Isidlo Sentliziyo: What lies between our traditions and post-modernity

By Ziphozakhe Hlobo

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Isidlo Sentliziyo is a poetic play performed by Ziphozakhe Hlobo, Nicholus Sithole, Palesa Sibiya, Mnqobi Madlala & Ayanda Tywaku and directed by Khanyisile Mbongwa.

In this exciting Radikal Xpression production, we set out to decolonise the idea of love, by that meaning we wanted to write poems that would locate love in our African discourse as young black Africans. Tackling love is important, in its celebratory form because there is an absence of this subject in African text. In his How to write about Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina makes a note to say;

“Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress . . .

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.” [Wainaina, How to write about Africa]

This is a very problematic discourse of writing about Africa, as Wainaina articulates and the first problem has always been in the fact that Africans were and are still not documenting their own stories, and the guilt of the process of translation must not be undermined in this regard. Even if Europeans were not Africa’s conquers who wanted to disrupt their history, the truth is, no European, who speaks a European language could ever be able to translate an African language. In IsiXhosa, there is a saying that goes “IsiXhosa asitolikwa,” meaning you can never translate isiXhosa. This is usually said to a person who requires further explanation from that which is said.

In this regard, Palesa Sibiya speaks about the absence of her parents (which led to the absence of an emphasis of love that had people who looked like her), conversing with me as follows;

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“But their [parents] devotion to me and my survival gave me unwavering sight. Their love was light that carried me through the testing years of dark and lonely library rooms that had tons for fairytale books that interrogated our family structure and wrote absolutely nothing beautiful about us. That absence in romance grilled my conscious even in sleep building internal earthquakes, harbouring resentment gathered after feasting my eyes on dusty story books about pale girls with long golden hair who looked nothing like me shaping my perspective of what and how and love should feel like. The education system, our evening binge on all our favourite soap operas and magazines: a sharp prick on my skin emphasising the absence of us even in us.” [Sibiya, The Absence of Love, 2015]

Of course, our parents being away meant that they could not monitor what we read and watched, and the grandparents and aunts who raised us were often busy making ends meet. For me, before I was introduced to the extended family structure (before I was seven years old), I remember the family structure still being broken and in my conversation, I share that;

“My mom wholeheartedly loved my father, even though the closest he has ever been to fulfilling a commitment was with beer bottles. We did not have much, we had to eat his curses, which he served, perfectly made with spices of profanity,  exclusively out of his guilt from infedility. We still have a complicated relationship, the one where I constantly feel like he is a fading reverie in my life, and can only ever be accessible in his footsteps or in the scent of a finely brewed beer in memories of all the houses we moved to.” [Hlobo, The Absence of Love, 2015]

But, even this is typical of a black family and in monologues about our fathers; we often fail to look at things from their perspective. So, Nique-Flo takes the role of my father and the conversation stops being a monologue but a dialogue with him (father).

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“Daddy woke up with ideas to carve you a world; all enthusiastic and restless, he looks at himself and wonders whether like kaleidoscope, will colour be enough to make you noticed? . . . Will I ever be able to be more to you than just another bag of problems? too different from Ben Ten or wonder girl. Will loving you only ever be able to cure you of influenza bugs and low self-esteem disorders? Or will it turn you into a narcissist whose abilities are subject to a course you never applied for? But Zipho know this…Daddy loves you even though he is troubled, he hopes his karma never ties you as a trail threading through trials in trains you never paid the fare for . . . “ [Sithole, Ndalo, 2015]

Khanyisile’s standpoint on this is that this dialogue is extremely crucial because we also have to interrogate the fact that as a society, we do not raise fathers & brothers & lovers, we raise “men”

After laying the surfaces of our immediate experiences of love, we then begin to probe deeper, and in the celebratory tone, we touch on storytelling, African courtship in isiXhosa and isiZulu. Indeed, “language is the home in which culture resides,” said African philosopher and writer Frantz Fanon, in Black Skin, White Masks, written at the height of political independence in Algeria and if we are to take on such a journey, we should never underestimate how much gets lost when we speak of ourselves in another language.

And so, the theatre piece unpacks the intersection of love in the African context while negotiating the sexual & gender binaries. Khanyisile’s style of directing is simple, “to introduce you guys (performers) to yourselves.” Also, we strip the set to zero props, and we use suggestive items to symbolise any changes to characters or setting. Her perspective of the concept does bring more insight to the social relevance of it as she brings it home, saying that all the characters we want to portray are people we have met in our lives (or even ourselves), and for me, that means the process of writing & performing is not that of “creating” but that of remembering, not?

The intersection of gender, sexuality & identity are brought to the forefront as we seek to explore an ethos of love that is indigenous and true to our traditions.

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Thus, to an extent, it can be argued that the theatre piece also unravels juxtaposition between the traditional and the modern, where young black people find that even the act of loving is tainted by the constant “negotiating” that black people are subjected to. In our stories, we realise that our perception of love had been hugely shapes by European ideas, from the fairytales we read to the Soap operas we watched and perhaps even our thoughts.

Now adults, we realise there is no documented reference to African love; reminiscing on the fact that the political situation of the past meant we even loved their parents in absence; from fathers who were troubled and unavailable or far away in the mines, to mothers who had no financial support and so, had to give them to relatives to be raised, to their owns shattered perception of love.

On the other hand, the theatre piece reveals the beauty of African love, where stories about love are shared by gogo to come to the realisation that actually, African people have always existed in love. The performers themselves remember that they were raised by relatives who loved them even though they were not their own children, and that the family structure in the African context need not be the typical European nuclear setting in order to be perfect.

After the performance, we all agreed that there is still more to be explored and said, which means the project continues.

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Pictures courtesy of Paradigm Lens (Sibu’s Photography)

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