Africa-Press – Lesotho. I want to show just a few varieties, out of many, through which African women poets tell the stories of women through poetry from about 1840 to the present.
Sometimes the women appear to be silent and conservative but with the passage of time they have become direct and radical in their poetry. Aisha Taymur the Egyptian woman poet writes in a complicated way about her relationship with the traditional Islamic cloth, the hijab.
In “With pure virtue’s hand I guard the might of my hijāb” she indicates that far from oppressing her, it identifies her as a free Muslim woman. Contrary to the feeling that education and writing makes a Muslim woman rebellious, Aisha is of a different view:
“The arts of my eloquence, my mind I protected: talisman dear, hijab’s amulet: danger denies My literature and my learning did me no harm
save in making me the finest flower of minds wise Solitary bower, scarf’s knot, are no affliction nor my gown’s cut nor proud and strong guarded paradise
My bashfulness, no blockade to keep me from the heights” She is comfortable in her culture and religion. She was one of Egypt’s most distinguished poets, novelists, and social activists.
Born in 1840 into a family of Kurdish origins and literary roots, Taymur was a symbol of the women liberation movement since the Ottoman rule. She was well-versed in the Holy Quran and Islamic Jurisprudence, and also wrote poetry in Arabic, Turkish and Persian.
Contrast that with the other Egyptian female poet, Doria Shafik. She was a rather more open and radical voice. She found her environment rather oppressive and indicated that her poetry was going to save as one of the few spaces that allowed her to be herself.
In her poem, “Solitude”, she writes: “Poetry! In this desert, where I am drowning you open more than one way. In this silence, the horrible silence that encircles me, in the torment of my becoming you permit me to act!” She wrote a lot of poems in the mid 1940’s.
In an intelligent way, she wrote and spoke about gradually rising within her culture, going outside but not moving rather too far from tradition which she ironically saw as a shield.
She once said the aim of her writings was “To catch the imponderable thread connecting my own very existence to my own past, as well as to my own country’s history and civilisation.
The Egypt I knew in my early years was an Egypt awakening from a thousand years’ sleep, becoming conscious of its long sufferings – that it had rights! And I learned in my childhood that the will of the woman can supersede the law.
” Philosophically, she felt that the boundaries of the laws can be extended through both existence and negotiation.
For her, freedom is attained even as a woman is holding herself together. She believed in a careful and methodical fight. She ends her poem, “Unburdened” thus:
“My heart is in my hand Hold it. . . here it is! But do be careful with it It is made of crystal. ” She saw an opportunity to steal the thunder of knowledge which she would use in her home country.
Travel and education were not just for the sake of it if the new Egyptian woman was to rise beyond her woes: She was rooted in her quest for growth and freedom.
She saw her education and her travels abroad as something that was central to her growth: “Conquest of my soul, frenzied flight toward heaven to steal
a little fire with which to revive myself and our land that is dying. ” Sabrina Mahfouz is a more contemporary Egyptian woman poet, having been born in 1984.
She was raised in between London and Cairo. Her most famous works are a poetry book, How You Might Know Me of 2016. She is very direct, quick and radical.
Her poem, “In the Revolutionary Smoking Room” is spontaneous and breaks from traditional Egyptian women poetry traditions: “Open the window. Isn’t it –
despicable deplorable disgraceful suspicious untenable untouchable delightful delicious unbelievable unstoppable grateful curious tweetable filmable this is fucking serious
debatable inflatable never ever tedious remarkable reliable spiteful pretentious responsible blameable beautiful ferocious – Yes. Can I have another cigarette please?”
But in her new book of 2020, For Women Trying to Breathe and Failing, Batsirai Chigama of Zimbabwe has, for me, one very special section called “How Love Should Be”.
In that section, Chigama chooses to protest against men’s abuse of women by actually giving us the alternative man. This is a rare feat! Here is a man that the women would prefer.
. In school we used to call that the control experiment!
When a male reader goes through that section, he may definitely come face-to-face with what he could have been when the world was fresh and the hills were still soft.
It is like coming home in the middle of a rainy night to find your better version sleeping in your very bed! When that happens, and you are able to control your nerves, you may see what you could have been and not the brute that you have become.
We tend to come into the world too late or too early to be sane. In one of those poems by Chigama, a woman gazes at a man and thinks, “of all the places (that) I could live, your heart is the paradise I choose.
” In another, a woman refers to her man as “a best seller to me” and more specifically, “babe I would carry you around in the duffel bag of my heart, flip through you, slowly grasp(ing) every single word profound.
” Then she describes an imaginary good, lovely and well behaved man with:
“There are some rooms in your palms Where I feel I belong Quiet Calm Steady Warm Full of you. ” These are the kind of men’s palms that women look for everywhere without finding.
Those palms with rooms! But that is only the beginning because in yet another poem, the title poem to this section itself, the poet writes about her man’s “gentle softness” and her man’s “dewy kindness that drips each time you look at me and hold me strong in the embrace of each syllable.
And the man is so good that the woman even admits her own faults, “I am a mess I know, yet the way each vowel curves in your iris is the magnet that centres my universe.
And that electric section of poems continues unabated.
In another piece, a joyful woman reads a book of poems by the window as her caring man wears the apron to prepare a toast for her, roasting a chicken drumstick for her and the sad part is that the man does this only on Sundays.
If he could do it more regularly, the better! Here you find a man who knows how to spell love even in his sleep. There is also talk about “a man who smiled with his eyes,” causing a woman bloom like a flower in season.
That is not even enough because in yet another poem, “ a woman meets her former lover (so that she is able) to touch the wrinkles on his body and realises that she still loves him even more than before and that it was really “stupid (that they had) let each other go the way we did.
Then there is a section called “For Women Who Forget To Breathe While Alive”, which has poems about how women’s woes affect their private and bodily lives.
There are also sections about women failing to survive and another more reassuring section about “women finding their feet. ” There is also a section that carries “the random thoughts of a woman sojourner.
” Maybe these are about the poet’s feelings at all the different spaces she has visited (at home and abroad.)
Still in Zimbabwean women’s poetry, when you move to Samantha Rumbidzai Vazhure’s, in her latest book of poems of 2022, Starfish Blossoms, you find that this collection is decidedly based on the firm foundations of the wisdom of one’s female ancestors, both in mythical and real time.
This book can be read as an archive of women’s thoughts and sweet secrets from one generation to the other. In these pieces, there is the hovering presence of the persona’s paternal grandmother, VaChivi.
She is the spirit of the lioness, hunting relentlessly for game in order to feed her pack of cubs. VaChivi is more vicious and runs much faster than her lazy and redundant male counterpart.
Hunting is not sport. It is a matter of life and death. There is also the maternal grandmother, aChihera, the woman of the Shava Eland totem. Charwe Nehanda of the first Chimurenga is among the strong Chihera women of Zimbabwe.
They are renowned in Shona lore for their resilience and sometimes they are known to be strong-headed, fighting harder than their fathers or their husbands!
These two archetypes VaChivi and aChihera demonstrate that this poet is coming to the world stage already armed with ready-made stories of the brave women from her own community.
She is not looking for new heroes. She already has the blood of heroines running through her veins. She is only looking for a broader audience. For me this is Samantha Rumbidzai Vazhure’s greatest achievement.
In the very first poem the persona recalls her time with her grandmother out in the countryside. It is a return to the stable source and to roots that go deep.
Grandmother hides her monies everywhere; inside her crimpling doek, under the reed mat and even inside her g-cup bra. Meanwhile the corn is roasting by the fireside.
When she asks her granddaughter to count her money, the younger woman says, “but you can’t see the money even if I were to count it for you!” And the elder answers: “These eyes can see what they want to see.
” Meaning I would not have asked you to count the money if you were not a trusted fellow.
This poem is a story about the easy camaraderie between women from across generations. In the poem “Hanyanani”, the poet goes even deeper into the Shona mythology.
An old woman lives in the drought-smitten district of Chivi in a year when the famine is at its bitterest. There is danger that the many-many orphans that she keeps in her homestead may actually starve to death.
VaChivi goes up and down among her neighbours and she finds no food to cook. But the orphans gather around her crying louder and louder. . . VaChivi comes up with a plan which has become legendary among the Shona people.
She lights a fire as if everything is alright and puts a pot full of water on the fire. There is still nothing to cook and VaChivi picks pebbles from the bare ground and throws them into the pot and she tells her grandchildren that she is now cooking something and she will make soup out of it.
She dishes out the ‘soup’ eventually. It is the mere hope among these children that the hot water that they are taking in is real soup. That saves their lives;
“And there’s an old woman from Chivi who cooked stones and drank the soup. She did not swallow the stones. Did she not know that those who swallow stones do not die?” The Chivi woman’s story is about intense hope and resolve.
In the same area there is a contemporary tale about Hanyanani, a ghost that goes ahead with its ghostliness without thinking about what people say about her as a ghost. Sometimes Hanyanani terrorises wayfarers who walk the paths in the middle of the night from beer drinking binges.
The daring drunkards even think Hanyanani is a fresh new prostitute from more urbane places like Masvingo, Harare and Bulawayo and on being taken to her home, the men fall into deep sleep.
When they wake up they find that they are actually resting in the graveyard! In a more contemporary period, Hanyanani is often reincarnated as Peggy, the other terror ghost of the other Zimbabwean towns of Chiredzi and Triangle.
These are stories about woman triumphalism retold in poetic form. Vazhure does not exactly rewrite these myths but her allusions to them through her poetry are powerful and strategic.
Vazhure uses local materials to talk about global issues. Indeed, over the years, African women poets in different countries, have developed varied methods of telling their evolving stories through poetry.
For More News And Analysis About Lesotho Follow Africa-Press