To highlight World Poetry Day on 21 March the University of Cape Town (UCT) newsroom is featuring poetical works from the campus community. Resoketswe (Shoki) Manenzhe, an award-winning writer and PhD candidate in the Centre for Minerals Research in the Department of Chemical Engineering, submitted a poem about disconnection.
Manenzhe is also the author of Scatterlings and winner of the 2020 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award, presented by the Jacana Literary Foundation in conjunction with Exclusive Books. The title will be on the shelves in September.
an African in London
His mother’s song leaks through
If follows his father’s name –
given to him, spit into the sea
when he was poured from the Orange River.
What is left is the twang he echoes from
the New World.
Coldly, it beats the cobblestone
of London like a drum.
And the beggar woman –
her tongue thick with civil war and exile
– sings her poverty to the congregation.
Manenzhe explained, “This one came out of my frustration with myself because I’m a non-English writer who writes solely in English. I had a dream in English, and I realised that more and more I’m starting to think in English.
“I’m very uncomfortable with that because I love my home language a lot, but it just turned out that it’s easier for me to communicate with my immediate world in English, which has, in turn, begun to ‘change’ me.
“I magnified this by imagining the same dilemma for someone who had completely left their world, like a refugee, someone whose ability to communicate could literally help or hinder their survival. Hence ‘an African in London.’ ”
Disconnection is also a leitmotif in Scatterlings and in episodes from her own life, moving from Giyani to Limburg in Limpopo and later Johannesburg: boarding school, where she first began to explore her thoughts and feeling in words (“The page didn’t judge me”), university (“I was ashamed of my lunch. I didn’t feel nice being there”), the concrete jungle, the flight south to see the sea – and arrival in the Mother of a City (“They didn’t wear shoes. I thought, these are my people!”).
“The page didn’t judge me.”
She was just 17.
Manenzhe had cadged bus fare from her aunt, but with little idea what she might find in Cape Town. Her family had warned her, “If you go to Cape Town, you’ll get purple or blonde hair!” (She’s since done the red mohawk and recently changed back from blonde.)
She did have a scholarship offer from UCT, but nothing had been confirmed. Arriving at the end of O-Week, she found herself in transit for several months, squatting with family and friends in other residences until a place was found for her at Graça Machel Hall.
In the prison that was boarding school, Manenzhe had started writing as a means of coping.
“My body was changing. My environment had changed. I missed my parents and my brothers – we’re a close family.
“I really didn’t understand my world or my life. I had a lot of angst about things in general, so I started writing things down, mostly to preserve them; about how my brothers and I would go into the wild to get berries and things like that. I didn’t write to tell a story. But I wanted my world to have some sort of constant or touchstone. That’s how I got into poetry. I felt the page couldn’t judge me, so that’s why I wrote.”
“I wrote to deal … as a self-therapy. I wrote when I needed to cope with things I couldn’t talk about.”
The first story she wrote expressed her grief after her grandmother’s death; the woman who’d raised her. They’d been so close, close enough to have Manenzhe believe she had two mothers.
“I wrote to deal … as a self-therapy. I wrote when I needed to cope with things I couldn’t talk about to other people.”
Growing up she’d never imagined she could make a profession of writing.
“It seemed such a big, fat, far-fetched dream.”
Chemistry and other careers
Chemical engineering seemed like a good, reliable career.
“I wasn’t five years old and thinking, ‘I want to be a chemical engineer.’ That didn’t happen. I was five years old and thinking: I’ll be an astronaut!
“But I liked chemistry in high school and thought, ah, might as well do something chemical-related.”
Chemical engineering was nothing like chemistry at school. She didn’t like it at first, but somehow fell in love with it as she went along. After completing an honours degree, Manenzhe worked in industry as a junior engineer.
“The work was easy, but everyone was so much older than me. I didn’t belong there.”
Dismayed by the idea that this would be her lot in life, she embarked on a master’s degree, back at UCT, and started writing again. Perhaps publication might support her. In scholarly mode, she did her research. A Stephen King fan, Manenzhe checked out how he’d gone about things as a fledgling author.
“I knew he’d sold a few short stories in his youth.”
Soon she’d written her first short story and her first poem was published. In 2017 two more poems were published in an anthology (that book it still on the family’s living room table).
“That was huge for me. Magic. I got up and danced.”
Last year she won first prize in the short story category at the Writism Festival in Kampala, Uganda, an initiative that identifies, mentors and promotes emerging African writers.
She finds poetry easier to write and collected a lot of material over the years. Her favourite poet surprises: First World War poet Wilfred Owen, a throwback to English lessons at school.
“[His work] just resonated with me. This one poem, “Strange Meeting”, haunted me throughout high school. He and Leonard Cohen were my biggest influences when I started writing poetry.
For now, her writing and PhD work are in tandem. Her doctoral research involves another passion: mining. She jokes about how Johannesburg is merely a backyard to mine dumps, but her thesis investigates how to get residual value from these vast dumps, which also contain traces of toxic substances such as arsenic, lead and uranium.
“The goal is repurposing mine dumps, or at least making them benign.”
World Poetry Day is celebrated on 21 March, and was declared by UNESCO in 1999, “with the aim of supporting linguistic diversity through poetic expression and increasing the opportunity for endangered languages to be heard”.
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