Bongekile Joyce Mbanjwa was born in Pietermarizburg in 1962. She attended Zwartkop Primary School, Imbumbu Primary School, Mpande Secondary School and Qoqisizwe High School. She continued with tertiary education at SACSSP, University of Natal, KwaZulu-Natal Sign Language Academy and UNISA.
She worked at the Natal Society for the Blind, and is now employed at Epilepsy SA as a social worker. She also works part-time at Endumezulu Adult Centre as a teacher and at UNISA as a tutor. One of her stories was published in Botsotso 13 and five poems were published in the anthology of women’s poetry and photography, Isis X.
The thirty-five poems of her first collection, Izinhlungu Zomphefumulo (Emotional Pain), reflect life in KwaZulu-Natal but have a wider relevance as the perspectives of a woman dealing with the uprooting of the old ways and the uncertain evolution of the new South Africa. As Bongekile Mbanjwa says, “My aim in writing this book was to expose pain, confusion and the different types of abuse we face every day of our lives. I also wish to show that this suffering and pain must be followed by solutions.”
An endless question comes
How does a tree stand
Without its roots?
How can it grow without being nurtured?
(from ‘The Beads are Scattered’)
I thought there is no place like home
But Truth says
There is no hell like home
(from ‘Where Do I Belong?’)
In these, and many other poems, Mbanjwa expresses her unease in very direct terms – the ancient traditions that codified relationships in Zulu society have been torn asunder, and in their place there is anarchy and imitation. As a social worker, and one who has worked with the physically disabled, she has been exposed to the marginalised and powerless. But as a mother and wife she has had to swallow the bitter truth that progress, while liberating women in many respects, has also brought pain and uncertainty. In this regard she criticises the corrupting influence of child grants and the freedom young women have to leave the homestead and seek their fortunes in the cities while leaving their fatherless children to be supported by elderly grandmothers.
In the maelstrom of crime, AIDS and poverty that grips so many people in KwaZulu-Natal, Mbanjwa experiences a great loneliness and frustration for the Zulu nation has “opened the gates wide”: “we have stabbed ourselves with our own spear”. But she finds solace in her strength (“My real self I am married to you / You are my everlasting staff”), and despite the many poems of despair, she holds on.
Though didactic in tone, Mbanjwa’s poetry is seldom overbearing nor overburdened by its message. Mbanjwa’s Zulu is pure, unadulterated by input from other languages and slang terms that have transformed it in the cities, where it is still the foremost vernacular language. She uses images that take their power from the natural world, especially that of domestic animals, and often uses aphorisms and parable-like teasings to state her case. Moreover, Siphiwe ka Ngwenya’s translations manage to capture the classical simplicity and rhetoric of her language, providing the non-Zulu speaking reader with a sense of its stately cadences.
This is a collection that offers much insight into the contemporary realities of Zulu life and concomitantly that of Africa’s modernisation dilemmas, doing so in a language that is rich and philosophical and whose rhythm is traditional without being archaic.