Just because I smile and smile
And happiness is my coat
And my song tuneful and strong
Though you send me down below
Into unbelievable regions
Of the blue rocks of the earth –
You think I am a gatepost
Numb to the stab of pain.
Just because of the laugh on my lips
And my eyes lowered in respect,
Pants rolled up above the knees
And my dark hair all dun-coloured
And thick with the roadside dust,
My hands swinging a pick,
And the back stripped out of my shirt –
You think I am like a stone
And don’t know what it is to die.
Because at the fall of dark
When I’ve unloosened the chains
Of my days long labour
And I fall in with my brothers
Stamping the ground in a tribal dance
And we sing songs of old times
That stir up our fighting blood
Driving away all our cares –
For you think that I’m a beast
That breeds its kind and dies.
Because I seem to you a simpleton
Knocked over by plain ignorance
and the laws beyond my understanding,
except maybe that they rob me.
And the house I built for myself
under the hang of the rock,
a hut of grass for my home,
my clothing an empty sack –
You think I am just an antheap;
and not one tear have I in me
to drip out from my own heart
and run over the pure hands
of the souls who see all.
[Translated from Zulu; I’m afraid I can’t remember by whom, and I’m not certain of the punctuation, as I copied it rather roughly into a notebook about 40 years ago. I came across Dr Benedict Wallet Vilakazi when I was about 16, and found his poetry very moving, inured as we often were to the plight of black people we pushed to the margins of society and our minds by convincing ourselves they were invited into our society as outsiders. He was born on 1 January 1906 in Groutville, Natal (previously Umvoti: a mission station near Stanger, the site of Chaka’s royal kraal). Vilakazi was appointed bantu languages assistant at the University of Witwatersrand in 1935: the 1st black lecturer appointed to a white university. He held the BA degree of the University of South Africa and was a prize winner of the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, before completing his Masters at Wits. He was a distinguished Zulu poet and wrote the first book of Zulu poems to be published, some of which were traditional “praise-songs” in ‘Inkondlo kaZu’, published by Wits before his apppointment in 1935. He also wrote three novels in Zulu: ‘NomaNini’ (1935); ‘Udingiswyo kaJobe’ (1939); ‘Nje Nempela” (1943). However I am not sure if they have been translated into English. Vilakazi became the first Black person in the Union to receive the degree of doctor of literature in 1946, but tragically died on 26 October 1947 in Johannesburg at the age of just 41.
As luck would have it, packing books for our move to Johannesburg, I found another translation of this poem by Florence Louie Friedman: Wits, 1973. Vilakazi had found a friend in Daniel McKinnon Malcolm (‘Chief Inspector of Native Education’ in Natal 1920-1944, and a lecturer in Zulu in the University of Natal in his retirement) who made a rough translation of his poems, and then passed them on to Friedman, who in turn was assisted by JM Sikakana, also from Wits, in researching Vilakazi’s background and family, before she re-translated them. Partly because it was the first I encountered, I prefer the one above, but Friedman’s translation is interesting because for me it gives a completely different slant on the last 5 lines, which in the above translation had always bothered me.
You think I am just an antheap; [You think that I accept my lot]
and not one tear have I in me [And have not cause to weep.]
to drip out from my own heart [But tears secreted in the heart,]
and run over the pure hands [Flow only onto sacred hands]
of the souls who see all. [Of spirits never blind to human anguish.]
The 1st had always bothered me because it seemed to suggest a bitterness inconsistent with the little I had read of Vilakazi (without denying that he had every right to be so), with no tears left for ‘the souls who see all’, who I had therefore always taken to be white people! But the 2nd clarifies that those tears are indeed real, secreted in the heart, and are released to the spirits who are ‘never blind to human anguish’.]
Because you always see me smile,
You think that I must be content:
Because I sing with all my voice,
The while you drive me underground
To find the treasure hidden there –
Those diamonds tinting earth with blue:
You say that I am like a log
Insensitive to pain.
Because you see my laughing lips,
My downcast eyes,
My trousers rolled above the knee,
My matted hair like ochre
From dust of sandy roads,
My hand around a pick,
My shirt without a back:
You say I am insentient
And durable as rock.
Because, when night approaches,
You see me loosening the chains
Of daily drudgery,
And, meeting people black like me,
Dance with new-born energy
While chanting tribal songs
That rouse our stifled zest
And banish weariness:
You think me but an animal
Who, should it die, is soon replaced.
Because I am a simple dupe
Who pays the price of ignorance
And cannot understand these laws
That use, abuse me and exploit me;
Because you see me build my shack
Beneath the rocky krantz
And know my home is made of grass,
My garment but a sack –
You think that I accept my lot
And have not cause to weep.
But tears secreted in the heart,
Flow only onto sacred hands
Of spirits never blind to human anguish.