It was a beautiful conclusion to International Women’s day( Friday 08 March 2013) in Johannesburg South Africa. Women as young as four years old to about 80 gathered together in their most regal outfits to watch as one of their own prepared to take flight. Like proud mother hens, their wings fluttered protectively over poet and writer Akona Metu – as she stepped out to the world to reveal the garden of her heart etched in her debut poetry book “A gift of a thousand words”. It was an atmosphere that brought to life Simphiwe Dana’s debut hit song “Nidredi” lyrics to life. The song opens with a call so hypnotic one can’t help but want to fly as her voice delivers the words “Ndiredi Ukundiza Ndiph’umoya” which in English translates to a less poetic “I’m ready to fly give me some air”.
The setting was even more special. The venue: the Kippies International Jazz club in Newtown, Johannesburg – a historically significant, center for resistant art(music) in South Africa. The building now part of the country’s increasing cultural heritage sites has been refurbished into a smaller more intimate venue – a structure not far removed from a traditional African hut or rondavel. Clean high walls stand reminiscent of a sacred space; a church, an ashram perhaps even a synagogue. A heavy wooden grand piano stands grounded at the corner on one side of the room, as if waiting for a master pianist to come play.
Delicate lanterns made out of lace paper hung above the high ceilings created a lightness of being in some kind of a fairly- tale. The shiny glass doors to the north, west and south of the building gave the space a larger than life atmosphere as well as a feeling of being in a transient place – a pit stop on the amazing race of life.
Soweto performance poet “Mak” Manaka, who was both guest poet and master of ceremonies, was not blind to the significance of the moment. He too, now a power house of performance poetry in the country launched his first book of poetry (If Only; 2002). when Kippies was Kippies Jazz Club.
“He accuses me of being too kind” Those were the first words Akona Metu “hostess with the mostess ” at the Afrikaan Freedom Station – a new venue for all artists young and old from painters, writers, singers and musicians to showcase their work, experiment and support each other’s talent in old Sophia town Johannesburg. On sitting down with her (it was not a scheduled interview) she allowed herself a moment of giddy nervousness. “ It’s like standing in the middle of a busy street naked, and no one wants to sleep with you” she said of the impending book launch. Of the book itself she said “Oh it was something that was long overdue, it just had to be done”
I have always been a writer she says, but I never thought I was any good until I got to university where I was exposed to lecturers who were also authors and had published books. When they said my writing was good I decided to run with it. It allowed me to free myself and my writing from the hazards of comparing it to other more accomplished writers. For the first time I did not restrict my writing to emulate any set formula or style. I just allowed my voice to come through as it pleased. “I stopped putting restrictions on myself” she confessed as if to herself while attending to her four-year old nieces’ intimate confessions of her own.
However Metu , 27, is not new to the world of publishing. She has published articles and short stories in the new Drum Magazine. In fact Akona was first published during high school, revealed her two older sisters who sang her praises during the book launch. That was the first time the Metu family realized that she had a gift. She wrote a high school essay following a school trip to one of the eastern capes correctional facilities – the essay received the highest praise in her class later spreading from the schools assembly to the community’s local paper.
A gift of a thousand words is a collection of poems she wrote before and during her two-year stay in Korea where she worked as an English teacher and a singer in a band to pass time she told the audience at her book launch. ” I found it was necessary for me to go in order to remember who I am and what I valued most in my life”
Metu is the youngest in her family. Her two older sisters dotingly described her as a fragile, perfectionist, humble and stubborn, quick to laugh and cry, someone who is at ease with herself.
A gift of a thousand words reads like a prayer, intimate conversations with herself and the loves that surround her, an invitations into her deepest desires musings on life and its meaning. Poems like Child You Belong, written for one of her sisters is one of hope and encouragement in which she says she wanted to remind her sister that she belongs even in the very discomfort of life.” It’s not just for her” she said looking in my direction” it’s applies to everyone, we all belong here, even in our discomfort. “I am the gap that fills up your spaces” is a tribute to the kind of love American academic and author Bell Hooks says “we all want to receive but are afraid to give”. Mother of Mercy is a call out to God, a deity she describes as her mother because she knows her mother loves her more than anyone in the world. It’s a poem penned, during despairing moments of being alone in foreign land.
Her voice is fresh,honest, passionate and energetic, a reminder, an inspired call to change our minds about who we (think) are and who we have become a call to be brave and dare to look at life with a different eye – a conciliatory eye of love.
“This moment reminds me of the first time I really, really fell in love” Said her uncle on behalf of the family. “This reminds me of the first time I fell in real love for the first time 36 years ago – I didn’t know she could write like, she melted my heart”.
Master of Ceremonies, Mak Manaka barely caught his tears from falling on to the grand piano as Metu delivered her final poetic kisses to an audience hungry for love. Her words were like a string of precious pearls she draped around each of her guest, to Honour and soothe reminding all of us that we are loved.