Seeking difference: Chimurenga founder Ntone Edjabe chose Cape Town for its distance from Lagos
It is an irony that the literary journal, Chimurenga, and its younger sibling, the Chimurenga Chronic, are produced in Cape Town. Indeed, that was the first question its founder, Ntone Edjabe, the Cameroonian-born writer, editor, DJ and basketball coach was asked by his conversant and compatriot, research professor Achille Mbembe.
The conversation was being held at an afternoon session of the Johannesburg Workshop for Theory and Criticism, a week-long gathering of scholars from what is loosely called the Global South being hosted by the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser). Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai opened the conference with a lecture about derivatives, debt and risk.
Edjabe’s session was somewhat less stuffy than the morning meditation on the abstractions of derivatives. (Financial journalist and novelist John Lanchester has compared the advent of derivatives, made possible by the Black-Scholes equation, derived in 1973, to that moment in modernism when TS Elliot put out The Wasteland or Igor Stravinsky composed The Rite of Spring.)
When Mbembe asked Edjabe: “Why on earth would you live in Cape Town?”, he prefaced his response with a melody by a son of the city, Winston Mankunku Ngozi. The dialogue, fittingly enough for the DJ, occurred between snatches of jazz from a vinyl record player.
Edjabe, who arrived in Johannesburg in 1993, said: “I was following a friend, as is usually the story. Friends take us to places. I fell in love with a South African poet, Sandile Dikeni, in the first few months of my arrival in Johannesburg.”
There was this idea, from a person recently arrived from Lagos, that Cape Town was going to be different. And the journey was, in many ways, about “seeking something different”, said Edjabe, “I found myself in a place in which most of what I knew needed translation. I was in a foreign country in way I had never been in Johannesburg.”
At the time, Dikeni was about to move to Cape Town to edit an arts insert for the Cape Times. Edjabe soon trekked south and, for a while, wrote for the insert before Dikeni’s feet once again got the itch and he had to move back to Johannesburg. This time, Edjabe didn’t follow — he had started a family of his own and made other friends.
On their own terms
In some ways, Chimurenga’s first iteration was when a troupe of African migrants to the city took over a building on Long Street to establish what they called a Pan African Market. The name “market” for a space frequented by West Africans was a loaded and evocative one. The market is an institution and meeting place in West Africa. “It was important to acknowledge that we are here to make a living,” said Edjabe. “We are traders …[and] we are trying to develop a space for ourselves.”
The initiative was an attempt to engage the city on their own terms. When they reached out into the city, they were afraid that “the moment [we] are comfortable in this place, [we] are lost”. Said Edjabe: “It was a very visible thing to do in 1996 to start an African market. We weren’t trying to [conceal] it; we were making as much noise as possible. We were playing drums, dressed in every stereotype.” Initially, the edifice housed a restaurant run by a Senegalese man and also regularly hosted book readings. “It soon became a place where strangers who arrived in Cape Town [visited] to make friends.
“The Pan African Market came to be known as ‘that African place’. All of this led to our further exclusion,” said Edjabe. So, neither outside nor inside, they hung as if in a void, occupying that uncertain, intermediary space Wole Soyinka so eloquently evoked in his novel The Interpreters.
The ghost of late Martinican writer, Édouard Glissant, hung insistently over the proceedings at Wiser’s sixth-floor perch. As well as being a poet and a theorist, Glissant is the other third of the triumvirate of Martinican thinkers that includes novelist Patrick Chamoiseau and writer Raphaël Confiant. “We must fight against transparency everywhere,” the late poet wrote. “We demand for all the right to opacity.”
Glissant could have been talking about editions of Chimurenga some readers have found inaccessible. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Chimurenga wasn’t even formed in the early stages of the Pan African Market. That moment would come in 2002, when Edjabe solicited pieces about music from a few writers: Neville Alexander, Njabulo Ndebele, and others. The writing that came through wasn’t just about music as entertainment, it was a genre in which revolution actively seeks out music. This phenomenon was, in a word, chimurenga. Chimurenga is a word popularised by both Robert Mugabe and musician Thomas Mapfumo. It is Zimbabwean (as opposed to Shona) for revolutionary struggle.
It was something Edjabe was, by then, quite familiar with. In his time in Lagos, he had been to Fela Kuti’s shrine, where he had encountered music as more than just entertainment. “I never experienced him primarily as a musician, but as a radical thinker and rabble-rouser. He would come to [our university] campus and create all sort of havoc. And, growing up in Cameroon, I had never seen this level of confrontation. We had great poets, but their real talent was in not naming things.”
But Chimurenga Chronic was about naming things: xenophobia and the attendant violence. It was Edjabe’s foray into the newspaper form. In what some thought of as a postmodernist gimmick, the first edition of the newspaper was backdated to May 2008, around the time of the ethnic violence. “We [had been] confronted by the weak language produced by well-meaning nongovernmental organisations trying to address the crisis and by newspapers,” Edjabe said. “We felt there were deeper issues to engage with, and we certainly didn’t know what language to use.”
Why a newspaper? “The newspaper is more accessible than the literary journal. [There is] something about the form, the format and its relationship with information.”
A second issue of the Chronic has since come out. It’s not as bulky and mouthwatering as the first, but it makes South African newspaper editors seriously rethink their relevance.
Ntone Edjabe DJs at Goethe-on-Main at the Arts on Main complex in Johannesburg on Saturday 29 June from 9pm until late. Entrance is R70