Harare — ALBERT Nyathi is undoubtedly one of Zimbabwe's greatest poets who has also played a vital role in identifying and nurturing talent in artistes like Mathew "Mateo" Kaunda and Prudence Katomeni-Mbofana. Below, he talks about his life in a discussion with publisher Irene Staunton.
My name is Albert Nyathi. I was born in 1962 in a little village called Kafusi in Matabeleland near the Botswana border. I come from a large family.
My father is a polygamist. He has two wives. From my mother alone, we are 10. The other mother, who is my mother's junior, has nine children. So, we are 19, though actually we are 22 because my father had three other children (out of wedlock).
I am the first born from my mother. My father is a peasant farmer who just grew enough for the family to survive. He also used to buy and sell goats from the countryside for resale in Bulawayo.
I went to a school called Chobeani in the district of Kezi until Grade 3. I left school in 1973. I never really liked school. I used to play truant. There was no role model in our district in education terms. Even the teachers weren't local. Our only role models were those who used to work in the gold mines in Johannesburg. I actually never thought of education as an important factor in my life. All I wanted was to go to Jo'burg, work in the gold mines, come back, buy a few goods and cattle, be a peasant farmer, marry and make merry. That was it. Have fun in the countryside.
After I left school, some time around 1976, I worked in Botswana as a herdboy. There and then, people were coming and going to join the (Zimbabwe liberation) struggle. As a herdboy, I knew some of them. So I joined them, and left the cattle behind. I went to Zambia towards the end of 1976. We travelled with the fighters to Botswana, and eventually to Zambia. We joined Zapu.
At the time, the movement had no idea what to do with us. Initially, it was only elderly people who went to join the struggle, but now there were many of us who were relatively young. They didn't know what to do. And while they were thinking about it, we just sat in a transit camp called Nampundu. Sometimes it was fun. We were mischievous, but it was also boring, and I missed my mother, my father also. He used to beat me up a lot, but I still missed him. We were sometimes homesick. So, If you were lucky, you would sneak out and join a truck in which they collected guys for training.
I was lucky, so I ran away to a training camp called Membeshi, but then I was unlucky. I was spotted by Alfred Nikita Mangena, the army commander, and he said, "Hey, young man! Come join me and have something else for you," and so I went to stay at a place called Zimbabwe House in Lusaka for some months. Then Zapu decided to open some schools for the youth and I went to JZ Moyo School a few kilometres away. Girls had their own school called Victory Camp, popularly know as VC. I went into Grade Four. Umdala Joshua Nkomo told us: "Now, look, your gun is your ballpoint!"
In 1980, after the war, I wanted to join the army, it was my sister who changed my mind. She told me: "You are not educated at all. So why don't you at least get your Junior Certificate, ZJC? Then you could probably be a corporal. Right now, you can't even construct a proper sentence in English."
So I went back to school. We were lucky, school fees were paid for people who had been out (fighting the war), scholarships were provided.
I went back to Mpumelelo Primary School, in Bulawayo, to do my Grade 7. I was 20 and I was the head boy. Then I went to Msitheli Secondary School. I did my O-Levels up to 1985. I then went to Matopo High School for A level, from 1986 to 1987. I was head boy again. Then I went to the University of Zimbabwe. I became a sub-warden for New Complex Five. I was at UZ from 1987 to 1991 and did a BA General and then a year of Honours in English Literature.
In '92 I got a place at the University of Leeds to do a Masters in Theatre Studies, but somehow -- because I came from a poverty-stricken family -- I decided it was time I earned some money. So I joined the National Arts Council as their publications and information officer. While I was there, quite a few people were suspended in succession, yes! Each time I was asked to act though I was not quite experienced. I had come straight from university. So I would be the acting director and then someone takes over and then they are suspended, and I would act again (laughs). The last time I was acting director was through the whole of '96.
But, going back a bit, I spent half a year in Denmark in 1994, my first time of going to Europe. I was sent by MS Zimbabwe, formerly the Danish Volunteer Service. I did a lot of poetry performances -- by then I was a performance poet before that I'd been a singer. I was in the Zapu choir, at JZ Moyo -- way back, '78 to '80. There was an old choirmaster, Vakanya, who taught us to sing and dance and so on. And poetry, well . . . I used to do poetry in the countryside, just a bit when I was young . . . you know the kind of praise poetry that you do for your dog. For example: it runs about a lot, chases after rabbits, protects you, stands by you through thick and thin, and so on.
And then when I was back at school, after independence, I would be asked to write a poem, say on prize-giving day. So I would write and perform my poems. Virtually all my headmasters liked me. Sometimes I used to plagiarise, you know, perform other people's poems, without acknowledging them, because, well, I didn't know any better. I remember when we did Hamlet at secondary school. Hamlet was saying to Ophelia, "Doubt you, the stars . . . But never doubt I love you . . . " I wrote that and I gave it to my girlfriend as if it was mine. I'm sure she was surprised. She must have thought: "How could Albert have managed to write such words?"
I think this is very typical of everyone who starts writing, especially when they're young. But with time they will find their own voices.
Then, I just enjoyed poetry. I went to Denmark through a programme called Turn the World Upside Down -- it had to do with the South having to experience the North (and vice versa).
It was an exchange programme involving people with various skills from the South, including doctors and environmentalists. I was with an elderly man called Nkhosana, who had just retired from Bulawayo City Council. I was based at Odense Theatre.
The Danish people asked me to write about them, observe them, and write about my feelings and experiences.
It was a cultural shock. I had never been in a place where there were only white people, and in Odense, the third largest town in Denmark, there were less than three blacks. I was not sure what Danish people were like -- you know. From the moment I dropped off the plane, and I couldn't push that thing -- is it the trolley? You have to press something to make it move. I was struggling and I was afraid of asking because some people were just moving (with their trolley) but not me. I took another and another, but it wouldn't move. Then someone came up to me and said (you know their English is not very good) something like: "Mah ho. Mah ho," something in Danish and I said "English, English." Then he said, "Ya. Prass - Prass"â-? so I understood I had to press something to make the trolley go. So the experience started straight from the airport.
Next, on my way to town, I saw whites doing manual labour -- I couldn't believe it. I had lived in a country (Rhodesia) where I had never seen a white person doing manual labour.
Generally they are shy, the Danes, and I did not know if they were racist or not. It was difficult for me. But eventually they said: "Look, you have to write straight away, otherwise you'll get used to this place and become part of us. So just write what you see and think." I wrote poetry based on Danish people and that they are not used to having blacks around in that part of the country.
I remember I was invited by Mike (the press officer at the theatre) and his wife for dinner. Their kid, Emma, was so scared of me, but slowly she crept up and started rubbing me . . . she had never seen a black person before, let alone touch him. I experienced quite a number of funny things like that, but when I got used to the place, I found the people very pleasant.
I went around schools doing my poetry and story-telling as well as relating my experiences. Some of these included coming across gay people for the first time, and trying to write about them. I was so afraid and sometimes very defensive. But, in the end, I made a lot of friends. We were filmed, and the films were shown on national television, and I was shown reading some poetry about Danish people. They were shy about it but they are the ones who had asked me to write about them. And my poems were published in a number of magazines. Finally, I was quite a name in Denmark.
While I was away, I also became very popular at home. I kept in touch with the National Arts Council and once a workmate wrote to me saying: "When you said you were recording, we never thought that you were serious. Now you have become so popular. You don't know how popular you are."
I was popular with ordinary people because of the song Senzeni Na, which basically means, what crime have we committed? Then in February 1997, I quit the NAC. I couldn't handle the pressure anymore because I was now performing a lot, and with musicians. I received financing from HIVOS, a Dutch humanitarian organisation, and I had a friend from Holland called Deneke Deelman, who frequently joined me in Zimbabwe playing a saxophone. We are still good friends and sometimes she joins the group on our international tours.
I worked with little ones, especially children in schools, and that gave birth to a number of groups, including IYASA, Sandra Ndebele and so on. I began to travel. Holland, three times. Sweden, Switzerland, Hawaii, South Africa, Botswana, the UK, Sicily. I think I am a real Zimbabwean ambassador.
But really I'm bored of politics. I am not interested in them. I feel that I'm socially inclined. I love my people, the people of Zimbabwe. You know? Ordinary people. I meet them a lot, they talk to me, in Matebeleland, in Mashonaland, all over. I meet them and they talk to me very passionately about my poetry -- especially women. They like my poems, and I can sell them. I have become a good businessman, a good promoter.
Now, I have a very good man called Crispin Thomas, and his wife, Jenni. They are based in England at Stroud and have been very supportive. He is the editor of Football Poets, and he works closely with Chelsea Football Club, he is a Chelsea fan.
He managed to hook me up with Chelsea Football Club and the Westminster Library and Archives. They asked me to conduct workshops with children. You know, England, especially London, is full of foreigners -- South Africans, Zimbabweans, Zambians, Congolese, Nigerians, Asians, Chinese -- and the ordinary people there sometimes feel they are being raided. So there is a need for workshops against racism.
l This article first appeared on Poetry International.