African Poetry : some timeless favourites…..

Chinua Achebe

No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.

The air was heavy with odours
of diarrhoea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in laboured
steps behind blown empty bellies.

Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-coloured
hair left on his skull and then –
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life
this would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.

You usually associate Achebe with the writing of prose and the production of some of the continent’s greatest novels. An esteemed colleague however spoke of a critical essay she marked on this poem, which was one of the best she had ever encountered. I found it therefore particularly significant and poignant that a Scottish school kid had been exposed to such a gem of African literature. I have since taught “Refugee Mother and Child” to several classes, with inspiring results. Having been in a nation crippled by a debilitating civil war, I fully understand the harrowing plight of the hapless refugee mother and child trapped in a camp replete with poverty and disease. Moving and very engaging!

The Concept of the Abiku

According to the custom of the Yorubas of Nigeria, an Abiku is any child who dies and is reborn several times into the same family; hence the life-span of an Abiku is characteristically very short lived. Owing to the ephemeral nature of its life, an Abiku completes several life cycles with one mother.

Practically every attempt of the parents to prevent the Abiku’s death proves abortive, because by its nature, the Abiku is shrouded in mystery. By means of its occult powers, the Abiku destroys itself leaving the parents dejected and frustrated… (Timothy Mobolade, “African Arts”, Vol.7, 1973)

A thrilling concept indeed that inspired two of Africa’s most famous poems by Nigerian poets J.P. Clark and Wole Soyinka. Brilliant use of imagery, word choice and tone to capture the essence of the Abiku. But what stands out particularly in these poems is their distinct African identity, with apt reference to local concepts, images etc. Simply stunning!

ABIKU by John Pepper Clark


… By John Pepper Clark

Coming and going these several seasons,
Do stay out on the baobab tree
Follow where you please your kindred spirits
If indoors is not enough for you.
True, it leaks through the thatch
When flood brim the banks,
And the bats and the owls
Often tear in at night through the eaves
And at harmattan, the bamboo walls
Are ready tinder for the fire
That dries the fresh fish up on the rack.
Still, it’s been the healthy stock
To several fingers, to many more will be
Who reach to the sun.
No longer bestride the threshold
But step in and stay
For good. We know the knife scars
Serrating down your back and front
Like beak of the sword-fish
And both of your ears notched
As a bondsman of this house
Are all relics of your first comings.
Then step in, step in and stay
For her body is tired
Tired, her milk going sour
Where many more mouths gladden the heart.

Wole Soyinka

In vain your bangles cast
Charmed circles at my feet
I am Abiku, calling for the first
And repeated time.

Must I weep for goats and cowries
For palm oil and sprinkled ask?
Yams do not sprout amulets
To earth Abiku’s limbs.

So when the snail is burnt in his shell,
Whet the heated fragment, brand me
Deeply on the breast. You must know him
When Abiku calls again.

I am the squirrel teeth, cracked
The riddle of the palm. Remember
This, and dig me deeper still into
The god’s swollen foot.

Once and the repeated time, ageless
Though I puke; and when you pour
Libations, each finger points me near
The way I came, where

The ground is wet with mourning
White dew suckles flesh-birds
Evening befriends the spider, trapping
Flies in wine-froth;

Night, and Abiku sucks the oil
From lamps. Mothers! I’ll be the
Suppliant snake coiled on the doorstep
Yours the killing cry.

The ripest fruit was saddest;
Where I crept, the warmth was cloying.
In silence of webs, Abiku moans, shaping
Mounds from the yolk.

The Vultures

by David Diop

… In those days
When civilization kicked us in the face
When holy water slapped our cringing brows
The vultures built in the shadow of their talons
The bloodstained monument of the tutelage
In those days
There was painful laughter on the metallic hell of the roads
And the monotonous rhythm of paternoster
Drowned the howling of the plantations
O the bitter memories of extorted kisses
Of promises broken at the point of a gun
Of foreigners who did not seem human
You knew all the books but knew not love
Nor our hands which fertilise the womb of the earth
Hands instinct at the root with revolt
In spite of your songs of pride in the charnel-houses
In spite of the desolate villages of Africa torn apart
Hope lived in us like a citadel
And from Swaziland’s mines to the sweltering sweat of Europe’s factories
Spring will be reborn under our bright steps.

Another favourite of mine! Diop’s use of imagery and word choice are lucid and inspirational, whilst aptly addressing the exploitative and brutal nature of the colonial enterprise. Stellar!

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