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The poet on the genesis of ‘Four Roads’

Rooted to a place that is not yet perfect


Unlike most poems I’ve written, ‘Four Roads’ began as a short story set in Grahamstown. I had imagined a young Xhosa man making the trek from Joza Township to Rhodes University and being startled by the cultural differences he encountered on different sides of Hill Street, which is a demarcation between the central business district and “downtown”. As Mak Manaka, a former creative writing classmate once said, “Just walk down Beaufort Street and you’ll see all the changes. On one side there are green trees and on the other it’s just a dust road.”

In my first week in Grahamstown, I'd already been told that the place was a one street town. "There's nothing past High Street", someone told me. I later found out that this wasn't quite true – that the majority of shops in High Street had white owners but the shops beyond Hill Street belonged to African, Indian and Coloured folk. What struck me about the town was that it was reminiscent of China Miéville's The City & the City, a sci-fi crime novel set in two completely different cities that occupy the same space. In Grahamstown,  people affiliated with the Rhodes University assumed a certain level of ownership over the town, while folks born and bred in the area struggled with water shortages and high levels of unemployment. I wanted my short story to explore this.

I ended up abandoning the story, mainly because I had all this beautiful imagery but no real plot. After realising the draft would make an awful story, I decided to repurpose the material for a poem in the style of Guillaume Apollinaire's 'Zone'. Although my own poem lacks the sheer scope of 'Zone', I felt that the process of writing about a town which had been my home was cathartic. Even though a few memories were bad, putting them down on paper seemed to take away their power and leave me with a sense of closure .

As I walked down High Street (mentally, that is; I'd left Grahamstown in 2015 and I wrote 'Four Roads' in 2017), my soul kept tackling all the inconsistencies I'd experienced. For instance, in my first year of university, I'd fallen for the battle cry, "Rhodes Rejects Racism!" yet how many times had I witnessed both covert and overt racism? Perhaps the biggest inconsistency was the fact that Colonel Graham's statue still had such a prominent place in the middle of High Street and foreboding black cannons overlooked the town although it was post '94 South Africa. In a town that is full of liberal scholars, I found it strange that date rape was such a regularly occurring thing: men carrying inebriated girls home and referring to them as "takeaways".

Since writing 'Four Roads', the name of the town has been changed to Makhanda, in keeping with the new South Africa, but I believe it will be a while before some of the negative ideologies (racism, sexism and xenophobia) are completely eradicated. Yet it was in this process of rambling through space and time and reliving some of the harsher realities of Grahamstown that I realised how it is still possible to feel rooted to a place that is not yet perfect.

© Tariro Ndoro  

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