa Gonzales (Swedish/Spanish, in Gaborone from 1979 - 1985), Philip Segola (Botswana citizen, occasional Medu member), Lentswe Mokgatle (in Medu from 1982- 85). (Zimbabwean artist George Nene was not formally a member of the group, but was in Gaborone Central Prison during this period, where he studied in art classes run by Medu for prisoners.)

Other cultural activists in Medu included: in literature and drama, Mongane Wally Serote, Mandla Langa, Pheto Serote, Bachana Mokwena, Keorapetse and Baleka Khotsitsile, Marius Schoon, Patrick Fitzgerald and Thele Moema; in photography, Mike Kahn and Tim Williams; and in music, Jonas Gwangwa, Dennis Mpale, Steve Dyer, Hugh Masekela, Livy Phahle, Tony Cedras and journalist Gwen Ansell; other members included Muff Anderson, Mike Hamlyn (SA draft resister) and Uriel Abrahamse." South African History Online.

Needless to say I wasn't there, though we lived near one of these bombed houses for most of my childhood so here is a link that might prove insightful - MEDU HISTORY

Sunday, May 5, 2013

POKO means poetry

“Though Botswana had escaped settler colonialism by becoming a British Protectorate, the country was isolated from early influence leading to the emergence of literacy. Hence, selections from Botswana in this volume do not begin until 1926." Women Writing Africa – The Southern Region ed MJ Daymond, Dorothy Driver, Sheila Meintjes, Leloba Molema, Chiedza Musengezi, Margie Orford and Nobantu Rasebotsa (Feminist press at the City University of New York, 2003)

Having borrowed all that, today I’m not interviewing a woman. I’m actually talking to a man who writes poetry in Setswana and is therefore a mmoki (poet).
Moroka Moreri is a BEd. graduate with a major in Setswana and English, he writes and recites entirely in Setswana. He is widely published with six books to his name and is by far one of the most requested poets at public gatherings. Unlike most published poets I know, Moroka very rarely reads from his books at gatherings he just sort of gets up and speaks a poem.

Statistically speaking, we no longer struggle with literacy on a national scale and you can study poetry at all academic levels in Botswana including at the University of Botswana’s African languages department and the Education department (although you can't major in it an there are no MFA programs etc) socially we are still not much of a print/book culture. You can easily pack a cafĂ© full of people to listen to poetry but would be hard pressed getting a quarter of the room to read a collection of poetry, even if you gave them free copies. When you tell a Motswana that you are a poet they often say mpoke - a word which means "poem me i.e. recite a poem about me" as opposed to "Where can I find your book?" Because of this predisposition to the oral, some of the poets who perform on these platforms have become household names – they are interviewed on TV and in the general press – but the majority of these ‘popular’ poets recite in English and so I ask Moroka to name 5 Batswana poets who recite in Setswana that all Batswana should know.

MM: Rabojalwa Keetile, Dipako Sesienyane, Kaone Mahuma, David Tlale, Ntirelang Berman, Benson Phuthego

Because most of the poets who perform in English (in Botswana) also memorise their poems it is not always clear whether the baboki/traditional Setswana poets also recite previously composed poems from memory or compose entire poems on the spot
MM: Some recite from the memory, some prefer to write first and yes others can do it on the spot

With the exception of 2 or 3 mandatory reads, the entirety of my experience of Setswana poetry has been through audio/live performances rather than as text. I ask Moroka whether Setswana poetry has forms such as sonnets, villanelles etc.?
MM: Setswana started as an oral language, so traditional oral poets do not do such. When it evolved into written poetry, the writers used stanzas, but we do not categorize Setswana poetry in English forms or structure
Setswana poetry is long and without stanzas, however the contemporary writers use stanzas

I’m curious as to whether traditional /Setswana poetry has changed over the years in terms of delivery or themes or form
MM: Oral poetry has not changed that much, however the subjects have changed in that it is no longer the king alone who is praised, even corporate events are praised and CEOs these days. Written Setswana poetry has always addressed different themes.

I wear whatever I want for readings but I’ve noticed that the baboki seem to either wear tattered clothes or wildlife/cow hide ensembles and that they also carry horse whisks and wooden canes/clubs
MM: Traditionally a poet wears clothes that reflect or symbolize the Setswana culture, so dress is more symbolic. The attire can also be used to enhance the performance.

When I look up the word ululation its definition is often linked with grief or portrayed as a battle cry. In Botswana we ululate as a form of celebration at weddings, during poems etc. I ask Moroka whether all traditional poems incorporate music and/or ululation
MM: Some poets do incorporate music, some ululation while other poets prefer to recite without any accompaniment.

Which begs the question, what is the role of the one who ululates in the poem?
MM: Aesthetic device and accompaniment also used as a pause to make the poet refresh and think of other ideas, as well as to motivate the poet when the ululator is competent.

I wonder whether traditional poets see their role as that of wielding delight or instruction or otherwise
MM: Entertainment, form of reporting, symbolic of who we are, mode of communication etc.

Today’s poets have their choice of platforms but this city is only 47 years old(independence in 1966), before auditoriums, radio and television stations where did the traditional poets recite their poems?
MM: In social gatherings like kgotla (royal kraal/administration centre), bogwera (initiation), botsetsi, during the war, fire place, letsema, melaletsa etc.

What is the role of the poet in the kgotla?
MM: In a traditional kgotla, the poet’s role is to praise the Kgosi (Chief) tell him in the poem the status of his village/ward in terms of people’s feelings about his leadership style. The poet also encourages the community to respect the Chief, may also touch on issues of genealogy as well as praising the tribe to believe in itself by mentioning the good deeds that the tribe has achieved. The poet is also a symbol of pride and culture of a particular village.

We are told that poko is as old as the Tswana tribes, what of the first (Batswana) poets?
MM: They are not documented because Batswana were not a literate society.

Traditionally were there any Batswana women who were poets?
MM: Yes (he later points out to me that the women poets mainly recited only in each others company, not publicly)

Is there any increase in the number of women reciting in Setswana (publicly)?
MM: Yes

There is a theory that Setswana is difficult to read
MM: Not in my environments, however in Botswana we have Batswana who speak their own languages different from Setswana who may find reading Setswana as a challenge.

On whether traditional poets, who are often clustered together and referred to as PRAISE poets ever challenge the political authority’s ideology or practices
MM: Yes in Serowe, Mochudi and Molepolole especially in regard to chieftaincy.

When I was young I watched a movie, Crocodile Dundee I think it was, and in one of the voice overs the protagonist says something to the effect that he once asked an (Aboriginal) elder when he was born. The elder replied, “In the summer”. I ask Moroka to give me the average length of a Setswana poem
MM: 10 to 15 minutes.

Of course. 
My thanks to Moroka Moreri for sitting in the shade of the conversation tree with me. 

A You Tube link here to a local poetry festival, Moroka Moreri is at 5:55 though the entire clip is worth watching.