Having written about Solomon Tshekedi Plaatje, another journalist was brought to my attention around the same time. This was Samuel Edward Krune Loliwe Ngxekengxeke Mqhayi who became famous for his poem about the sinking of the SS Mendi and the recruitment of labour. It struck me that Mqhayi had been writing at home without having experienced the war outside of the home front.
While Plaatje was overseas lobbying for black rights, Mqhayi was in South Africa working as a school teacher and journalist for Imvo (edited by Dr JT Jabavu) becoming famous as a poet. What Plaatje was doing for Tswana, Mqhayi was doing for Xhosa and both through their writing provide an insight into the richness of African culture through African eyes.
Although he published pamphlets or books during the war years, he did not write about the war except in his poetry. His most famous book The Lawsuit of the Twins was published in 1914 looking at Xhosa customs. A new edition in 1915 was much longer. He made an impression, as recorded by Nelson Mandela.
Mqhayi wrote a short autobiography (click on the image to download the file) which unfortunately doesn’t give any particular insight into what he was doing during the 1914-18 war. Yet, it is the war which brought him to my attention and a translation of his Mendi poem by Thabo Mbeki in 2007 (scroll right down although you might want to see the other poets referred to, some of whom were also journalists at the time).
While I have issues with how we are remembering the Mendi today, Mqhayi was an eyewitness of the causes and impact of the loss, and one who can possibly tell us more about life on the home front with a little more digging.
Poetry is not my favourite literary genre but it seems to be an extremely popular form of expression during times of strong emotion and experience.
Over the years I have tried to remember to note where poems appear about World War 1 in Africa. Those I have found are listed on the Great War in Africa Association bibliography (see Poetry tab). These poems mostly concern the war in Africa written by people who served in one of the African theatres.
However, in December 2020, Kathleen Satchwell shared a collection of poems (part 1, part 2) written by South Africans on the war. These mostly concerned the fighting in Europe although East Africa did get a mention as did the Mendi and carriers. Kathie’s talk was broadly chronological from the outbreak of war through to its conclusion, most of the poems following a style recognised in Britain as produced by the British wartime poets – Rupert Brookes etc.
Kathie illustrated her talk with images she’d come across by a South African artist – this provided a refreshing insight into events that have their own dominant narrative.
Using Jay Winter’s ‘Sites of memory’, Kathie equated poetry to being a site of memory in the same way a physical memorial is. In addition to an event being described or used for inspiration, a poem encompasses a feeling or sense of emotion not always conveyed in a more physical memorial. And, as with there being significance behind why a statue was not erected, there is significance in the topics or themes the war poets did not address – a point Kathie touches on too. If you listen carefully, silences speak very loudly.
Kathie’s talk has added to the collection of poets on and from World War 1 in Africa – no doubt there are many others still waiting to be discovered given the myriad publications in which they appear. In due course, they will be added to the GWAA listing.