The AVBOB Poetry Competition | Blog


Reconciling descendants and ancestors with Xabiso Vili    
Fri, 10 December 2021

In the final focus of 2021, the AVBOB Poetry Project honours the Day of Reconciliation (16 December) by featuring award-winning social activist and international poetry performer, Xabiso Vili. This series of profiles featuring South African poets of distinction aims to provide role models for new poets establishing their own aesthetic.
South Africa has a remarkable set of public holidays that focuses on our communal and individual sense of identity. Poetry activist and international performer, Xabiso Vili, co-created Re/member Your Descendants with Sonwabo Valashiya, Thuthukani Ndlovu and Sthando Masuku. This powerful and moving project is a multi-faceted poetic expression that raises vital questions that look both backwards and forwards. Xabiso reflects on the need for internal reconciliation – in our bodies and psyches – and external reconciliation, in our intimate relationships and families, communities and country.
“My core work has been healing,” says Xabiso, who investigates how writing and performing offer humanity a path towards integration and joy. “I found my own voice through poetry, which opened channels for understanding how I exist in relation to society,” he says. Balancing opposites is a constant tension in Xabiso’s work, which interrogates how identity shapes society and society informs identity. Eating my skin, his first album asks, “If I remove my skin, what is left afterwards?” In an altered reality, a man who so loved his own skin that he peeled it off to take it on a date, caused the death of both. 
As the “Web Creation” winner of the Digital Lab Africa competition, Xabiso won R42 000 in cash and a Cité Internationale des Arts residency in France. Managed by Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct at Wits University, this prize enabled his work Re/member Your Descendants to come into existence.
“Encompassing past, present, and future, I focused on both descendants and ancestors, within the context of an Africa-centred ideology of spirituality. I pulled stories that exist already and turned them into African folktales thus creating iintsomi, the new oral history,” he explains. “Doing interviews with contemporary South Africans led to discovering where we are now, how we got to this point, and where we want to go.” A key question in Xabiso’s oeuvre is, “What do we want to leave for those coming after us?” He cautions, “If we don’t make that explicit, others will do that for us.”
His poem Cradle of Humanity takes on the need to write and tell the stories that must be handed on to the next generation. This short excerpt contains a full voiced call to expression. It is an invitation to return to the sacredness of words.
I sat with a man
dressed in stone
at the lakeside,
he only breathes at night,
is as large as light,
tells stories only to statues,
is sure their shoulders
can boulder the wait.
I haven’t moved in days now.
And the waters are rising,
but I’ve started writing
these stories one pebble
at a time,
this is how giants
learn to drown.
As I turn to statue,
I wonder who I can give
these pebbles to,
and the tide takes me.
Children of the stars,
come back to the waters,
your ancestors are calling.
Xabiso reminds poets that for reconciliation to happen, “We must first name what we’re reconciling... Through poetry we encounter the ancestral stories that we thought belonged to us alone, thereby discovering ourselves. Poetry mirrors us to ourselves, revealing that we’re not alone. The moment in which we find catharsis and resonance is the moment of our healing.”
In Xabiso’s world view, poems are the spells that weave reality together and keep the world moving. “Our home languages are the container for those spells. To that end, the AVBOB Poetry Project’s support for this process is an agent of coherence. I fear a time when nobody speaks isiXhosa anymore, because that signals the disappearance of a people, its culture, identity and history. isiXhosa is a building block in the story of humanity’s identity. It’s vital to tell our stories in our mother tongues and to create the new iintsomi.” 
Xabiso weaves Xhosa ideology, culture and phrases that cannot be translated into his own work. “Creating art makes one aware of what is happening, aware of the trauma taking place and the healing that’s needed. Creativity and artistic expression help us heal, but there’s also a time and place for therapy…”
“Imagine yourself where you want to be,” he says to new poets. “Envision yourself in a better scenario, then begin taking the steps to get there. Identify the trauma, call it out, name it. Be like: ‘This is what is wrong.’ Then do the other work. Write the future you envision. Consider what’s needed to reach that future. Then step out. Poetry is a call to action, a mirror, an imagining, but for something to happen… you must take action.”
The AVBOB Poetry Competition supports the growth of poetry in all 11 official languages of South Africa. Visit the free AVBOB Poetry Library to find poems of comfort and consolation in your home language: