A Poem: Praise to Our Mothers

A Poem: Praise to Our Mothers

by Gcina Mhlophe

“Praise to Our Mothers” was performed in 1989 when Gcina Mholphe first met Nokukhanya Luthuli, wife of Chief Albert Luthuli. He was president-general of the African National Congress (ANC) during the 1950s and 1961 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Nokukhanya Luthuli was a leader in the women’s part of the struggle for liberation under apartheid. She has been called “the mother of the nation.”

“Praise to Our Mothers,” published here under the direction of Co-Poetry Editor Clare Coss, is from Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region, Volume I, an anthology edited by M.J. Daymond, Dorothy Driver, Sheila Meintjes, Leloba Molema, Chiedza Musengezi, Margie Orford, and Nobantu Rasebotsa. This extraordinary four-volume project by The Feminist Press makes visible the oral and written literary expressions of African women. The anthologies broaden the definition of “writing” to include songs, praise poems, and oral texts, as well as fiction, poetry, letters, journals, journalism, historical, and legal documents.

Praise to Our Mothers
By Gcina Mhlophe
(South Africa, 1989)

If the moon were to shine tonight
To light up my face and show off my proud form
With beads around my neck and shells in my hair
And soft easy flowing dress with the colours of Africa

If I were to stand on top of a hill
And raise my voice in praise
Of the women of my country
Who have worked throughout their lives
Not for themselves, but for the very life of all Africans
Who would I sing my praises to
I could quote all the names
Yes, but where do I begin

Do I begin with the ones
Who gave their lives
So that we others may live a better life
The Lilian Ngoyis, the Vicgtoria Mxenges
The Ruth Firsts
Or the ones who have lost their men
To Robben Island and their children to exile
But carried on fighting
The MaMotsoaledis, the MaSisulus
The Winnie Mandelas

Or maybe I would sing praises to
The ones who have had the resilience
And cunning of a desert cobra
Priscilla Jana, Fatima Meer, Beauty Mkhize
Or the ones who turned deserts into green vegetable gardens
From which our people can eat
Mamphela Ramphele, Ellen Khuzwayo

Or would the names of the women
Who marched, suffered solitary confinement
and house arrests
Helen Joseph, Amina Cachalia, Sonya Bunting, Dorothy Nyembe,
Thoko Mngoma, Florence Matomela, Berta Mkhize,
How many more names come to mind
As I remember the Defiance Campaign
The fights against Beer Halls that suck the strength of our men
Building of alternative schools away from Bantu Education
And the fight against pass laws.

Maybe, maybe I would choose a name
Just one special name that spells out light
That of Mama Nokukhanya Luthuli
Maybe if I were to call out her name
From the top of the hill
While the moon is shining bright;
Maybe my voice would be carried by the wind
To reach all the other women
Whose names are not often mentioned
The ones who sell oranges and potatoes
So their children can eat and learn
The ones who scrub floors and polish executive desktops
In towering office blocks
While the city sleeps
The ones who work in overcrowded hospitals
Saving lives, cleaning bullet wounds and delivering new babies
And the ones who have given up
Their places of comfort and the protection of their skin colour
Marian Sparg, Sheena Duncan,
Barbara Hogan, Jenny Schreiner.
And what of the women who are stranded in their homelands
With a baby in the belly and a baby on the back
While their men are sweating in the bowels of the earth

May the lives of all these women
Be celebrated and made to shine
When I cry out Mama Nokukhanyas name
And we who are young, salute our mothers
Who have given us
The heritage of their Queendom!!!

April 22, 2010

Gcina Mholphe was born in 1960 in Hammarsdale, KwaZulu-Natal. She attended school in the Eastern Cape and began writing in Xhosa, turning to English much later. She writes short stories, poems and children’s stories. Her play, Have You Seen Zandile was performed in Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. Her chief focus now is the performance of traditional folktales to teach children their cultural heritage.

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