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Chris Mann

In praise of the shades

Easier questions to cut your teeth on!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 4 March 2014
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The poet, while hitching a ride, gets to talking with the driver who tells him how he often speaks to the shades -- the spirits of his ancestors -- and how they help him.

The poet is then left to ponder the shades. What is their role in life? How should one honour them?


Chris Mann was born in Port Elizabeth in 1948. He spent many years in rural and semi-rural KwaZulu Natal engaged in development work, during which time he became imbued with the spirit of rural South Africa.

In the mid-1990s he moved to Grahamstown where he became associated with the Grahamstown Foundation and Rhodes University.

Mann is a multi-faceted poet whose major concern is the increasing exclusivity and inaccessibility of poetry. His work is therefore not only for the printed page but also for multimedia performances.

Much of his work is in association with Julia Skeen who produces graphic images for many of his poems.

In this way he could perhaps be compared to William Blake whose poetry should also often be viewed in a wider graphic forum and not merely in the isolation of the printed page.

"In praise of the shades" looks at what has been described as "an indigenous knowledge system" that flourishes among many people in Southern Africa.

Mistakenly called "ancestor worship", its nearest Western equivalent is possibly the Catholic Church's veneration of the saints which offers the life and works of the holy people of the past for our enrichment and inspiration.

Since these ancestors still exist in the afterlife where, because of their proven holiness, they carry considerable power of intercession with God, the Church offers their veneration as another dimension to our contact with the world of the spirit.

"In praise of the shades" explores in a simple yet graphic way the vital role of the shades in guiding our complex lives in a modern scientific and urban society.

Both the wording and vision of the poem is strongly South African. Indeed, the poem explores a vital force within this multi-dimensional community.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

List the words with their meanings which prove that this is a South African poem. (4)

[Need help?]

The poet merely hints at the season of the year in which this incident occurs?
  • What season is it? What words suggest this? (4)

[Need help?]

What words in the poem suggest that the incident described in the first three stanzas might have taken place on a Sunday? (2)

[Need help?]

The poem can be broken naturally into two parts.
  • Where does this break occur? What is the theme of each section? (3)

[Need help?]

Hitching across a dusty plain last June,
down one of those deadstraight platteland roads,
I met a man with rolled-up khakhi sleeves,
who told me his faults, and then his beliefs.
  • What is meant by "hitching"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What does the term "with rolled-up khakhi sleeves" indicate about the driver of the bakkie? (2)

[Need help?]

He said he'd always asked them to guide him,
and that, even in the city, they did.
  • Why does the poet comment that "even in the city" the shades guided the man? (3)

[Need help?]

"The shades . . . work like the wind, invisibly."
  • What point is the poet making? Why is he making it? (3)

[Need help?]

  • In what way do the shades communicate with us? (6)

[Need help?]

Do the shades have the characteristics of spirits or of mortal people? Give reasons for your answer. (4)

[Need help?]

Try another worksheet?

See also:
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