This discussion stems from interviews conducted in 2014 with the 62-year-old Afrikaans oral poet Sina de Wee of Murraysburg, South Africa. It identifies De Wee’s autobiographical narrative as a “universe of discourse” (Young 1987:77, 101) that integrates various “expressive transformations of the same life” (Baumann 2004:84). These forms involve a life story, poetry, chants, riddles, aphorisms and metanarratives that share themes and varying degrees of rhyme and rhythmicity as well as dramatic qualities.
The narrative describes the material circumstances of De Wee’s life, as well as its imaginative, creative dimension (Baumann 2004:97). In doing so, it shows how her expressive oral skills have transformed her identity in certain important respects. Born in humble conditions to parents who were farm labourers, De Wee has not been able to overcome the material constraints of her circumstances. Although she addresses her poverty, her narrative in fact prioritises her illiteracy and its state of consciousness. Her narrative is, therefore, a selective reconstruction of the “mess” of her past experience (Sheringham 2015:4–5) – one that emphasises certain circumstances and events that lead to a strategic decision and its life-long consequences: as a playmate of the school-going daughters of a farmer, a young De Wee realises in an epiphany that she probably would be denied the privilege and advantages of literacy forever. However, she frees herself from this banal destiny (Bruner 2001:32) by deciding to assert herself by means of her expressive oral skills (“but let me just speak with my mouth”). Her narrative accordingly portrays her as a popular, if controversial, local word artist who utilises her expressive skills to position herself in terms of politics, class, gender and age.
The nature of De Wee’s oral expression is rooted in her outstanding innate capacity for creative oral expression, her energetic and inquisitive personality, and her rural upbringing. The rural environment provides not only natural images for creative use (as in the poem “Green-green grass” that portrays coming of age), but also social networks with distinctive moral values. Relating an incident from her childhood, when her mother and grandmother pinched milk, De Wee learns from her grandfather that the search for truth is a religiously sanctioned mandate. This becomes an objective she pursues perpetually by means of her word art. Her narrative consequently opposes all forms of corruption, especially political dishonesty, civil disobedience, alcohol abuse, crime, child neglect, sexual immorality and disrespect towards the elderly and the church. In the dramatically enacted poem “Zuma gives one just a duma”, a lumpy bald head is a symbol of moral corruption that links with Jacob Zuma’s rape trial (2005/6). De Wee interacts with her political adversaries by means of this poem, in particular to turn ANC recruiters away from her door. It is also an implicit protest against local political maladministration.
De Wee’s expressive engagement with class relations particularly involves the (lower) middle class, usually represented by the literate, low-level civil servants De Wee regularly encounters. The rhyming aphorism “You wear your trousers sir, because you buy cash/ I wear my headscarf because I buy on the book (credit)” is an acknowledgement of class distinction, since trousers are symbolic of the “professional” worker, and the headscarf of the domestic servant. Similarly, the poem titled “See how pretty your hair hangs” describes the actual, neat wig of a female teacher – an object linked with a status to which the narrator aspires. But the poem is not merely an expression of submission and desire. Its spontaneous presentation to the teacher – who expressed her admiration for De Wee’s poetic skills – accorded the poet with a sense of acknowledgement and accomplishment. This kind of self-assertion is also evident in De Wee’s frequent posing of a “riddle” that requires respondents to indicate how many times the word “our” occurs in the prayer “Our Father who art in heaven”. It would seem that no respondent (including church ministers) has ever been able to offer a correct answer without recourse to the prayer. And so the interactive structure of this expressive form brings about a status reversal between the otherwise humble, illiterate questioner and her (usually educated) respondents.
The moral stance that enables De Wee to accrue power ironically also involves a different interpretation of the wig. It is symbolic not only of class distinction, but also of moral degeneration, since the very teacher whose wig was praised so poetically, falsified the work of her students and was fired. The moral pretence of the wig extends to the church, where it is worn by people who disrespectfully chew bubble gum during services. The modest headscarf – that enduring symbol of inferiority – now transforms to an object of moral propriety and superiority. But this brings about conflict, and De Wee utilises a number of rhyming aphorisms to underscore the importance of free speech (“The truth makes you nauseous but it rescues you from danger”) and to protect herself by denigration (“I am not correct, but you are, and [you are] not as bad as me”).
De Wee’s self-concept is shaped expressively not only within social networks, but also in relation to her status as an epileptic. Her first epileptic attack (experienced as a young woman) was an event that initiated a life-long struggle. Suffering from depression after her initial attack, De Wee often sought lonely refuge on rocks in the veld. Akkedis (Lizard) is the mocking name her family gave her. To her it expresses the emotional turmoil, physical suffering and family conflict associated with epilepsy. And so her word art emerges in her narrative as the antithesis of epilepsy. Whereas the latter signifies helplessness and social exclusion, creative oral expression is indicative of power and social engagement. The chant titled “Akkedisdis eet die visvis”(“Lizardzard eats the fishfish”) accordingly transforms a degrading nickname into a praise name that celebrates the narrator’s gradual control over epilepsy, as well as her rise to local renown as a word artist.
The nature and functions of De Wee’s narrative confirm the need to be attentive to a possible universe of personal discourse that represents a life by means of different yet interdependent forms. De Wee applies her capacity for poetic speech to achieve certain objectives identified in her life story. The varying application of poetic and dramatic features imbues her narrative with a range of feelings and meanings. While the poetical qualities of her life story are relatively rudimentary, they unexpectedly express more emotional intensity than her word art. Instead, the more patterned design of De Wee’s poetry seems to elicit the admiration of her audiences. Performative interactions take on ritual qualities that may generate shared emotional and cognitive conditions with implications for the formation of the self and the community. It is clear from this that any evaluation of De Wee’s word art as merely passive and deductive, or even insignificant rhyming, ignores its fundamental transformative functions. De Wee’s narrative is a presentation of a life that originated and unfolded humbly on a farm, of migration to town and of existence as a pensioner and well-known word artist. It portrays personal transformation from youthful naivety and ineptitude to mature insight and skills – from Akkedis the frightened young woman who once isolated herself in the veld, to Akkedis the mature woman who has been able to give meaning to her life by means of her word art.
Keywords: Afrikaans; autobiography; Karoo; oral narrative; transformation; word art