Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi

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Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi

Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi (1875-1945) was a South African novelist and poet who excelled in the Xhosa praise-poem.

Samuel Mqhayi was born on Dec. 1, 1875, among the Xhosa of Cape Province (South Africa). He was trained as a teacher at the Lovedale institution, but he soon became famous as a traditional poet. He began his writing career by contributing to various Xhosa newspapers and by writing a story entitled Ityala lama-wele (1914; The Lawsuit of the Twins). Dealing with a trial in a tribal court, it was mainly designed to extol customary judicial procedure, which was threatened by the growing implantation of European courts.

Mqhayi's deep concern with the lore and history of his people prevented him from teaching at Lovedale, for he could not agree with the official version of South African history in the textbooks. He therefore devoted himself more and more to writing. His major imaginative work, U-Don Jadu (part 1, 1929), is a utopian projection of an ideal, multiracial, South African society under the leadership of the title character, Don Jadu: it is a forward-looking society which places a high premium on education and intellectual progress; and it is a tolerant society which integrates into a Christian framework many of the beliefs and customs dear to African hearts. In 1935 Mqhayi was awarded a prize in the first May Esther Bedford Competition for the part 3 of U-Don Jadu, and in 1936 he took part in the First Conference of Bantu Authors, convened in Transvaal.

Mqhayi's keen interest in the past and the future of Africa is apparent in the dual nature of his inspiration. While writing biographical accounts of such modern Negroes as Dr. J.E.K. Aggrey or the Reverend John Knox Bokwe (1925), he also published a collection of cantos in the traditional manner on the reign of 19th-century Xhosa paramount chief Hintza. Mqhayi's autobiography documents the writer's formative years.

Yet it was as a poet that Mqhayi was chiefly valued by his Xhosa audience, not least because he had fully mastered the form and the spirit of the traditional praise-poem (izibongo) while adapting it to modern circumstances and topics. His volume Inzuzo (1942; Reward) exhibits considerable variety, some aspects of may be unfamiliar to the Western reader. Side by side with praise poems about prominent Africans, it contains, for example, a poem in appreciation of an agricultural journal published in the Transkei.

While Mqhayi's nature poems may be dull, and his moralizing pieces about such subjects as truth, hope, and love are apt to be mere oratorical exercises, he excelled in poetry of the traditional type. This is often heroic but also at times satirical: in a praise-poem written on the occasion of the Prince of Wales's visit to South Africa in 1925, Mqhayi expatiated with overt irony on the ambiguity of Britain's contribution to the "enlightenment" of Africans: "She sent us the preacher, she sent us the bottle; she sent us the Bible and barrels of brandy."

In thus bridging the gap between tradition and novelty, Mqhayi deserved to be called the father of Xhosa poetry by Zulu critic B. W. Vilakazi. Mqhayi died on July 29, 1945.

Further Reading

The fullest account of Mqhayi is to be found in Albert S. Gérard, Four African Literatures (1971). Further background is in Jahnheinz Jahn, Neo-African Literature: A History of Black Writing (1966; trans. 1968), and Robert H.W. Shepherd's two works, Lovedale and Literature for the Bantu: A Brief History and a Forecast (1945) and Bantu Literature and Life (Lovedale, 1955).

Additional Sources

Mqhayi in translation, Grahamstown: Department of African Languages, Rhodes University, 1976. □

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Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi

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