I had the rare pleasure of spending this morning with the poet laureate of South Africa Keorapetse Kgositsile, to conduct interviews with him as part of my PhD research methodology, at the Department of Arts and Culture in Pretoria, where he is the advisor for the minister. Kgositsile is full of humility and understanding. Both these qualities make it possible for us to work together. I have to constantly pinch myself and rouse myself to full consciousness of who I’m conversing with when I talk to him. But it doesn’t take long to remember that I’m in the company of greatness because every now and then he will talk about spending time with Pharoah and Thembi listening to Coltrane; and it’ll suddenly hit me that this man played a monumental role in the civil rights movement and Black Arts Movement, and also co-founded the African Literature Association in 1974.
All of this is neatly shrouded in his humility as he helps me trace the historical movements of people, artefacts, music, texts, belief systems, instruments, and linguistic patterns transnationally between African states and black America. In my quest to build a digital archive and write a solid and water-tight thesis on this sage of our times I often need him to tell as many facts as possible; which means at times I have to push him to drop names: Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brookes, Ntemi Piliso, Archie Shepp, Miriam Makeba, Jonas Gwangwa, Nina Simone, The Last Poets, Max Stanford, Pharoah Sanders, Max Roach; the list is impressive and goes on and on. He’s lived with them all and shared various discourses and inspirations with them.
Here is this man, living in our midst. NOW! His second quality I admire is that he fully understands. Prof. Kgositsile will always make time to engage and have a robust conversation with me because he fully understands the value of the work I do. He is a living archive and yearns to share with our generation any kind of knowledge system that is culture-related. We have long conversations, 3 hours at a time, where he has to rely heavily on memory since we are tracing his life work from the 1950s. The dedication he has shown to being fully involved in my PhD is truly humbling to me, daughter of the Bahananwa. He understands that “everything is everything”, as he told me: that every component of our everyday lives contributes to a whole, and is as important as the whole itself. There is no one without the other.
When I see the joy and gratitude that it brings to this elder to have a young person dedicate their time to unearthing an archive through intense perusal of personal histories and trajectories, it validates within me and teaches me that our elders are human libraries. We have to engage them. We cannot learn everything from institutions. There is no body of work out there on our poet laureate (today we were correcting some of the information on his Wikipaedia page); it gives me great pleasure and purpose to trust myself with the duty and honour of preserving and writing history, of championing the artistic struggle for freedom, and of correcting the misconstrued perspective that our predecessors were not involved in any monumental innovation in known history.
I pray for strength…
Read more about Keorapetse Kgositsile here: