First Person: Sandile Nxumalo

Sandile Nxumalo accompanied King Mswati III to the Queen’s diamond jubilee in London

I was born in Swaziland in Manzini, a township with some areas of extreme poverty. I’m a twin, but my mother had no idea she was expecting twins. My parents named my brother “gift” – so when I suddenly arrived they gave me a name that means “many gifts”.

Before long, my mother began to have problems with my father so she took us to live with my grandfather. I shared a bedroom with my twin and every night we would fight because of the noise I made. I had a bongo drum and I would make music and recite poems all night. My brother complained that he couldn’t sleep. In fact, the whole family got annoyed.

I knew I wanted to be an oral poet and a musician, and it was hard as I had no one to stick up for me. My grandfather would say: “Who have you seen in the country doing that?” Growing up in Africa, if you have a talent, no one notices. They just call you a headache. It’s mainly the white community who like poetry and support talent.

But at school, I had a maths teacher who did love poems and music and he encouraged me. I did my first public performance when the Queen of Swaziland came to visit our school. I stood up on stage and read my poem. It was called “Allow me to talk”. When I’d finished, the queen asked me to go back on stage and repeat it.

That day was the kickstart of everything. I was invited to go to Réunion Island, in the Indian Ocean, to take part in a poetry competition. That was my first foreign trip, and out of 15 poets I came third. Suddenly, I was always in the newspaper and on television. People on the street would greet me. I was invited to corporate functions to read poems, and often I would be at the same events as King Mswati III.

In Swaziland we have a tradition of praise singing to the monarch. It’s a kind of poetry but you don’t pause, it comes from within but you base it on facts. You sing history. For example, a king might arrive in a country that has never received rain and when he comes, it rains. Praises are made of history like that. It’s an ancient tradition and there are many rules and regulations. For example, I couldn’t sing praises if the king wasn’t present.

One day, I was performing one of my poems at an event in front of the king, organised by Swaziland Water Services Corporation. When I’d finished my reading, I didn’t leave the stage. I began to sing the praises of the king. He liked what I sang and I became one of his official praise singers.

When King Mswati III appears in public, I am invited to sing praises. I follow behind him as he walks. I accompanied him to London during Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee and sang his praises. I wore my traditional clothes at first but it was so cold I had to change into trousers and a sweater.

I sing praises maybe twice a month. You don’t earn money as a praise singer – I do it because I’m proud of our culture. I also work in the king’s archive, documenting his majesty’s life.

Praise singing is just praise singing, but poetry made me who I am. We have only a million people in Swaziland and a couple of newspapers and one television channel, so I am very well known. I have won the hearts of people because I speak about life. Because of the place I grew up, I want my poetry to speak to the youth. I talk about the dangers of taking drugs and child abuse. I feel my way through the verse. I don’t use a paper and pen. It comes spiritually from within.

As for the king, I don’t talk about politics and I don’t talk on his behalf. Some people criticise an absolute monarchy but I respect our traditions and our culture. We are the only true monarchy in Africa. I am proud of Swaziland.

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