The Spoken Word Activist: Mthulisi Ndlovu Q & A

It’s hard to find the right words.

Words by Alex Gwaze (Curator)
Questions by Alex Gwaze and Elizabeth Taderera (Writer / Poet)

There is something in the back of every writer’s head that screams out, “your words are important!” That same voice is probably the reason why it’s so hard to write. Personally, just knowing that someone is going to read my work gives me heebie-jeebies. The weight of it all makes it hard to know where to begin and when to stop. But I know that feeling of being answerable to others isn’t felt by everyone. You just have to look at all the misinformation and hate speech on social media to see what I am talking about. However, I was recently reminded of the weight of a text when I heard about the 51 page poem penned by Mthulisi Ndlovu.

Mthulisi, or the poet “King KG” or “KhuluGatsheni” is the founder of Ubuntu Afro-Publishers and the former President of One Generation Global Organisation. His 51 page poem, “Ubuntu: The Raw Truth Unravelled” won an Honorary Literary Award at the Global African Authors Awards. Furthermore, he co-authored “Izinkondlo Ezinhlobonhlobo”, a text that was selected as a set book by the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council (ZIMSEC). And, some of his poems have been included in a set book for Zimbabwe Ordinary level (O’Level) learners. Mthulisi is clearly directing his words towards educating the people about socio-cultural reforms. You don’t have to look further than his unapologetic anthology, “Politicking”, for evidence of this. In his own words the book deals with the “great fears and frustrations” of the Zimbabwean people, Mthulisi said.

It’s plain to see that King KG’s efforts in the literary world have not gone unnoticed – both at home and regionally. That’s why we decided engage this epic poet (“Ubuntu: The Raw Truth Unveiled” has been dubbed the longest poem ever published in Zimbabwe) to see what motivates him.

AG: As a poet you go by the name “King KG”. Firstly what does “KG” stand for, and secondly why are so many Africans obsessed with being Kings or Queens? I know we are all special but if everyone is a King or a Queen who are the ordinary people?

MN: (laughs) Greetings and thank you so much for this opportunity to share a few notes about my life story, both as a creative and an ordinary human. KG is actually an abbreviation for Khulu Gatsheni. I was given this name back in my school days because of my undying passion for indigenous knowledge and traditional languages, especially IsiNdebele. Khulu loosely translates to grandpa and Gatsheni is my totem. Due to the knowledge and obsession with ‘Isintu’ people ended up likening me to an old grandfather, as senior citizens are believed to possess some sought of unmatched wisdom and guidance. Thus, King KG became an alternative pseudonym and more appealing for a personal stage / scribe name. For me, referencing to myself as a king is symbolism of our cultural custodianship and how proud I am of the kingdoms we set up centuries ago way, before colonialism ravaged our well planned and set up communities all in the name civilization. Yet we have still maintained and strengthened ourselves on the other side of it all.

AG: You’ve talked about being an “ordinary human” and once said you write your poetry “from the heart, for the ordinary people”. I’d like to know what makes a person ordinary in your opinion?

MN: I would definitely say an ordinary person is one who is defined by affording allegiance to humanity, regardless of socio-political status or socio-economic influence. That’s ordinary to me.

ET: What you did with your 51 page poem is out of the ordinary though, well done. Many people struggle to write 2 or 3 stanzas, why couldn’t you stop writing? What kept or gets your creative juices flowing?

MN: Thank you. Writing the giant poem wasn’t honestly the plan from the onset, I just found myself turning pages non-stop and the syllables oozing through the tip of my mad pen. Basically, I only write when I get an itching inspiration to address certain burning issues. The philosophy of Ubuntu has been a huge inspiration for most of my writings, thus I had a lot to say about this divine principle in that particular poem. I felt the need to shed more clarity and emphasize the importance of our original responsibilities as a human race.

ET: Talking about inspiration, which artists from any creative artforms (from Africa) are you influenced by, new and old?

MN: I admire Phathisa Nyathi’s works and his dedication to documenting our un-defiled history. I think what I appreciate the most is consuming content mostly crafted for our people by our people. This really brings a sense of credibility and it mostly solidifies historical narratives based on facts not mere heresy. I also enjoy Philani A. Nyoni’ s daring and damning poetic quill. For personal development and motivation, Sibusiso Leope (Dj Sbu) and Njabulo Moyo are my top favourites. I relate to their life stories on a more personal level. I basically enjoy Afrocentric content especially crafted by its sons and daughters.

AG: To me there seems to be a link between internationally recognised Zimbabwean creatives and some form of Activism. I am thinking of the likes of Tsitsi Dangarembga, Thomas Mapfumo, Henry Olonga and Dambuzo Marechera. In your opinion what drives some Zimbabwean creatives towards Activism?

MN: As the iconic Martin Luther King Jr once lamented, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. The moment creatives become mute on imminent issues affecting smooth transitions and negatively impacting the lives of ordinary people, they indirectly become accomplices of such heinous notions of suppression and the mass destruction of our social fabric. Naturally artists are the voice of the voiceless, their major mandate – besides entertainment and fun – is to be vigorous and fearless spectators, whistle blowers, social commentators and proffer viable solutions for their own people’s welfare.

AG: Just to add something. I was recently asked this – “Zimbabwe, USA, Europe, South Africa and the Middle East seem to be engaged in some form of political-factional tribalism, which is distracting the world from many issues that affect us all like the freshwater crisis and climate change. What do you think is the most common issue that all Zimbabweans are ignoring?

MN: The most common issue that we’re neglecting is trying to downplay issues that matter most. Nations world over are squabbling over disasters that happened many decades ago, if not centuries. We simply need honest leadership which will acknowledge the past wrongs and be prepared to listen than to always impose and dictate. You can never be an accomplice and a solicitor at the same time. Issues to do with factions are one of the biggest reasons why most countries shall never move forward. The amount of hate and dishonesty shared about different groups or parties is a very negative signal to the wronged and it sadly enhances divisions. People from different sides of the fence are not willing to work together for the good of the people. The best position to start is to honestly acknowledge the blunders we have have made with utmost sincerity and find the best people from all sides that can fix the problem. We have after all one human tribe and our needs are the same wherever you go.

AG: Correct me if I am mistaken but you argue for unity or “Ubuntu” as a solution for many of the social-economic issues faced by the people. I can’t help but think of Operation Dudula and Xenophobia when I hear the word Ubuntu. Why is it hard for people to relate to each other in the information age?

MN: The level of insincerity amongst several leaders and angry factions is fuelling all these disasters we’re faced with. Most leaders are not honest with each other and sadly it’s coming back to bite them. The issue of Operation Dudula and Xenophobia in SA and around the world, is mostly caused by a failure to honestly attend to the root causes. People will never stop migrating to South Africa, United States, the EU and more because they need help. The leaderships of these countries know this, but they are acting ignorant to the real world issues. Until and unless those fundamental human problems are attended to with due diligence and sincerity, we are forced to survive in this culminating violent era.

ET: You’ve traveled a lot so you’ve probably had your fair share of misinterpretations and ‘lost in translation’ moments. What is the worst or strangest reading of your words you’ve ever experienced?

MN: Of course, as a creatives we have those moments when our works are misunderstood. My memorable “lost in translation” moment was when I was reading one of my poems at an event in Estonia. The piece was obviously about Ubuntu and overlooking our diverse differences. So I read ‘communitism’ and the audience for some reason heard ‘communism’. And most of them found it a bit distasteful. Ohhh my! That was the most awkward moment in my life, seeing people frown and whispering whilst shaking heads in disbelief (laughs).

AG: I find it interesting that, Poetry – an old Humanities artform, packed with words and emotions – is making a signification comeback in the picture heavy data driven information age. Why is this so?

MN: Poetry is one of the founding blocks of all forms of Art. Actually, poetry is life summarised in syllables and stanzas. It will never go into extinction. The digital age has actually enhanced its influence and I believe more and more Poets are being birthed every day. Personally, within the 2 years of Covid-19 lockdowns we experienced, I was involved in mentoring and grooming more than 50 poets under our initiative called “Poets and Writers Den”.

AG: Poets are good with words and people say “women fall in love with their ears”. So my last question is what are the best lines you have ever used to get a woman’s attention. Which poet and which poem did you steal them from, or were they your own?

MN: (laughs) Ah, this one I cannot answer my brother (laughs). It maybe, no it will be, a story for another day! (laughs).

Follow “King KG” at: @ndlovu_mthulisi
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