Word Cloud: SKIN

In light of the international conversation and protests about police abuse of people
of color, I am republishing this Word Cloud, which was first posted in March, 2017.


Skin is the largest organ of the human body, the envelope that keeps everything else together. It’s also a map that tells strangers something about who we are, like our approximate age, and the kind of life we live – skin that is callused and weather-beaten suggests a life spent laboring outdoors, while skin that is smooth and soft says we live and work mostly indoors.

But the biggest thing that some people notice about another person’s skin is what color it is. Because for them, the color of someone’s skin is how they decide what category that person belongs in, and then they know how they will treat them. But how do you treat someone whose skin says one thing, but whose voice and manner says something else?

And if you are living in that skin, and wondering why you don’t feel like the person you were raised to be, then how do you discover if it’s your outside or your inside or both that are rubbing you raw?

Apartheid. Segregation by skin. From 1948 to 1994, it was the official policy of the government of South Africa.

Philippa Yaa de Villiers was born in 1966, to a white Australian mother and a Ghanian father. She was given up for adoption and raised by a white family in South Africa.

“I became Phillippa Yaa when I found my biological father, who told me that if he had been there when I was born, the first name I’d have been given would be a day name like all Ghanaian babies, and all Thursday girls are Yaa, Yawo, or Yaya. So by changing my name I intended to inscribe a feeling of belonging and also one of pride on my African side. After growing up black in white South Africa, internalising so many negative ‘truths’ of what black people are like, I needed to reclaim my humanity and myself from the toxic dance of objectification.”

“Because I wasn’t told that I was adopted until I was twenty, I lacked a vocabulary to describe who I am and where I come from, so performing and writing became ways to make myself up.”


Stolen rivers

for Chiwoniso Maraire
We Africans came to Berlin to sing
and recite poetry. We had an agenda:
remembering our anthems of loss,
galloping, consuming,
the pillage, the cries
like forest fires, like haunted children,
how can we, how can we even
begin to redress?
Enraged, we wanted revenge
and then, Chiwoniso, you stepped on the stage and
you opened your mouth and
every stolen river of platinum and gold
poured out of your mouth in song;
your voice etched us out of the night
and doubled the light in each of us.
You restored all the treasure-houses
from Benin to Zimbabwe,
Mapungubwe to Cairo;
Africa moved its golden bones,
shook off its heavy chains
and danced again.
That night I thought
if only
love could purchase bread,
Africans would not be hungry.


The Hillbrow Tower dominates the skyline in Johannesburg.

The River

One day the Hillbrow Tower started to cry.
Real tears poured down its sides
collected in the gutters, 
and ran down Banket Street,
and when
the other buildings saw the tower’s sadness
they started to weep in sympathy.
Soon the whole city was sobbing,
the tears joined other tears
and filled the depressions and valleys.
They covered the koppies,
and collected in City Deep,
cascading over Gold Reef City
flooding Fordsburg
and soaking Soweto.
They flowed until they became a river
that carried us into the night,
where our dreams grew 
taller than buildings
taller than buildings


Eating for two

Hunger grumbles,
fragrant food seduces
the stomach
genteel lips conceal gushing saliva,
our eyes journey to the Sunday chicken.
We look away to pray,
amen gives way
to flashing knives and gnashing teeth.
For now, hunger retreats.

The tourist asks
why Africa is hungry.
Divided the heart:
we don’t know how to answer.

hunger humbles,
a beggar reaches into
the cold skies of a stranger’s eyes
as hunger tumbles
into a gutter of stuttering 
half-baked dreams 
and aborted fantasies
and bungles plans
and scrambles opportunities.
And hunger stumbles
along blocked synapses,
bumps its head repeatedly as
bulimic greed
dry heaves
its simulated grief,
stuffing images of lust
into a seething cavity
of need.

The tourist asks 
how we plan 
to solve the problem.
Subtracted the stomach: 
we don’t know how to answer.

hunger, the farmer
sows rows of skeletons,
and waits for an empty harvest.
Hunger builds a boat of bones,
casts a net of starving eyes,
people drown in dust, without resisting.
There is no second course;
dying fragments loaf 
along the desert’s shore.

The tourist is the authority.
They know how to stay alive! We are still learning.
Politely we wipe our mouths and give thanks for what we have
received, pronunciation, and chicken, on Sundays.
Contradiction multiplied: 
we don’t know how to answer.

We live by killing,
we can’t explain. 
Perhaps hunger will come to our table one day.

But by then,
most probably, 
the tourist will have 
gone away.


Yeoville is a section of Johannesburg.

How to stay warm in the city

The Yeoville winter evening
loves its people
skin to skin:
this seducing season that
stripped the trees now
tongues nipples into hardness;
charcoal breath caresses 
naked necks and runs 
its freezing fingers over faces;
the limbs with 

As the molten heart of day submits,
the city inherits
its transient gold,
but we resist the insistent evening’s kiss
with its
traces of death’s embraces;
we quit the cloying cold
our private and modular,
singular accommodations;
one by one
we blow to flame our comfort
and surrender 
to domestic rituals:

Yeoville, imboula  mountain
The lights of flats like embers.


The rain children

They permeate, the poor, their eyes and knees
as thin as rain, these children staring,
as democracy parades through the streets.

Glue substitutes for blankets and teats,
the streetmother grey concrete skirt uncaring:
they permeate, the poor, their eyes and knees

and hands reproach, demand, confront, entreat:
tightly walleted, my conscience, and unsparing
as democracy parades through the streets.

Rain fills my well-fed stomach. All my feats
are washed away with soul’s comparing:
they permeate, the poor, their eyes and knees

as cold as sorrow. Presidents decree
but rain soaks paper promises, tearing,
as democracy parades through the streets.

Like driving drops or drizzle, paring
warmth from skin, dissolving, wearing:
they permeate, the poor, their eyes and knees,
as democracy parades through the streets


Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile is a South African poet and political activist; an influential member of the African National Congress in the 1960s and 1970s; he was inaugurated as South Africa’s National Poet Laureate in 2006. Kgositsile died, aged 79, in January, 2018.


 – For Keorapetse Kgositsile, on the occasion of his 70th Birthday

You are everybody’s child: 
you stand at the intersection
of will and destiny. 
There is enough of you 
for everybody who wants.

You are a photograph,
an album of possibilities,
looped like a memory,
always beginning.

A small boy shakes a mossy tree
laden with ripe red apples;
as birds throw
scraps of sweetness
through the air, and bees
bend their knees to pray to the
flower god,
and streets lay their feet in the 
bucket of the day,
and aching dust floats off them,
and the day sighs and its jazz,
you are the deep blue night, die verlore nag, 
torn away from the stars,
saxophones run down the railway tracks,
playing catch with your fears;
pennywhistle cupids shoot hearts
with melodic arrows, and honesty
can’t sleep while injustice creeps along
slimy tunnels, looking for outlets;
and the boy under the bearded tree
thoughtfully collects this careless, leaping life,
his century, his day, his apples,
harvested in
the belly of his red, red shirt:

time flows downstream
and life swims hard against the flow,
grace jumps into the water,
grace revels in struggle and sunshine,
grace tells you that it is playing;
grace is growing.


In her poem Tea for Thabo (Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, 2nd post-apartheid president of South Africa), Philippa Yaa de Villiers wrote:

Aha! Now I’m white!
My race is now a slur
but the line is blurred for I…

I am the product of three centuries of cross-border shopping,
horse trading, cattle thieving, dipping into gene pools,
swopping stories, swopping schools,
highland fling, ashante.
You can try to shut the stable door,
call back the galloping incidents of past deals and schpiels
they disappear into dust,
we sit in the ashes of our history,
ready to make our contribution.
Life is our inheritance. 
Speaking out, our retribution.


I think she has discovered not only herself, but her path, and she walks it with a supple and certain purpose.




  • Taller than Buildings, © 2006 by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers – self-published
  • Everyday Wife, © 2010 by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers – Modjaji Books
  • No Serenity Here – an anthology of African Poetry – (2010) Editor with Kaiyu Xiao and Isabelle Ferrin-Aguirre –New World Publishers
  • Original Sin, © 2012 by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers – Home Truths Productions
  • ice cream headache in my bone, © 2017 by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers – Modjaji Books


  • Chiwoniso Maraire singing
  • The Hillbrow Tower
  • Drought-ruined crop in Southern Africa
  • Yeoville ironwork in front of a window
  • Boy in badly damaged house in Camaroon – WHO/Hidden Cities/Anna Kari
  •  Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile
  • Philippa Yaa de Villiers

Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
This entry was posted in Poetry, Word Cloud and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.