Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Mazisi Kunene (12 May 1930 to 11 August 2006)

I'm frequently shocked at how little I know about my country and its people. Via Sotho/Rethabile Masilo I was led to this Guardian obituary for Mazisi Kunene. (some extracts).

Mazisi Kunene, who has died aged 76, was one of Africa's greatest poets, inspired by the history of the Zulu people, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the oral tradition of African literature. He was as cosmopolitan as he was nationalistic, espousing an African literary and cultural ethos along with Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiongo and Wole Soyinka. He also worked for the ANC in London during the apartheid years and taught African poetry in the United States.
Kunene's seminal work was perhaps Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic (1979) in which he brought Emperor Shaka, the Zulu king, back to readers in a way that many critics said was more convincing and appreciative than the tyrant and evil war general some of the history books documented him to be. Achebe referenced Kunene's Emperor Shaka the Great at the end of his novel Anthills of the Savannah. Charles Larson compared the work to Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey.

The 1980s and 1990s were perhaps Kunene's most prolific times, producing eight major works in both English and Zulu. These include Anthem of the Decade (1981) and The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain (1982). He returned to South Africa in 1993, the year that Unesco honoured him as Africa's poet laureate. In 2005, he was named South Africa's poet laureate.

There is also this LA Times Obit.
"Mazisi Kunene is simply the greatest African poet in the 20th century. Period," Masilela said. "He was in the forefront of liberating Africa culturally by making us go back to writing in African languages."

Also this

I am shocked at my ignorance. Here is a South African academic writer, poet and academic that I have never read and shamefully admit to never have heard of. Ignorance is not always bliss and this is something that I must put right.

Tribute to Mshongweni: A Great Nineteenth-Century African Poet (1977)

After the festival, after the feast
After the singing
After the voices have faded into the night
And the sounds of talking have ceased
And the angry winds have shed their manes
And people have stopped to dance
You voice and your voice only Shall rise from the ruins

This is strange (Prompted by a comment made here ) and I’m not sure what to make of it:

While the passing of Kunene was quite promptly reported and obituarised (is that a word?) in the local media it took some a long time to flow through to the rest of the world (where it was reported then by some prominent news organisaions:

Locally (in South Africa)

The SA Dept of Arts & Culture _ (19 August 2006),
John Matshikiza in M&G (28 August 2006) , IOL (14 August 2006).

Rest of World

Seemed to be triggered by the AP releasing this as a news item on 19 September 2006 – That’s more than 5 weeks after he died!

The LA Times & Gaurdian obits (19 September 2006) linked above. The Times (23 September 2006),
Fox News (19 September 2006). And bringing up the rear, our neighbours at The Namibian (3 October 2006)

Like the whale poet I too don’t really know how obituaries in news departments work. I assumed that most large organizations have a stock of pre-prepared obits which they update when they require them. It seems that the greater world (much like myself) has been slow to awaken to the life (and death) of this great poet.


Third World Ant said...

We still focus too hard on Western culture, in some way believing it to be superior to African (or Eastern, for that matter) culture. I wouldn't be too hard on myself if I were you, Western art/literature tends to be what we're bombarded with most of the time, and hence what we learn about. (for example, think about your high school syllabus for English literature and Art, if you did it)

One good observation about SA appreciation of local art: my friend in Canada noted when he first moved there that it was odd how no white Canadians had any objects of art from the First Nations people (PC term for native americans) in their houses, whereas most of his friends' homes here in SA have numerous pieces of local art.

ATW said...

Good point - we do try. I'm just irritated that just when I begin to think that my education (including the autodidactic bits) is quite broad and diverse I am shockingly reminded of how narrow it actually is.

Third World Ant said...

ah, but there are always those whose education is far less broad and diverse, autodidacts or not.

And how much is 'education' vs 'information'? You can't know it all, all the time. Otherwise you'd not have time for a top-notch full-time job AND a thesis AND a family.

I'm super impressed you speak a black language (granted that may have been more circumstance than personal effort) - my guess is your education is far more broad and diverse than mine, or any other (white) person I know, for that matter..