Connect with us


The rhetoric of belonging



Literature is clattered with many writings by poets, novelists and others who set out to express intense and ultimate sense of belonging to specific places. Through such artistic expressions, people demonstrate that to be is to belong to a place and people whom you love dearly. These pieces are also about belonging to specific causes and struggles.

The great English playwright, William Shakespeare, writes in Macbeth: ‘Bleed! Bleed poor country!”

In that quote from Act 4 Scene 3, Macduff says these words when he thinks that he will not be able to persuade Malcolm to fight against Macbeth and take back the throne. Macduff is in despair, and his main concern is the suffering that Scotland and his people will experience while Macbeth remains on the throne. Macduff shows his patriotism and devotion to his country by lamenting the fate he is afraid Scotland will be left to suffer.

Another English poet, Rupert Brook, who lived from 1888 to 1915, was to write the now famous words:

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England….”

This is taken from a sonnet in which a soldier speculates about his possible death as he goes away to war in foreign countries. The soldier feels that his death should not be mourned, but should be understood as part of a selfless tribute to his much-loved England.

The poem The Soldier was the last of the five poems of Brooke’s War Sonnets about the start of World War I. As Brooke reached the end of his series, he turned his mind to what happened when the soldier died, while abroad, in the middle of the conflict.

When The Soldier was written, the bodies of servicemen were not regularly brought back to their homeland but were buried nearby where they had died. In World War I, this produced vast graveyards of British soldiers in “foreign fields,” and allowed Brooke to portray these graves as representing a piece of the world that will be forever England.

The poem continues:
“There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home…”

It is said Rupert Brooke saw combat action in the fight for Antwerp in 1914, as well as during the retreat. As he awaited a new deployment, he wrote the short set of five 1914 War Sonnets, which concluded with the one called The Soldier.

Soon after he was sent to the Dardanelles, where he refused an offer to be moved away from the front lines—an offer sent because his poetry was so well-loved and good for recruiting—but died on April 23rd, 1915 of blood poisoning from an insect bite that weakened a body already ravaged by dysentery.

From the poetry of the Negritude movement, David Diop’s Africa, my Africa remains key in matters of belonging. Through it, he shows passionate love for Africa under slavery and colonialism. The poem is both emotional and militant and a few poems from the continent could match it. He begins in almost an 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 abroad, you pause and breathe, feeling emotionally charged. David Diop lived from 1927 to 1960, was born in Bordeaux, France, to Senegalese father and a Cameroonian mother. From such a distance, he became super nostalgic of Africa which he had visited once in a while, each time falling in love deeper than before.

David Diop was often considered one of the most promising French West African poets. His short life’s work often involved his longing for Africa and his empathy for those fighting against the French colonisation of the mainland. He writes with unmistakable patriotism:

“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 humilation
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 were killed in a plane crash returning to France from Dakar. Most of his work was unpublished and supposedly destroyed in the crash.

There is one question that is often referred to, as the most pertinent question that a character in African Literature has ever asked about identity and belonging. While on his deathbed, Toundi, the young Cameroonian narrator in Ferdinand Oyono’s novel, Houseboy, asks a poignant question, “Brother…Brother, what are we? What are we blackmen who are called French?”

He wants to know if it is really true that an African could really become French as preached through assimilation. Sadly, Toundi is asking this question rather late, on his death bed, when he has just escaped to a neighbouring country for refuge from his very violent white masters.

Although in becoming the priest’s houseboy, Toundi gave up his tribal identity, he finds that he will never fit in among the colonisers. Tragedy ensues when the commandant and his vain wife seek to “dispose” of Toundi when they think he knows too many of their secrets.

Toundi has fled down the path of assimilation, leaving his village for missionary school, then working for the Commandant, becoming the chief European’s houseboy. His dying question shows that his departure from the village precipitated an identity crisis.

As a black man who has aspired to be French, Toundi, is now neither fully accepted as French, nor is he fully African anymore. He fled home just before he was to be initiated as a man into his own ethnic group, only, ironically, to receive a brutal initiation into colonial life instead.

Charles Mungoshi of Zimbabwe is one of the African writers who grappled a great deal with the issues of home, identity and belonging in the changing times. Through his literature, he is constantly asking key questions: Do we truly belong to this land? Is it possible to belong here and elsewhere? What must we change and what exactly must continue and why? Is there any space for the individual in our quest for collective glory? Are we right? Are we wrong?

Mungoshi captures this quest in a poem called If You Don’t Stay Bitter and Angry For Too Long in which the persona is encouraging a dejected friend to go back home in the countryside and find himself anew:

“If you don’t stay bitter and angry for too long you might finally salvage something useful from the old country. a lazy half sleep summer afternoon for instance, with the whoof-whoof of grazing cattle in your ears tails swishing, flicking flies away or the smell of newly tamed soil with birds hopping about in the wake of the plough in search of worms. or the pained look of your father a look that took you all these years and lots of places to understand the bantering tone you used with your grandmother and their old laugh that said nothing matters but death. if you don’t stay bitter and angry for too long and have the courage to go back you will discover that the autumn smoke writes different more helpful messages in the high skies of the old country.”

It is about going back to the land of one’s origins, of course, but you notice that the poem is also about going back to the country inside both the heart and the soul in order to emerge stronger. It is about returning to the source.
In the same fashion, WEG Louw of South Africa, writes about belonging to the soul of the land and the countryside in his poem To Be A Farmer:

“Oh to be a farmer who works with his hands in the sun the loved, long day; at dusk to come back tired from the land, and sleep until the red dawn breaks through the windows and at the second cock’s crow, over the frost to hold the plough handle fast… Oh to be a farmer and to work in God’s sunshine and rain; and never to doubt that He knows what is best; and still to believe when his heart would break, and to feel that he, farmer alone, can speak with God, and give thanks as the rain pours down.”

This is a poem about having solid faith in the cycle of the seasons and the beauty of belonging and answering to land, the farm and ultimately, to God himself.

You find a sense of belonging extending from the natural to the political even in the writings and rhetoric of politicians. It is possible to accept all the good and bad that have happened to one’s people in history.

History makes us who we are if we embrace it and move on. Such an example is in the speech/poem “I Am an African,” made by Thabo Mbeki on behalf of the African National Congress in Cape Town on May 8th, 1996 on the occasion of the passing of the new Constitution of South Africa. At the time Mbeki was the Deputy President of South Africa under the presidency of Nelson Mandela.

Parts of Mbeki rendition go like this: “On an occasion such as this, we should, perhaps, start from the beginning.

So, let me begin.
I am an African.

I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.

My body has frozen in our frosts and in our latter day snows. It has thawed in the warmth of our sunshine and melted in the heat of the midday sun. The crack and the rumble of the summer thunders, lashed by startling lightning, have been a cause both of trembling and of hope.

The fragrances of nature have been as pleasant to us as the sight of the wild blooms of the citizens of the veld.

The dramatic shapes of the Drakensberg, the soil-coloured waters of the Lekoa, iGqili noThukela, and the sands of the Kgalagadi, have all been panels of the set on the natural stage on which we act out the foolish deeds of the theatre of our day…

At times, and in fear, I have wondered whether I should concede equal citizenship of our country to the leopard and the lion, the elephant and the springbok, the hyena, the black mamba and the pestilential mosquito…

I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me.

In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. The stripes they bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done.

I am the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on the Boer graves at St Helena and the Bahamas, who sees in the mind’s eye and suffers the suffering of a simple peasant folk, death, concentration camps, destroyed homesteads, a dream in ruins.

I am the child of Nongqause. I am he who made it possible to trade in the world markets in diamonds, in gold, in the same food for which my stomach yearns….
Being part of all these people, and in the knowledge that none dare contest that assertion, I shall claim that – I am an African.”

So, literature and rhetoric of belonging link people to crucial specific places and causes ever since the dawn of humanity. It is possible for men and women to belong to a place and causes and even die for them.

Memory Chirere

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Copyright © 2022. The Post Newspaper. All Rights Reserved