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My favourite African poems



Today I want to think loudly about just a few wonderful poems by African poets, new and old. These poems have remained on my mind either due to their unique style or critical subject matter. I agree all the way with Emmanuel Ngara’s view that “the impact poets make depends on the significance of what they say about social reality and on how effectively they communicate their vision to their readers.” On my mind are many good poems from Africa but these few pieces that I am going to talk about have followed me everywhere I go. For instance, I like the soft African grandmotherly touch of the veteran Ghanaian poet Ama Ata Aidoo. In some of her key poems, she talks to the African child about how the elders have betrayed the young ones. Her words are simple and you may not need a dictionary, but their effect produces waves in my mind. Unlike many griots, Aidoo avoids blaming the youth but rather blames her generation for all the shame they have gotten into. You see it, for example, in how she ends her poem titled “Because you are here”: “Child, I hear you: and since Wisdom does not always grow with our grey hairs, may be, you can tell me what to do with my shame, and Our Continent once more betrayed?” I also like the poetry from the negritude movement. Negritude was an anti-colonial cultural and political movement founded by a group of African and Caribbean students in Paris in the 1930s who sought to reclaim the value of blackness and African culture. From the negritude movement, David Diop’s “Africa My Africa” remains key to me. Through it, he shows his passionate love for Africa. The poem is both emotional and militant and a few poems from the continent could match it. He begins in an almost ecstatic chant: “Africa my Africa Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs Africa of whom my grandmother sings On the banks of the distant river I have never known you…” If you are an African living abroad, you pause and breathe, feeling emotionally charged. David Diop who lived from 1927 to 1960 was born in Bordeaux, France, to a Senegalese father and a Cameroonian mother. From such a distance, he became super nostalgic of Africa which he visited once in a while and each time falling in love deeper than before. During his days, David Diop was often considered one of the most promising French-West African poets. His short lived work often involved his longing for Africa and his empathy for those fighting against the French colonisation of the mainland. Diop’s work shows hatred for the oppressors and empathy for the oppressed. He employed casual narrative styles in his poetry, and thus it became a new style of protest poetry in those days. He continues with unmistakable sympathy: “Africa my Africa Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs Africa of whom my grandmother sings On the banks of the distant river I have never known you But your blood flows in my veins Your beautiful black blood that irrigates the fields The blood of your sweat The sweat of your work The work of your slavery” Africa, tell me Africa Is this your back that is unbent This back that never breaks under the weight of humiliation” But midway, Diop employs a grave voice of an ancestor or an elder that suddenly begins to challenge Africa’s first “impetuous” voice in the first half of the poem, to stand up and do something about her condition of being colonised and enslaved: “Is this your back that is unbent This back that never breaks under the weight of humiliation This back trembling with red scars And saying no to the whip under the midday sun But a grave voice answers me Impetuous child that tree, young and strong That tree over there Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers That is your Africa springing up anew springing up patiently, obstinately Whose fruit bit by bit acquires The bitter taste of liberty.” In 1960, Diop and his wife died in a plane crash returning to France from Dakar. Most of his work was unpublished and supposedly destroyed in the crash. The pathfinders of the Negritude movement were black students from Franco-phone Africa who met in Paris for their studies in the 1930’s. These were Aime Cesaire from Martnique, Leopold Senghor from Senegal and Leon Damas from Guyana. They fashioned out a kind of poetry that celebrated black beauty, black culture and the beauty of black personality. In South Africa, the Black Consciousness Movement produced some of the most breathtaking poems from Africa. This movement was a grassroots anti-apartheid activist movement that emerged in the mid-1960s out of the political vacuum created by the jailing and banning of the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress leadership after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. The Black Consciousness Movement poetry is characterised by a focus on the experiences of the downtrodden and relevant themes. Much of this poetry is characterised by an examination of the historical place of the black people of South Africa with regards to their history and future. No wonder Mongane Wally Serote’s poem “Hell, Well, Heaven” starts with those starling lines about suddenly awakening: “I do not know where I have been, But Brother, I know I’m coming. I do not know where I have been, But Brother, I know I heard the call.” This is a poem that I have read again and again. It is about waking up to the sudden realisation that one is downtrodden and deciding to do something about it now-now! The persona decides to come to action, “like a tide of water now…” He calls out to heaven and hell all at the same time because whatever the case, one has to arise like a germinating seed. Musaemura Bonus Zimunya is clearly the most anthologised of all Zimbabwean poets. He writes poetry in both English and his native language Shona and is a prominent scholar of Zimbabwean literature. His “Those years of Drought and Hunger” (1982) is considered a pathfinder text on Zimbabwean Literature in English. Indeed Zimunya’s poems over the past three decades reflect on the physical beauty of his country, his people’s struggle against settler occupation and racism, the meaning of African myths and traditions and the meaning of freedom to the individual. Maybe his most enduring poem is called “Zimbabwe” (after the ruins). In that poem, Zimunya insists that the walls of the Zimbabwe monument carry a loud silence that calls all people to a sense of permanent nationhood. He writes: “I want to worship Stone because it is Silence. I want to worship Rock So, hallowed by its silence For in the beginning there was silence And we all were And in the end there will be silence And in the end, we all will be Silence speaks to fool and wise man” This poem speaks about a heritage that transcends men and women of all generations seen in the rocks having been around now and even when we are no more. The rocks used to construct Great Zimbabwe that have been a cause of awe and admiration to people from across the world. Zimunya’s poem evokes the spirit in rocks and the seemingly silent African traditions whose roots are deep. Gabriel Okara, revered Nigerian poet and novelist whose verse had been translated into several languages by the early 1960s, wrote very convincingly. Okara’s poetry is based on a series of contrasts in which symbols are neatly balanced against each other. The need to reconcile the extremes of experience (life and death are common themes) preoccupies Okara’s poems and his typical poem has a circular movement from everyday reality to a moment of joy and back to reality. His poem “Piano and Drums” is legendary. The poet conducts comparison and contrast between the drum and piano that indirectly indicates comparison between the African culture and Western culture. Whatever he says about piano is indirectly referring to the European culture brought to Africa. In other words, whatever he says about the drum is indirectly attributing to the culture of Africans. He actually uses both to present conflict that exists between the two worlds Just as it is the case with much of Post-Colonial African poetry, the persona in Gabriel Okara’s “Piano and Drums” is caught between two fundamentally different ways of life – African and European. It begins dramatically about the drum: “When at break of day at a riverside I hear jungle drums telegraphing the mystic rhythm, urgent, raw like bleeding flesh, speaking of primal youth and the beginning…” And about the piano, Okara writes: “Then I hear a wailing piano solo speaking of complex ways in tear-furrowed concerto; of far-away lands and new horizons with coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint, crescendo. But lost in the labyrinth…” The immediate effect is that the African finds himself in a cultural dilemma. Should he follow the new foreign culture and abandon his own or is there a way for him to create a form of synergy between the two? This takes me to the poems written during the armed conflict in Angola and Mozambique which yearn for seemingly simple items, wishes and desires. In such wishes are genuine desires to return to the “African source” symbolised by drums, bracelets, dances, rivers, the moon…images that make the world before colonialism enviable and sorely missed. Jose Craveirinha of Frelimo, for instance, has one such poem called “I want To Be A Drum” which I love so much! The persona here wishes he were just, of all the things, an African drum: “Let me be a drum body and soul just a drum just a drum in the hot night worn with its cry in the full moon of my land… I want to be a drum and not a river a flower… nor even poetry Let me be a drum just a drum!” Craveirinha gave his all to the struggle. He began as a journalist but got heavily tortured for supporting the struggle in 1966. His poems make suffering a game and crying just another form of music. Yet in this poem he gives voice to the suffering black people everywhere and every time. Coming from countries with traditions of slavery, colonial and company forced labour and assimilation and its dismal lies, Angolan and Mozambican revolutionary poets reflect on the plight of people who are forced by history to find a rallying point in order to struggle for self-rule. It is important to realise that through African poetry, we have learnt that independence or self-rule in Africa tended to give birth to tyrannical rule and lack of democracy and human rights. The poetry of world renowned poet, Jack Mapanje of Malawi tended to dwell on this. Mapanje does not take any particular party line in his criticism of the rule of President Kamuzu Banda in Malawi but his poetry attempts to speak on behalf of the down trodden, using a simple language often imbued in the rich orature of Malawian traditional culture. One good example is his poem called “Song of Chicken”: “Master, you talked with bows, Arrows and catapults once Your hands steaming with hawk blood To protect your chicken. Why do you talk with knives now, Your hands teeming with eggshells And hot blood from your own chicken? Is it to impress your visitors?” In that part of the poem, the persona is cleverly asking why the President, who wanted to fight for the independence of ordinary Malawians from British rule, is now openly hostile to the people. In this kind of writing, Mapanje is joined by fellow poets, Frank Chipasula and Steve Chimombo. In turn, the Kamuzu Banda system tended to punish the poets severely for this kind of criticism. But Primrose Dzenga has joined the few brave African women poets who write about how a woman in love and outside of love feel. This is a rare thing considering the nature of African culture. The themes of power and political violence appear to have been overplayed in contemporary African literature. In Dzenga’s “If he made love,” a man skilfully plays an instrument at a public gathering that the woman persona, gawking at him from the crowd, wishes she were the instrument in his very able hands: “If he made love, With such joy and abandon Tenderness and care If he caressed Velvety feverish caresses Like he did the cords, Sweet cords of his piano…” The woman is transfigured by both the music and the intimate way in which the unsuspecting man musician plays the instrument. This is in tune with African folklore where a man wins a woman by playing a drum from morning to sunset and a woman wins a man by dancing until she sinks into the ground beneath her and until water pours from the crater that her dancing feet have dug. In keeping with the old world, you find out that twilight, night, midnight and dawn are important in Dzenga’s poems. “Darkness is the colour of love”: “I think of you at midnight I dream of you awake at dawn Conversations in mystic tongue Lie pearly jewels between you and me” The methods of Primrose Dzenga are in tandem with those of a fellow young woman poet, Safia Elhillo of Sudan. Her poem “When love flickers in the corners” is a turning point in African poetry in that, the woman’s agency and action are at their apex. The woman in Elhillo’s poem sticks her neck out and says about her relationship: “This is the one that I will crowd out the door And say that I am protecting him from my love From everything that it is not I will say: A woman betrayed by her own body will never keep any of your secrets I will say: Most men are afraid of me, you know?” Indeed modern African poetry is a force to reckon with. I am grateful to all the men and women who put together all these poems.

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