The Zulu Girl by Roy Campbell
When in the sun the hot red acres smoulder
Down where the sweating gang its labour plies
A girl flings down her hoe, and from her shoulder
Unslings her child tormented by flies.
She takes him to a ring of shadow pooled
By the thorn-tree: purpled with the blood of ticks,
While her sharp nails, in slow caresses ruled
Prowl through his hair with sharp electric clicks.
His sleepy mouth, plugged by the heavy nipple,
Tugs like a puppy, grunting as he feeds;
Through his frail nerves her own deep languor’s ripple
Like a broad river sighing through the reeds.
Yet in that drowsy stream his flesh imbibes
And old unquenched, unsmotherable heat-
The curbed ferocity of beaten tribes,
The sullen dignity of their defeat.
Her body looms above him like a hill
Within whose shade a village lies at rest,
Or the first cloud so terrible and still
That bears the coming harvest in its breast.
Roy Campbell (1901 – 1957) was a South African poet. His actual name was Ignatius Royston Dunnachie Campbell which is a rather wonderful name for a poet, but he chose to publish under the name of ‘Roy’. He published mainly between the two World Wars and was a controversial poet, attacking Marxism and Freudianism, supporting Franco in the Spanish Civil War and writing satirical verse.
This poem about a Zulu mother feeding her baby is both powerful and tragic. We see the girl working on a scorched red farm, part of a working “gang”. She has little individuality, no name is given for her. Then she flings down her hoe and turns from mass rural production to the responsibilities of reproduction – she breastfeeds her child. Probably she is not a wife, but she certainly loves her child, caressing his hair, shading him with her body. Her deep feelings “ripple” through her, passing into the baby. She seems weary, her life appears to be a hopeless and a hard one, and yet a kind of pride in her tribe’s history, an “old unquenched, unsmotherable heat” pulses through her as she takes satisfaction in nourishing her child. In the last stanza we are looking up at her, like the baby, and she seems statuesque and elemental, like a hill and “like a great storm cloud”, while the phrase “a coming harvest” gives some hope for her future.
Campbell arouses our sympathy for this strong, silent woman, he makes us think of the plight of her people, a once proud warrior tribe that once ruled a kingdom but is now working for low pay for other rulers, and he depicts rural hardship. It’s a simple, direct and moving poem about colonialism, about motherhood and about poverty.
Enjoy a reading of the poem by Tom O’Bedlam.