With the recent wave of feminism hitting the African shores, South African poet, Lebogang Mashile, has always used her artistry to promote the advancement of this cause through performance poetry. In her opening performance at the 4th edition of the Lagos International Poetry Festival (LIPFest) held recently at the amphitheatre of the Freedom Park, Lagos, Mashile peeks through the eyes of fellow South African, Saartje Baartman, an indentured servant who later became popular in Europe’s Circus world in the 19th century. In this interview with Ikenna Obioha, she walks us through the impact Baartman has had on her as an artiste, a mother, and also gives her views on feminism and how it has shifted so many narratives.
For your theme, you chose Sara Baartman. Why?
Saartje Baartman has been an inspiration and muse of mine for quite some time. I first came across her work… well, not her work, her life story – let me rather say – about 20 years ago when I was a student in the university, and I was dealing with finding my own voice as an artist; dealing with finding my politics as a black woman, as a feminist, and the story just came to me and struck me. The horrific nature of what she endured never left me, and, then, about a decade later, after I had become quite famous in South Africa and after I had experienced like as an artist and all the struggles, living in this body as an African woman, Saartje story came back to me and made even more sense. I kind of came to the realisation that all of us, in some way, shape or form, were Sara Baartmans. In the last two years, I began the process of deliberately developing this piece.
As a mother, how does she influence you?
Saartje had two children that she lost before she even went to Europe. Saartje was captured, brought to Cape Town as an indentured servant; her home was in the Hunter’s River Valley in the Eastern Cape. She ended up at Cape Town as an indentured servant, which was basically more like a slave. She had children while she was there, and she actually was coerced but made the decision to go to Europe, so I look at her story as a “tremendous loss”. My children right now are with my mother and with my sister, and, if I didn’t have the support system that I have, I wouldn’t be able to do the work I do now. And doing the work that I do means often packing the suitcase and leaving my children behind. I thank God I haven’t had to deal with the actual loss of a child. I have had to… like many Africans who are reeling from issues of migrant labour, which are systemic in my country, and have been across generations. I have to deal with the reality of leaving my children behind and to go and work. I try to embrace the totality of who Saartje is: as a mom who has lost a lover and an artiste whose voice was silence; a woman who lost her country; a woman who lost the ability to speak for herself; who has been spoken for the last 200 years. For me, becoming a mother really deepened my feminism; it made my feminism and action a lot more radical than it was before, because I realised that this world is anti-feminist, it’s anti-women bodies, it’s anti-children, it’s anti-family. Saartje probably got the worst and the best of the stick possible as did many women who experienced slavery.
The #metoo movement in the United States is gathering momentum. In Africa, women have always taken the backseat. What’s your view on the #metoo movement and how does it affect women in South Africa as you can only speak for them?
I find #metoo to be an incredibly exciting movement; I think this moment in history where the world is waking up to the very long struggle against injustices that have been perpetuated against women in the name of misogyny and patriarchy. The fact that people are finally waking up and realising is extraordinary and wonderful, and I am grateful I live in the time when this is happening. I’ve been waiting for the last two years for this tidal wave to hit Africa. In my country, we have a president for nine years who was on trial for rape before he got elected, and the woman who accused him of rape, the woman who he did rape –it is a terrible story –she considered him to be her uncle. She was living in his house under the auspices of him helping her go to school, and he raped her. As a result of that rape trial, she ended up going into exile from South Africa.
Eventually, she came back; but she came back to a country that was so hostile toward her; she couldn’t work and, eventually, she passed away. This was a very young woman who wasn’t much older than myself. Right now in South Africa, there is a major rape trial taking place. In fact, it has to do with a Nigerian pastor, a very wealthy man, for basically keeping a harem of young women in his house who he systematically abused and raped, and the backlash against him is enormous.
When Kuzwayo was raped 12 years ago by Jacob Zuma, it was a backlash against her. To now see a backlash against this pastor, it shows that something is shifting; but I think we still live in a continent where patriarchy and misogyny are so deeply entrenched, that until we start to break down those strongholds of power that men wield in very toxic ways, until we start to tackle toxic masculinity and until women start to get more economic power, more education; more power to leave abusive relationships and abusive situations, it is going to be very difficult to have the kind of man’s world we see in the united states.
How do you view the Lagos International Poetry Festival, as you have been here before. Has it improved?
Yes. It is amazing. I am excited by this line-up; the standard of poetry is always very high here. It is exciting to see the reach of the festival growing. Now, people are aware of the festival, even in South Africa. The community of people that I speak to on social media are so intrigued by Lagos and by the LIPFEST, by the possibility of us being able to have a conversation with each other as a continent. This festival plays a very important role, and the fact that it has created and curated by artists, by poets by practitioners themselves, is really important, because there is a different. When you make this art, you have a different ear for it, and you hear that in the quality of people who have been selected, and I am excited.
What’s your favourite Nigerian food?
Oh God! That’s so hard. I love yam porridge, vegetable soup, catfish pepper-soup, fish stew (laughs).
This Xhosan beadwork you are wearing over your gown looks African, what do you call it?
I don’t know the name. This is from KwaZulu-Natal.