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 café 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.

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