The following poem by the Xhosa imbongi, David Livingston Phakamile Yali-Manisi (1926–1999), was performed at a conference hosted by the University of Natal Oral Documentation and Research Centre (South Africa) in 1985.
DLP Yali-Manisi was born in the Khundulu valley in Emigrant Thembuland on September 17, 1926 and lived much of his life in the Glen Grey district of Transkei, which was the first homeland to be granted “independence” by the Nationalist government under apartheid. In his time he was considered the greatest living Xhosa oral poet, proclaimed as Imbongi yesizwe jikelele, “the poet of the entire nation”.
Manisi was supremely talented in improvising poetry spontaneously in the act of performance. Professor Jeff Opland describes how they would transcribe poems by Manisi from tape recordings of live performances as “…he does not know beforehand exactly what he will say in performance and is not exactly sure after a performance what he did say or how he expressed it.” (1)
This poem, performed at the conference of the University of Natal Oral Documentation and Research Centre, was transcribed after the event by Manisi and Opland. The performance was captured on video, which allowed Professor Russell H Kaschula to analyse the accompanying visual gestures of the imbongi in the act of presentation.
This provides us with an opportunity to delve into an aspect of oral poetry that we rarely explore on this site. In many instances a poem will contain subtleties and word-play that are often difficult, if not impossible, to translate precisely into English. For this reason on this website, where possible, we’ve tried to include vernacular texts alongside translations with the hope that native speakers may pick up allusions that the translator may have missed.
But another aspect of oral poetry that we can’t capture without video recordings is the dramatisation that may accompany live performance of a poem. And so we are grateful to be able to include in the footnotes Professor Kaschula’s analysis of the physical movements that accompanied the imbongi’s rendition.
Manisi carries a stick in his left hand which he brandishes aggressively in the traditional manner of the imbongi, and also in the traditional manner, combines criticism and praise of the gathered dignitaries. The performance opens with the imbongi raising both hands in a slow and deliberate manner prior to beginning.
The forest bird grows restless (2)
one who always goes when sent
a bird’s bum with legs (3)
when it perches they say it’s settled, (4)
when it takes off they say it’s speeding. (5)
Greetings, crowds of people.
I see neat men and women, (6)
I see the radiant cream,
brains reflecting stars and moon:
today they rush to grasp the sun,
but then this star-sun’s heat (7)
makes them tremble to their roots, (8)
so men on earth lie stunned. (9)
Greetings, crowds of people.
Greetings, handsome gents, (10)
sons of olden heroes,
who showed no fear of death,
who crossed the sea braced with cannon and musket,
who bounded over the ocean.
They entered and forced the abortion of Africa:
when they met in battle
warriors dropped on both sides,
the white man’s muskets
mowed down the African and left him to rot!
So then, we’ve heard you talking up and down,
pricking and probing
the lore and language of nations
exposing their birth and decline.
I have to say we’re grateful to you
for including the legends of blacks.
I speak of Zulu and Xhosa
no one mentioned Mshweshwe and Sekroma (11)
for your talks harped on Nguni languages
(I know nothing of Swahili).
Rise, great minds
that glitter with stars and moon,
rise and arm yourselves
to plumb the root of things,
stop splitting hairs over trivial folktales, (12)
split hairs on the birth of language instead.
We Xhosa are ever grateful
that men like Ross and Bennie (13)
came to ignite the mind of the Xhosa
by first transcribing the language,
the peerless language of Xhosa.
This is the poem in the original Xhosa.
Yasuka yahlal’ intaka yamahlathi
NguWotshetshe ke lowo,
Usibunu sentaka yimilenze
Kub’ithi yakuchopa bathi yahlala,
Bathi yasuka bathi yagidima
Ndibon’ ucwamb’ oluhle lokhanyo
Iintw’ eziingqondo zikhany’ iinkwenkwezi kwakunye nenyanga,
Kuloko namhla zingxamel’ ukubamb’ ilanga:
Kulok’ isuke le nkwenkwez’ ilanga
Aqal’ amadod’ asemhlabeni abe zizithwanyula.
Bhotani madun’ amahle,
Mathol’ onyawo zabezolo,
Iint’ ezingoyiki ukufa,
Ezawel’ ulwandle zisimelela ngenkanunu nemfakadolo,
Iint’ ezaluwel’ ulwandle ziqakatha,
Zafik’ iAfrika zayiphunzisa,
Kuba kwakudiban’ entilini
Yalal’ imikhuthuka macal’ omabini,
Kodwa hay’ imfakadolo yaseMlungwini
Yamnqengqa yamqungquluzis’ umAfrika!
Xa kulapho ke sinivile nithetha nitywatyula,
Nayihlukanisa nade nayihlakahleza
Lintetho neelwimi zezizwe,
Nibonis’ imbadu kwakunye nembunda-ndimunye,
Kodwa naxa kulapho sibulela ntonye,
Kub’s anizishiyang’ iimbali zomz’ oNtsundu.
Ndithetha ngabakwaZulu nabakwaXhosa
Nakub’ andivanga nto ngoMsheweshwe naSekroma
Kub’ intetho ziya zagxininisa kwabaseBunguni
(Andazi nto ngeSwayile.)
Kha niphakame ntondin’ ezibuchopho
Buphathama kwakunye neenkwenkwezi nenyanga,
Niphakame nithabath’ iintonga
Khe niphengulule niqongqothele
Niyek’ ukuphikisana ngongokwenziwa kweentsomi:
Niphikisane ngokudaleka kweentetho,
Siyabulela thina basemaXhoseni,
Ngokufika kweento zooRose nezooBheni
Ukuz’ amaXhos’ avulek’ ingqondo
Kulo mhla yaqal’ ukubhalwa le ntetho,
Intethw’ engqongqotho yasemaXhoseni.
Composed and performed by David Livingston Phakamile Yali-Manisi,
and transcribed with Professor Jeff Opland,
from Xhosa Poets and Poetry,
New Africa Books (1998)
The analysis of the visual gestures is from Professor Russell H Kaschula’s essay
“New Wine in Old Bottles”
from Oral tradition and innovation,
edited by Edgard Sienaert; Nigel Bell; Meg Lewis,
Durban: University of Natal Oral Documentation and Research Centre, (1991)
- Opland, J. (1998) “The Bones of Mfanta” in Xhosa Poets and Poetry (pp.144). New Africa Books.
- Manisi refers to himself as a bird, joining these academics in the heavens to view this world from above. There is some correlation between the word syllables and hand gestures. Ya/su/ka, for example, produces three hand gestures — his hands are extended forward and upwards. There is also a deliberate pause after line 1. Manisi moves back with his hands lowered, indicating a break and again creating a sense of anticipation among the audience.
- Here Manisi raises his right clenched fist, in unison with the word syllables.
- The word Yakuchopa (when it perches) is acted out. Manisi moves into a squatting position. Gesture here embellishing the audience’s understanding of the poetry.
- Bathi yasuka bathi yagidima (when it takes off they say it’s speeding) Manisi moves to the right in a crouching position in order to indicate motion — the bird taking off. The stick that the poet holds is also extended upwards in order to indicate motion. There is also a lengthy emphasis on the penultimate syllable.
- Bhotani mabandlandini (Greetings, crowds of people)
Ndibon’ ucwamb’ oluhle lokhanyo (I see neat men and women)
These lines are produced in a deliberate way — line 6 is formulaic in style.
The word ucwamb’ in line 7 has a rounded sound which is supplemented by the gentle rolling movement of the open hand.
- The poet raises hands upwards whilst referring to the sun and stars.
- Here his arms are moved separately — perhaps to indicate some kind of struggle.
- At the end of this line Manisi moves back and pauses.
- For these 3 lines of greetings Manisi slows down completely. This contrasts directly with the lines that follow and also serves to create variation so as to keep the audience’s attention.
- Mshweshwe and Sekroma: Refers to Moshweshwe (pronounced mshweshwe, imitating the sound of a razor) the founder of the Sotho nation (see Moshoeshoe), and Sekroma, the father of Khama, the founder of the Tswana nation.
- There’s some sexism in Manisi’s dismissal of folktales as trivial. The Xhosa traditions of folktales (ntsomi) are the province of women, with oral poetry (izibongo) the domain of men.
- Refers to the Presbyterian missionaries, John Ross and John Bennie, who established the Lovedale Missionary School in 1824, near the banks of the Tyhume river in what is now Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. John Bennie (1796 — 1869) learnt Xhosa, his aim being, in his words: “reducing to form and rule this language which hitherto floated in the wind”. He was joined in Tyhume in 1823 by John Ross, who brought a printing press with him. Together they compiled an extended list of vocabulary and grammar dealing mainly with pronunciation of the Xhosa language, and later published the first printed history of the Xhosa. A significant number of South Africa’s black intellectuals of the 19th and early 20th century — from Tiyo Soga to Thabo Mbeki to Steve Biko — were educated at Lovedale.