As part of our organisation’s ‘Home Week’, my dear friend John led us in a reflection on the intersectionality of all forms of exclusion and prejudice, and did so by guiding us in a pantoum exercise.

He asked us to reflect on a moment, and more specifically an interaction with another person, in which we were caused to question our unconscious prejudices or the ways in which we excluded others.

The product of this exercise, which is grounded in oral poetic forms and devices and traditions, is a 20-line poem. I also added a few lines at the end, in order to reach the fullest reflection on the incident that I could possibly reach.

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I was sitting and eating, with you and the others who had been holding vigil

I can feel the close dark heat beating at the windows, in time to the chanting

I can taste the umngqusho in my mouth, my ears filled with isiZulu

We are finally resting, after mass and my translation, and we are eating.

I can feel the close dark heat beating at the windows, in time to the chanting

I feel the exhilaration of the group, the exhalation of catharsis

We are finally resting, after mass and my translation, and we are eating.

I feel as though my job is done, and fairly well – I’m in the clear

I feel the exhilaration of the group, the exhalation of catharsis

I am emptied out, scraped clean, pushed beyond

I feel as though my work is done, and fairly well – I’m in the clear

I know that there were things I messed up, but I’m hoping for forgiveness

I am emptied out, scraped clean, pushed beyond

I am not strong, I am in fact totally vulnerable.

I know that there were things I messed up, but I’m hoping for forgiveness

You noticed, you saw the weakness, and you asked the question

I am not strong, I am in fact totally vulnerable.

I can taste the umngqusho in my mouth, my ears filled with isiZulu

You noticed, you saw the weakness, and you asked the question

Beniphethe? – were y’all in a position of using people like instruments?

I am emptied out, scraped clean, pushed beyond

You noticed, you saw the weakness, and you asked the question

I was sitting and eating, with you and the others who had been holding vigil.

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I have been trying to write about this incident for a long time, and this was the first instant (four years later) in which I was able to reflect on it. I can fill in the gaps a little – I had been hired to translate (English to Zulu) for a Jesuit at the Fatima Pilgrimage near Empangeni. The translation occurred between 1 and 3 am, which is an exhausting time to be engaging in any mental gymnastics. Afterwards, in the only building on the site apart from the church itself, we broke our fast. Enquiries were made about my origins, to which I replied that I had grown up near Eshowe (pointing roughly Southwards through the darkness), and more specifically Entumeni near the small game reserve there. His voice rang out over the sounds of eating, and he asked me:

beniphethe?

were y’all in a position of using people like instruments?

were you  and your people ‘in charge’ / were y’all landowners?

To which there could never be any satisfactory reply. For which I could offer only equivocation and explanation. By which I was forced to evaluate the true extent of shared responsibility for a dehumanising system. In which I gained new insight into my role as a creature of two spirits.