Masabelaneni: The Book Arts Archive of the Caversham Press and Centre for Artists and Writers

Caversham Centre: A Catalyst for Creative Writing and Engagement with Writers and Visual Artists

Vonani Bila – Author, poet, founder and editor of the poetry journal Timbila and director of the Timbila Poetry Project, Elim, Limpopo Province


I arrived at The Caversham Centre in January 2005, for a three-week-long residency with other writers and artists. I was intrigued by this former abandoned chapel and its cemetery. The tombs were aged, dated, and bore the names of the departed. I imagined the white ghosts knocking on my door, peering through the window, or dancing over the roof at night. Malcolm Christian, the founder of Caversham, assured me that the dead were peaceful and I would easily connect with this quiet place. I was comforted on learning that the fifty-six people buried in the graveyard were Christians. I had no reason to be afraid of Christian ghosts because I grew up in a house with the image of a fair-skinned, light-brown haired and blue eyed Jesus wearing long robes hanging on the flaked wall, and I was never haunted by it. However, my yard is home to Bila ancestors, and I seek guidance from them, although I starve them of beer and snuff offerings since I’m a Christian. My ghosts don’t trouble me, instead they shield me from fire. At Caversham, I silently prayed, asking my ancestors and Jesus to connect me with the dead at Caversham Centre.

An ideal writing place

I stretched my arms and breathed fresh air. Caversham, situated between Lidgetton and Howick, afforded me a rare personal space to write, far away from roaring traffic and overcrowded villages. I walked down to the alluvial, gurgling Lion’s River and planted my feet in water. Historians suggest that the river’s name originates from the last lion which was shot in the area in 1856. I was there after heavy rains and the river was overflowing and without any takeaway boxes, beer bottles and nappies.

On my first night I invited a dream. I’d been reading about Umgungundlovu and Zulu history. I dreamt about Dingane kaSenzangakhona Zulu (c.1795-1840), the Zulu king who ruled the region. In the dream, Dingane was a burly-surly figure with a large belly, weighing over 100 kilograms. He was surrounded by a bevy of young and sexy women wearing beaded skirts, shawls around their shoulders and necklaces. Some were wearing the cow-hide skirts. The king salivated as he picked his prey for lunch. Suddenly, there was thunderstorm and heavy rain. Witches, Piet Retief and his military party, and all enemies of Dingane including men who flirted with his mistresses, were knob-clubbed to death at KwaMatiwane – the execution hill. Crows and scavengers feasted on dead bodies during the day, and jackals and hyenas had fun at night. King Dingane sat on his large, decorated wooden chair smiling. This horror movie was rumbling in my dream. I woke up shivering, sweat dripping heavily. I scribbled some lines inspired by this complex story. For some reasons, I abandoned the poem, but the images of a sex pest and his many sex slaves remained vivid in my mind.

I cannot ignore dreams, but before I set forth to write I prefer to understand a place and its environs. I like to walk in the streets and smell the flavours of different meals drifting from kitchens and street vendors. I am fascinated by the sounds: cheerful school kids returning home, taxis hooting, twittering birds, church bells, workers singing on farms and the religious rituals that are performed in rivers and mountains. So I took a taxi to Lidgetton to discover people and their cultural ways. I watched Howick Falls tumble and ebb graciously. I went to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site and shed a tear when I imagined the barbarism of the murderous apartheiders who were frightened by Mandela’s message of peace and equality. I wondered how on earth could man be so inhuman as to consider another as inferior when our blood is red as beetroot? I met people, especially Gabisile Nkosi – the adorable artist at Caversham Centre, and tried to communicate in my pidgin isiZulu, but all I could utter was Fanakalo.1

Although I didn’t spend enough time outside the environs of Caversham Centre, this approach to learning helped me to create anecdotal meditations on the place and to be sensitive to local culture. I internalised the stories and nuances of the place and people’s struggles, and understood the local customs without being paternalistic, presumptuous and condescending like political and religious demagogues. My approach to writing is from the physical textures and details of our lives, what I term ‘Making Everyday Poetry’, and in this way I am able to construct poems with a strong sense of a place.

Lines for Lionel Davis

I was thrilled that visual artists Lionel Davis and Peter Clarke (1929-2014) from Cape Town were part of the residency. Clarke was reserved but his smile was infectious. He smoked his pipe after tea and lunch breaks. Whenever he opened his mouth, every word he uttered was calculated, and delivered in a witty and often figurative fashion. He told me how the prints of the German Expressionists and Japanese woodcuts influenced his style, and how much Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and David Siqueiros (1896-1974) meant to him. I was lucky to be under his wing, mentored by such an accomplished artist, book illustrator, poet and book-binder, who couldn’t look away from apartheid, and used charcoal, pencil, paint and brush to challenge its sterility. Clarke also told me how he and his friend, poet James Matthews, and writer Richard Rive encouraged George Hallett to document the life of District Six before it was completely razed.

I hadn’t heard anything about Lionel Davis before meeting him, but I was drawn to his life story and art. In the 1980s, he served seven years on Robben Island for sabotage. He knew Mandela and broke quarry stones with him. We spoke about the wounds of apartheid: the Group Areas Act that divided people according to their race; the forced uprooting of District Six where Davis was born in 1936; the dehumanizing and hazardous bucket toilet system in black townships; countless massacres of black people by the apartheid police and army; mass funerals, necklacing and the black-on-black violence; the 1985 state of emergency and bulletproof and mine-resistant military trucks deployed in the townships. He reminisced about his time on Robben Island and gave an account of David Stuurman who twice escaped the notorious island.

Our liberation is wilting before its time,’ I quizzed.

‘Greed and tendencies of self-enrichment are a virus that is whittling down our freedom to smithereens’, he observed.

I nodded because the new South Africa is like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The more things change, the more they remain the same. The new political elite spends public purse over expensive drinks, designer labels and speedsters. Some even frequent brothels instead of delivering the much-needed public services and houses.

But I know that raising these issues is like barking against a thunderstorm. My impression of the comrades in the past twenty-nine years of democracy is that they only listen to themselves, and perhaps big business. What is certain is that they are not prepared to let go of the tender, barbecued steak in their mouths. Njabulo Ndebele (2007:16) reminds us that, ‘All civilisations, anywhere in the world, at any moment in their history, have or have had traditions of efficiency built into their functioning to ensure their survival.’ Ours was promising at the dawn of democracy, but it is fast dissipating, mottled piece by piece by political ants and bugs. Its pillars are being brought down because the hungry and vaulting elephants are clearly debushing to feed their biting hunger pangs.

‘Some comrades say they didn’t struggle to remain poor. I used to meet them when they visited Robben Island where I worked as tour educator,’ Davis points out.

It was time for the gravy train and honeymoon. Like fools, those who wielded power got really drunk and forgot their voting fodder trapped in dark shacks on the periphery of glittering suburbs. It is not difficult to understand why comrades became crazy about looting their own government.

‘They refuse to learn from history,’ Davis argues.

The failures of the post-apartheid regime are palpable for everyone to see: potholes like small graves on roads, patients sleep on cold floors and benches in public hospitals that offer them a Panado for every ailment; cities of shacks mushroom throughout the country, silent screams of raped and battered women in taverns and worshipping places are muffled, the unemployed peddle white powder and inject themselves with syringes; Aids dashes youth hopes, intolerable retrenchments in factories and mines cause family chaos and disintegration, and countless people are murdered every day. It is not only persistent power outages, landlessness of the Black majority, broken down schools and the stinking and sinking long drop toilets two decades after democracy, but everything is collapsing.

‘Is this the freedom we fought for?’ Davis asks.

He has the answer in his drawings and prints. Through his sharp memory of South Africa’s dark political past, Davis made me see the revolutionary fire that burnt throughout the country against symbols and installations of apartheid, be it the cheap migrant labour system or Bantu Education that produced nincompoops en masse.

Figure 19, Vonani Bila, Lines for Lionel Davis (2005)

In silence, in the rustic chalet, I borrowed the voice of the expressionistic Davis. He speaks my poem, Lines for Lionel Davis (Fig. 19). The tangible poem is confessional, communal and brave in raising embarrassing questions. It humanises Davis’s and the people’s struggle for liberation and humanity. This lyrical-cum-narrative poem uses accessible, lucid language. It is aware of political context and cultural innuendos. It incorporates musical cadence – the overtones of jazz. It injects the prophetic aspiration that no instrument of power can stop the artist and poet from shouting, even if it means screaming in silent darkness. It is raw music. Sing out loud. Chant and dance. Cultural expression provides hope and direction when all other remedies fail.

lionel davis sings gently
your eagle-sharp truth brew ripples
1936 you were born –
a shining sun
transient district six under siege
homes razed to the ground,
restless settler savages
wanted you dead.
africa into inferno
smog in the airapartheid expansionism at its worst
but man of greater laughter knows
empires come and go

I consider the portrait poem to be a visual photograph. Its creation depended on my coherent interpretation of history, memory and social circumstances. I was interested in the sociological and political factors that drove people like Davis to rebel against apartheid. So I wanted the poem to be spirited and outspoken against injustice and greed – capitalism and all its forms. I have always cherished the public role of political poetry as deepening resistance and resilience.

I wrote Lines for Lionel Davis to celebrate Davis, not a fictive character, but a distinguished artist, public intellectual and teacher. While iconizing the political figure of Davis, a symbol of African dignity, self-consciousness and an anti-capitalist thinker, the poem uses a charged language to highlight the extent of socio-political discord and crisis confronting post-apartheid South Africa. It contextualises the dream of freedom and juxtapositions of the real mess that people experience, worsened by the corrupt elite that have hijacked the freedom train to serve their private tastes and preferences. Using everyday language to critique the precarity of life in post-apartheid South Africa, the poem vocalises Davis’s personal life and the broader political existence.

I read out the poem to Davis. He nodded. He didn’t censor a single word or expression. Although it is conventional that the poet takes full credit in the making of the poem, my belief in communal authorship drives me to recognise the role played by Malcolm Christian in the making of my book. He printed the book in conversation with me. We decided on the format, typeface, font, and type of paper. We agreed that since the poem has a lyrical feel, the concertina format would elevate the musical feel. The back cover image is my attempt at making a screenprinted portrait of Uncle Davis. The front cover is a typographical image by the hand of Peter Clarke.

On parting, Davis and I exchanged our artistic pleasantries. I gave him my handmade book. In return he gave me his print, Reclamation. This piece is special because it details the several layers of the historical journey that Davis went through. It interrogates the slave trade and political repression as represented by Robben Island; the concept of beauty, fashion, emasculation and African affirmation framed within Black Consciousness. In this print Davis appears to lament self-exile that is represented by the conditions of house arrest – a way of life that he had to endure after serving seven years on the infamous Robben Island.

Sharing creative space

In January 2005, I shared a chalet at Caversham with the American performance poet, Ayodele Heath from Atlanta, Georgia. Ayo as he preferred to be addressed was thrilled to be on the African continent for the first time. His thirst for African history, culture, mythology and everyday life was unquenchable. We decided to write letters to each other over a period of seven days. Each letter was written and responded to in silence even though we lived under the same roof. We never talked about what we were going to write, but we used the space to clarify thoughts and crystalise ideas. We engaged with topics like our sources of inspiration: what makes a poem tick poetically, racism, home, family and identity. During the three-week residency, I interviewed Ayo, and later published the interview in Timbila, the journal I founded in 2000, mainly to publish voices that genuinely articulate the Black condition. Ayo described himself as Black, almost echoing the ideas of the paragons of the Radical Black Tradition.

During the interview he said:

I am a Black writer. Some people cringe when I say this. Or they cry that I’m limiting my writing. When I say Black, I mean in the sense of Blackness of the universe – all-encompassing and ever-expanding. I create worlds showing black people in different contexts across the Diaspora, illustrating us not only in our current state, but also what is possible for us in the future – that is, I am a dreamer on the page (Bila 2005:162).

Ayo told me how he acquired his Yoruba name, Ayodele, meaning ‘a joy arrives in the house’. He sought out a new name because of pent-up frustration of not knowing the beauty of his own history and Black experience, and said, ‘This new name was an entryway into really investing in the studying of African histories, mythologies, and language, of seeing beyond African-America and connecting my work to other Blacks in the Diaspora, of appreciating all cultures, and of creating cultural dialogue’.

One of the reasons Ayo decided to adopt the new name was a barrage of stereotypes about Blacks in the US. He explained,

I have been called a lazy, fried chicken eatin’, gold-tooth wearin’, gargantuan gonad havin’, sexually-uninhibited, Kool Aid sippin’, watermelon lunchin’, basketball playin’, intellectually incapable, Cadillac drivin’, nappy-hair havin’, wide-nosed, thick-lipped ape.

We are stereotyped as thugs, drug-dealers, and criminals; as uneducated and uneducatable; as inarticulate and uncultured; as great athletes, great singers and dancers; as having lots of attitude; as working menial (Bila 2005:167).

The cultural dialogue with Ayo, though conducted through silence, was intense. Asked why Black poetry is not sufficiently studied in the mainstream US education system, Ayo argues that Black poetry tends towards being social, political and spiritual. He commented, ‘In the political-correctness of American society, the two things which cannot be discussed in a public school are politics and God. So, that eliminates a huge part of Black poetry from the start’ (Bila 2005:168).

After the residency, we exchanged our creative projects. I offered Ayo Lines for Lionel Davis and he gave me his cynical poem, Things my Father Gave Me (Which I Never asked for) with Gabisile Nkosi’s artistic input. The poem sings in my head:

A Black hero. How to earn an honest dollar. A key. How to shake a man’s hand. How to look him in the eye. How to save. A day of rest. Humility. Sunday drives. A thirst to learn. A bookcase. Peace in the home. Muscadiness. Nights to dream. Dreambooks. A reason to cry. Dark skin. Strong teeth. Full lips. A narrow frame. Forgiveness. The thickness of blood. A brother. How to care for elders, how to honour them. How to buy a suit. How to admit when you’re wrong. How to apologize before the funeral. How to love. How to always come Home. (Bila 2005:171-172)

Ayo’s physical, airy, poetic portrait poem about his father stayed in my mind for a long time. It strengthened my connectedness with my beloved father. I included it in the Timbila journal. In fact, Ayo’s poems and ideas about Blackness moved me and I made him a feature poet by publishing the interview and five of his satirical poems.2 Ayo’s poem elicited my interest in fatherhood. I enjoyed the level of infinitesimal detail about Ayo’s father, his friendships, his responses to everyday life. I jogged my memory for memories of my father, Daniel Bila, who died prematurely in 1989 when I was a teenager. I listed things I remembered about him – how we planted things together, folkloric recollections and myths, cultural idioms of the Tsonga. Twenty-three years after his death, I wrote Ancestral Wealth, a poem dedicated to my father. It is an epic poem, and one of my finest so far.3 Ayo’s style is plain-talking, almost set for oral delivery, and those are some of the aspects I imitated in Ancestral Wealth. Ayo’s poem is influenced by blues and the suffering of black Americans. My father was a folk music fanatic, mbira player and great dancer. Like Ayo’s father who is haunted by racism, my father suffered under apartheid in Gazankulu bantustan. At the time of his death, my father was earning a meagre R300 at Elim Hospital, and had to take care of his unemployed wife and seven children.

Caversham as I See It by Marhanele

Figure 20, Max Makisi Marhanele (text) and Gabisile Nkosi (image), Caversham as I See it (2007)

Acclaimed Xitsonga poet Max Makisi Marhanele produced Caversham as I See It at the residency in February 2007 4 (Fig. 20). It was Marhanele’s first guided writing retreat outside his Limpopo province in his many years of writing in Xitsonga.5 The full body of Marhanele’s modest and unsentimental poetry explores a wide and rich tapestry of subject matter. He honours his lineage and culture, and writes about love, destiny and death. The poems, characterised by dramatic irony and philosophical reflections, are gentle, musical and layered with dense imagery and rhythmic sensitivity. The mood of Marhanele’s poems in his artist’s book is spiritual, energetic, and life-enhancing. In the prose poem A hi Rendzo Matsune Leri…!, which is accompanied by the author’s English translation as The Journey of Inspiration, the speaker describes the writing process as lonely, yet engaging and rewarding. Here, the writer is at one with the universe.

In Marhanele’s long-lined discursive verse, Caversham becomes a meeting place for writers and artists to engage in creative dialogue and brainstorming before they disappear into solitude and isolation in search of their authentic creative voices. In this way, Caversham, or any imaginary setting, instils curiosity and minimises the risk of being uncritically opinionated, rhetorical and verbose when making a poem or a piece of art. Interestingly, the place encourages cooperation and collaboration between writers and artists since visual arts and literature speak the same language of sensitivity to emotions.

Thus Marhanele’s poem confirms, at least for me, that writing is a lonely journey despite being surrounded by people and the roaring Lion’s River. Silence is sacrosanct. It is a harbinger in the writing process. It is a conduit of definitive thoughts and solemn words. Marhanele’s poem captures Christian’s belief in creativity which is centred around the idea of silence, recognition and respect for the living and the metaphysical. Marhanele writes:

The journey is endless and becomes more pregnantWith priceless moments of self-inventiveness And the perceptions of the natural order of things, ‘Cause it is the journey that justifies a landmark in visual and literary arts,
Its the journey that mediates the rising tides of human sentiments,

It is the journey that strives to get rid ofThe paradigm paralysis syndromes which stand in our way And it is the journey that explores the gray areasOf our physical and spiritual worlds.

(The Journey of Inspiration in Caversham as I see it, 2007. Fig. 21)

Figure 21, Max Makisi Marhanele, in Caversham as I See It (2001)

Marhanele lists qualities that distinguish a good short story writer. Some of the qualities include knowing what to write about, being crafty, appetite for reading, and using an appropriate language, among other attributes. Of course these principles may be challenged, but their significance is that awareness of genre and form and their particularities can enhance the quality and neatness of one’s composition. Perhaps the rationale for doing this is to alert novice readers and writers to form – whether archaic, dated or experimental – and the general history and requirements of the short storywhich cannot be easily ignored. This reminder also suggeststhat a deft analysis of a short story, or any literary work forthat matter, should consider the key literary devices applied inorder to appreciate its shape, movement and aesthetics. In thisway, the reader is able to get into the heart of poetry and poeticprose – the magic of language – and ruminate. Marhanele translated his poems from the original Xitsonga into English with the hope of cutting the barriers of communication with his non-Xitsonga speakers. Translation in South Africa is underdeveloped, so Marhanele’s energy and determination to translate his own work is a remarkable milestone. Although he is influenced by formalism and language poetry movements, Marhanele does not blindly imitate his favourite poets; he remains true to his voice, locale, the Tsonga cultural register, and African poetic expression.

E-Pos/Personal Vocabulary

In October 2003, myself and Mpumalanga-basedpainter Fikile Skhosana participated in the E-Pos (electronic announcements) project at the Frans Masereel Centre in Kasterlee, Belgium, as delegates from Caversham Centre. We aptly referred to it as Personal Vocabulary because, as Veerle Rooms (2004:1), says, ‘all stories start with what preceded. Previous contacts, a phone call, an e-mail. Numerous phone calls, several e-mails.’ As Project Coordinator, Rooms pointed out that E-Pos implied that all of us had a story to share, no matter how embryonic the tale was. The writers would tell theirs by the word, the visual artists through their own visual language. The collaboration between The Caversham Centre for Artists and Writers, led by master printer Malcolm Christian, and Frans Masereel Centre led by Rooms, was aimed at stimulating writers and artists to find and consolidate their vocabularies – their voices – the intensely personal language that every artist understands.

I did not know what to write about, but I had to write something, and perhaps experiment with paint and brush in the studio. I was unfazed by the mainly female company and not discouraged by the possibilities of hitting a writer’s block. There was something to write about all the time. At Frans Masereel Centre Suzanne Binnemans received me so well. We interviewed each other, first to know one another better, and to find the language of collaboration. Eventually Rooms offered us an opportunity to make an artwork, and the result is a printed recto verso, on the one side my poem Maria’s Baggage and on the other, Binnemans’s poem Liberation. We were fascinated by the process of printmaking and we were keen to learn about it: to draw, paint with ink, make films and print our compositions as silkscreens. Working with Binnemans was extremely pleasing. A celebrated Belgian novelist, she writes in Dutch and has written extensively on feminism. The poem that Binnemans created in Dutch and the accompanying artwork focused on troubled relationships. In her artwork, a woman sits in front of her window, alone in her empty house, watched over like a bird in a cage. ‘Only by trying to become a confident person and an equal partner, she will be able to change her life,’ Binnemans later wrote in E-Pos Gazette. The image of a lonely and oppressed womanis imprinted on my mind. I often think about the oppressedwomen in the world who live in unlocked cages, like those whoare trapped in polygamous relationships like the five hundredmistresses of King Dingane of the Zulu Kingdom, and otherperverts. These poor and exploited women must developconfidence to free themselves.

Figure 22, Vonani Bila, Maria’s Baggage (2004)

Working with Binnemans inspired me to think about the heavy load of poverty that poor people face and carry. ‘Aha’, I sighed as I jotted down Maria’s Baggage (Fig. 22).
She wanders in the long winding road
Heat throbs
Feet blistered
She runs across bridges & ridges
She runs between ditchy shrubs & bushesAlone, waving at swinging grass & singing birds
The wind howling like owls
(Bila 2004:10)

Besides collaborating with Binnemans, I also scrutinized the nude photographs of Malou Swinnen, one of Belgium’s acclaimed self-driven, deep and incisive photographers. I was drawn to these images of radiant adorned faces with hard-peach-soft rising breasts. I kept asking myself, what do these pictures really mean to a black consciousness exponent like me? Women breaking the fetters of oppression? Sexual liberation? Celebration of femininity? White purity? What? My wandering thoughts were finally cleared when the photographer explained her longest visions and dreams behind the soft-faces and breasts. ‘These breasts and faces represent the purity of womanhood,’ she said. After scrutinizing the photographs,

I jotted down the lyrical poem, Malou Swinnen’s Womanly Faces & Breasts:

Free your shoulders of fears
Forever I’ll wipe your tears
For I’m the woman
Who birthed nation after nation
Raised generation after generation.
(Bila 2004:5)

Binnemans and I also collaborated with Fikile Skhosana, a Mpumalanga artist.6 Writing in E-pos Gazette (2004) Binnemans comments:

At the Frans Masereel Centre, she showed us her colourful paintings on cloth, combined with paper, grass, plastic, needles and pins, things that lie on the ground and seem useless at first sight. By doing this she symbolises the value of people who are often treated badly. She wants to give all things a place in life, asks people to watch closely and not generalise situations.

Figure 23, Fikile Skhosana, Choking Buildings (2004)

The simple and everyday objects that constitute Skhosana’s work highlight the everyday pain and poverty that ordinary South Africans go through. My response to her artwork is a poem called Choking Buildings (Fig. 23). It focuses on the devastating effects of HIV/Aids that continues to claim lives, leaving homesteads to be headed by orphaned children. During the height of the Aids pandemic, President Thabo Mbeki did not seem bothered by the Aids graves that were lining townships and villages. Instead he supported Dr Manto Tshabalala, the then minister of Health, who insistently urged affected communities to strengthen their immune system by eating garlic, ubhejane [a traditional treatment with herbal ingredients] and beetroot. Mbeki was very vocal on Aids denialism and, as a result of his government’s failure to fix the almost broken health care system, droves of HIV victims died. There were murmurs that Mbeki should be taken to The Hague and face charges of supposed genocide as a result of not giving antiretroviral drugs to the 360,000 people who died of HIV Aids. Choking Buildings laments Mbeki’s Aids stance and how he should be held accountable for the deaths of Aids victims but despite the darkness of the poem, it also sheds a light of hope to the living:

candles glow in these working hands
peoples’ spirit can never be broken
candles glow in these working hands
peoples’ hearts can never be broken
(Bila 2004:2)

A homely community of artists and writers

Figure 24, Garth Erasmus, Arc of Testimony (2004)

The influence of E-Pos can be measured by the number of creative works that came from it. E-Pos Gazette was produced and it featured the works of poet and cultural philosopher Frans Boenders, Linda Vinck, photographer Malou Swinnen and the novelist Suzanne Binnemans. The South African contingent included myself, poet Mavis Smallberg, and artist-musician Garth Erasmus (Fig. 24). A special edition of the journal Revolver in Belgium dedicated issue 133 to E-Pos II.7 Collaboration between writers and artists became stronger. It went beyond an artist offering an illustration and the artwork, though related to text, remained distinctly unique and independent. Gabeba Baderoon produced Rain falls on the abstract world (after a print by Frans Masereel), the poem printed as a silkscreen guided by the master-printer and artist Veerle Rooms:

The rain falls
Until nothing is itself

The rain falls
On the stones, on the night.

Rain falls down the gutters, Funnelling into the sloot.

(Baderoon 2007:18)

What E-Pos did was to liberate South African writing and visual arts landscapes by giving it a thousand feet to cross the borders and reach new readers and audiences. After my Frans Masereel residency in 2004 I was invited to Belgium in 2005 to spend a month at the PEN writers’ flat in Antwerp. I took up the opportunity and during the residency I wrote the bulk of poems which later found a home in Magicstan Fires (2006).8 Whilst at the PEN writers’ flat I received a call from Raks Seakhoa, organiser of the South African Literary Awards, telling me that I was a finalist in the Daimler Chrysler Poetry Award 2005. To celebrate five years of the PEN writers' flat, a special publication Woord Onder Dak (2005) was produced. It includes three of my poems including the prose poem De Tovenaar/ the magician, all translated into Dutch by the venerable Binnemans. Other South African writers included in the anthology are renowned poets Antjie Krog and Christine Barkhuizen le Roux.

Caversham has enabled me to be an observant traveller, build and sustain artistic engagements, raise awareness, be innovative, strengthen networks, and learn to ask questions to solve problems. My experience helped me find publishing opportunities and participate in writing residencies. In addition, I have included the work of Ayodele Heath, Suzanne Binnemans, Peter Clarke, and Wim Persoon in editions of my journal Timbila to further consolidate relationships. I used Gabisile Nkosi’s linocut as cover of Phomelelo Machika’s poetry collection, Peu tsa Tokologo (2005) and founded the Timbila Writers’ Village to advance Malcolm Christian’s vision of artistic integration, dialogue and transformation. As Malcolm said in conversation with Elza Miles (in Cooney 2011:94):

Our lives start with raw materials of self-interest, but as we journey comes the realisation that it is only through sharing, becoming the spade in others’ hands, a collaborator, that the benefits of knowledge and resources are transformed into a source of continuity and affirmation of the human spirit. It is this that provides us with courage to embrace change and build in hope.


Baderoon, Gabeba (2007). ‘Rain falls on the abstract world- after a print by Frans Masereel’. Revolver 133: E-POS II.

Bila, Vonani (2004). ‘Malou Swinnen’s Womanly Faces & Breasts’. Epos Gazette.

Bila, Vonani, 2004. ‘Maria’s Baggage’. Epos Gazette.

Bila, Vonani (2005). ‘Interview with M. Ayodele Heath’ in Bila, V. (ed.) Timbila 2005: A Journal of Onion Skin Poetry, Timbila Poetry Project, Elim.

Bila, Vonani (2005). Lines for Lionel Davis, Balgowan: Caversham Press.

Bila, Vonani, (2019) Unpublished interview with Lionel Davis. 2 February

Binnemans, Suzanne., 2004. ‘Two writers printing: Maria’s Baggage & Liberation’, Epos Gazette.

Cooney, Lynne (2011). ‘The Power of the Impression: Printmaking and the Caversham Press’, in South Africa: Artists, Prints, Community - Twenty-Five Years at the Caversham Press. Boston (MA): Boston University College of Fine Arts, School of Visual Arts.

Heath, Ayodele (2005). ‘Things my Father Gave Me (Which I never Asked for)’. Timbila 2005.

Marhanele, Max Makisi (2007). Caversham as I see it. Balgowan: Caversham Centre for Artists and Writers and Fulton County Arts Council.

Miles, Elza (2011). 'Caversham: Where Are Allowed to Grow', in South Africa: Artists, Prints, Community. Twenty-Five Years at the Caversham Press. Boston (MA); Boston University College of Fine Arts, School of Visual Arts.

Ndebele, Njabulo (2007). Fine Lines from the Box: further thoughts about our country. Umuzi.

Vander Veken, Ingrid. (2005). Woord Onder Dak. PEN Vlaanderen, Lier.


  1. Post-Apartheid South Africa has 11 official languages. IsiZulu is the language spoken in KwaZulu-Natal. Gabisile Nkosi spoke isiZulu while Vonani Bila is a Tsonga or Xitsonga speaker. Fanakalo is a vernacular or pidgin language based on Zulu with input from English and some Afrikaans.
  2. Ayo poems: Lovesong at the end (of the world); Things my Father Gave Me (Which I never Asked for); The Falls; On a Fieldtrip to the Botanical Gardens; Kenya Gets a Lesson (Not in the Lesson Plan); On a Fieldtrip to the Jim Crow Museum, Kenya Learns (the Meaning of No).
  3. This poem has been translated into French by Jean-Pierre Richard, and it has been anthologised in Tyhini 2012 (Mason and Berold: 2012), Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology Vol III (Jobson:2013), In the Heat of the Shadows (Hirson: 2013), Poesie au coeur du monde (Biennale Internationale des Poetes en Val-de-Marne, 2013), Pas de blessure, pas d’histoire: Poemes d’Afrique du Sud 1996-2013 (Hirson: 2013), Bilakhulu! Longer Poems (Bila:2015) and Our Ghosts were Once People (Kona: 2021).
  4. The hand-made book is printed on Munken Pure 130 grams, whilst the cover is printed on Fabriano Rosaspina 220 grams. Malcolm Christian and the author designed the book, and the illustrations are by Gabisile Nkosi.
  5. Marhanele’s reputation as a poet rests in the remarkable poetry collections such as Swifaniso swa Vutomi, (1978), Vumunhu bya Phatiwa (1980) and Marhambu ya Nhloko (2005). Besides poetry, Marhanele has contributed significantly to the development and growth of the Xitsonga language through his grammar book Xingulani xa Ririmi (1981) and the seminal monolingual dictionary, Tihlungu ta Rixaka (2016) with Vonani Bila.
  6. Skhosana has attended several art workshops and exhibited in South Africa, Germany, Netherlands and Brazil.
  7. Thirteen poets and artists from SA and Belgium were included: Gabeba Baderoon, Kim Berman, Lut de Block, Peter Holvoet-Hanssen, Charl-Pierre Naude, Veerle Rooms, Monique Thomaes, Hentie Van der Merwe, Hester Knibbe, Joseph Pearce, Xavier Roelens, Hedwig Speliers and Elisabeth Tonnard.
  8. Other nominees included Gabeba Baderoon, Kgafela oa Magogodi, Napo Masheane, Lebo Mashile, Mak Manaka. The judges included Keorapetse Kgositsile, Mongane Serote and Andries Oliphant.

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