​From shaman to star man: Bongani Madondo has an audience with Sanusi Credo Mutwa

Sanusi, philosopher and cosmic visionary Credo Mutwa’s influence can be discerned in just about every facet of 21st-century pop culture and philosophy, from the Blk Jks to Game of Thrones. He remains an enigma in the country of his birth. Bongani Madondo takes a trip across the Kalahari to meet the man and peek into his futuristic past.

Free your mind and your ass will follow.
The kingdom of heaven is within.
— George Clinton and Funkadelic, October 1970

No one cautioned me. No one warned me of the magnetic pull of the interplanetary world unto which I was about to ascend and boy oh’ boy, no one whispered: Dude, getting into that space, if for a moment, is akin to purchasing a one-way only exit ticket into the magical world you might not return from.

Although I grew up within earshot of the nocturnal shrieks of izangoma, and was weaned on the mystical indie-genius sounds and space jams by the likes of Parliament, Bootsy Collins, King Tubby, Harare and Osibisa, nothing prepared me for this: my stairway to heaven.

Enter the Black Magic Woman
The year is 2009, Fort Green, Brooklyn, formerly New York City’s “African republic” via the Caribbean islands. I am at the borough’s Afro Punk music festival, a spiritual home festival for “Negroes who’d rather be head-bangin’ than gang-bangin’”, and am just about to be ushered backstage to the private den of the festival’s most magical dame on the block.

She has just performed a 10-song set that can be best described as hallucinatory, during which she danced a storm, reprised the Charlie Chaplin classic Smile, bass-bellowed like Howling Wolf, cut the stage in half, gliding, moonwalking and doing James Brown splits and hopping up the tree to splatter drippy, psychedelic dreams on several canvases arrayed in linear fashion on the stage.

Neither I nor the majority of the fly-ass, black ’n proud audience had seen anything like her before from her generation. After the show, I am ushered backstage where I await her outside what passes for a dressing room for five minutes. It feels like a lifetime. She appears, clad in a white tank top and white shorts, bare feet barely touching the ground, hairdo simultaneously flopping down her forehead and attempting a skywards climb all in one go. I have never espied an amalgamation of weirdness, spacedness and cuteness so tightly bound in one spirit as the one before me right now.

We talk about magic. She tells me she doesn’t exist in the world I live in. She tells me her name is Cindi Mayweather. She tells me Cindi is her alternegro. That she’s an android — “not an alien”. She tells me she believes in magic.

I tell her about Busi Mhlongo and the cosmic universe through which she pivots her brand of Zulu musical witchcraft, keeping us spellbound with her bowel-turning howls. I tell her about Credo Mutwa’s philosophies. She listens carefully before latching on to Mutwa like an illegal miner on whom it has just dawned that he’s struck a spot full of diamonds and will not rest until he unearths the rare gems. She mines me for secrets, anecdotes, tales and legends that chart Mutwa’s fantastical stories, which she, an African-American, might have grown up reading from the family’s Africana bookshelf. She digs, and draws barren earth devoid of light.

I feel her retreating energy as it coils back into her performer-protected armour and tries to get clubby with me. I have no more to say to her. I leave the Black Magic Woman hankering for more and, I guess, a tad disappointed.

It struck me then that although underground poets and counterfeit existentialists in my beloved country often spoke about Mutwa in tongues, we knew fuck all about his range. We chanted his name to close ranks, fortify or glam-rock our rhetoric. We’d previously call his name to silence others while elevating ourselves above the fray. Yet none of that brought us any closer to decrypting either the man or his richly complex and compounding repertoire of visual art, incandescent sci-fa (for “factual” and not “fictional” futuristic tales) and luminescence.

None of that ushered us into a closer understanding of the archangels, the t’chi’ at the core of this man, and possibly, extracting their heavy dues in ways healers are made to suffer for possessing the “gift.”

I leave the backstage area and Brooklyn feeling like an empty shell. I also leave Brooklyn and New York promising her that, one day, I will go and see Credo Mutwa and try to get to the core of his story, if only to return and impress her. Her stage name, she tells me as I as gather myself, in flight mode, ready to bolt out and run, is Janelle. Nine months later, Janelle Monáe, the elf-like space-cadet in monochrome hues, releases an album, The ArchAndroid. It becomes a huge summer breakthrough event of 2010. The moment: hers.

Meanwhile I, back in Mzansi, begin my desperate attempt to have an audience with Mutwa. It would take seven years before I would be granted that honour. Seven lean years.

It’s 2016: the year of the omen of chaos. The year of the revival of student and social angst. The year of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and reckonings of the final phases of the disintegration of colonial empires, such as that of the once self-proclaimed “great” Britain.

For what’s it worth, it is the year of ideological renewal, if not the recharging of old nationalist batteries across the universe. This is also the year I’d finally be granted an audience with the Sanusi.

Last weekend, I led a small group of committed if beautifully idealistic colleagues on an arduous trip through the Kalahari, in pursuit of that rare audience with the Sanusi. This was no Ken Kesey’s chemically injected Merry Pranksters trippin’ across the Mojave. And yet it promised its pound of flesh, if not faith, from all on board.

After a five-hour road trip from Sin City (Johannesburg) to Kuruman, hot-pedalling it across what felt like vast stretches of the Coen brothers’ or Herman Charles Bosman’s world — a rusty, yellowing, flat landscape, stretches and stretches of gorgeous emptiness (that’s if desolate blues is your thang) bar an old highway store with an outdated Bull Brand ad — we arrive in Magojaneng.

Magojaneng, which is Sechuana (as the locals pronounce it) for “swampy spots”, is perched a 15-minute drive southeast of Kuruman’s centre, on the beaten track that disentangles itself from the main and menacing highway and stretches to Namibia. It is full moon and we can’t help noticing the now amber-red moon, dancing ahead of us as though beckoning us to come closer and closer to our destination. What it, the moon — in Nguni vernac inyanga, meaning a “healer” and “seer” in its own right — understands all too well is our journey into the Pandora’s box of secrets and magic.

By the time we arrive at the Mutwa compound, it is way past suppertime. Incredibly, the crew is ushered into a small but neat and warm room where Mutwa, who had just turned 95 earlier in the week, had no business waiting for a band of banana peels like us from the big city. We are beyond humbled and soon we’d be humbled further. I love night-time interviews. Nothing can be hidden from the night. They are no-punches-pulled affairs, and this one would prove no different.

Vusamazulu “Credo” Mutwa cuts a picture of a serene old man. Gone is the iconic image of a gorgeously rotund old man — French-chic thick 1940s spectacles, zoological outfit made of animal hide, neck and chest draped with a click-clickatty golden necklace strung with all sorts of voudon jewels to make Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow drool with envy.

Gone was the visual memory of what and how Credo must look like, even to those who have never laid their eyes on him. Sitting in a reclining position next to a two-bar electric heater is an old man with a bush of white beard wearing a burgundy wool jersey, grey trousers and black-and-white All Stars. He looks human: accessibly so. This does not make sense.

Looks can be deceiving. This man is the iconic Credo Mutwa all right, just not as we choose to remember him. Still sharp as a razor, with a mind, erudition and language far more eloquent than people a quarter of his age, Mutwa has no time for small talk.

Just before we commence in earnest, he throws me under the bus, not stopping a bit to acknowledge I came all the way to interview him. “Why would you be interested in me, a witch doctor like me? A dirty piece of meat like me?” he demands. “Since when have I, Credo Mutwa, a liar, a cheat and a fake — so said the whites — become an object of interest? Please sir, answer me that?”

I stare into the distance, wearing a puzzled face. He’s on a roll. “People who believed that we were Satan’s children? Since when have they started having interest? My heart is very suspicious. Explain, why this interest in Credo Mutwa? Do you know what fire feels like on your flesh? I am very uneasy. I fought for black African tradition. I was ridiculed, I was robbed and, furthermore, two attempts were made to kill me. Why am I now an object of interest?’’

He is referring to the infamous, if tragic, act of buffoonery when he was exiled out of Soweto in the mid-1970s by bands of bloodhounds, youth who believed Mutwa was either a collaborator with the Boers or a false prophet, possibly both.

It wasn’t unheard of for traditional doctors to associate themselves with the Boers. Hendrik Verwoerd had a personal medicine man from Lusikisiki, Khotso Sethuntsa. History will remember him for the failure of his pig-fat concoction to prevent his client from being assassinated. Mutwa does not have any direct and intimate relationship with power and ego at that level. His only sin is that he dared to be different and hark back to what was felt to be an outmoded sense of African past, one that was incongruent with and disconnected from the crude challenges of the Soweto youth of the time.

They tarred his name, beat him up, insulted him and ran him out of the township like a dog. Since then, he’s been living as refugee, some sort of internal exile, in his fatherland. Even when he later acquired a mysterious aura as South Africa’s prime mystic, Vusamazulu was never, ever at home in his psyche. He was, and still is, a wounded man.

Exiled from Soweto, he settled in the then Bophuthatswana homeland, in the region of the Lotlamoreng Dam in Mahikeng, where he built one of his typical Credo Mutwa villages. Alas, home it was not to be, either.

Gripped by a mixture of paranoia and celebrity envy, homeland linchpin Lucas Mangope showed him the door. He went north and settled in the Hartbees area, west of Pretoria, before relocating to Kuruman. It is as though South Africa cannot deal with Mutwa and yet claims him as one of its imponderable oracles.

Veteran journalist and author Nomavenda Mathiane, who covered politics and the black urban crevices of the time, now recalls the experience as “a heartbreakingly stupid act; an arrogance of youth, tribalism and black people’s distrust of each other”. Listening to Mutwa, though, we have not always been like this. “African people are magical people, gifted scientists and medicine people from which issue some of the world’s gifted visionaries,” he says.

Not that we had any doubts, but when this man speaks, you’d better keep quiet for fear of missing out any nuggets of the genius at work. A sculptor of prodigious talent, when he talks about art, he has no time for that high versus low culture nonsense. For him, “art is a medicine which, prepared craftily, can cure people”. How so?

He has not the time to break it down for imbeciles or stupid youth like me. Clearly warming up to the visitors, he is at ease answering just about any wild question and offering his own kind of Credo Mutwa Theory on just about any niggling subject posed.

Baba, are we black or are we African? He pounces: “Now there’s a stupid question if I’ve ever heard one. What is black about us, huh? We are not black. We are dark-brown Africans in a hot continent, that’s what we are.”

I want to scream: Indeed we are. At heart, Mutwa is impatient with black and white supremacy or self-essentialising politics. Instead, he prefers old expressions such as Bantu, African, native and indigenous, and sees no ethnocentric or anthropological offence in those. He believes in owning language, pouring life into it, for it not to be owned by other people’s perceptions of who you are as an African.

On the one hand he extols the heritage gifts of “indigenous Africans”. “I grew up hearing stories I have no reason to disbelieve, stories of our ability to communicate with entities from space, long before the arrival of whites here.” He might even catch you off-guard with one of his barbed-wire aphorisms: “Do you know that African men and women known as the Olmecs sailed to America way before Columbus and his ironclad thugs even set foot there?”

Thus, to hear how merciless he is towards what he calls the “African condition” can knock the wind totally out of your smug pan-Africanist sails: “Sometimes it does seem like we Africans, gifted as we are in the cosmological sense of how the universe works, don’t know whether we are coming or going. We are directionless people paralysed by fear.”

Often when Mutwa speaks it is too easy either to disbelieve him, thus dismissing him as a whimsical or deranged genius, or just fall for each and every word of his as though it is unassailable scripture.

Both of those impulses are dangerous and dishonest, at the very least. Although the latter reveals our laziness to engage with minds and mindsets that operate in different realms from the norm, dismissing them as madmen, simply because we are not able to imagine an alternative sense and rationality to what we were raised to internalise as intelligence, is horrifying.

It is getting late in the night. But Mutwa has just started. I confess to him my struggle to tease out the “factual” from his bottomless well of “anecdotes” and the warren of his gloriously “fantastical” characters and plots: the realism from the magic realism, as it were. A prime example of that fantastic conflation and subversion of what is and what is not fact is the genre-defying tricks and gifts that books such as Indaba, My Children come bearing for the reader. Mutwa would hear none of that scholarly rubbish, though. He’s quick to correct me: “No. Nothing I tell is fiction, none.”

He is aware that some readers grapple with making sense of his often dense — if grounded in rich poetics and life philosophy — teachings, especially those works of art veering into what the Western world refers to as “sci-fi”.

In the introduction to Indaba, My Children, he acknowledges the awareness of such doubt and yet, instead of coddling us into believe him, he chooses to tell it the only way he knows it to be “true”: “The only way I, as an outcast, one of the guardians of umlando or tribal history, shall tell these stories to you in the very words of the guardians who passed them to me before.”

He writes: “Many will find it hard to believe much of what I have revealed, but I am not in the very least concerned, because whether I am believed or not, everything I write here is true.”

Such defiance is carried through in the introduction to book four of Indaba: “Like so many books I have tried to write, like so many other pictures I have painted, like so many statues I have carved from lifeless wood, this book will no doubt meet with opposition and die without fulfilling its intended mission in this world.”

Not one to go with the crowds, he girds his loins, unsheathes his sword and prepares to die standing rather than begging to be understood. “But I shall not despair,” he pumps his chest, “I shall not be discouraged, because he who takes an oath before the all-seeing gods to carry out a certain task, come what may, is already doubly shielded against the assegais of failure, ridicule and adversary.”

You will understand why his foes would see his self-affirmation as unbridled righteousness.

He wrote those words in the late 1950s or early 1960s. To be fair to him, Mutwa is only human. He, too, has had moments of doubt or an honesty with himself he will always struggle to convey to us in simpler terms.

In the postscript to a chapter titled The Great Journey Begins, he observes: “We have reached the end of a long and tedious story, a strange mixture of historical fact and legendary fantast, a strange mixture of truth and nonsense.” 

Am I misreading the master storyteller here or are we observing a deeply honest spirit in a rare expression of self-doubt — or, perhaps, is he all-aware that the mere reader is too taxed by the author’s complexity and thus, self-deprecatingly, he is attempting, in a back-handed fashion, to appear simpatico?

One thing we can be sure of that’s not curated to curry any favour is Mutwa’s simple yet deeply felt, if inelegant, reverence and scholarship for the soul and figure of a woman in both his visual art and his interviews.

He exalts the feminine spirit, speaking about women’s place in the interplanetary and galactic genealogy. He speaks about what the visual image of a woman elicits in a man, a psychic desire for both necessary emotional pain and the transcendence Nina Simone aspired to when she sang I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.

He talks about women’s power and, as he does that, he does not shy away from describing them anatomically, imbuing his vivid descriptions — such as when he told us you need to respect your mothers, bo mmao ba marago-a-magolo, ‘’the big-buttocked women who raise you’’ — with deep, erotic poetics. The last time I heard or read anything as bold and graphic with no intention to reduce, hurt or (as the smart types put it) “other” others for their race, gender or sexuality, was in Antjie Krog’s bold and vivid collection Synapse.

He speaks about women almost interchangeably with the incredibly luminous power of the stars. “Immense knowledge comes from the stars, immense light issues out of them, forever. Our people respected stars so much that they had names for them. Same as women; they are the carriers of life itself.”

Right in the middle of this, his voice seems to gain an extra weight. He straightens his drooping back. “In Nguni a woman is called umfazi. Ukufaza is to scatter. Women are the scatterers of the living seed. Just as the stars pour unto lights, some break into little pieces to create an even richer Milky Way.”

Feminists, of course, might not be charmed by Mutwa’s traditional exultation of womanhood in what seemingly is a narrow and male-possessive manner. They will not be chuffed either by the manner in which some of his women characters “with itches and hips” are depicted as devourers of men. And they might have a point.

But Mutwa, a man not of his time, born in 1921, continues, in intimate conversations and broader work (nowhere expressed better than in his gigantic silver and gold female sculptures), to engage broader sexism in ways the patriarchs will probably take aeons even to internalise.

“We don’t respect women at our own peril: we whistle at them, rape them, loot their bodies. We have no sense of what they represent to this world.”

At about midnight, we are ushered out of his room. I leave feeling like everyone can say the things he says. I also felt that despite his reputation as a complex artist and storyteller, much of Mutwa’s wisdom is common wisdom. Perhaps that’s what makes it and him so hard to fathom: what seems common often takes lifetimes to distill into received wisdom.

Credo Mutwa is not a perfect man. None of us is. Yet he inspires us to escape our programmed condition, what John Coltrane might have meant by levitation towards a “love supreme”. It’s the same kinetic transcendence movement and merger of body and soul so selfless in its embrace and oblivious that the spiritual sum total of such a bond can only go one way: rupture into an out-of-body experience … metaphysical emotion.

Something the then unknown Electric Lady, Janelle, was trying to game me up to appreciate, and I was not listening.

Award-winning Bongani Madondo is the author of Sigh, the Beloved Country (Picador Africa), biographer, amateur filmmaker and art historian.

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