African Poet Seeks to Make New History in Chapel Hill

Takudzwa Chikepe, 35, a divinity student at Duke University, is also an award-winning poet. From Zimbabwe, Chikepe aspires to continue his art while becoming a pastor in Chapel Hill. Photo by Michelle Cassell.


By Daniel Steinert
Special to The Local Reporter

“I started to see things differently. I’m quick to understand things people are quick to see, but there are things people are reluctant to notice. Those are the things I talk about in my poetry.”

And those are the words of 35-year-old award-winning poet and Duke University Divinity School student Takudzwa Chikepe—“Taku,” to his friends, and “VaChikepe” in his artistic world. His life story—a journey through his art and faith from Katanga Norton in Zimbabwe to Chapel Hill—reads far more like a work of fiction, perhaps even a fairy tale come true, than that of a typical university student.

“You have to get to know yourself in a way that is not rushed—in a loving way,” said Chikepe, with an infectious calmness and peace. “If you walk toward your dreams, your dreams will walk toward you.”

He took those steps and his dream did just that—walked toward him.

In 2021, he became the first African to win the Mutabaruka Award for Best Poet/Spoken Word Entertainer at the International Reggae and World Music Awards (often listed as “Vachi Kepwe Di Poet”). He placed in the top 10 (out of 60) poets at the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival in Virginia in 2018 and was invited back the following year. In his native land, Chikepe was recognized for his poetry when he won his hometown’s medal of honor, known as the Norton Achievers Award.

Chikepe has also published—his own work as well as that of other artists—having founded the publication The Sailors Review, which offers links to featured artists’ work online, including his own. Chikepe has been writing poems—over 3,600, by his estimate–since 2016.

“I’m always writing in my mind,” he said, calling the process “downloading from my subconscious mind.” Chikepe calls his poetry style “a gift from God.” Some of his poems are written in his native language, Shona, and some are written in English. A broad sampling of both can be found on his YouTube channel.

A vision, dreams and serendipity lead from Zimbabwe to Chapel Hill

In Katanga Norton, just two doors down from Chikepe’s home, the Cultural Center was a place where people interested in sustaining African traditions would gather socially. He would end up there almost every night around 11 p.m. and play his mbira while smoking and drinking with friends, among other nightly regulars from the town.

The word artist feels a vision he had was a turning point in his life.

Late one night, as he retells it, he was halted in his tracks on his two-door trek home. Right in front of the church stood an “enormous angel with hundreds of little angels flying about its shoulders.” The angel asked him: “Is this the life you have chosen for yourself?”

The next morning, after typing two words (“poetry opportunities”) into a computer, he took his first opportunity: responding to a call for submissions to the Bridgewater Poetry Festival of 2018. The application asked for two poems to be submitted.

Just days earlier, thieves had broken into his home and stolen his laptop and notebooks containing all of his work. All he could do for the Bridgewater opportunity was to write two poems on the spot, attach them to the application, send the application by email—and wait.

Within one hour, “VaChikepe: the Poet,” had been accepted to attend the festival in Virginia. When he told his parents what had transpired, they laughed and said he must be drunk. But when their son produced the letter of invitation, they promised to help him. They needed to raise the money for the trip.

International award-winning poet Takudzwa Chikepe and his mother, Naume Shingiswayi Chikepe, in Zimbabwe. Photo by Terrence Brayboy, courtesy of Terrence Brayboy.

“The Good Doctor” provides a way to America

Dr. Terrence Brayboy of Chapel Hill is a specialist in emergency medicine, practicing in Raleigh. Based on a trip to Zimbabwe, he became a founder of the nonprofit organization Amina’s Gift, which raises money for African children by selling local artisans’ crafts.

While on his trip to Africa in 2018, Brayboy entered the bookshop of the cultural haven in Harare, Zimbabwe, called the Book Café, known for its concerts, poetry readings, film showings and intellectual discussions.  There he met the bookstore manager—Takudzwa Chikepe.

From there, the poet and “the Good Doctor” (as Chikepe refers to him) would go on to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. Chikepe helped Brayboy negotiate prices for stonework that Brayboy sought out. In gratitude for that help, Brayboy provided Taku with a place to stay and transportation to and from the poetry festival.

It was Brayboy who introduced Chikepe to his next Chapel Hill connection—Christ United Methodist Church (CUMC), located in Southern Village.

“Divine intervention,” Chikepe said he called it when he met Pastor Ben Williams.

Deeply involved in mentoring Chikepe in his calling of becoming a pastor in the United Methodist Church, Williams said, “The first time I met Taku, I could sense that the Spirit was clearly and abundantly at work in him.” In January, Chikepe moved forward in his spiritual dream by becoming a certified candidate for ministry—an early step in the long road to becoming a pastor.

“Life is a joy and I am very blessed to be here,” he said. “I want to spread my message to the world and become a pastor in the Chapel Hill area.”

Spirituality through poetry

In Chikepe’s words, writing poetry is “like speaking without words from your soul or your spirit.” When asked if he thought poetry could be taught, he responded, “Oh, yes. I am thinking that one day I will start a poetry university.”

Takudzwa Chikepe explains the essence of his poetry and the serendipitous journey his life took from Zimbabwe to Chapel Hill. Photo by Michelle Cassell.

The concept of a creating a poetry university is not far-fetched for a man who spent time in environments that encourage artists and who has supported other ones in their artistic pursuits. It’s okay to even call it a dream of his.

Observing and listening intently to today’s world around him, especially how relationships work in this workaday world, Chikepe firmly believes that this process doesn’t stop when he sleeps.

“I dream. I tell them to someone and they come to pass,” he remarked.

Black History Month honors and examines the struggles, successes and contributions of African-Americans in the fabric of this nation’s society, including the heritage brought forth from Africa itself. It is an ongoing story, and Takudzwa Chikepe is well on his way to writing his part of its latest chapter.

Dr. Daniel Steinert is the director of Music Ministries and Organist at Christ United Methodist Church in Southern Village, a compensated position, as well as being a friend of this article’s subject. The editor commissioned this story from Dr. Steinert on the basis of its value to the readers of The Local Reporter and his ability to shine an intimate light on this personality profile.

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