Africa Month – building the Africa we want    
Mon, 24 May 2021

On this Africa Day (25 May), AVBOB Poetry celebrates the life of a son of the soil. Poet and musician, teacher and activist, Chris Mann joined the ancestors in March this year. A posthumous publication of his poems based on classic Greek and Roman myths set in an African context is coming from Dryad Press.
The focus of this year’s Africa Day celebrations is on arts, culture and heritage, and how to build the Africa we want. This continent-wide celebration calls us to look to those who did the spadework to build the cultural heritage of our country and continent.
Imagine, if you will, the bards we lost recently, gathered now at a heavenly poetry reading. Can you picture “Bra Willie” Keorapetse Kgositsile at the mic? He’s joined by Sandile Dikeni and Stephen Gray, Adam Small and Chris van Wyk. Our poetry forefathers laugh and chat in the flickering light as Chris Zithulele Mann saunters in waving his guitar.
Musician, musicologist and Dean of Arts at UKZN, Mogomme Masoga, praised Mann’s posthumous publication, Palimpsests, which is forthcoming in July 2021 from Dryad Press. He says, “Chris Mann's poetry is a feast of verse, a rare dance of words. It is pungent, brave and beautiful with a plethora of influences, from mythology to history, archaeology, architecture, holy books, memory, and personal experience. What a delicious mixture Mann offers to the world!”
Mann passed away in Makhanda on 10 March 2021. A multi-award-winning and prolific artist and activist, he spoke and sang isiZulu, isiXhosa and Afrikaans fluently. His remarkable voice was provocative and witty, tender and joyful, in his songs and poems. Mann also founded Wordfest, South Africa’s premier multilingual festival of languages and literature, held annually at the National Arts Festival. 
“Chris lived to share the power of poetry with all, to embrace newcomers to the art, inspiring them to read wider and think deeper,” says his wife, Julia Skeen. “Chris felt poetry was a lonely art form and often you don't realise the impact of your work.”
Mann’s new collection speaks to, and encourages, contemporary African sensibilities, inculcating the spirit of Pan Africanism, mirroring the rich heritage of the continent’s cultures. It offers readers a window through which to recreate the past and reimagine the future.
Palimpsests participates in an ongoing dialogue with the unfolding African Renaissance. Skeen continues, “His last book is a re-thinking of the myths, both ancient and modern… restoring and preserving Africa’s cultural heritage, including its languages.”
His publisher, Michèle Betty, added, “His extensive experience in rural development enabled him to encounter different cultural spheres on an intimate level. This cross-cultural influence permeates Chris’ poetry, in which people of the past live again in one’s inner world in the guise of ‘shades’.
“Chris’s ability to access our history is an important way in which his poetry shapes our belonging in the present. His aesthetic offers younger poets an opportunity to connect with his work on an intimate and meaningful level.”

Skeen explains his belief in the ‘shades,’ “He took this beyond the traditional African concept of the ancestors. He lived in praise of the community of ancients from whom we garner wisdom and guidance, but extended it to include people still living, one’s genealogical relatives, friends, heroes, and cultural icons. He believed we should engage with them, talk to them, in our imagination…”
Here’s the final verse from his poem ‘In Praise of the Shades’
When you are alone and brooding deeply,
do your teachers and loved ones desert you?
Stand on a road when the fence is whistling.
You say, It's the wind, and if the dust swirls,
The wind again, although you never see it.
The shades work like the wind, invisibly.
“Chris believed that poets must acknowledge the influence of their community and elders. Be authentic, be in the place where you are. Live respectfully towards animals, towards the land on which you stand, towards your community. Live with integrity,” says Skeen.
While serving as editor of New Contrast Betty described an interaction with a young poet whose work was appearing for the first time in a literary journal. “He emailed me, saying he had spent several nights sleeping with the journal under his pillow, unable to believe his work was appearing alongside a poet like Chris Mann.”
She concluded by saying, “Poets of the calibre of Chris Mann inspire and influence a new generation of poets, giving them the opportunity to strive under his influence to create their own masterpieces.”

The AVBOB Poetry Competition invites poets to submit poetry in all 11 official languages. This year’s competition opens on 1 August. For more informative articles on poets and poetry, visit: