The very first time I met Uhuru (Portia Mahlodi Phalafala) was in Tshwane during the Steve Biko Memorial lectures four years ago. I must now admit that I haven't always had the luck of meeting her physically even though there was a time we were communicating a lot by email I had fears I might develop a crush on her and vise versa. But after some time the torrent of communication stopped, I don't know why, maybe we were both involved in chasing our individual dreams and exorcising our personal demons across the seven seas to make time for that casual cup of tea.
The next thing Uhuru emailed me about a book she was working on after securing funding from the National Arts Council. She was going to put some of the poetry she recited infront of Prof Ngugi wa Thinong'o and many other academics into a book. I must admit I was impressed and looked forward to reading the piercing words I heard for the first time under the influence of Sherry served at the Presidential Guest House. I was going to be sober this time. On the night of the binge Uhuru was a loose gene, gulping liquor from the bottle and at her 'worst'. I'll say 'worst' because I have come to discover her best, which is far from a bottle of wine.
On the night in question we had a brief encounter which was followed by the flurry of emails I have already told you about. Uhuru was 19-years old then, fresh out of high school in Polokwane, full of life, energy, chutzpah and a drive that could send a space shuttle on orbit within 32 seconds of lifting off. Then she sent me some of her poetry which I found to be outstanding but largely on the consious side. She came across as a cultural being who was too Africanist for my liking. Make no mistake I'm an Afrikan but I don't want it thrown at my face.
See, I can do with a little Biko once in a while but I can't stand ideologues which I equate to slaves. Few months of exchanges unmasked the real face behind the charade. Uhuru was a young woman who cried like all other people, who had fears, emotions, who got lonely and who liked herself with the passion township boys reserve for Tupac and not their fathers.
Uhuru happened to have a sister and brother and mother she loved so much she wrote poems about. She requested that I contribute to her book project. I did not need to be asked twice as I suddenly volunteered to write her FOREWORD and contribute four poems. A moment of silence followed, during which Uhuru's book was published and released. The next time she called me was to get my postal address to mail me the finished book. It came through on a fastmail envelope and had a complimentary note. Uhuru called me 'Sir', a title the Queen of England has exclusive rights to.
I immediately perused the book and found that my FOREWORD was not there, and only one of the four poems she promised to use had made it into her book. I was not mad since RAISIBE was her book not mine. I liked the fact that she included my poem in her book even though I was not impressed with how she edited it. From then on me and Uhuru became 'friends' in the loose sense of the word.
I took time to go through her book and found that what I saw the first time at the Presidential Guest House and what I discovered later actually do exist together, in harmony. When she was featured by recording artist Hip-Hop Pantsula on his track O Mang Uhuru flipped it like a preacher reading a Bible, "O mang in this concrete jungle of conspiracies and propaganda/ O mang in this bottomless pit of lust, rape and AIDS.../ you need to be indecisive in the valley of decision/ you need to find the god that's in you.../so when I ask O mang o kgone go nchaela". These were opening lines in a song that went on to define the motswako style that HHP had been piloting for many years.
Not only is Uhuru a chiseller extraordinaire but she packs a healthy enterpreneural brain. Before her book came out she requested a popular restaurant in Newtown to allow her to spraypaint, a la grafitti style a five metre wall with the replica cover of her book. Results, whenever patrons were enjoying a meal at Shivava they couldn't help but be fascinated by the painting and had to ask questions which resulted in more sales and the book being sold out. Clever heh?
RAISIBE is not only at your face at Shivava, but all over Newtown. A stroll down Bree Street exposes the stencil grafitti that says to you there is Uhuru and a book she named. The cover of the book, which is made up of a woman shouting something in a voice hailer while a can of spray paint is next to her can be seen in more locations than the name Newtown itself. I swear after receiving my own copy, the only next time I saw RAISIBE wasn't on someone else but all over the precinct. Even up to today I have never met anyone who says they bought the book but the book went on to be sold out.
RAISIBE, as opposed to how I perceived it to be is not really a controversial book but a book of protest with poems like To all the young baby-mamas, "I salute your strength/ I respect your courage/ it couldn't have been easy/ first days of pregnancy.../ yes it came unexpectedly/ what a blessing indeed/ a lifetime gift".
Now the problem with this book is that it is highly influenced and badly made. All the poems are on the right leaf of the page, printed more like a receipt book than a work of literature. The text was photocopied to the pages and not printed, and the quality of the paper is questionable. Uhuru, risked her beautiful work by doing her own layout, at the end excellent poetry and commentary is lost within the chaotic layout and design. The layout is cluttered and does not stick to a formula or theme, as a result the book looks like a work in progress or incomplete or half-baked or rushed to the streets. The Newtown promos look better than the book they are supposed to market.
Uhuru should shy away from crediting all people who influenced the text in her book. She should also shy away from overquoting. This is what I'm referring to, "Having a child is no childs-play. Unless you plan on playing with the child" - Uhuru, "The youth, the truth is the seed. The stronger the roots, the stronger the tree. If we eat the fruit, the stronger we'll be. If we do it today, tomorrow we free!" - Dead Prez (let's get free, sleeve), "Art is silent poetry, Poetry is loud art" - Uhuru, "Of all conventional medicines, Herbs and remedies, Time is the greatest healer..." - Uhuru, "When incense burn smoke unfurls. An analogue girl in a digital workd" - Eryka Badu (mama's gun), "Believe in none of what you hear and half of what you see" - M1, Dead Prez (let's get free) etc. There are more of these kinds of quotes from people like Jill Scott Heron to make the book look like an anthology and not a solo effort. They often interrupt the flow and tends to make RAISIBE have a rap record feel with the all too intrusive skits or interludes.
And one more thing, you don't quote yourself in your own book woman, unless you have an alter-ego.
Uhuru and me have a tendency to unintentionally avoid each other. When I'm in Jozi she's in Polokwane and vise versa. The next time I physically met her I was stoned from some Jozi chronic that they swear it comes from Swaziland. I guess Uhuru noticed it as we briefly hugged and she blurbed some nothings about how extinct I was. I said something in the line of dinosaurs being better than the two of us. She left and I did the same.
We've never seen each other since even though we have communicated a lot on the phone, via sms. I haven't called her even once this year and she hasn't. It's okay, that's the story of our lives.
Her book was available through her own distribution even though the last time she was distributing a proposal for funding to reprint RAISIBE. The first edition was sold out and she needed to do more. She told me there was demand for her baby in other parts of Africa where she'd gone on her mission to pimp her knowledge. Uhuru is out there and she's making waves, somebody please listen to her.

1 comment:

  1. I, for one have read some of Uhuru's work and loved it!!!

    I love her originality, the way she works with words and the way represents herself... I felt like I almost knew her and the way she is just from reading her poetry!!!


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