I will always remember him as a person who did not need a reason in order to laugh. In this age of literary deterioration in indigenous languages; losing a devoted writer such as him is a devastating loss indeed. Let’s bow our heads to the passing on of a Xitsonga linguistic fanatic Mkhomanzi Bruce Ngobeni who died on the 2nd November 2009.
This award-winning novelist, short story writer, playwright and poet dies at the age of 37, adding to the list of young brains this country lost. There’s nothing called better death though when elders such as Masizi Kunene, Ellen Kuzwayo, Alan Paton and Es’kia Mphahlale pass on, we easily yet unbearably accept that they completed their race. During the recent Timbila workshop on indigenous short story writing, a well-acclaimed Sepedi writer, Lerole Mamabolo said to young writers, “Established writers are chaining to eternal rest, we should start wearing their shoes.” Unfortunately, those who got potential to fill these shoes are as well departing. There’s is no doubt that our hopes were on the likes of Isabella Motadinyane, Phaswane Mpe, Sello Duiker and Mzwandile Matiwana. When we put one brick, the other one is falling.
Mkhomazi made his fame in 1996 when his radio drama, ‘Swa rivala a swi orhi ndzilo’ was aired on former Radio Tsonga (now Munghana Lonene fm). 1998 he obtained first prize for his serial radio drama, ‘Hakunene Tiko ri File’ on the same radio station. Among other awards, he received the 2007 South African Literary Award’s K.Sello Duiker Prize for an Outstanding Writer (Xigwitsirisi xa Malovisi). Responding to his death, the Deputy Director of Books and Publishing, national DAC, Siphiwo Mahala said, “This is sad news indeed. Bruce was one of the very few young writers who wrote consistently in his mother tongue, something that is sorely missed in our literary landscape at the moment. His passing leaves a gaping wound in the South African literary fraternity. May his soul rest in peace.”
I first met this prolific Tsonga writer from Nkambako (in the N’wamitwa village, Limpopo province) during the 2002 Timbila poetry workshop facilitated by Robert Berold in Eiland. Among others were the likes of Mbongeni Khumalo, Ike Muila, Myesha Jenkins, Phedi Tlhobolo, Siphiwe ka Ngwenya and Linda Ndlovu, and Mkhomazi was the only writer writing strictly in Xitsonga. He was a humble writer overflowing sense of humour. Within the same day he would greet me more than ten times. He believed in the African way that says “Madume ga a fele.” (Greetings know no end). Each time he sees me he would say, laughing: “Hee boMaahlamela!”. Listening to him reading his poems, I could feel another DC Marivate, EM Nkondo, TH Khosa, MJ Maluleka in the making. He was such a contemporary writer who would not dig hard for subject. He would write about the so-called exhausted themes and simple titles such as AIDS, Ellis Park disaster and RDP Houses; yet the content infested with a deep and fresh approach. I was thrilled by poems like ‘Magaiza’, ‘A swi ndzi khomi kahle’, ‘Ndhavezitha Richard N’wamitwa’ (which the editor of Timbila 2002 explained it as demonstration of his unmatched ability to write long sustained poems rich in old and invented working idiomatic expressions) and of course ‘Ndzi ku yini?’ which I quote below:
“Vutomi byi ndzi xinge hi voko ra nsimbhi
Mune wa makhumbi ya misava ya ndzi tseketsekela,
Hakunene ndzi ndzi bihe ngati
Milomu ya vanhu yi ndzi hlovisa xikatawa xa ntsalo
Hambi tinhongana ti puluvundza emirini wa mina ti ndzi hleka.”
Looking at the above quote one will realize that Mkhomazi was not a slave of fancy layout, he was writing his raw mind without worrying about the likes of layout and rhyming which at times unable some writers from fully expressing themselves.
His poetry is enriched with provocative metaphors. I remember during the poetry workshop which was held on the 28 – 30 August 2009 at Polokwane Eagle’s Nest lodge, there was a very tight debate agitated by a metaphor in one of his poems which reminded me of Seitlhamo Moitsapi. He was comparing Aids to Satan’s underwear. Different writers said their perspectives on this but what mattered to me was the fact that we had someone who is bold to try new though odd metaphors. Seitlhamo in one of his poems also wrote “love is like a river or fist with forty fingers.”
Like Timbila Poetry Project Director and also a Xitsonga writer Vonani Bila said, “We can choose life we want to live, cars we want to drive, woman we want to marry, but we will never choose when we want to die.” The only person who can console us better is William Shakespeare when he says, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once”. When some of us are seeking security in industries that we do not actually have passion for, just for the sake of daily bread, Mkhomazi was brave enough to devote his life as a fulltime writer, and a Xitsonga only for that matter. With all royalty mathematics involve and limitation of readership due to language accessibility, we can all imagine how risky this decision is. Unfortunately such sacrifice is only realized in times like this, when such person is no more.
This brings me to the concern artists such as Miriam Tlali and Noria Mabasa already clamoured during their award receiving speeches. Artists are tired of empty awards which are only meant to beautify their profiles. It’s even sad to realize that most of major arts and literature awards in this country do not have websites to assist in exposing and marketing the winners. I’m also asking myself what the role of media is in this regard. All these listed achievements of Mkhomazi do not appear in any website. The only result you will get browsing his name on the internet is that of Voices of Africa documentary line-up program.
National soccer team coach can be paid a million rand but when the same amount is paid as a Poet Laureate prize, the likes of Desiree van der Walt ask twenty one questions. Are we not ashamed laying our artist in pauper’s burial? How many Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde do we want to have? What is the government and arts structures doing about this? Themba ka Mathe is amongst South African writers who are touched by the death of Mkhomazi. “He shall forever be remembered for advancing Xitsonga literature and heritage through his writings.” He sympathized. South Africa, how can we thank such a proactive citizen?
One other interesting thing about Mkhomazi is that he was such a person who believed in team work though he had the potential as an individual. He wrote five of his books with Max Malungana which is unique in writing industry. Most writers stick to partnership before acquiring skills and when equipped they go solo, same in music industry. Furthermore he was one of the loyal Timbila Poetry Project member who was not money orientated though he needed it. He would travelled with other Tzaneen based writers to attend poetry sessions and workshops in Polokwane which of course is not an easy task more especially when one has no stable source of income. The Limpopo Province Department of Arts and Culture’s Malose Lekganyane also conveyed words of sympathy to the family. “We pass our deepest condolences to the Ngobeni family and the whole art fraternity.”
Looking at most writers who passed on before, there’s a rumour clouded above their heads that they were positive or died of HIV/Aids related disease. To name but a few Phaswana Mpye, Dambudzo Marechera, John Ruganda and Mzwandile Matiwana who wrote the poem below:
Suicide Blues in Prison
(The H.I.V. memories inside)
Still under a cloud of death
I thought as I lay
On my torn and lumpy mattress
Infested with vermin
Enclosed in the icy tomb
7 x 11 width and breath
I lost all the shape
And found the rope –
But I could not do it
I wanted it to be a secret
For the warden kept on watching me
I wanted to write
My last chapter
And finish it smiling
But the watcher kept looking on
And the bomb in my blood ticked slowly.
This poem was published in Timbila 2005. Coincidentally Mkhomazi’s poems were followed by Mzwandile’s poems in this journal. Though cause of Mkhomazi’s death is not yet reveal, I just hope he’s not under the same cloud of rumour. Mkhomazi dies with seven published books under his name including novel entitled ‘Xigwitsirisi xa Malovisi’ (Kalahari Productions, 2004) and poetry collection ‘Ndzheko wa Rixaka’ (Timbila Publishing, 2006). He is featured in three anthologies. He won five literary awards. He also appeared in a TV poetry documentary, ‘Voices of Africa’ which was televised on SABC 1 in 2006.
During our last meeting at Eagle’s Nest, we even had an intense talk we discussed about some of his work. We even talked about his dirge for the late Neverdie Mushwana, a famous Dan village traditional healer. I questioned him about the significance of the name ‘never-die’ now that he died. He explained to me that the name never meant that this traditional healer will never perish. There were witchcraft threats of killing him while he was young and the parents were sarcastically confronting responsible people that they will not achieve their goal. I really wish I could rewind that session.
If I were Isaac Asimov I would say, “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” Let’s mourn and finish so to free this golden soul. Hence death terminates life not friendship, we will be with him in every poetry session, workshop and book launch. I send my condolences to Timbila poets, more especially those who attended poetry workshop which was Mkhomazi’s last workshop before he could be admitted in the hospital. Words of condolences also to Nhlalala Publishing Project and the entire Xitsonga writers family. Death took him but forgot to take legacy he engraved in books and on our hearts. To the Mkhomazi family: If God breaks your leg; He will teach you how to limp. Etlela hi ku rhula Mlambya!