The Voices of Modern African Poets


by SANJAY DHARWADKER (originally written in 2007, now revised)

The voices of poets are foremost in reflecting sensitively upon their people, places and times. Thus, the rich collection of poetry available from every corner of Africa more than proves this.

Throughout Africa, poets come from and sustain themselves in many walks of life – professors at home and abroad, school teachers, guerrillas, newspaper workers, doctors, veterinarians, architects & engineers, government officials and some went on to politics with varying degrees of success. Some led bohemian lives in the streets and country-sides they wrote about. There have been a variety of external influences – English, French, Italian, American and Russian. Some were fortunate to stay in their homeland, others lived in exile, often constantly on the move. Persecution of poets on the continent has been a persistent feature. Some have spent long years in prison, and others have been executed – the most recent example being Nigeria’s Ken Saro-Wiwa, just a few years back.

Thus while Africa’s poetry has more than a share of pain and anguish, there are also the voices of men’s banter, women’s concerns, nature, humor, and perhaps what brings out the best in poets – the past and the present … and love and death.

Ironically, it is easier to get volumes of long-dead English and French poets in South Africa, but difficult to get a decent book on contemporary African poets. One book that does the rounds is: The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry edited by Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier, first published in 1963 and last released in its 4th edition in 1998. The editors have done laborious work in discovering poets and poetry from every corner of Africa, and besides what has been written in English, have had to translate from other European languages as well as the lesser-understood African languages.

The woman
Who wants to be my wife
Inherited Ifa’s tongue;
We shall sleep on
A chest of riddles and proverbs.

So concludes Femi Fatoba of Nigeria in his poem “The woman who wants to be my wife” … lines that have themselves become a proverb for Africa today.

Unfortunately poems cannot be summarized or reported about, so here are just a few representative ones, and some excerpts. Hopefully it will touch you, as a fuller reading did to me.

Before moving on, there is another little poem from Femi Fatoba:

In America
The highway runs too fast
For men to feel the ground underneath;
The mirage does not have time
To look like water:
And too many rainbows
Strangle the clouds.

A classic poem that set the tone for protest poetry for many years came from Namibia’s Mvula ya Nangolo. He wrote this to “commemorate” the eighteenth year of imprisonment of compatriot Toivo ya Toivo and is titled “Robben Island”, after the small island off Cape Town where the English imprisoned many important African leaders for long periods of time, including the late Nelson Mandela.

Just how far is Robben Island from a black child at play?
What forces take his father there with all the world in between?
Oh! Mother caution your warrior son again
Or else he’ll show his might.

Just how far is Robben Island from the United Nations headquarters?
Have I time to ponder when patriots are drilling fast?
Spears are flying and the shields are once more bloody
For the drums of war are beating again

Just how far is Robben Island from the London Stock Exchange?
You couldn’t hear my talking war drums
For uselessly loud is the enemy’s cannon roar

Just how far is Robben Island from the Yankee White House?
I have no sight for I do not speak languages so foreign
The stars and zebra stripes are dazzling me
The US president speaks – his foreign secretary cheats

Then just how far is Robben Island from the field of Waterloo?
A few bushes away
A village or two in between
And the warrior son will take you there.

But equally poignant are the poems that came from inside the prisons. Dennis Brutus, the Zimbabwe born South African, a keen international sportsman who was shot and incapacitated for life by the Johannesburg police (and also incarcerated at Robben Island) wrote:

Cold

The clammy cement
Sucks our naked feet

A rheumy yellow bulb
Lights a damp grey wall

The stubbled grass
Wet with three o’clock dew
Is black with glittery edges;

We sit on the concrete,
Stuff with our fingers
The sugarless pap
Into our mouths

Then labour erect;

Form lines;

Steel ourselves into fortitude
Or accept an image of ourselves
Numb with resigned acceptance;

……

The chains on our ankles
And wrists
That pair us together
Jangle

Glitter.

We begin to move
Awkwardly

Among Malawi’s poets, Jack Mapanje went on writing fearlessly despite being jailed several times. His poem “The Cheerful Girls at Smiller’s Bar, 1979” especially earned him a long sentence, for protesting against an official ban on mini-skirts, for these lines:

… Touched the official rolled his eyes
To one in style. She said no. Most girls only wanted
A husband to hook or the fruits of independence to taste
But since then mini-skirts were banned …

Felix Mnthali, also from Malawi, earned the wrath of the literary establishment, when he wrote:

The Stranglehold of English Lit.

…..

Your elegance of deceit,
Jane Austen,
Lulled the sons and daughters
Of the dispossessed
Into a calf-love
With irony and satire
Around imaginary people.

While history went on mocking
The victims of branding irons
And sugar-plantations
That made Jane Austen’s people
Wealthy beyond compare!

Eng. Lit. my sister,
Was more than a cruel joke –
It was the heart
Of alien conquest.

How could questions be asked
At Makerere and Ibadan,
Dakar and Fort Hare –
With Jane Austen
At the centre?
How could they be answered?
Woman poets too have left us lines to remember about Africa. Aldo Do Espirito of distant Sao Tome wrote these memorable ones:

Grandma Mariana, washerwoman
For the whites in the Fazenda
One day she came from distant lands
With her piece of cloth round waist
And stayed.
Grandma Mariana stayed
Washing, washing away, on the plantation
Smoking her gourd pipe
Outside the slave-quarters’ door
Remembering the journey from her sisal fields
On a sinister day
To the distant island
Where the hard labour
Erased the memory …

….

The years drained away
In the hot land.

….
A humour-filled poem from Ouologuem Yambo of Mali:

Everyone thinks me a cannibal
But you know how people talk

Everyone sees my red gums but who
Has white ones
Up with tomatoes

Everyone says fewer tourists will come
Now
But you know
We aren’t in America and anyway everyone
Is broke.

Everyone says it’s my fault and is afraid
But look
My teeth are white not red
I haven’t eaten anyone

People are wicked and say I gobble
The tourists roasted
Or perhaps grilled
Roasted or grilled I asked them
They fell silent and looked fearfully at my gums
Up with tomatoes.

Then there are simple daily life poems like this one.
Kinaxixi by Augustinho Neto (Angola)

I was glad to sit down
On a bench in Kinaxixi
At six o’clock of a hot evening
And just sit there …

Someone would come
Maybe
To sit besides me

And I would see the black faces
Of the people going uptown
In no hurry
Expressing absence in the
Jumbled Kimbundu they conversed in.

I would see the tired footsteps
Of the servants whose fathers also were servants
Looking for love here, glory there, wanting
Something more than drunkenness in every
Alcohol.

Neither happiness nor hate.

After the sun has set
Lights would be turned on and I
Would wander off
Thinking that our life after all is simple
Too simple
For anyone who is tired and still has to walk.

Augustino Neto went on to become Angola’s first President after the revolution.

There is a fair smattering of love poems, like this one written by Syl Cheney – Coker of Sierra Leone and could be written by anyone anywhere on this planet.

Poem for a Lost Lover

Eyes of heavenly essence, O breasts of the purity of breasts
Russian sapphire of the blue of eyes
O wine that mellows like the plentitude of Bach
Sargassian sea that is the calm of your heart
The patience of you loving my fragile soul
The courage of you moulding my moody words
I love you woman gentle in my memory!

Today there are hundreds of African poets recognized as being major ones, and continue to write sensitively about the changing and unchanging times. Ben Okri of Nigeria is perhaps one of the more recognizable names, but other poets too achieved a bit in their life-times and afforded recognition to Africa and its poetry.

One such was Leopold Sedar Senghor who grew up in Senegal of the 1920s, went on to excel at the Sorbonne and started one of the first organized movements for African poets (called Negritude) in Europe. For his contribution, he was nominated to the French Assembly, became a minister, and finally returned to Senegal in 1960 to become the country’s president till he retired in 1981.

His poems span Africa, France and America with a truly global sensibility, rare for a person of his time, like these lines from a poem titled “In Memorium”.

…Ah dead ones who have always refused to die, who have known how to fight death
By the Seine or Sine, and in my fragile veins pushed the invincible blood,
Protect my dreams as you have made your sons, wanderers on delicate feet …

Perhaps, he wrote these lines for all of us.

May 2007 (to celebrate the completion of two years on the continent)

 

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