Gabeba Baderoon: A gentle poetess

Gabeba Baderoon: A gentle poetess


With the advance of time come changes in the patterns of behaviour in humankind’s acts and interactions; we stop behaving in a certain manner and adopt new mannerisms because the old way is found lacking, is not consummate to, or, concomitant with the ways of the new character of man just found in the new era. When women began fighting for their rights in the late 1800’s (remember the suffragettes of United Kingdom and their militant stance for the right to vote), many chauvinistic sceptics that sought to confine or to limit their role to the confined domestic spaces of the kitchen and the house, they thought that women would not win this battle.

The years passed, and in 1956, women stood hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder in the fight against the oppression of apartheid on the human race (I choose to use the term ‘human’ for these women were of various races, colours, and creeds). Risking ruthless cudgels, batons, knuckledusters, steel-toed boots, teargas and rubber bullets, they bravely sent their petition to be rid of the Dompas to the Union Buildings, and in a lot of ways won the fight in the stead of their male kin.

Fast forward to the present day, women have taken their rightful role as the teachers of communication; they are teachgabeba-baderooning the world how to speak. Their language is made of intricate verses expressing the love and care of woman for her children and her male companion, they sound like an exhortation for the male human kind to be more loving, more caring, more considerate in the inevitable day to day world where we human beings are forced to share the confined spaces of the city and the suburb, the hamlet and the village. We cannot run away from each other, or, speak to each other with constant fisticuffs and black-eyes; there is a more gentle way that we can use to address each other. And woman teaches us the language of the new way.

The silent Amazon I am to focus on this day, Gabeba Baderoon, was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on the 21st of February 1969. She currently lives and works between Cape Town, South Africa, and Pennsylvania, Unites States, where she serves as an Associate Professor of Women’s Studies, African, and African-American Studies at Penn State University. Gabeba Baderoon is the 2005 recipient of the Daimler Chrysler Award for South African Poetry. In the years of her tertiary education, she in 1989 received her Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Cape Town in English and Psychology. She then went on to receive her Honours Degree in English (awarded in the First Class) from the University of Cape Town BA Honours program. She attained her Master of Arts in English with Distinction at the University of Cape Town in Postmodernist Television (Media Studies), and in 2004 completed her doctoral studies in Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, the same year spending time at the University of Sheffield, UK, as a Visiting Scholar. She also completed her dissertation entitled, “Oblique Figures: Representations of Islam in South African Media and Culture.” She has read her poetry the world over, but upon meeting her one is overwhelmed by the simplicity and the gentleness of the tone of her voice, the depth of knowledge that hints at her academic accomplishment, which however, remains masked by her humility (she is very humble, so humble that a further in-depth reading into her achievements is sure to leave you wondering whether you really met her in the real).

We met in a town on the shores of the Cape, and Gabeba Baderoon gave a first impression that will surely last in my head; and it was an impression of how women can really influence the way we view language. It is our sole means of communication that needs to be approached with a humble demeanour; unlike the scattered carelessness many treat their mother tongues due to the simple fact that their home languages have taken second place to foreign ones considered more significant.

I honestly knew not who she was until I bothered to look her up in that new-fangled digital book of manuscripts found on the world-wide-web where one can find anything from the vaguely known to the popular. Throughout all the conversations we had in the course of the conference she never hinted to her being this gargantuan figure in poetry, the echo of whose voice reverberates from the bleached peaks of the Cape to the Far-East gardens of Japan. She speaks in a gentle voice, the tone of which leaves a lingering memory that guarantees that one never forgets whatever it is she shared no matter how brief the encounter.

She made me aware that women view us men as brothers, fathers, husbands, friends and sons; nothing more, nothing less. This is one of the main reasons why women are such good teachers of language, they give the gist of language and not the whit we menfolk often give to strangers to our language (one of the truths I know about us menfolk is that we teach first the cuss words before we give the full language to the stranger…). Women are born to communicate, they are born to knit and sew together the fabric of humanity, and one of the simple ways they can achieve this act is by giving the core of language to budding humans and to those who do not understand their language.

There are very few occasions in the life of a woman where she will resort to violence rather than converse her concerns. This is due to the simple fact that they understand their male counterparts better than they understand themselves, they are the arrangers of the world and so naturally know what sits where; as is revealed in these lines she wrote on her brother in My Tongue Softening on the Other Name:

At night, on an upturned paint tin, he sits

in the presence of growing things.

Light wells over the rim of the stone basin

and collects itself into the moon.

Everything is finding its place.

A popular preacher I know used to state that a man finds completion in the company of his females. A man on his own finds it hard to arrange his dreams and his house (known from experience), they just are too much of a bother, and I believe, we male members of this specie are somewhat lacking in visual logic to know the location of things. In her work, Gabeba tackles mainly questions of identity, the essence of the self, physicality, and her works also have a political aspect.

In South Africa, poetry has always been a voice during enforced silence, a chance to create socio-political consciousness for the masses that otherwise would have gone on to suffer under the yoke of oppression. With the change in season and the introduction of the new system of governance in the early 1990’s and the Beijing Conference of 1994, there are other new realities that came to the surface. The emancipation of women was the most prominent among them, but familial relations also revealed themselves to be a salient area of focus for the world, and poets like Gabeba Baderoon have come out to show its significance, that is, the significance of family ties, of relationships, of communication across cultures, religions, and political spheres.

One does not just sense the beauty of the verse, but one also gets the sense of her depth in the poetry she writes; there is that sense of unity at the end of every stanza represented by colour, motif, or union of bodies in embrace or coitus. In this manner, she manages to seal her poetry, makes it feel more complete to he or she that reads it. In the title poem The Dream in the Next Body, one gets the sense of union with which she seals every stanza of her deep poetry:

 When you touched me in a dream,

Your skin an hour ago did not end

Where it joined mine. 

My body continued

The movement of yours. 

Something flowed between us like birds in a flock.

We fail to understand each other as human beings from different ethnic groups and tribes because of the differences in language; we do not speak each other’s tongues, and in the process, fail to execute the full process of communication. Sometimes that little difference in language is not much of a problem if people commit to making a concerted effort to bridge the gaps in understanding between languages, by translating the original language into other languages so that the beauty of the poetry and meanings can be understood by people from other cultures and race groups.

These are words I got from Gabeba Baderoon, and I was later to find out that this is what she has done with most of her published poetry. It has been read in other languages different from her original English versions because she feels that her poetry needs to be shared across the globe, and in this manner her concerns as a woman, a wife, and a sister can be shared with people from other cultures. Some of the most significant strides in the history of the human race have been made by bridging gaps in the stream of communication. Think of the world before internet, before popular media, before all the advancements in the communication sector of human technology, and you will realise how important communication is, but for communication to occur, we first need to understand each other’s languages: translation offers us the opportunity to understand each other across the language barriers.

To a poet, meeting a poetess (forgive the political incorrectness, but I happen to be very particular when it comes to the gender of terms) is reminiscent to meeting a muse, the other side of the coin; for women indeed in their words define the universe better than we lowly men. Speaking is a travail we boys achieve later than girls in the years of our toddler-hood, it is therefore naturally wise that we should follow in the wake of the female voices in their poetry; for it could point us to a more harmonious existence on the horizons of a new age in human advancement.

Brainwashed, inculcated, modified, one can be by the words of any individual whose message is of peace and harmony. The protest song or poem often does not necessitate violence or bravado, but these are values male hegemony has taught to the world. It is in the words of Gabeba Baderoon that one finds as fact that the poem of protest need not be violent but needs to be firm in its words to the counterpart and the reader. A clear example is found in the poem Contemporary Architecture which gently states:

There are places

where you take your shoes off

at the door.

Even Moses had to take his sandals off when he encountered the burning bush, and so, when one is in the presence of greatness, one should remember to take off their hat or cap and keep it in the palm of their hand. There is much I could say on this poetess from Port Elizabeth, but words are not enough to define Gabeba’s greatness as an individual human being who remembers how to be humble before the ignorant. She does not teach manly bravado to me, she reveals a simple fact that women are the best teachers when it comes to the languages of mankind. She teaches that we should always strive to understand other people’s languages and cultures because they are vital to understanding the full complexity of the human race. Where could we be if there were no poets that bothered to simplify the vast maze of human understanding in their verses and stanzas? I guess we would still be stuck in the dim netherworlds where the language was of grunts and extreme violence. Women’s words serve as a salve to assuage the anguish of the pain of misunderstanding; or so I know the cooling effect of the voice of the poetess from Port Elizabeth.

  1. S. Mothibi, Esq.  
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