Interview and Poems of Tswagare Namane

Tswagare Namane Interview by Carolina Mbali Cohen

“Freedom means your re-organization and re-growth into the full divine being you deserve to be. The regrowth must be in all dimensions – mentally, spiritually, physically, etc, etc. True revolution begins with the individual re-assuming the reigns over their destiny. A truth that is external to the individual has all the potential to be false and manipulative; not until it coincides with your internal truth.

So, true freedom does not start with some angelic figure descending from the heavens to deliver you from the teeth of tyranny. It begins with you re-organizing and re-gathering your own truth, and your re-growing of faith in yourself and the sanctity of your senses. Freedom starts with everyone of us, it is a lived experience; we can only be free if we have experienced the reality of being free individually.”
– Tswagare Namane

What does poetry mean for you in particular?

Poetry is a practice and art-form which has come to us through colonial education, but has grown roots and mutated into completely unpredictable variants. Poetry is not to me what it perhaps was to Shakespeare, for instance. For us, notwithstanding the absurdity of it being in a language completely non-native to us, it has become like the acquisition of an artificial limb. It should be understood that under the new circumstances of the stagnation of our languages of origin, their inadequacy as platform for especially intellectual development, our genius needed to find other forms and vehicles for its expression. Poetry to the Westerner may essentially be about the beauty of the language, for us it is a conduit for saying the unsaid, or what you may call the still unsayable in our deformed languages particularly in the urban and more cosmopolitan circumstances. It is more like the African sensibility in North America adopting Western instruments and finding expression in jazz music.

What does it mean to you, practising poetry in the English language in a country and continent with so many diverse languages?

Coming to think of it, it does indeed seem quite frivolous; especially in a country of about 50 million with only 2% of active book buyers in a heavily racialized market and English as one of the minority languages out of a total of 11. English remains the main language of education in South Africa, all from the legacy of colonial accident. Anomalous as it might seem, it has become the language of exploring the world and expressing our encounters with that world. With freedom our indigenous languages will regenerate again and in the end attain the status of self-sufficiency. In the meantime the beat must go on. Our works will perhaps be translated one day and find resonance in the hearts of our people. It is almost like the situation where an African from one country can only fly to the next via a Western capital; the congenital defects from colonization.

In the Western world poetry is more of a tradition with inherently set standards, what challenges does this pose ?

The outsider approaches poetry in a foreign language in a much more inventive way, with more artistic space and leverage – in a more intercultural way. We make English to think the thoughts of the outsider, inverting the image of the language so that it can now see itself from the perspective of the outsider. The poet here is preoccupied with domesticating the language, so that it begins to now express his own reality. I believe that the genius of the African poet should be judged on the basis that he has now made colonial languages say things they were never capable of saying, Africanising them in a way. Jazz music invented by African people in America cannot be judged on what it cannot accomplish in the eyes of classical music; it must be judged by what it has attained in giving conduit to certain aspects of the American sensibility and indeed that of the world in general.

What would you then say informs your work technically speaking and stylistically?

Our own cultures and languages become the first reservoir for our creativity. Our largely oral indigenous languages, certainly among the oldest in the world, are informed through and through with poetic idiom. There is what is called Praise Poetry to draw from; but then because of the forced multilingualism, sources of influence then become variegated and more Pan African. Poetry in modern Africa is more individual in approach, less standardized and thus quite deep in a mystical kind of way. One cannot discount also those early influences from Western sources.

Can you elaborate more on the individual approach?

The urban encounter is for the artist more individual and less communal; this is more so for those of us who had to spend many years in exile. So you learn to find a balance between the two ways of existence, the traditional and the contemporary – I shy away from using the word modern. You have moments of solitude and deep contemplation, interspersed with instances of communal camaraderie.

Your art, your poetry is eventually about what?

All aspects of life as I encounter it – love, death, history, politics, nature and the whole lot. It ultimately reflects this schizophrenia, the split between the communal/traditional and the individual/contemporary.

What role does spirituality play in your creative process?

The word spirituality is a very difficult and evasive word. I am inspired by the African worldview, which sees a link between the physical and the non-physical, between the living and the dead. The creative urge within me is the impetus from past creatives in my bloodline. There were artists in my past, although they are unknown to me, it is their genes that have activate the creative urge in me. Every creative moment in me is a reversion and return to their spirit.



Going back to my Babylon

I sit in a flying SAA plane
Hemmed in by total strangers

High above blueness of skies

Clods of cloud all about us
Like mountain peaks of snow

Land a blurry distance down

Amidst this constant hum and drone
As giant bird pushes through
Suspended in capsule of timelessness

In humdrum of vacuous conversation
Courses of food that taste like candles

The flight attendants now cast into gods

Middle-aged men but frumpish matrons
With Sunbeam faces that light up space

Throw us lifeline from suffocating ennui
Assuaging grind from the mechanical air

Rousing us back with amiable small talk

What awaits the other end 20 years on?


At long last

We make gut-churning descent
Through mists of shifting cloud

Onto a sprawling Dar es Salaam
Dotted all over with coconut tree

At the airport

Same old chummy officials
Better human who speaks Swahili

They do things tardy as ever
A hint of underhand dealings

Stepping into the city is like

Stepping into a blasting furnace
As if God exhales into your face


A hustle-bustle in the ancient city
Where once Wazaramo haggled world

Now grapples pangs of modernism
Tall buildings sprout everywhere

And so hang precarious
Suspended over swarms of dwelling

Like elephantiasis legs
Along claustrophobic streets

Myriads mill in all directions
A push and jostle for space

Lurid billboards holler for attention

Things happen at spinning pace

Hooting-tooting cars all over
Truly a dog-eats-dog kind of city

Where only vilest-of-vile survive

Yet in the night all somehow
Morphs into true haven of peace

Amid the more fortunate suburbs
Along the generous sea-front

The pureness of ample breeze
And the universal quiet

Humble you into religiosity


Today we went out to Lumumba

Out to Upanga and Kinondoni
Went searching for our past

Seeking to retrieve lost selves
Ancient sarcophagi and buried tomb

Memory’ sands hardly a generation old

All sense of familiarity almost erased
New life sprouted amid ancient ruins

Familiar haunts now haunted grounds
Everybody dead or simply gone away

Yukowapi yule wa wale
mapasha manene
Aah, na yule mama ameshafariki zamani

Was it a pogrom after our departure

A kind of ethnic-cleansing exercise
All unearthing ends in disappointment

All just tapering tale of unending woe
To eradicate all footprints of our past

Where are the protagonists of our exile

Who gave without thought of tomorrow
That loved biblical in loveless moments

A paternal instinct that knows no border
Surrogate motherhood in true practice

All are now just evaporated into thin air

Left behind faces that only wear sneers

Did we stay away for far too long
So in the end they threw hands in air

Decided we were not truthful after all
Reckoned we have forgotten them

Now that we feed at master’s trough

Or was exile just a self-fulfilling fiction
Mere creation of a fecund imagination

Tall tales just to assuage and mitigate
Momentous insipidity of common being

meaninglessness of bland living
In the timeless inanity that is existence

Was it only a ploy so we could recast
Ourselves into heroes to rule over others

In truth is there nobility of character
Chivalry or all the stuff of great myths


In the mornings I huff and puff
Around the serene surroundings

Consular and ambassadorial abode
Along winding the Oyster Bay road

Frenetic already with SUV activity
All rushing to beat traffic to work

Sea-fresh breeze is invigorating

On horizon ships waiting to dock
Rowing fishermen on sea’s back

Stench of rotting seaweed thick

And there it was glorious as ever
enormous baobab tree
100s of years old and indelible

One limb bursting concrete walling
Something I knew once is still here

My Babylon days not mere fantasia
I work my way back utterly fulfilled

The roads into town are clogging up

Maybe history can only be
As a collective endeavour

Individual experience is just
A delusion of grandeur

Personal reality a mere fantasy
Existence but sum of dreamings

Thus our elders philosophized
Being can only be out of others

Motho ke motho ka batho ba bang


The city centre gets gridlocked

With motorcars in the evenings
A complete standstill on roads

Blues of post-Nyerere loosen up
Commuters throng about bus stops

Only into night do things ease up

There is a contestation of space here
Concrete edifices zoom up everywhere

We stroll along Samora Machel Road
Past Askari Monument at the circle

Hawkers’ wares all over the walkways

We lose ourselves in what used to be
Mkwepu Street where our offices were

Salamander and Twiga Hotel no more
Once hunting ground to freedom fighter

At balcony we savour harbour by night
A glitzy cruise vessel amid glitter at sea

Somewhere below in one of those buildings

is one time holding cell for outbound slaves
Here Arabs did brisk trade in human beings

So will that history slowly fritter away too
In another truth and reconciliation maneuver

There is no Monday, Tuesday or Saturday

Evenings we loll outside taverns and hotels
Quaffing Safari Lager or even Castle Light

And snacking on grilled meats and salad
To escape overbearing torpidity in house

An expanse of beaches and tropical islands

Of banana, coconut, pawpaw and mango
Centre where Africa welcomes the world

Al haji, monk and m’ganga dine together
Here everyone can just become a m’swahili

A citizenship that only demands your heart

Tomorrow I will head home to pronounce
The Tanzania of Julius Nyerere is no more

All now scrap heap of foreign gloss and bling
A mangled wreck of our hopes and dreams


walk along the sandy beach
In the spotlight of midday sun

Lubricated by the wet breeze
Keeping to firm wetter ground

I scamper away with little crabs
At constant lashings of the sea

This beach wouldn’t it have been

Prettier with a little taking care of
The removal of occasional flotsam

Plastic debris and rotting seaweed
And the heaps piled up along edges

Is it because it’s only a people’s facility

They continue to swim nevertheless
Muslim women in full baibui dip in

Young boys and girls living out fancies

Returning a sudden feeling grips me
Along the road teeming with cars

The dry sand exhaling heat at me
The pervasive sense of strangeness

That beset me at my first arrival here

Tomorrow I will go away from here
Go encounter my other Dar es Salaams


And then upon taking off

On leaving
A Dar es Salaam of bays

Islets and peninsulas
Emerald green in bounties of sea

The intense lover that once was mine
Bids me bye in full magnificence

TSWAGARE NAMANE (A Short Biography)

In exile Tswagare Namane was in the propaganda section of the liberation movement, contributing in underground journals and working in beaming liberation programmes into South Africa from Radio Tanzania – East Africa; where he also contributed in local English language newspapers including Daily News, Sunday News and The Express. Back in South Africa post-struggle he has done a lot of freelance work, mostly for community newspapers. His poem, African Demagoguery, features in Fate of Vultures published by Heinemann courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and various others appear in anthologies published around the world. Transitions, a collection of poems, was published by Avon Books of London in 1997. He has since further published two poetry books internationally – Changes, Man! and My Land (Bits and Pieces), besides having edited poetry books that are also on the international market. Tswagare Namane has just finished the first book of his three-part autobiography – Echoes of Fragmentation (The Milk Years); and another book of poetry, Mixed Bag of Priorities. Absolution is his one-man-act stage drama on Aids, which was the highlight of Aids Week in 1991 at the German Cultural Centre (Goethe Institute) in Dar es Salaam. Several of his other plays have been performed around South Africa, including the two-hander Fence Fence Lahla, which he co-wrote and performed in at the Soweto Drama Festival against Crime, Funda Centre in 1997. In 1994 his letter, Bop Mayhem, won a prize on BBC Focus on Africa Magazine. He has also dabbled in radio-plays and screenwriting.

Mr Namane is otherwise an arts policy researcher with post graduate qualifications from Witwatersrand University and has done research work for some high profile organisations. He is also a trumpet player who has featured in various productions around the North West province and an avid Facebook activist. After working from the obscurity of exile and then community activism upon his return, Tswagare Namane’s work is only now gaining public attention in South Africa and he is no doubt a writer of the future in the continent. Having stayed in countries like Nyerere’s Tanzania and Sekou Toure’s Guinea, his work carries with it influences from these giant African thinkers – the kind of education which is a must for the emerging generations.; or on Facebook, Tswagare Namane: Samples from my Writings or My Notes.

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