Reading Rethinking Africa – again and again – reminds me of walking into my wild verdant back garden after a night of Cape winter rains. The earth pulsates life, emitting scents that are at once familiar and unfamiliar. With stillness, and deep listening, the overtones of buchu and chamomile, lemon and mint give way to the subtler undertones of wilde als and a myriad wafts of mystery. And in a land where dispossession and loss of land underline Unbelonging and ways of Knowing, a garden is never “just” a garden. Just so, delving into each chapter, each poem feels like a dance between overtones and undertones – the familiar and the unfamiliar. The wisdoms and insights reminiscent of Sunday lunches around the family table and travels across the length and breadth of South Africa in conversation with Elders, the young. It certainly echoes conversations in my head with Neville Alexander on language as a vehicle for cultural identity and imagination, and Robin Wall Kimmerer on the reciprocity of relations between the human and the more-than-human world. There are a myriad of stories about the Land, Belonging and Silence told by poets and writers such as those published in this book, along with many others. Land as in Earth, Human and all the more-than-human world and its interrelationship with the sacred.
The editors have taken great care in inviting voices that speak the same subject of restoration and reclamation of women’s voices in different tones throughout the book. This nod to a diversity of opinion, of place, of position and of disciplinary roots echoes the thoughts of the editors when they say, “We hold various views reflective of our diversity, and at root we are indigenous, African and feminist, as well as women-centred, or matricentric.” (p. 9 Introduction).This approach to the book can be seen in the use of multiple ways of describing and deploying language as a means to unearth or unmask knowledge systems previously obscured by patriarchal and colonial discourse. The chapters by Muthien, Magoqwana, Bam, Fester-Wicomb rest, in my view, at the core of the book – offering a Lexicon with which to imagine and represent a different way of seeing and knowing Africa. The capital ‘L’ in Lexicon denotes diversity and plurality.
Through the deployment of this Lexicon and the multiplicity and complexity it foregrounds, is called into question the nature of binaries and occlusions that take place in Western thought for the one definition and the obfuscation of differences. The chapters by Vollenhoven and Malotane Henkeman juxtapose different approaches in thinking through or intellectualising about indigeneity and feminisms which traverse sacred and intangible boundaries (in the case of Vollenhoven) and an exploration of transtemporality as means for understanding and navigating trauma in the case of Malotane Henkeman. There is no hierarchy of knowledge and its form here. And as stated by Bernedette Muthien in her chapter 2 – “indigenous is not one village”.
This is transformational indigenous feminism at its writing best.
The schools of thought and scholarly work which all of the authors draw upon continue this honouring of diversities. Indeed, each chapter provides glimpses into libraries and archives often made invisible because of the marginalisation of knowledge systems that fall outside of mainstream academic thinking. Vollenhoven calls on ancestral knowing and visions, Muthien calls on indigenous and African scholars such as Amadiume, Mann, and Clarke among others, Maqoqwana engages with the writings of African American scholars, Bam calls on indigenous knowledge bearers and custodians, archaeologists, interrogating historical narratives about indigeneity through these interviews, Fester-Wicomb uses familial stories and African scholarly work to reinterpret and therefore re-centre mother/grandmother/older woman. The addition of a short chapter by Ana Ligia Leite e Aguiar extends and infers the nature of the interconnectedness and differences of struggles between indigenous peoples across the globe, and in the global South specifically.
Perhaps it is the poetics of having multiple languages reflected on the pages of this book that has me responding with my own garden reflections. Words catch in my throat with their familiarity, their evocation or introduction as central to arguments made for re-centring of women. Words and naming such as khoes, taras, ausi, ooMkhulu, rakgadi, ooMama, make reference to the powerful place women had in relation to family and community. The presence still of these ways of naming in contemporary South Africa carry with them deep histories of knowledge systems and power which contradict the patriarchal society created by colonial rule and upheld in the present. Sayings such as inyathi ibuzwa kabaphambili (knowledge is sought from those with wisdom and experience) suggest the layers of meaning and values contained within languages which serve as a vehicle in the transmission of cultural heritage. Powerful arguments are made for academic teaching and research in indigenous languages by Magoqwana and Bam. More than this, the calls for an interrogation of the official Archive, not only in its nomenclature and classification systems, but also in the ways in which meaning has been grafted and continues to be grafted onto material culture disconnected through the persistent “lost in translation” syndrome peculiar to colonisation.
The inclusion of poetry is perhaps one of the most powerful deployments and celebrations of the Imagination as bearer of knowledge and dreams of freedom. The place of poets in the Life of Africa, whether griot, storyteller, imbongi or seer has long held deep time histories, both past and present.
The four poets in the book, Diana Ferrus, Khadija Tracey Heeger, Shelley Barry, and co-editor Bernedette Muthien, offer visions of the past, present and future, dancing within, between and around the scholarly texts and in so doing extending the boundaries between the said and the unsayable, silences and ghosts.
The images of places and indigenous “art” are powerfully illustrative of the journeys and narratives of the contributors, of indigenous women’s lives in all their diversities. They reiterate the complexity of knowledge and meaning making through place making and identity. The images evoke the retrieval work which knowledge and meaning making have on memory landscapes where displacement, erasure and silencing have been brutal.
With this groundbreaking volume, Muthien and Bam have set the tone for the contributions to African indigenous feminist scholarship and creativity still to be developed. May many more books be harvested from this our Home, our Continent.