A 20-year-old Wits medical student compiled a poetry album to share the lived experience of a black South African woman that is tired of shrinking herself to be palatable.
The Rainbow Nation is Black by Nonhlanhla Siwela is a poetry anthology which has also been released as a 19-track deluxe album which interrogates identity, race and gender.
The deluxe version was released on September 1, 2023 after the initial release of the 12-track album on September 25, 2021. The deluxe album is an extended version of the first and includes more poems while exploring three themes from the original book.
The first theme – white – includes the poems Our Boys and Cry, Black men, Cry which encourages black men to express themselves in a way that is not guided by patriarchy and social expectations. Siwela articulates this well in Our Boys, “When will somebody tell the elders that our boys are underage, that our boys are exactly that, just boys,” she writes.
A black woman’s trauma in a gender-based violence (GBV)-ridden South Africa was a topic explored in the second theme – grey. Using poems like: Bring Back Our Girls/Uyinene Is Not Dead; Only Love and My Biggest Fear as a guide, Siwela shared how a black woman’s life in South Africa belongs to anybody but herself. She went as far as saying that her biggest fear “is to die because somebody’s son thinks he is God”.
Through a poem titled I Wish, Siwela confronts her blackness as a South African woman. This is the last theme – black. Without wishing to be a part of any other race, she speaks of a blackness as a burden to her existence. As someone that went to St. Johns school for girls, she did not enjoy having to introduce herself by a nickname so it can be easily pronounced, yet children from other races never had to shorten or simplify their names for anyone.
A Young Poets Mind – as she refers to herself, started writing when she was 15 in 2017 at St. Johns Diocesan School for Girls in Pietermaritzburg. As a scholarship learner from grade eight till grade ten, she recalls how her mother would constantly remind her how grateful she had to be for that opportunity and “not be too Zulu [at St. Johns]”.
To her, this was a moment of realisation. “All this time I have had to make myself more palatable to the white system, even at my school. It felt like [the school] was doing me a favour,” she told Wits Vuvuzela. This is when the writing of I Wish began.
When Uyinene Mrwetyana was murdered, she started organising silent protests at her school and wrote a lot of poetry around it, including Uyinene Is Not Dead. “[The poem] was [recited] in assemblies at different schools in KZN, that is how much I saw my poetry impacting people,” Siwela said.
Friend and third year medical student, Paballo Mofokeng (21) described Siwela’s poetry as her introduction to a whole new world of the arts and culture. “I always associated the arts with classical music and all of that stuff, I didn’t think it could apply to modern kids and modern people, until Nonhlanhla,” said Mofokeng. “Also, the poetry that we did in school was not directed to black kids, [it] was not directed to black girls,” she said.
The deluxe album is available on all digital streaming platforms and serves as a multimedia companion to the text.
FEATURED IMAGE: Nonhlanhla Siwela enjoying a page from her poetry anthology, The Rainbow Nation is Black. Photo: Otsile Swaratlhe
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