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January 22, 2016


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Deela Khan

I'm posting the tribute I wrote for Saartjie's funeral so that it reach many more people:


For Saartjie Baartman

Died 1 January 1816
Born in 1789 (the year of the French Revolution)

From the ancestral mountains,
across streams, rivers, koppies and rocks,
across the mangled vegetation of territory
bloodied and dislocated by warfare,
across the Gamtoosvallei, valley of your conception,
your birth, your years of play and wonder,
your young motherhood, widowhood, your wells of grief,
your deaths, stillbirths and losses,
from the inconsolable hollow of weeping and explosions of laughter,
you came galloping, running, striding toward the Cape with its rumours of good
hope, its towering mountains, its sky clouded with gulls, its sea fecund with fish.

Amidst the river of stars sailed the moon
preening its amber-gold fullness at the hour of your arrival.
Amidst the fires and songs, the odour of herbs and thundering drums,
the spirits of the caves and ravines and canyons echoed your presence.
You had arrived. Away from your arrowed memories of warriors falling, of speared bulleted bodies falling, close to the mountain with its aloes and proteas and buchu and khaki-bos, you had come to stay. But stay, you could not our ancestral wanderer.

Your seduction began with the arrival of a big ship in the harbour.
You felt the eyes of the brothers on your body.
They flooded your head with images of you on the ship.
They whispered promises of the ship’s doctor
chaperoning you to London where the streets were paved with gold.
They sold images of you welcomed as Venus, voluptuous queen of love,
every inch of your body cloaked in a mystique
northern women cannot dream to possess.
They captured your imagination with dreams
of music and song, palatial houses and finery.

On the wounded day you bought their dream,
Saartjie, you boarded the ship and went sailing
towards the unfamiliar jeweled mountains of the north.
Sailing away from the harbour with its mountains, its cliffs,
Its gulls, its seals, its raging sea and kindred spirits,
Your eyes wrapped around so much beauty,
stored it in your heart for moments of great longing.

You discovered their lies on the high seas.
Where were your quarters?
Where did you sleep?
You shouted out loud, they could not hear you.
You talked to the wind, the waves, the stars and the healing
moon who understood tongues as no humans could.
You screamed out your bondage
in these nights of affliction you were forced to ride.
You rode fears, breakers, bodies as you sailed to the strange Jerusalem,
With its strange mountains and strange tongues.

Towards London you strode in the Age of Reason
Leaving behind your ship of tears, heartbreak and humiliation.
You came striding into the city where houses were palaces,
rocks were diamonds, kerb stones, slabs of gold.
You cursed the men who whispered
those lies with no ears to hear you.
Only the language of needle-and-bottle was understood
by the good doctor; anodynes to erase words, rid bodies of pain.

Your baptism of fire and pain under grey London skies had begun.
The sun hid its face when first you lost your clothes
as you did your song and dance sequence under feathers,
in cages with or without animals, in bars, on campuses,
on soapbox stages, in Piccadilly, in the streets of London.

Civilized English folk came rushing to view the freak.
Men and women and dogs and lovers and children poked your
body with alarmed fingers, with sticks.
They gawked, they laughed, they talked.
Their faces, their horrible voices, their eyes
burned into your anatomy like flames and made you scream.
This was not the dream you were promised.
The great cavern of loneliness was starting to envelope you-
you were entering that sacred ground that animals
retreated to in the absence of compassion.

Four years in London allowed you to learn the peculiar tongue
spoken around you, but understand, you could not, these peculiar
beings who controlled the destinies of those they saw as lesser beings.
Abolitionists fought to free you from your bonds of shame and torture.
But crooked custodians of justice proved you were not coerced,
You prospered they argued, you loved your work!
But soon you were sold to the French.
To new masters you were sent sailing to France,
hoping you were sailing home,
hoping they were setting you free,
but you landed in a circus where caged beasts shared your misery.
Like circus animals you were taught a routine.
Stripped to the skin,
to the music you had to dance, dance, dance
and if you could dance no more, you were beaten with a stick.
If you resisted, screamed, refused to sing, you were whipped.

The mystery of your body, with its generous contours
Captured the imaginations of European scientists,
doctors, artists and men from all walks of life.
It was the allure of the exotic that drove them to want you,
To want to know you,
To break your body as though you’d never been.

And when illness racked your body in your lonely shelter
in the land of strange spirits, you hauled from your heart the stored
images of your kin, of Table Mountain, of the Gamtoos Valley.

When Death entered with a handless knock that shattered
your panes and lifted your covers,
when she entered with the soundless rustle of her robes, you welcomed her
and your accompanying ancestors but said you could not leave your body there.
You did not trust the Baron Georges Cuvier.
Honouring your wish Death and your ancestors left you to guard
your body in the land of strangers
till the hour of your return.

Two portraits of you in the nude decorate the walls of the Louvre.
Cuvier craved an exhibit, a Hottentot Venus for the Musee de l’Homme.
Dead as you were, to them, you were still a freak,
an anthropological curiosity.
Of you he made a mould, he dissected you,
preserved your brain, skeleton and genitalia for posterity.

In the womb of that tomb filled with silent bones,
You remained for 186 years
still shouting, howling, screaming your great yearning to go home.

The hour of your return has dawned in the Age of Aquarius.
In the belly of an iron bird you come flying,
across Europe, across Africa, towards the southern tip.
Above banks of clouds, hailstorms, skyscrapers, seas,
rivers, mountain ranges and rift-valleys
You come flying
You come flying home.

Deela Khan, 3August, 2002

Romeo  Vitelli

Thank you for posting that.

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