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Two Poems

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Editor’s Note: Cheswayo Mphanza was the winner of the 2020 Boston Review Annual Poetry Contest.

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Scene Descriptions

We wanted freedom, but we got democracy.
—Hugh Masekela

Scene 1: ESTABLISHING SHOT. The scene must be like a Russian dreaming. Andrei Tarkovsky’s mistrust of linearity matched with Mikhail Kalatozov’s anxiety of the frame. The camera’s demand of austerity. Small incisions of light. A black blank screen. Ominous wails and chatter of Africans rising in the unknown background.

Scene 2: CLOSE UP. Rotating Stills. “The Upright Man” Thomas Sankara adorning a red beret. Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta. Sékou Touré. CUT TO: STOCK FOOTAGE of political propaganda. CUT TO: A ROLL and B ROLL of African liberation armies. Coups. Low angle shots zooming into farms being salted. Townships and villages burning. Muddy puddles reflecting the fire. ZOOM OUT: A lush landscape of green. The sky a grainy sienna. CUT TO: Rotating stills of Robert Mugabe: Blaise Compaoré: Paul Biya: Idi Amin: Bokassa standing in front of his bold eagle styled golden throne. CUT TO: STOCK FOOTAGE. Camera unfolds to a crane view of Lumumba unboarding a plane with handcuffs on his wrists before rope is further tied around his arms. Mobotu in the background. His stare into the camera an anthem collapsing.

Scene 3: WIDE SHOT. Political cartoon of the scramble for Africa. CUT TO: Colonial map of Zambia, then known as Northern Rhodesia. It’s edges showing Angola bordering west. DRC northwest. Tanzania northeast. Malawi east. Mozambique southeast. Namibia southwest. Zimbabwe and Botswana south.

Scene 4: A black blank screen with the sound of a train approaching in the background. FADE IN: Mining newspaper The Nchanga Drum. On its cover a map showing Northern Rhodesia’s Copperbelt railroad line area from Livingstone in the south to the Belgian Congo border. A photograph of white and African miners. Camera zooms into the picture. Entering. The photograph no longer a still setting. Bodies move. White arms and black arms holding pickaxes rise and break in unison against sacred rock. CUT TO: Mining train passing by miners. Zambian women holding their children at the side while selling grain.

Scene 5: CUTBACK: Colonial map of Northern Rhodesia. Kenneth Kaunda’s frame growing on top. A litany of abbreviations cut across. ALC; ANC; UNIP; ZANC; ZNBC; UP; UPP; PAFMECSA; PLP; CAA; CAI; CAS; ANIP; AZ; FUCA; MMD; NAZ; UDI; CCMG.

Scene 6: STOCK FOOTAGE of Kaunda on a podium giving a speech at the University of Zambia. “It pays to belong to the UNIP! One Zambia, One Nation, One Country.”

Scene 7: WIDE SHOT of Lusaka Independence Stadium. October 23rd-24th. 1964. Zambia army band playing. CUT TO: TIGHT SHOT of the Union Jack waving as it comes down. Zambia’s flag ascends. Northern Rhodesia is no more. Zambia is born. Chants from the crowd of “One Zambia, One Nation, One Country!”

Scene 8: MEDIUM SHOT of Zambia’s countryside. Morning mist where the trees are covered in rising smoke. CUT TO: Zambezi river. CUT TO: WIDE SHOT of Victoria falls, showing David Livingstone’s statue in Zimbabwe. Dusk falls. FADE OUT.

Scene 9: CLOSE SHOT. The screen unfolds into color, showing a dim room. Two young lovers, both infants of freedom’s spring, laying on a straw mattress bed facing a large flag covering the wall. (He doesn’t know he has hung the flag backwards). Her head resting on his dead arm. A window open, wind whipping at a loose screw on the side.

Scene 10: CUT TO outside the small room. Though the sky is crowded with storm clouds, the Jack Snipes don’t stop singing. Their song a lisp in the wind. The scene retracts back into black and white. CUT TO inside the room. Blocks of letters spelling out “C-O-P-P-E-R-B-E-L-T P-R-O-V-I-N-C-E.” A plastic ornament of an African mask above the bedside table.

Scene 11: MEDIUM SHOT. Static showing on a wooden Zenith television set inside the room before a scene plays from Ousmane Sembene’s Xala (1975): “Two white men carrying briefcases walk in on a congressional meeting held by African leaders dressed in Western attire. Clapping at the president who resembles Léopold Senghor. He uses words like ‘revolutionary’ and ‘independence’ and they garner an applause. The white men place briefcases in front of each leader. They open them and their eyes shine with green. The Léopold Senghor parody rises and announces ‘modernity must make us lose our Africanality.’ They all clap and disappear with the briefcases into limousines.’ TV set goes off.” Camera continues panning around the room of the young lovers. Fela Kuti and The Africa 70 album poster of Confusion next to Miriam Makeba’s solitary stare, turning away from Fela. Facing Papa Wemba instead. (Unbeknownst to the boy, the girl knows something about geography. His abuse of the backward hung flag.)

Scene 12: TIGHT SHOT. The camera elevates from the bottom of their bed to a parallel scale of the two. The girl reaches for a radio at bedside. Tuning in to Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC). Color re-enters as Zamrock slowly seeps into the scene. Blackfoot’s “Running” plays as their bodies become blurred naked under the stream of moonlight entering through the window. He kisses her belly button—  calls it a compass, following its southmost trail. He tells her your skin is beautiful. How one might mistaken pollen for cinnamon. She lifts his head gently to her face and kisses him. She says “I’m learning how to take care of flowers. To not worry about the carnations as much as the lilies.” He wonders how much less is he in the dark. His mind still in Northern Rhodesia. Landlocked country. “God Save the Queen” still sliding on his tongue when he speaks. She will say she used to belong to a nation, but it kept a record of her raptures so she dissolved it. The moonlight will shine brighter. Revealing parts of his body he wants clothed. He will think “I must possess myself.” She will ask what nation he belongs to? His answer her body. A ruthless allegiance. To claim her as country. Call her nation. Carve a kiss on her collarbone and call it a flag. She will tell him independence exacerbates the abrasions of a country. To ask a nation why it’s flag bears red. The thought of freedom as an open wound. Silence could be useful if he knew its cadence. Maybe the fourth wall should be broken. To invite others into his discomfort. Or maybe they remain as is. Sinking back into bed where he learns making love is immigrating to someone. A citizen who feigns to be a refugee under the tender weight of skin and its nudgings. The unpronounceable pleas of the mouth soaring into an anthem he imagines his. To sustain the borders of her body or coalesce the floor into deep country before they are lulled to sleep. His dream of a nation as suspended and ethereal as her weight next to his. Camera pulls away into a long shot— the focus blurs.

Notes Toward a Biography of Henry Tayali

[The Village.  Silkscreen Print]
I was born with a language seared on my tongue. I sipped from
the same bottle of pale ale as my father rocked me to sleep. I have
starved a mad dog until it could learn to kneel to me. I have held
a chicken down before my grandmother cleaved its neck clean.
I ate its body whole, sometimes chewing the bones.
[Bull.  Scrap Metal]
Our summer of love at Victoria Falls. Zamrock the culprit.
Bodies whirling to Paul Ngozi. In the gyre of apartheid further
south and being over the edge of independence. What was
freedom if not our bodies thrust from ourselves and we
trying to catch them in our arrested dances?
[Regina in My Dreams.  Stencil Sketch]
I pull a petal off a Blue Curiosa and you blossom from its
edges. Bees gossiping around you. The rattle in your legs—
a barefooted dance in white sand. A child’s delicate step
on his mother’s back. I want to learn to pronounce your body—
enunciate its ridges. Fold your name at the back of my mouth.
[Untitled.  Oil on Hardboard]
The canvas begins with no paint or name attached. I go back
to my birth in Serenje by the Nsalu Caves. When Zambia was
Northern Rhodesia. My wails winnowed like Wilson’s Snipe.
The scene where my father held me as if I was artifact. Rooms
that coated us into primary colors as we tugged against our skin.
[Herd Boy.  Scrap Metal]
The West was calling my name. Kaunda’s dream to show the
African has imagination. I longed for Paris or Florence, but settled
for Germany at Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. I learned
their language, read and studied their canon. Caspar David Friedrich
and Adolph von Menzel. For this, I was anointed civilized.
[People in the Summer.  Oil on Canvas]
At the touch of a paintbrush, or chisel, before I approached the
canvas, block of wood, or scrap metal, my anxiety was that I
saw the body as Western. I was trying to get away from myself
so I turned to the abstract. Hid in the splotches of color coated
bodies to hide beggars, huts, villages, and the African. 
[Unfinished Self-Portrait with Brother Bright Tayali.  Stencil Sketch]
We grind our bodies on the rise. Lick last night’s fog from our
lips. Rub the cruel visions captured from our eyes and muzzle
our mouths until screams or swelling moans exhaust themselves.
Recycle the carnage into rage and the courage it needs to blossom;
the dismal loneliness required to live or leave this life.
[The Other Side of the Bar.  Woodcut]
Sometimes the night is generous and I don’t drown as much.
Enough munkoyo courses through me. A drop more and I
passover to the other side where I become pantomime for my
body strung out at the corner of the bar. Silence subdues me.
I want to leave this country something other than my body.
[Abstract Painting  Oil on Canvas]
I was trying to understand my country in the erasure. Women
whose features I did not define and left as polka dots with
head wraps or chitenges around their waists. Was it shame
that defined me? Hiding in the edges of my art to make room
for universal appeal? To be regarded as an artist erased of race?
[A Measure of Cooking Oil.  Woodcut]
Is modernity shedding ourselves to become exotic fixtures upon lips
of critics? I remain a son of my country. I am a fragment of it. A particle.
My art is concerned with the suffering of the people. I want it to be the
echo of that suffering. I see the problems of the continent. I am recording
what I and my people feel, but I do not attempt to provide answers.
[Leica SLR Negative Filmstrips]
A child eating cassava. Regina’s twisted mouth, cursing me in a
mixture of Nyanja, Bemba, and Tonga. David Livingstone’s grave.
Regina dancing with a white cloth in her left hand. A man burning
a kwacha note. A plate of nshima and kapenta. Lusaka at night,
littered in variations of light splotches and dark voids.
[The Beggar.  Woodcut]
I was thinking of the man I saw in Kitwe, resting at the side of a dirt
road. He reached his hands to the sky, pretending to fluff one of the
clouds before feigning to sleep on it. Maybe he dreamed about finding
a country. One not landlocked. His hands outstretched to reach his
people. Each of them singing in varied tones of an insatiable hunger.
[Destiny.  Oil on Canvas]
Realism attempts to render the truth while expressionism is a bad
liar who wants to be honest. This is where I found myself when my
dream of Destiny awoke me. It needed to come from the excavated
land I saw Zambia becoming. I took red soil, mixed it with oils and
threw away my watercolors— my fear of their dilution of me.
[Huts.  Silkscreen Print]
The straw spires send me back to running through fields, brushing
against corn husks. The smell of clay hollow rooms, food laid on mats,
the water bowl we passed to wash our hands. Firewood burning in a
small enclosure. Its blue flames we held all July where we saw winter
pass with a thief’s caution, stealing what remained of our warmth.
[Untitled.  Woodcut]
I see three contours of Regina. All of them the woman I loved and
lost. Gina, is it not you I see in the woodcuts I chisel into effigies?
Their backs shaped like kandolos. Your face, Zambia’s best export—
copper. In the mind, I seesaw from the living to your grave. What I’d
give to peel the afterlife’s underside to see you under life’s awning.
[Pounding Maize.  Woodcut]
I keep a picture of my mother pounding maize in my front shirt
pocket. Photography is best for its simple truth: thought is brief,
whereas the image is absolute. This is how I want to remember her:
the care in the handle of the falling log; my clinging to her back,
wrapped in a chitenge, her movements lulling me to sleep.
[Lusaka Burning.  Stencil Sketch]
Birds in flight, fleeing their nests. Flapping flames off wings. The
Zambezi river a shattered disco ball spitting out shards of crystallized
water. Zambia’s language milieu where the word for pain is a shared
dialect. Nyanja is a fire language, crackling the mouth, and shearing
consonants off tongues. What is left is no country, but the imagination.
[The Omen.  Watercolor]
The moon started to fold into itself. Crows waking at dawn, dusting
dusk off their backs. The revelation that stretched my life from star
to star. The small thread of a man’s life and where he chose to plot
and root himself. If I were to weave that thread once more, I wish
for more scenes of holding Regina, letting my art be background.
[The Brothers.  Oil on Canvas]
On a drive through Lusaka, it is W.I.T.C.H’s tender vibrato that holds
me. I know this country tethers us. We will all share the same death.
The phantom blood of the ‘80s which moved our lives at the pace of
a stone in a child’s hands upon view of open water. The scene that took
me back to reading by candlelight until the wick burned into itself.
[Mother Afrika.  Woodcut]
This country does tether us. A coiled cord pulled from the Zambezi river.
Our birthright to our father’s tribes, but we are always our mother’s children.
Bury me here when I inherit the still life of my woodcuts. Smear my ashes
on the Nsalu cave paintings. I am thinking of my father who adorned
himself griot. I do not worry about legacy— let my art remain.
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About the Author

Cheswayo Mphanza was a finalist for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and a recipient of the 2017 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. 

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The straw spires send me back to running through fields, brushing
against corn husks. The smell of clay hollow rooms, food laid on mats,
the water bowl we passed to wash our hands. Firewood burning in a
small enclosure. Its blue flames we held all July where we saw winter
pass with a thief’s caution, stealing what remained of our warmth.

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