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Archive, or Nkuku says



But woman’s work was never out of season.
Sol T Plaatje

Nkuku says my obsession with naming is what will kill me.
Se sa feleng, I say to her. She throws her voice across the fence,
Mma D! Mma D, ha re utlwa ngwana wa gago. You must let language
speak through you, child. Listen, listen to it or you can never bend it
meaningfully to your will. Her wisdom is upending, unwritten.
Still it winnows the self as threshed grain. I mean that despite surviving
in the mouth, it is treated with suspicion but with age
I am learning to return for more. That last morning she greets me first
and as though I were my father, Dumelang Sebata.
We have rekindled the fire and swiped mogoru repeatedly
through bubbling millet before she will say anything more
than mphe selo seo.

All her life has been an allegiance
to all manner of kings and their errand boys,
to sun and soil.
She is all faith. Her need to kneel, a dance.


I let the question take shape,
half-bend to sweep the yard.
She places a wrinkled palm on my spine.
Steady, steady until my sand strokes
are perfect. The question shifts.


Potso ga se mathata mme mathata
a tlhoka potso. The trouble, our little archivist,
is you think you are the first woman
to become a question, she says.

I resign myself to a day without answers,
carry a tin cup of madila, sugar clutched
child-like in my palm when Nkuku finally
turns to me to say, Your instincts are right,
the sweet goes with the sour.
To live beyond the moment is to move
but to move well
you must first sit still.
You must happen and be the memory of happening.

I think I come here to listen
but Nkuku prays me into being.
I thought it a punishment as a child –
stillness –
I wanted to be lost in the herd. Not between church
and stove. To walk untethered
alongside the men and cows headed out.
I wanted to run and gather the wild with the boys –
but woman’s work was never out of season.

Years later, when my supervisor says the poem
is more movement,
more pattern than rule,
I picture Nkuku’s hands, her swift thumb.
It was she who taught me
The flight of the swallow.
to knit the
the python’s back
and p a l m l e a f.
How to make mokola turn line-like
to form a basket,
the way a poem moves to make room
for whatever is coming.

Far away from home
and long after she is gone, a student is weeping at my door.
A case of double consciousness, her mouth says.
For a moment I think I see Nkuku’s khiba slip
quietly between doors in this country
she had never been to. I hear her beads rattle softly,
Nkuku here, working the mind’s eye. No longer uncertain

I lead the wide-eyed pupil in and hear myself say –
You must be the basket
and the one who harvests the fibre and if I
have taught you anything
you will know to be the grain and the bird,
hungry, as she watches her nestlings.
Knowing there is no choice but to be
the one who moves and sits till.



The epigraph and line ‘But woman’s work was never out of season’ is taken from Sol T Plaatje’s ‘Mhudi’.

The line ‘need to kneel, a dance’ is a variation of a line from Denise Levertov’s poem ‘Of Being’.

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