I have long been interested in the South African tradition of the imbongi. The figure of this classic Xhosa “praise singer” accompanied my thoughts as Nelson Mandela returned to his people in Qunu and has continued to run through my mind over the holiday season. The imbongi is an oral “poet laureate,” you might say, who gathers up a whole history to present the significance of an event or important figure. While his poetry (izibongo) can be simply a hymn of effusive praise, it can also be a powerful song of protest or judgment. While I have not been able to find a video of Mandela’s own imbongi, Zolani Mkiva, performing his funeral poem, Mkiva’s rehearsal of it for a reporter can be found at Rose Marie Berger’s blogsite. You can find out more about him in a video from SA Broadcasting System released during the funeral period.
With his colorful traditional garb and accoutrements the imbongi both illuminates the presence of a celebrity and is also a celebrity himself (I don’t know of women iimbongi, so let me know if you do). This has led me to reflect more on the cult of celebrity in our own time and the self-promotion endemic to our consumerist economy. Celebrity and self-promotion have been part of human life from the beginning. We seek esteem in the eyes of others and confirm our membership in a group by admiring some image of a person known to all. Indeed, public life beyond the smallest village depends to some extent on the presence of celebrated persons, elevated far beyond their ordinary human capacities to personify a hoped-for unity. The inflated public persona both dominates and obscures our history, leading also to the pride that corrodes public trust and rational judgment.
The tradition of the imbongi at least acknowledges that no one can blow his or her own trumpet. No one can be their own imbongi. Humility and even self-effacement is the sign of true leadership. We need an imbongi to frame the significance of our lives and ground them in the traditions that have nurtured us as well as the world we seek to nurture. It is not our own to tell. While lifting up our significance, the imbongi also needs to articulate the wider traditions that both inspire and judge us.
The fact that the imbongi is above all an oral poet who performs his words is also increasingly significant to me. It means that poetry is first of all for the ear, something that has greatly affected my own work, even though I still delight in some effects arising from the written word. As an oral action, however, poetry is much more of a public work, something that a group, even a large group, participates in. A written and read poem is a solitary, private act, whereas an oral action is a public action. It is always both fragile, occurring in time and uncertainty of action, and yet also powerful in its impact and its capacity to create shared experience.
These themes have become more salient to me as I have proceeded on my current work writing about the craft of woodworking and the spirituality that emerges in our dialogue with nature’s wood and our designs. The ethic of a craftperson, while it has a communal dimension, is more like that of the solitary artist working with printed words. It is a work that points to the created artifact and the wood rather than to the self. My wife told me the other day that George Nakashima, indeed one of our most celebrated woodworkers, signed his work only very rarely. Humility is close to the earth, acknowledging the humus we arrive from and to which we return. It is not for us to trumpet our own importance, whether to make a sale or win an election. It is not the self-important flash of the moment but the enduring work of intrinsic beauty that claims us and in whose grandeur we find our own.
So, may you find an imbongi for your life. We all need them, both to lift us up together and to keep us humble, keep us focused on works that might endure within the greater sweep of life. So in praise we let Madiba go and in that letting go we return to our own lives, now let go in a new way.