Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 1-26
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The Early Career of D. L. P. Yali-Manisi, Thembu Imbongi
David Livingstone Phakamile Yali-Manisi (1926-99) was not just a Xhosa poet, but a traditional Xhosa oral poet, an imbongi. In offering this narrative of the early career of a Xhosa imbongi, I address concerns distinct from those who use folklore texts as an incidental springboard for theoretical debate, and revert to a perspective advocated by Mark Azadovskii in his classic study, A Siberian Tale Teller, published in 1926. Azadovskii called for greater attention to be paid to "the biographical element" by collectors and researchers: "The tale," he wrote, "contains deep traces of personal experience and of the events in the narrator's life. His experience, his ability to observe, his occupation with this or that handiwork, as well as his own personal characteristics, all of this has an enormous influence on the retelling of a tale" (7). He cited approvingly W. Berendsohn's response to the tale collection of the Brothers Grimm:
It is incumbent on us to learn from the environment and the atmosphere in which narration takes place, from the relationship of the narrators to their audiences, from the contents of narrative art. Above all, however, we would like to get to know, through detailed descriptions, the narrators as well as their entire repertoire of stories, in order to interpret the importance of the personality in the restructuring of the Märchen; for we are no doubt dealing with highly gifted people with rich phantasies and strong memories, with artistic types who are the equals of outstanding creative writers in the world of literature. (13)
Focusing on the life of one specific oral poet in this way frees us from the generalizations necessarily entailed in the definition of a tradition.
The greatest of all iimbongi(the plural form of the Xhosa noun) was Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi (1875-1945). In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela recalls how deeply he was affected by one of Mqhayi's performances: during Mandela's final year as a student at Healdtown, in 1938, Mqhayi paid a visit to the school, and produced for the assembled students an oral poem (the Xhosa term is izibongo) that aroused conflicting emotions in the future President of South Africa, who found himself torn between "pride in myself as a Xhosa and a feeling of kinship with other Africans" (50). Mandela was "galvanized, but also confused by Mqhayi's performance" (49), caught between his parochial ethnic identity as a Thembu and his emergent nationalistic identification with all Africans.
Mqhayi, Mandela tells us, was an imbongi, "a praise singer, a kind of oral historian who marks contemporary events and history with poetry that is of special meaning to his people" (47). When the entire school had gathered in the dining hall, Mqhayi walked in "dressed in a leopard-skin kaross and matching hat [and] carrying a spear in either hand" (47-48). In [End Page 1] a soft voice, hesitatingly, the visiting poet delivered a speech that astonished his audience with outspoken predictions of the future triumph of black over white in South Africa, and served to introduce the performance of an izibongo:
Mqhayi then began to recite his well-known poem in which he apportions the stars in the heavens to the various nations of the world. I had never before heard it. Roving the stage and gesturing with his assegai towards the sky, he said that to the people of Europe--the French, the Germans, the English--"I give you the Milky Way, the largest constellation, for you are a strange people, full of greed and envy, who quarrel over plenty." He allocated certain stars to the Asian nations, and to North and South America. He then discussed Africa and separated the continent into different nations, giving specific constellations to different tribes. He had been dancing about the stage, waving his spear, modulating his voice, and now, suddenly, he became still, and lowered his voice...