Come away, my love, from streets
Where mankind eyes divide,
And show windows reflect our difference.
In the shelter of my faithful room rest.
There, safe from opinions, being behind
Myself, I can see only you
And in my dark eyes your grey
The candlelight throws
Two dark shadows on the wall
Which merge into one as I close beside you.
When at last the lights are out,
And I feel your hand in mine,
Two human breaths join in one,
And the piano weaves
Its unchallenged harmony.
Joseph Kariuki is a Kenyan poet. Born in Banana Hill, Kenya and educated both at Makerere College, Uganda and Cambridge University, England. His most famous poem is an ode to former Kenyan president, Jomo Kenyatta.
History’s white hand wrote my country’s course
In a language that will come back and hunt her
In the twenty first century ;
The man at the round-about calls it exploitation
But I say it is far beyond our imagination.
Who would have ever thought
Shedding blood for diamonds will be our lot?
Not even the ruthless bullies
Who scrambled for our land to please their hungry bellies;
Nor did big city dwellers in their luxury
Have the faintest idea of our misery.
The man at the round-about says
We are in a conundrum
But I say let’s play our joyful laughing drums
Play our laughing drums
To the sound of hungry children chewing crumbs.
History’s white hand wrote
Signatories and pernicious agreements both
As IMF loans and World Bank Killer packages
Inflicting unparallel wounds and damages;
The man at the round-about calls it Neocolonialism
But I say it’s beyond human realism
So let’s play our joyful laughing drums
To the sound of children chewing crumbs.
On this dirty patch
a tree once stood
shedding incense on the infant corn:
its boughs stretched across a heaven
brightened by the last fires of a tribe.
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom.
– Kofi Awoonor (13 March 1935 – 21 September 2013) was a Ghanaian poet and author whose work combined the poetic traditions of his native Ewe people and contemporary and religious symbolism to depict Africa during decolonization. He started writing under the name George Awoonor-Williams, and was also published as Kofi Nyidevu Awoonor. He taught African literature at the University of Ghana.
where mothers go to battle each day
with a baby strapped across their backs
another still clinging from their breasts
childcare at its finest
A place of street businessmen
who don’t need a white collar to make deals
they sign contracts with handshakes
shirtless sometimes shoeless
they will show you how to make money
You will find anything in these streets
from hubcaps to toilet seats
It has been said
if you leave home naked
find yourself caught in the gridlock traffic
of Lagos roads
they will have you dressed
briefcase in hand
between the mainland and the island
I come from a place
of jaw dropping mansions and
where a child hawks goods in the blazing sun
next to an air conditioned Mercedes Benz
There are dichotomies here
abject poverty chewing at the seems that bind us
but we are the same people who built a city on fire
who bent fire and metal to give you art
built empires before the world’s first breath
Check your textbooks
better yet check your encyclopedias
read between the lines
you will find us there
you will find us everywhere
every continent, climate, country
speaking Portuguese, French, Italian
and they call us uncivilized
We can show you how to perfect pair
your caviar and wine
and still get down fingers deep
in a plate of pounded yam
I come from a place
where the world’s best storytellers first spoke
who taught you
You Must Set Forth At Dawn
be No Longer At Ease with that
Thing Around your Neck before
Things Fall Apart
So when you ask me where I come from
there are things I want to tell you
that are louder than my bright green passport
things that are heavier than the failed explosive
cradled in Mutalab’s underpants
things that are more colorful than a well crafted
You will never understand who I am until you know
exactly where I come from
Titilope Sonuga released her first spoken word album Mother Tongue in 2013. Her second poetry collection Abscess was released in 2014 by Geko Publishing. Titilope is the winner of the 2013 EMCN RISE (Recognizing Immigrant Success in Edmonton) award for Art and Culture and the 2014 National Black Coalition of Canada Fil Fraser Award for outstanding work in literary performance and/or visual arts. Visit her at http://titilope.ca/
Ali Znaidi is a Tunisian poet whose work has appeared in magazines and journals worldwide. His poems use experimental forms to explore issues of the human condition. The African Book Review had a conversation with Ali about his experience as a Tunisian poet of English expression and his recent poetry collection,Experimental Ruminations.
ABR: What influences your poetry?
ZNAIDI: I was born in a mining town in the south of Tunisia where I spent all my childhood… I had no solution to escape the confines and routine of living in a town with scarce outlets and cultural activities but to delve into reading whatever came across my hands…Consequently, I started practicing my own stories, initially scribbling notes and thoughts in Arabic on copybooks and scraps of papers…Writing is in a way, always expressing a certain presence. And I was always driven by a need to tell something, especially in an implicit and symbolic way from my own perspective, and that’s what poetry is.
Poetry is my presence in this world.
ABR: What influenced your decision to write many of your poems in English instead of Arabic?
ZNAIDI: I had been writing or scribbling notes since an early age in Arabic which is my mother tongue. When I joined university, I switched into English as a medium for my creative writing. Being a Tunisian poet who writes in English and who lives in a little town in the south of Tunisia is really a big challenge because of the scarcity of readership, but I also like to transgress the borderlines. I like to demolish boundaries. So another language (In this case, English) becomes a bridge through which experiences can be experimented with and expressed. In this sense, English opens the possibilities to see another version of the world and to go through other territories of existence because at the end, language creates worlds and our perceptions to them. Whether we like it or not, English is a global language and I really want my voice to be heard globally.
I love my mother tongue and I am fluent in it. But I always like to swim in other seas. Writing in English is synonymous with being able to voice out ‘the repressed water’ inside oneself. It is also letting go and freeing oneself because freedom manifests itself through speech.
Writing in English has also helped me see poetry as something filled with fathomless possibilities of experimentation. I love to experiment and to take risks, regardless of the outcome. And writing in another language is really synonymous with taking risks because you never know the results.
ABR: As a Tunisian poet, how has Tunisia influenced your works?
ZNAIDI: Tunisia is a beautiful Meditreanean country which is anchored in a rich history and civilization. The problem is that contemporary Tunisia is characterized by centralization and dictatorship which means marginalization of the inner towns. Hence the senses of frustration and the continuous hope for liberation [found in my poems]. Besides, the place where I live is characterized by its raw nature, the omnipresence of the colour grey, and the scarcity of trees. It is a town surrounded by mountains that opens onto the desert. That’s why my poetry is oftentimes written in a raw language…and in some of my poems I express that want for an outlet, perhaps a fresh Tunisia where the marginalized can have their share of the beauty and wealth of the country.
ABR: Sonnet 2 and Sonnet 4 in Experimental Ruminationstalk about escape and reality. I liked the lines “this content is obliterated/ as the sun’s lights void/ the murk of the night” in Sonnet 2 and “The colour grey harmed the eyes./ The eyes wanted to see other colours diluted w/ desire” in Sonnet 4. There seems to be a longing to escape reality in both poems…
ZNAIDI: I always try to express dichotomies in my work. Dichotomies keep us confused and make us oscillate between two extremes. They vex us and trigger us to question the status quo. Each one of us is searching for light in each other, in religion, in the arts, in nature, etc. The search for light and for noble values like justice, freedom, and peace is something I have attempted to express in my work through the themes of liberation and escape. In both poems I intended to communicate the stagnant harsh reality and how to avoid its monotonous colours; something akin to Tunisia where we are raised under one colour, one party, one thought, one routine. And I would even say my choice to be a poet, is to express an anxiety against standardized linguistic constructs and ‘prefabricated’ stereotypic narratives.
ABR: The spacing in your poems is very interesting and unusual. In “Against Suffocation Theory” for example, were you trying to communicate something in terms of the structure?
ZNAIDI: With the proliferation of digital media, poetry becomes more visual. In “Against Suffocation Theory” I chose to arrange the poem the way I did to experiment with the lines and to try to communicate something in terms of the structure at the same time. Besides, I wanted the poem to have a special shape on paper and on the computer screen.
ABR: What do you think the role of poetry is in African society? And what would you like it to be?
ZNAIDI: I think poetry in African societies should be more important than its current role. It has to draw the attention of African readers to big issues in the continent and also has to come up with a vision for Africa, short and long term, through asking thorny questions that vex the people and leaders alike. Yes, it is difficult to change the world with a word. But, as writers and poets, we have always believed in the power of the word and in its reverberations. I would like African poetry to thrive and to contribute more to the human experience. A contribution that would bring great writers and introduce new voices to the international scene. I hope I can play my part in doing that.
ABR: Who are your favorite poets, and do you have any favorite African writers?
ZNAIDI: I read lots of poetry in Arabic and French. As for poetry written in English, I do not have special names to mention because I love to read as much as I can and to explore many experiences. However, I must admit that I have penchant for the works of Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, just to name a few. As for contemporary poets, I love the works of Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, John Agard, and Benjamin Zephaniah. As for African writers, I love the works of Abou el Kacem Chebbi, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wole Soyinka, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and many more.
ABR: What projects are you currently working on?
ZNAIDI: There are always things simmering in my mind. Right now, I am working on some poems about Sappho.I am translating some more poems by American poet Catfish McDaris into Arabic. I am also trying to better my techniques in visual poetry.
Ali Znaidi (b. 1977) lives in Redeyef, Tunisia where he teaches English. He graduated with a BA in Anglo-American Studies from the University of Sfax for the South. He has authored four poetry chapbooks including Experimental Ruminations (Fowlpox Press, 2012), Moon’s Cloth Embroidered with Poems (Origami Poems Project, 2012), Bye, Donna Summer! (Fowlpox Press, 2014), and Taste of the Edge (Kind of A Hurricane Press, 2014). Links to his published and forthcoming works can be found at aliznaidi.blogspot.com.
It seems that these days, wracked by guilt at the humanitarian crisis it has created in the Middle East, the West has turned to Africa for redemption. Idealistic college students, celebrities such as Bob Geldof and politicians such as Tony Blair have all made bringing light to the dark continent their mission. They fly in for internships and fact-finding missions or to pick out children to adopt in much the same way my friends and I in New York take the subway to the pound to adopt stray dogs.
This is the West’s new image of itself: a sexy, politically active generation whose preferred means of spreading the word are magazine spreads with celebrities pictured in the foreground, forlorn Africans in the back. Never mind that the stars sent to bring succor to the natives often are, willingly, as emaciated as those they want to help.
Perhaps most interesting is the language used to describe the Africa being saved. For example, the Keep a Child Alive/” I am African” ad campaign features portraits of primarily white, Western celebrities with painted “tribal markings” on their faces above “I AM AFRICAN” in bold letters. Below, smaller print says, “help us stop the dying.”
Such campaigns, however well intentioned, promote the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of disease and death. News reports constantly focus on the continent’s corrupt leaders, warlords, “tribal” conflicts, child laborers, and women disfigured by abuse and genital mutilation. These descriptions run under headlines like “Can Bono Save Africa?” or “Will Brangelina Save Africa?” The relationship between the West and Africa is no longer based on openly racist beliefs, but such articles are reminiscent of reports from the heyday of European colonialism, when missionaries were sent to Africa to introduce us to education, Jesus Christ and “civilization.”
There is no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world, but we do question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one’s cultural superiority.
My mood is dampened every time I attend a benefit whose host runs through a litany of African disasters before presenting a (usually) wealthy, white person, who often proceeds to list the things he or she has done for the poor, starving Africans. Every time a well-meaning college student speaks of villagers dancing because they were so grateful for her help, I cringe. Every time a Hollywood director shoots a film about Africa that features a Western protagonist, I shake my head — because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West’s prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems.
Why do the media frequently refer to African countries as having been “granted independence from their colonial masters,” as opposed to having fought and shed blood for their freedom? Why do Angelina Jolie and Bono receive overwhelming attention for their work in Africa while Nwankwo Kanu or Dikembe Mutombo, Africans both, are hardly ever mentioned? How is it that a former mid-level U.S. diplomat receives more attention for his cowboy antics in Sudan than do the numerous African Union countries that have sent food and troops and spent countless hours trying to negotiate a settlement among all parties in that crisis?
Two years ago I worked in a camp for internally displaced people in Nigeria, survivors of an uprising that killed about 1,000 people and displaced 200,000. True to form, the Western media reported on the violence but not on the humanitarian work the state and local governments — without much international help — did for the survivors. Social workers spent their time and in many cases their own salaries to care for their compatriots. These are the people saving Africa, and others like them across the continent get no credit for their work.
I want you to be proud in your skin
So comfortable no one can convince you otherwise
Be weary of brain-pickers i would say
Those who will pick on your brains with shamboks
Like they did on the backs of grandma
In the cotton plantations
Just like your daddy
You will be gifted with brawn
But child that does not mean you are to be a slave
And when you are old like these locks
Tying my world together, at 8
I want your world to be open
To limitless possibility
I want you to be brave
Just like me when I brought you into this world
To labour for your own happiness
To strive to cut the fences, prejudices
Around the skin you will unashamedly be proud of
Child I seek you to find
A heart as warm
I want you to find love
And above all, I want you to be you…
Batsirai E. Chigama is a spoken word poet from Zimbabwe. Her work has been featured in nine poetry anthologies in USA, England, New Zealand and Zimbabwe. Batsirai has participated in a number of festivals and her work is featured on Badilisha Poetry X-Change (Cape Town) and Indiefeed (USA). A published short-story writer, Batsirai also writes on the arts and culture in Zimbabwe, Zimbo Jam. Her website is http://www.batsiraichigama.maumbile.com/
As the child of academics growing up in Nigeria, I was introduced to books at a young age. My first book was a paper-thin story about a corn princess and ants. As I grew older I read more books, mostly European and American; Judy Blume’s novels, The Babysitters Club, Enid Blyton’s mysteries, stories in which curly-haired little girls yelped ‘Golly!’ and sucked on lollies in the summer (in Nigeria, we had Fan-Ice. I testify it was just as good).
However, the stories I remember most were those set in other parts of Africa. Books such as The Boy Slave by Kola Onadipe, An African Night’s Entertainment by Cyprain Ekwensi,Without a Silver Spoon by Eddie Iroh, and many other books within the African Readers Series. They taught me about other aspects of different Nigerian ethnicities and the African world at my doorstep, stories from Kenya, Cotonou, Sierra Leone, etc., full of house boys who retained their integrity in the face of poverty, slaves who became kings, queens who defended their kingdoms in lieu of kings, greedy waziris’ whose greed led to their downfall, cryptic stories about the crafty tortoise, and so on. These were the stories in which I encountered my first notions of Africa.
Literature is how we document our lives, fictionalized stories often reveal truths and subjective experiences that other sources cannot. Learning about the Rwandan genocide in school was so much different than reading Murambi, The Book of Bones by Boubacar Boris Diop, which gave me an inside look at the genocide, the forces at work that caused it, the fears and that characterized that period. At the start of Europe’s ‘civilizing’ mission in Africa (read: colonization, slavery, mass violence, and theft of culture), great steps were taken to erase any ideas of Africans as a people with history or methods of conveying that history (see: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad). Today, the world knows more about Africa, we know about her peoples, we know her history before colonization and slavery. At the same time, Africa is still constantly presented as a victim; the lovable yet inevitably doomed junior brother of the world. A classmate once suggested that while she knew South Africa was a well developed country, the other African tribes were still struggling, (Nigerians riding Bugattis in Abuja beg to differ). The thread of discourse that has coded Africa in a specific light of backwardness and victimization still exists today.
African writers therefore have an important job to do. They bear the burden (as do all Africans) of reintroducing Africa to the world, through our literature and arts. We need to tell our own stories, to show the world our experiences of what it means to be African, and overcome tales of victimization and backwardness the world consistently hands us.
More importantly, Africans need to start discovering other Africans through our literature. The average Nigerian knows less about Ghana than he does about London, and we are only two countries apart! Imagine the discourse that could come out of Africans actively engaging with Africans. Discovering what it means to be a certain kind of African, what it means to be an Egyptian, an Edo girl from Nigeria, a Tunisian elder, realizing our shared struggles and goals which too often are the same soul masked in different clothes. Imagine having great African literature that is notable, not because it has been deemed appropriate or illustrious by European editors or American critics, but because other Africans have engaged with it, argued about it, and ultimately decided that it in some way captures an experience that resonates with them all.
To Africans and everyone else reading, this is the takeaway: it’s important to present Africa, not as the slighted and reduced victim of the world, but as the complex, impossibly diverse, confusing, exciting and altogether human world we grew up in. But it’s more important to discover life outside of our respective countries within our shared continent, to truly be Africans in discourse with other Africans through their literature.
We can’t all pen masterful novels, we probably will not write the next Things Fall Apart, but we can all read. There is a dearth of African literature on bookshelves both in Africa and elsewhere, but that cannot stop us from engaging with what is available. Read Africa. Find anthologies on African literature, read those excerpts then find full novels from the excerpts that caught your interest. Read them, read more by the same authors, then read others. One story often will lead to another. Find and read Chimamanda Adichie’s stories,Maps by Nuruddin Farah, Chris Abani’s Grace Land, Ben Okri’s work, Nardine Gradner’s novels, The Persistence of Memory by Tony Eprile, Frank Chipasula’s poems, etc. Read and read and read. Dive into the experiences of other Africans, then add your voice to that discourse, talk about the books you’ve read with other people, ask questions about the countries you’re reading. Engage with Africa in a way different from those dictated by BBC and CNN. Make Africa, the whole continent, your Africa.
We are the beginning
Of our own tears
And the end
Of all our joys.
Segun Akinlolu, The Real Story of Our Lives
The beauty of Tunisian women
comes w/ the scents of spring,
the roses of spring,
& the almonds of spring.
Though anchored in history & myths,
the beauty of Tunisian women
is always in bloom.
It always opens onto expansive skies.
The beauty of Tunisian women
is always free, & it won’t be ever
your fuel to burn aesthetics & free will.
& it won’t be ever
your flour to bake new bread of fear.
Ali Znaidi lives in Redeyef, Tunisia where he teaches English. His work has appeared in Mad Swirl, Stride Magazine, Red Fez, BlazeVox,Otoliths, streetcake, and elsewhere. His debut poetry chapbook Experimental Ruminations was published in September 2012 by Fowlpox Press (Canada). He reviews Tunisian literature at http://tunisianlit.wordpress.com and blogs at aliznaidi.blogspot.com.