Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

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Tjawangwa TJ Dema

Author Bio

TJ Dema

TJ Dema runs Sauti Arts and Performance Management managing contemporary and traditional poets, vocalists, and instrumentalists, as well as finding ways to sneak poetry into public platforms such as radio and television through public service announcements, voice-overs, and narration for documentaries. She was a participant in the Lancaster University and British Council Crossing Borders project, a mentor to the Power in the Voice national champions, and has been a guest writer for the University of Warwick’s International Gateway for Gifted Youth program. Additionally, she has performed for a number of African heads of state, been commissioned to write for Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee, and shared poetry in France, Denmark, India, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and elsewhere. She is a member of the international poetry and music ensemble Sonic Slam Chorus. As a delegate, she read at the 31st Cambridge Seminar on Contemporary Literature and as a former chairperson of the Writers Association of Botswana she co-edited the association’s 30th anniversary edition journal and has previously produced a CD recording of 12 Batswana poets.

People have negotiated over wombs for centuries.

Ownership of fertile or safe space and the ability to create life, art, and industry is a reoccurring theme in mankind’s story. And despite the womb being both home and creator, there was a time when the word poko (poetry) or leboko (poem) conjured ideas of an elder man reciting at the coronation of a king. I say man because poetry in Botswana was for the longest time the exclusive domain of men.

Fast forward to the year 2012 and poets’ stages are now cafes, auditoriums, corporate dinners, and the radio rather than tribal administration centers known as the Kgotla. This change in poetry venues has had a palpable, unexpected effect: when you ask this generation of Batswana to name a poet, oftentimes they name a young woman. (I speak from an urban space and of spoken word poetry rather than traditional praise forms, which are still very much alive. Traditional praise forms are performed exclusively in national languages including, but not limited to, Setswana and by mostly male poets.)

No other Motswana living at any other time could have written the poems featured here. These poets write about the HIV/AIDS pandemic, of young women who believe they have the right to choose whether or not to have children, and of “the role wombs play in society and how many of them have been poisoned by our irresponsible actions.” Whatever the poets’ ages or concerns, their voices are current. They live in a time no other Motswana could have envisioned prior to independence. We have restricted these poets to the theme “womb” and the space of one page, even though many like Andreattah Chuma and Mandisa Mabuthoe are used to selecting their own themes and speaking their poems aloud. A poet and senior lecturer at the University of Botswana, Barolong Seboni calls this “the paradox of loss in preservation”; in the noble endeavor to share these poets’ work, we have contained some of these poets whose first love is live performance.

Our home, this womb called Botswana, gained independence from Great Britain in 1966. As a former protectorate with no capital within its borders, its administrative center was in neighboring South Africa. It inherited little to no infrastructure other than a five-kilometre stretch of road that is rumored to have been built for a visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Botswana is now one of the fastest-growing countries in the world, home to the world’s biggest diamond mine and exporter of beef to international markets. Its citizens enjoy a heavily subsidized lifestyle (whether or not they agree on this depends on the day’s political agenda) at least in terms of education and access to health care. The population only recently reached two million nationwide. This is the big picture of Botswana, the space giving birth to these voices—a self-made country still in its democratic and infrastructural infancy but making an honest attempt at mothering its young.

Enter the poets, those askers of tough questions, those shameless belaborers of points, those chief whips of any establishment with polemical strophes. What is on their minds? Are they seeking inconvenient truths by questioning a system and its elected guardians or are they drunk on mother’s milk, speaking only of love and peace in a 1960s manner? Perhaps these poets have no collective agenda except to tell their stories and those of their communities. Perhaps these stories are not always front-page material or do not fit the donate-a-dollar-a-day image of Africa, but they are our stories and no one has more right to tell them than those born of this space called Botswana.

Even in 2012, it is controversial in Botswana for a young woman to get up and speak publicly about sexual desire or her body, or for a young man to aggressively question authority. The reprimand ga se botho covers a plethora of sins; it means something is not acceptable morally or socially and may raise questions about the quality of his or her upbringing.

Make no mistake, the voices featured here are in the midst of a revolution. Perhaps their Molotov cocktail is more word than fire; our history tells us that as a people we are not easily drawn to a firefight. We have a saying in Setswana, ntwakgolo ke ya molomo, that means “the most honorable battle is that which is fought with the mouth,” a kind of pen being mightier than the proverbial sword. Still, the younger the poet starts, the bolder his or her language and performance. Sometimes this furthers a poetic agenda; sometimes it is equal parts bluster and noise.

This brings us to the poetry of these particular poets, who range in age from 19 to the mid-fifties. What of form? I speak here of the canonized constructs of poetry borrowed from the global north. The poems here do not immediately fit literary forms popularized in high school textbooks—no Shakespearean sonnets or villanelles—however, there is a method to the visual madness, and reason even where there is no rhyme. Our preoccupation is with story, our obsession is with stories, and so the poem’s first duty becomes, for us, a way to drive a narrative before it champions form or an easily namable technique.

More than ever, this generation of (spoken word) poets falls within Botswana’s traditional poetic form. The poets themselves may speak English and sport torn denims and statement T-shirts rather than cow-hide garments, but their passion for live performance remains. A focus on story and acoustics is still paramount.

I previously facilitated the selection of Batswana poets for an interview that can be found here, and later recorded twelve of these poets for the CD Dreaming is a gift for me, on which some of the poets featured here read their work aloud.

Do you know that the word hysterectomy (removal of part or all of the womb) is derived from the word hystera meaning womb? And that by extension the word hysterical comes from the Greek word hysterikos meaning to suffer from the womb? And that in the 1600s the term hysterical referred to a “neurotic condition peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus”? How far we’ve come and how far we still have yet to go! Out of some kind of hysterikos of my own, with the intention of obliterating this kind of thinking entirely, I asked more female than male poets to contribute to this feature; in the end, there is an equal split between the sexes. I simply accept this as the universe’s endless negotiation for balance. I ask only that each reader engage with the work in the spirit it was created—as a poem meant for you.

I am proud to present alongside these poems several works of art by Motswana artist Sedireng Mothibatsela whose work speaks for itself.

I enjoyed the process of curating this second Fusion and moreso the outcome, this birthing of some small part of Botswana’s poetry. On behalf of the featured poets, Re a leboga, le kamoso—we thank you, may tomorrow bring the same good fortune for us all.