At home in your skin

“Did you know,” Denys Finch Hatton asks Karen Blixen in Out of Africa, “that in all of literature there’s no poem celebrating the foot? There’s lips, there’s eyes, hands, face, hair, breasts, legs, arms, even the knees. But not one verse for the poor foot. Why do you think that is?”

“Priorities, I suppose,” she replies.

When they do write about them, literary critic Jeffrey Robinson remarks: “People observe their feet or write about them with a unique detachment. The foot is not quite a part of the rest of the body.”

In the title poem of her first anthology, These Hands, Makhosazana (Khosi) Xaba wrote: “These hands remember / the metallic feel / of numerous guns / when the telling click / was heard. / They recall / the rumbling palm embrace / over grenades, / ready for the release of destruction. … These hands / have felt pulsating hearts / over-extended abdomens, / they know the depths of vaginas, / the open mouths of wombs, / they know the grasp / of minute, minute-old clenched fists.”

I ask her if she would consider writing a similar homage to her feet. She answers with a belly laugh. Perhaps, because her early experiences of walking were anything but poetic. “When I was young we walked because there was no transport.” Growing up in Ndaleni, a rural area close to Richmond in what was then Natal, “we walked everywhere, including to town, which was over an hour [away]. We only got a bus in our area when I was 13. And that was a big thing — ‘Oh, a bus, there’s a bus!’ And if you missed the bus you walked, because it came once in the morning and once in the afternoon. So walking was a way of life, it wasn’t a choice I took actively.”

But later, as an activist: “I used to make it a habit when I moved into a new place to just walk around it so that I knew it fully. It became an issue of security. I needed to know my surroundings very well, so I knew if I needed to run away I would know every single corner. I used to walk my neighbourhood a lot when I was in my 20s.” At that time she was training at the Edendale College of Nursing, just outside Pietermaritzburg. “And then, with time, when I was out of there, it was just exploring the place I was in.”

In 1986 she left South Africa and went into exile with Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC, for almost five years, in “Zambia, Mozambique, Congo, Germany and the Soviet Union. Then I needed to understand where I was and to know the place very well.”

She hasn’t developed a love for any particular place, though. “I connect with wherever I am,” she says, “because I believe that I can make a home wherever I go, but that’s different from developing a love for a place. I just believe that, wherever I am, I can make myself safe. I will make myself safe and I will make it home if I choose to. It can be home for a week if I’m there for a week. I know people who sleep in a foreign bed and they say they couldn’t sleep. I sleep everywhere and anywhere. So whatever place I’m in I connect with.”

If she has a love for any place it’s the coast, no coast in particular. “I love walking on any coastline. I love the sea. I love walking on the sand. I love when my feet go in and I love to be able to look at my tracks.” The cover of her latest volume of poetry, Tongues of their Mothers, features a photo of a huge wave breaking on the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape.

“When I walk I want to feel a sense of openness,” she says. She’s at home now in Jo’burg. “I deliberately choose streets that I know are quiet. I go anywhere I want to go, because I feel that I should be able to — that’s just the mental attitude I’ve developed over time. I refuse to be threatened by ‘this is unsafe, that’s unsafe’. I won’t avoid places.”

“Fear” comes for different reasons and having a light shone on her poetry is one that makes her feel naked and vulnerable. “The fear of being published / is not just fear of having / every inch of your skin / laid out for everyone to touch at will. / It’s more than the fear / of having your gut / unravelled on a display table for the public to scrutinise at leisure.”

“I find that walking and running and yoga are ways of being alone while you’re in the world,” she says.”And poetry comes to me a lot when I’m on my own — when I’m in my head, not necessarily on my own physically. So I could be in a public space, like a restaurant, but I’d be sitting alone.”

And yet, as is so often the case, there is an ambivalence about the solitary walk; the solitary run. In Cotton Socks, she writes: “I wished we’d run the Soweto Marathon together / just as we did the 702 Walk. / Although I knew you wouldn’t come / I still bought two pairs of cotton socks / just as you did last year. … Afterwards I massaged my feet, / rubbing in the foot cream you helped buy. / Then I lay naked on my bed, / the second pair of cotton socks cuddling my feet.”

After one of her coastal walks in Key West she writes in The Brown Pelican: “It took the harbour walk, four days later, / to stop wishing you were here. … as I sauntered up Simonton Street / back to my room at Pearls Rainbow, / the solemn night embracing my gait. / I savoured the moments / and thanked the brown pelican for delivering you to me.”

But it is the sea she loves, not the beach. From another hotel room window the narrator reflects on This Beach: “So pristine it will not let me forget it, … A runner outside is passing this way for the third time. … In my youth I outran even the boys. But I walked my path, / the path some believed was meant for my kind, in my times. … my loss will never touch the ears of these sun-tanners who populate this beach.”

And then you take a turn in the road and it’s Winter in Wintersrand: “The road sign, Igoda Mouth / Wintersrand, led me off the main road to Port Alfred / and I landed in this paradise we could have shared / had you chosen differently. … I lift my eyes to the horizon and the clouds / so that I can massage my heart for warmth.”

It is the “endlessness” of the ocean, she says, that allows her to breathe out. “Because I think, when I walk, the idea that there’s this endless wave … particularly when I haven’t decided where I’m going, I’m just going. It could not end if I wanted it not to, because there is no specific destination, so it’s open. When I’m walking and I haven’t chosen where to go, it’s like I’m giving myself a gift of openness.”

And when spring comes around again, she asks Send Me a Sign, and “The sun that stayed unseen since morning / refuses to end this winter day in private. / From its hiding place, it has painted the clouds / that now glow pink above the sea.”

At present, Xaba is immersed in writing a biography of Noni Jabavu, of the famous intellectual family from the Eastern Cape. The author of Drawn in Colour and The Ochre People, who spent her life moving from place to place and referred to “the peripatetic print of my feet”, always with one foot in Europe and one in Africa, and who passed away shortly before her 89th birthday last year.

“I was driven by intense curiosity and utter frustration at what seemed to me as a lack of recognition of her pioneering role as a writer,” says Xaba. “Women’s lives provide a window to a nation’s history.”

Makhosazana Xaba relaunches Tongues of their Mothers (UKZN Press) at the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg, on November 28 at 3pm

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