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South Africa's top writers and VIPs turned out to honour professor Eskia Mphahlele, writes Joseph Nhlapo

By unknown | Dec 28, 2006 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

It is well after 5pm when Raks Seakhoa shows up to kickstart Professor Eskia Mphahlele's birthday celebration.

It is well after 5pm when Raks Seakhoa shows up to kickstart Professor Eskia Mphahlele's birthday celebration.

The drums start. One drummer has two drums - one tied around his waist and a talking drum tucked under his arm. With both hands he beats hard and rhythmically on the longish drum, then ups the tempo by beating the talking drum.

Another drummer plays mostly lower notes. The bass resonates from the back of his palm striking the skin of the drum.

A feminine voice cuts through the sound of the loud drums, reaching for the high-pitched notes. Softly she begins to sing. Her body sways sideways from her waist, then she squats halfway down and then springs up.

This is a special day, full of promise for the professor.

Once everyone is seated, Seakhoa, managing director of wRite Associates and master of ceremonies, takes the microphone and cautions that the tent needs fixing. In the meantime, people can help themselves to the drinks, he says.

Only two or three take him up on the offer - this is a mature audience of about 200 people. Among the VIPs are Bheki Khoza, Nadine Gordimer, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu, Sipho Seepe, John Matshikiza, Norman Chauke, Seipati Bulane-Hopa, Motsumi Makhene, Muxe Nkondo and Xarra bookshop co-owner and host, Khanyiso Mnguni.

Outside, in the parking lot, the professor is being helped out of his car. Once on top of the second step, he shuffles onto the pavement leading to Xarra Books in Newtown, Johannesburg. Chabi, his son, and other members of his family are with him.

As the professor proceeds gracefully through the bookshop, guests hurry to the tent. The drums reach a crescendo.

The professor enters the tent. Guests get up from their chairs and clap. The drums and the young woman's voice can still be heard. With a smile, Mphahlele bows to acknowledge the reception.

The elder man of letters takes his time to reach his table and chair, where he will sit facing his guests. It is as if the clapping, drumming and singing is urging him on.

I can hear the rain suddenly thumping on the tent.

I look at the drummers suspiciously - it could be them summoning the heavens to open up.

Macks Papo's hands blur in motion as he beats the drum even harder and faster. The accompanying voice sings a wordless song. Humming. Chanting. Humming. Chanting the professor's name, Ntate Mphahlele.

These young drummers are hardly known as rainmakers, but today, this very moment, they could be stirring the gods of rain, longevity, luck and all other gods that rejoice in such gatherings.

It's Mphahlele's special day.

He reaches his chair. With a beaming smile, he bows his head once more. The professor knows how to take this overwhelming reception as only an 88-year-old can. He sits. On his left is Nobel prize winner and fellow writer Nadine Gordimer and on his right is national poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile.

Ten minutes on, Seakhoa takes to the stage and rambles on with the programme.

Seakhoa tells the professor that it wasn't raining before he came into the tent. The evening promises goodness. He calls out the names of the participants.

Guitarist Bheki Khoza strums a moving rendition. Kgositsile is second to read after a young man has recited Old Man River.

Kgositsile speaks of his early encounter with the professor in exile.

"Around 1964 in Tanzania, I proudly submitted my short story to Mphahlele for criticism. He gave it back to me after having torn it to pieces," he says.

"He said: 'Young man, you have a long way to travel, a lot of work to do. You have to read a lot of writers and much deeper before attempting to write short stories."

Kgositsile says he is thankful for those words and that he keeps telling young writers the same.

He then reads a poem he wrote way back in 1976 for Mphahlele's 50th birthday.

Mphahlele's son Chabi, who is also the co-sponsor of this event, gives the shortest speech. He simply thanks the guests for coming to his father's birthday and hands the microphone to the MC.

Gordimer speaks into the readjusted microphone. She talks about their younger days with Mphahlele in the 1950s.

They came from different communities but were united by their common interest in writing. They've been writing their entire lives. They might have pursued other interests, but writing is the core in their lives.

Younger poets also pay homage to the professor.

Then it is time for the cutting of the cake. Luckily, Mphahlele doesn't have to blow out 88 candles - there is only one.

"The one candle symbolises another good year added in his life," says Natalie Molebatsi, media liaison manager of wRite Associates.


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