This is in light of World Children’s Day on Sunday, 20 November 2022.
By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor
When she went on stage, those that may not have known her must have felt, well, here is another unknown poet trying her luck with her material on this audience. After all this is an event meant to affirm women and connect then to one another. And so what would be wrong about giving an opportunity to a young poet prepared to test her material, so as to see how it is received by this select audience.
I personally had not heard about her and her poetry till that day, and excuse me for my ignorance. At that moment I must have been in the category of those that held the sentiments I have just said above. And again excuse me for my ignorance.
But when the young lady, stood up in an unassuming manner, took the podium and confidently held the mike, she cast her eyes, discreetly around the room. She did not smile. We held our breath as we were not sure what was to follow.
Rather what was going to come out of her mouth and creative reservoir. Prepared herself for a poetic journey in front of these strangers, mainly women and a sprinkling of men. The few men among this predominantly female crowd themselves were lucky to be invited to this event clearly meant for women and to discuss issues uniquely affecting women. Mainly their continuing marginalisation from mainstream spaces by mainly patriarchal attitudes and practices in society.
From Johannesburg to Lagos, these women had told us earlier in the evening that the suffocation of their minds, ideas and muting of their voices by mainly men was no longer bearable on a continent notoriously known to treat women as second class citizens. Contradictorily this is as evidence of women’s contribution to building societies is there for everyone to see.
Even a one-eyed man can see that. But when young poet Lebohang Masango gave us that confident pause that seemed to forewarn that do not f…ck with me and my poetry, many of us among the audience were jolted from our slumber and doubts.
At that very moment on a fine evening, we were suddenly forced to sit straight, adjusting our seats and paid attention to what was to unfold on stage. That one poem she recited did it for her. Those that love poetry and its power trapped in the rhythm and the songs embedded its melody were won over by Lebohang. I was one of them.
That is why in humiliation I hesitantly walked over to her, reaching out and eventually confessed this fact to her after the official proceedings were over. We were all having a drink and some light meal in the gardens of the Goethe Institut in Parkwood, Johannesburg. She just brushed it aside and told me how she was already active in children’s literature and was soon going to publish her first book. We promised to hook up when her book was out for an interview. Unfortunately we are still to meet.
However this week I was reminded of that evening of a good talk by our sisters about our own folly as men when it comes to how we great our women folk, and of course the stunning performance by this young poet called Lebohang, when I received a media release from AVBOB Poetry Competition, encouraging poets to enter for this year’s competition. AVBOB Poetry Competition to encourage poets writing in various southern African languages to enter the competition quoted a verse from one of Lebohang’s poems titledjohn 1:1 and me.
This is clearly meant to inspire shy poets to enter for this competition before it closes on November 30, 2022. This comes against the backdrop of Sunday, November 20, 2022, being World Children’s Day whose theme isEquality and inclusion for every child.
“What better way of marking this event than celebrating the poetry and stories that offer children access to their own heritage and experience? This year, the AVBOB Poetry Project focuses on the contribution made by Lebohang Masango, a gifted children’s author, PhD candidate and popular poet,” the organises of the ABOB Poetry Competition reason as they quote the following verse from john 1:1 and me.
john 1:1 and me
No matter what version of the sky you know
there are as many words as there are stars in the galaxy.
The gift presents in cosmic abundance an endless assemblage of master keys.
Words unlock language and language, a new world.
the doors of possibility burst open when the alphabet is merged.
These lines make up the first stanza of john 1:1 and me, a poem that reimagines the famous gospel verse as an invitation to revel in the beautiful, sometimes difficult, gifts offered by stories.
Lebohang believes deeply in making those gifts available to young children.
Her first children’s title, Mpumi’s Magic Beads, (David Philip, 2018) won the South African Independent Publishers Award for Children’s Books that year and the Exclusive Books IBBY SA Award for Best Writer in 2019. It was translated into all 11 of South Africa’s official languages and was soon followed by a series that explores Mpumi’s daily life.
“Books play an important role in uniting South Africans across linguistic barriers and having titles in translation helps to keep languages and cultures alive. This only happens with the help of mother tongue access and instruction,” says Lebohang, who is a PhD candidate in anthropology. “In studying this subject, one learns to listen to many people’s voices, to treat them with dignity and respect. In other words, there can never only be one version or one story. While it is important to write stories down, we must never neglect the oral tradition, especially for children. Anthropology taught me that stories are everywhere. They live in rituals, in everyday objects. Story happens wherever we are.”
Her openness to other voices leads Lebohang to create new work that riffs off other artists, often forming unlikely partnerships. For instance, her poem ‘Ten Thousand Stories’ (featured on DStv’s Most Loved Storyteller campaign) pays tribute to Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Our Grandmothers’, with its line “I go forth along, and stand as ten thousand.”
This captures Lebohang’s belief in the power of words to cross boundaries and strengthen community. Such forays into mass culture have made her one of very few South African poets to reach a large audience, enabling poetry to be heard by those who would not otherwise be exposed to it.
Lebohang’s storytelling grew out of her love of poetry. Written in rhyme, Mpumi’s Magic Beads grew out of the rhythm and music of nursery rhymes. “It’s a blend of rhyme and story,” she explains. “Poetry has nourished my storytelling since I was a little girl.”
Her next children’s book, The Great Cake Contest, was part of the Book Dash initiative. “Books are prohibitively expensive for so many people in South Africa, and this organisation promotes affordable books for young children translated into mother tongue languages,” she says.
Mpumi and Jabu’s Magical Day – co-written with Professor Claudine Storbeck, Director for the Centre for Deaf Studies at Wits University – won a Pendoring Award. “I wanted to share the magic of friendship for children facing difficult circumstances.” No matter what version of the sky you know, story is a vital, life-affirming opportunity to connect in a powerful way with the children in your life.
The AVBOB Poetry Competition welcomes poems inspired by or about children. Enter online at www.avbobpoetry.co.za before 23:59 on 30 November 2022.