The Timbila Poetry Project is a unique initiative in the South African arts world. It seeks to record the voices of as many creative poetic talents in the country as possible. As such draws on the country’s largely untapped and extensive oral tradition of using many forms of poetry as a strongly communicative and conspicuous creative element in communities. It publishes works by poets in a large annual publication, and in occasional smaller volumes. Timbila brings together the work of largely unknown and unsupported poets from across the country for publication in an annual journal, poetry recitals and performances and meetings. Timbila relies on donations and has received occasional National Arts Council funding in
order to get its books published.
The NAC supported publications since 2000 are:
• Timbila – A Journal of Onion Skin Poetry, edited by Vonani Bila
• Marhambu ya Nhloko, Xitsonga poetry collection by MM Marhanele
• Peu tsa Tokologo, Sepedi poetry collection by Phomelelo Machika
• Ndzheko wa Rixaka, Xitsonga poetry collection by BM Ngobeni
• Moswarataukamariri, Sepedi poetry collection by David wa Maahlamela
• Journey with me, poetry by Goodenough Mashego
• Impiselo, IsiZulu poetry collection by Linda Ndlovu
• Nsati wa Gayisa, Xitsonga poetry by DE Shishenge & DD Shishenge
• Twilight: Four South African Tragedies, stage plays by Oupa Mongwe &
• Talks with the Sun, poetry by Mpho Ramaano
• Orchestra of Tongues, poetry anthology edited by Lukas Mkuti
The communities from which this wide variety of poetic voices comes can roughly be divided into the urban township scene and the rural scene. Townships are the large urban locations where people once under apartheid as black, coloured or Indian were forced to live as labour reserves for running much of the infrastructure of the white owned cities and suburbs. Nowadays, the townships still have much of their character and appearance of the apartheid era. The segregation of the past has only been eroded in some middleclass downtown or suburban settings.
The rural areas of South Africa are home to the majority of the black population. It is in these that the brunt of the problems caused by colonial segregation and later by apartheid are evident, in particular the effects of land dispossession, evictions of farm workers, mass poverty and unemployment. And yet the rural areas and village communities are strongly rooted in the older African linguistic and oral traditions, and it is in them that we see the longevity of poetic expression, compared to those of the comparatively recent urban environments.
South African poetry provides a detailed and multifaceted view of the society, both in terms of how it has been experienced over generations but also, and more pressingly, concerning the fraught transition and massive changes that have taken place since 1994 and the beginnings of democracy.
The Timbila Poetry Project was started in 1999 by the poet and social justice activist Vonani Bila. The preamble to the constitution of the project reads:
Timbila, derived from mbira, also known as finger harp, is a multilingual poetry initiative by both accomplished and new voices that intelligently synthesise form and content to articulate fresh poetry, reaffirming poetry’s cultural multiplicity and its diverse modes of expression. This initiative, that publishes a poetry journal, attempts to demonstrate stylistic variety of the poets in the range of narrative, musical, dramatic, voiceprint and performance poems it presents.