It is with deep sadness that Africa in Words writes of the passing of Joanna Skelt, who was, amongst many other things, a writer for Africa in Words. Joanna was a poet, scholar, activist and teacher. She died on 31 January 2018 after a fight against recurring cancer.
Joanna had an enormously varied career, dedicated to creativity and social change; her doctoral research at the University of Birmingham, UK, took her to Sierra Leone, where she worked on the social function of writing after the Sierra Leonean civil war, and her poetry collection, Connected Journeys, was published by Mkuki na Nyota publishers in Tanzania.
In 2013-14, Joanna was the Poet Laureate of Birmingham, UK, and she frequently ran creative writing workshops in Birmingham. More recently, she had worked on the Narratives of Conflict project in Birmingham, where she sought to use participatory and community arts to generate data on social change and cohesion.
In 2016, Joanna took up a post as a Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham, where she taught African arts and culture.
Joanna will be much missed by friends, family and colleagues alike.
Today, in memory of Joanna, we re-publish the piece that she wrote for Africa in Words in 2017.
Betwixt and between: A review of Mitu’s Spice Tour by Blessing Musariri
AiW Guest: Joanna Skelt
[Originally published on Africa in Words on 23 March, 2017]
This month, Joanna Skelt continues our deep dive into Eight New Generation African Poets with a review of Blessing Musariri’s Mitu’s Spice Tour.
With a title evocative of a culinary travelogue, dreamcatcher-esque cover iconography and powerful series forewords by Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes, Mitu’s Spice Tour had a lot to live up to. Where it succeeds is in delivering a hotchpotch of contemporary images and perspectives from a globally positioned, and informed, Zimbabwean writer in a smartly put together collection: but it doesn’t come packed with the spice the title led me to expect.
Of the 16 poems in the chapbook the stand out one, for me, was “To Polokwane and back: Conversations on the highway”. The text sits well-placed and invitingly on the page, asking to be read and revealing glimpses of landscape thick with rich observational detail:
baobab trees line the road like old men watching
for Jesus to come… (p.22)
Rather than describe the dry river bed, Musariri tells us instead that “the sun has eaten up the river and left the sand astonished/in the light” (p. 22). She goes on to interrogate the trees in a manner that is respectful of the past yet recognises the reality of modern infrastructure development:
do the trees know that while they stand here in stone
they have left their brothers and sisters to be sacrificed
on the altar of dual carriageways… (p. 22)
Throughout the collection there are shifts taking place: in style, place, time and thematic focus. This creates a discordant, unexpected feel, but the mish-mash of authorial concerns ultimately salvages the collection. On second reading, I liked the oddly choreographed nature of the ordering, and can appreciate the extraordinary variety encapsulated in this small chapbook.
Some poems, such as the title poem “Mitu’s Spice Tour”, come across stripped back and tightly structured, as if workshopped in writing classes. Others, such as “Reeds” and “Tides”, are freer and more fluid (indeed water, rain and rivers appear frequently and are common symbols for Zimbabwe writers). “Familial Ties”, by comparison, is much more prosaic. This prose poem (previously titled “Last Goodbye” when published in Poetry International by San Diego University Press in 2008) depicts a neighbourhood which has changed, where the “families are all gone and the houses are full of people whose trees fall into neighbors’ yards – no apology or retrieval” (p. 26). Musariri, again, moves back and forward in time from the present to childhood memories to her mother now singing from heaven. There is a clear sense of distance and displacement to this piece which is echoed in “KZ”. In this poem, in Kambuzuma, a district near Westwood, Harare, the road leads Musariri “back” and “nearly home” and it is always raining (note the water motif again):
before the road that leads me back,
the rain falls, reminding me, in my silver capsule,
of lost thoughts and intermittent curses,
that I am nearly home. (p.20)
“KZ” reminded me of a Sierra Leonean poem, Sights at PZ, by Bridgette Olamide James (‘Songs that Pour the Heart’, 2004), which similarly and poignantly depicts place. The rich descriptive language in “To Polokwane and back” and “KZ” is also evident in “She, on the way to Monk’s Hill”, which describes St John’s in Antigua. Indeed, Musariri’s poems are equally at ease in different geographical contexts, from the Caribbean to Switzerland to Cardiff. In “Thursdays at Lavigny” we glimpse a time of privilege and comfort in Switzerland and lives Evaristo described in the Foreword as “global in reach”:
Huguette, first up, is
eating marmalade and talking about a small bird in her room, in the
night. Donatella cannot sleep for thoughts of a rendezvous in Paris,
or is it Brussels—her heart will not lie calm until Nagwa phones a
friend for answers. (p. 6)
In contrast, the opening poem “Random Acts of Violence” and to a much lesser extent “Light” capture the presence, even if remote, of violence and grief which filters into Musariri’s multi-layered lived existence: “We are no strangers to grief” (p. 18) Musariri writes in “Winter Song”. However actual depictions of Zimbabwean militias and human rights abuses are not foregrounded in this collection.
Musariri turns to water to express a softer, more melancholic tone in “Reeds”, which ruminates on relationships, and “Tides”, which evokes loss and equates water to a place of prayer and return. This poem starts by quoting the politically conscious African American poet known, Gwendolyn Brooks:
I am a woman who hurries through her prayers . . .
The sea is an endless cup in which I
have poured a jug of milk. I am
certain I have committed a
reckless act of beauty, and any woman,
faced with eventual loss of those who
urge the groundswell as she hurries
to the end of noon, as she vigils through
sleepless nights, will find these waves have carried her
inexorably to this immeasurable place of prayers. (p. 17)
These water inspired poems do not especially chime with others in the collection, but perhaps add to the differing voices and glimpses of emotional experience and poetic imagination summoned by writers like Blessing Musariri. Writers who reside, if you like, in betwixt and between places and identity: at a particular point in African history and in a dynamic and unstable globalised environment. I think this is a better way to read and interpret such a collection, rather than expecting the Zanzibari spice tour and punch signalled by the title.
Dr Joanna Skelt was a Teaching Fellow in African Studies at the University of Birmingham and she led a research project on Narrations of Conflict. She was City of Birmingham Poet Laureate 2013-2014. Joanna’s poetry collection ‘Connected Journeys’ (2014, Mkuki na Nyota Publishers) is available from African Books Collective.
Blessing Musariri is a writer from Zimbabwe. Her poetry has been published in Granta’s New Writing and in Poetry International, and she was awarded a special prize for her poem “Pandemic” in the 2009 Susie Smith Memorial Prize.
Blessing Musariri’s Mitu’s Spice Tour is part of Akashic Books’ chapbook set, Eight New Generation African Poets (April 2015). This 8-piece boxed collection features the work of eight African poets with an introduction by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, and each chapbook has its own introduction from a thoughtfully paired stalwart African poet and writer. Musariri’s chapbook is introduced by Bernardine Evaristo.
The set also contains A Pagan Place by Peter Akinlabi; Who Are You Looking For by Amy Lukau; Things We Lost in the Fire by Vuyelwa Maluleke; Viola Allo’s Bird from Africa; Inua Ellams’ The Wire-Headed Heathen; Janet Kofi-Tsekpo’s Yellow Iris; and Bearing Heavy Things by Liyou Libsekal.
For more on AiW’s deep dive into the box set, see our latest post in the series, AiW Guest Jason Allen’s review of Inua Ellams’ The Wire-Headed Heathen.