Background of the poet
Mazisi Kunene, one of the most important and influential voices in modern African literature, was born in Durban, South Africa in 1930. He studied at the University of Natal where he took an M. A. He was head of the Department of African Studies in the University College at Roma in Lesotho. He left South Africa for Britain where he became a founding member of the African Nationalist Congress. He represented the movement in Europe and America. He is, at present, Professor of African Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Analysis/summary of In Praise of the Ancestors by Mazisi Kunene
Line 1 – 5: “In Praise of the Ancestors” by Mazisi Kunene is a explicitly a poem of eulogy which critically celebrates the ancestors, also known as “Forefathers” in line 1. In the poem, Mazisi Kunene makes a thorough disclosure of African tradition. He x-rays clearly the uniqueness and essential roles of the ancestors in the African lives. He portrays these through repeated uses of literary metaphors. Though the poem is composed of 24 lines, Mazisi Kunene emphasizes throughout the poem the salient existence of the ancestors, their presence and affairs in the lives of the Africans. These ancestors, Mazisi Kunene observes traditionally, are idolized among the Africans. As years dragged by, Christianity came to Africa and many were converted. The Christians – the new generation of African Christians – frown at the African culture and tradition, labelling the African traditional worshippers as blind pagans. Even at this, the African tradition and ancestors continue to exist and the roles of the ancestors in the lives of the ancestors remain unchanged. The cultural clash between African tradition and Christianity is noted in line 1, 2 and 3 respectively in the poem:
Even now the Forefathers still live
They are not overcome by the power of the whirlwind.
The day that sealed their eyes did not conquer them.
Mazisi Kunene believes that the spirits of the ancestors live among the African; and, they could not be stopped by the whirlwind. The whirlwind refers to the Christianity which came to Africa.
Read the poem, In Praise of the Ancestors by Mazisi Kunene
Line 6 – 10: The ancestors are great warriors during their lifetime. They have made famous history during war which they fought. When the ancestors are invoked at a traditional ceremony, they “come to listen to our songs.” They express their happiness by shaking “their heads.” The ancestors are immortalized by their children in two ways: firstly, the children and great grand children bear their names. Secondly, their heroic deeds become a generational story. Mazisi Kunene refers to this in line 9 as: “With us they celebrate their eternal life.”
Line 11 – 15: The ancestors help the children by establishing the real identity of who they (the children) really are – Africans. Through cultural ceremony, the children celebrate and honour the ancestors.
Line 16 – 20: The children are united by the ancestors through blood, names and traditional belief. The strange truth about the ancestors is that they are entirely Africans.
Line 21 – 24: The children sing songs to celebrate the ancestors “and their great eras” which is significantly heroic. The existence of the Africans (the children) came directly from the ancestors, “For indeed life does not begin with us.”