Water is Life: South African poets reflect and take stock    
Fri, 17 March 2023

In the run-up to World Water Day on 22 March 2023, The AVBOB Poetry Project invited poets to submit poems for the latest mini-competition on the theme ‘Water is life’. The competition, which ran in February 2023, invited South African poets to share their personal experiences and reflections. On World Water Day, 22 March, we announce the winning poets and share their powerful words.

First-prize winner: Second-prize winner: Third-prize winner:
Sithembele Xhegwana Jeannie Wallace McKeown Antreka Tladi
Cash prize: R1 000 Cash prize: R700 Cash prize: R300
Water is so closely linked to our daily lives that it is impossible to imagine life on earth without it. Even our bodies are mostly made up of it. And yet, water resources are under threat throughout the world. The distribution of water has become a pressing concern in recent years – not only in South Africa but throughout the world. This year, The AVBOB Poetry Project celebrates World Water Day by announcing the winners of the ‘Water is Life’ mini-competition as we share the three timely winning poems that contemplate our deep relationship with water.
The response to this latest mini-competition hosted by The AVBOB Poetry Project has been remarkable. “This competition has exceeded all our expectations,” said Johann de Lange, the competition’s chief judge. “The standard of submissions was very high, and interest in our competitions is clearly growing.”
He continued, “Poets shared their everyday experiences, but they also clearly tapped into what is sacred for them. As we face increasing challenges because of climate change and the maintenance of infrastructure, the language of poetry is able to express sorrow and concern but also to summon courage and joy. As poets, we are always looking for an image that will touch a nerve and maybe change someone’s life.”
First-place winner, Sithembele Isaac Xhegwana (50) lives in Makhanda, where he works as a research curator at the Amazwi Museum of South African Literature. He is registered for a PhD in sociology at Rhodes University. His debut novel, The Faint-Hearted Man (Buchu Books, 1991) was longlisted for the Noma Award for publishing in Africa. Besides poetry collections, his work has been featured in anthologies like the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology, the Best “New” African Poets Anthology and Fixing Earth: AfricaUK and Ireland Writers Anthology, vol. 2.
“The AVBOB Poetry Project has been playing such an active role in promoting South African poets in all languages. My daughter Ngcali was commissioned to write a poem for the 2020 AVBOB Poetry Anthology. I am honoured for my work to be associated with such a brand. My work as a sangoma means that things sometimes come to me in dreams. ‘Ostrich Egg Carrier of the Kalahari’ was partly inspired by such a dream. It is a tribute to pre-colonial civilisations to whom water was very sacred.”
Ostrich Egg Carrier of the Kalahari
Sithembele Isaac Xhegwana
Twenty ostrich eggs hang from your neck
Sinew net tied around your torso
Pressing you against yourself
Weighing you down.
The threads that run parallel 
to your back
Patterned from dried-up leaves 
From the African spear plant
Symbol of yoke and bondage 
From your many life manifestations.
Like many children
Clinging to your back
Perforated ostrich eggs
Off-spring of the hot Kalahari sands
Epicentre of an eclipsed civilisation.
Twenty ostrich eggs
Full of reed-syphoned water
Vegetal twine plug sealing them off
Calabashes that you never drink from
Springs that never quench your thirst.
With their placentas dried up
Displaced embryos
That could never see their infancy
Broken pieces pierced together.
Ornamental ostrich egg shell beads
Metamorphosing into dance rattles 
Reserved for esoteric activities
Culminating into curative shaman songs 
Tantalising rain dances and trances
Second-place winner, Jeannie Wallace McKeown (50) is a South African poet, writer and editor living in Makhanda. A collection of her work, Fall Awake, was published by Modjaji Books (Cape Town). She has published widely in journals including New Coin, New Contrast, Stanzas and Poetry Potion as well as on The AVBOB Poetry Project’s website, and her work has been featured in several anthologies. She is working on a PhD in Anthropocene studies.
“Several of my poems have been published on The AVBOB Poetry Project’s website, and I have always been impressed by the excellent feedback I received. As I live in a water scarce area, located in the poorest province of South Africa, this topic is very close to my heart. One night, I was taking a flimsy yellow bucket to fetch water from the tank in my back yard, and it struck me how lucky I am to have such a short way to walk while so many have no running water or water tanks. The poem grew out of this recognition of privilege.”
Water Crisis  
Jeannie Wallace McKeown
My bucket is flimsy,
no good for heavy lifting
although water is heavy - 
ask the women who walk kilometres
to brown rivers, or township taps,
25 litre containers carried
on their heads.
Privilege works in strange ways.
I walk only to my back garden, 
to the green tank on its plinth.
I bend to half-fill my bucket,
carry it through the back door.
This first ten litres is for 
the paper-clogged toilet bowl.
Another half-bucket drawn,
tipped into the sink 
to soak supper dishes.
I am grateful beyond similes
for last week’s rain;
not enough, never enough,
but the tanks are full.  
No amount of rain 
will solve the water crisis.
The treatment plant fails, 
pump hydraulics grinding to a halt;
machinery rusts unrepaired.
Under the roads, water pipes split their seams.
Raw sewage gathers in dips and streams.
Each evening a wave of humanity
heads home, west to east,
carrying a river's worth of water,
captured and bottled
in cheap 5 litre plastic,   
transported to homes 
with dry taps 
and no backyard tanks.
Third-place winner, Antreka Tladi, was born in Jane Furse (Limpopo) and grew up in Phokwane, where he received his primary and secondary education and currently lives. His poems have been published in local and international journals and anthologies, as well as in The AVBOB Poetry Project library. His poem ‘The First Raindrop’ was published in the Earth Poetree Collection 2022, and he recently received an African Honouree Authors’ Award.
“With so many people in South Africa and the world struggling to access clean drinking water, I thought I might as well add to the voices highlighting clean water shortages and daily struggles to get water. ‘Fetching for Water’ was motivated by my personal experiences, growing up in a community that lacked access to safe drinking water. We relied on rain water, rivers and springs for our household water, and I found myself reflecting back to those times.”

Fetching for water  
Antreka Tladi
Everyday after school I would come home
Drained, dirty and dusty.
Mother would scold me
And send me down the spring
To fetch for water.
I shove and push the old rusty wheelbarrow
And race it through the dry Savanna
To fetch for mama’s water.
The empty canisters jump and bounce
In the wheelbarrow, sounding like a coming thunder
In a country ravaged by droughts
Where thunderstorms are hard to come by.
Then kneeling down besides the spring
Like an alchemist to the sacredness of water;
Patiently with steady a hand
I scoop the water in a gourd
And filled the plastic canisters.
Filled them with water for mama’s cooking,
Filled them with water for mama’s washing,
Filled them with water for mama’s cleaning,
Filled them with water for our drinking,
For water, is life.
Poetry is one of the most reliable tools we have to forge a deeper connection with the world around us. It challenges us to engage with the parts of our lives we take for granted, and to see them with new eyes.
Whatever challenges are in store for us, one thing is certain: the writing of poems is closely linked to our longing for a better world, and our stubborn faith that it is possible.
The AVBOB Poetry Project’s second mini-competition for 2023 will be announced on World Poetry Day, 21 March 2023, on the theme ‘Why poetry means the world to me’. For details on how to enter, please visit the AVBOB Poetry Project’s social media channels.