In your ears my song
is motor car misfiring
stopping with a choking cough;
and you laughed and laughed and laughed.
In your eyes my ante-
natal walk was inhuman, passing
your ‘omnivorous understanding’
and you laughed and laughed and laughed
You laughed at my song,
you laughed at my walk.
Then I danced my magic dance
to the rhythm of talking drums pleading, but you shut your eyes
and laughed and laughed and laughed
And then I opened my mystic
inside wide like the sky,
instead you entered your
car and laughed and laughed and laughed
You laughed at my dance,
you laughed at my inside.
You laughed and laughed and laughed.
But your laughter was ice-block
laughter and it froze your inside froze
your voice froze your ears
froze your eyes and froze your tongue.
And now it’s my turn to laugh;
but my laughter is not
ice-block laughter. For I
know not cars, know not ice-blocks.
My laughter is the fire
of the eye of the sky, the fire
of the earth, the fire of the air,
the fie of the seas and the
rivers fishes animals trees
and it thawed your inside,
thawed your voice, thawed your
ears, thawed your eyes and
thawed your tongue.
So a meek wonder held
your shadow and you whispered;
And I answered:
‘Because my fathers and I
are owned by the living
warmth of the earth
through our naked feet.’
Gabriel jibaba Okara (born 24 April 1921)is a Nigerian poet and novelist who was born in Bomoundi in State, Nigeria. In 1979, he was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. This well-known poem by Okara is sometimes wrongly attributed to Dennis Brutus.
This sunked-eyed moment wobbling
down the rocky steepness on broken
bones slowly fearfully to hideous
concourse of gathering sorrows in the valley
will yet become in another year a lost
Christmas irretrievable in the heights
its exploding inferno transmuted
by cosmic distances to the peacefulness
of a cool twinkling star…. To dead-cells
of that moment came farway sounds of other
men’s carols floating on crackling waves
mocking us. With regret? Hope? Longing? None of
these, strangely, not even despair rather
distilling pure transcendental hate….
Beyond the hospital gate
the good nuns had set up a manger
of palms to house a fine plastercast
scene at Bethlehem. The Holy
Family was central, serene, the Child
Jesus plump wise-looking and rose-cheeked: one
of the magi in keeping with legend
a black Othello in sumptuous robes. Other
figures of men and angels stood
at well-appointed distances from
the heart of the divine miracle
and the usual cattle gazed on
in holy wonder….
Poorer than the poor worshipers
before her who had paid their homage
with pitiful offering of new aluminum
coins that few traders would take and
a frayed five-shilling note she only
crossed herself and prayed open-eyed. Her
infant son flat like a dead lizard
on her shoulder his arms and legs
cauterised by famine was a miracle
of its kind. Large sunken eyes
stricken past boredom to a flat
unrecognising glueyness moped faraway
motionless across her shoulder….
Now her adoration over
she turned him around and pointed
at those pretty figures of God
and angels and men and beasts-
a spectacle to stir the heart
of a child. But all he vouchsafed
was one slow deadpan look of total
unrecognition and he began again
to swivel his enormous head away
to mope as before at his empty distance….
She shrugged her shoulders, crossed
herself again, and took him away.
Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013) was a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic. He was best known for his first novel and magnum opus, Things Fall Apart (1958), which is the most widely read book in modern African literature. Raised in Nigeria, Achebe excelled at school and won a scholarship for undergraduate studies. He became fascinated with world religions and traditional African cultures, and began writing stories as a university student. His later novels include No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God(1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah(1987). When the region of Biafra broke away from Nigeria in 1967, Achebe became a supporter of Biafran independence and acted as ambassador for the people. After the Nigerian government retook the region in 1970, he involved himself in political parties but soon resigned. From 2009 until his death, he served as a professor at Brown University.
The African Book Review met with finalists for The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Nigerian poet, Inua Ellams, whose poem “Crime and Punishment 3” revolves around a hilarious joke but also underscores Africa as an emerging world power.
ABR: What inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?
ELLAMS: In my first poetry monologue “The 14th Tale,” I wrote about an incident that occurred in secondary school a few months after I arrived in London from Lagos, where I watched the new kid Luis, who’d just arrived from China, who spoke barely a word of English, pee against a wall. We had skipped a lesson and were hiding from teachers in one of the playgrounds in Holland Park School. A conversation broke out on different shapes of excrement (it’s what boys talked about back then) and after laughing, nature called. We lined up to pee against the wall and something curious happen. Whenever I pee (stay with me) I get a tickle, a tremor that travels the length of my spine. Of the four boys who passed urine, only one shivered as I do, as I have always done. Luis. It was a simple, insignificant thing, but to my twelve year old mind, it proved that regardless of race, background, age, culture, Luis and I shared something intensely personal; we were viscerally the same I believed back then. I still believe in the universality of the human experience, I write poetry for that reason, trying to show the many ways we are similar.
ABR: Your poem, “Crime and Punishment 3,” which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry prize, occurs against the background of traditional moonlight tales and seems to suggest a passive struggle between old world hegemonies and emerging African powers.
Can you discuss the inspiration for this poem and post-colonial Africa, Nigeria specifically, as a world power? Or is this more a commentary on Nigerians who are finding innovative ways (writing a cheque for a dead man) to announce themselves on the world stage and take advantage of its resources?
ELLAMS: The joke came first. I think it was originally an Englishman, a Scott and an Irishman with a dead American colleague and the Irishman walked away with the cash. When I first heard it, I laughed for one whole week and began to realise that the same culture/stereotype dynamic would exist if a Nigerian was to walk with the cash, perhaps even more fitting given our notoriety, so I reset the joke within that context and began telling it at poetry events that attracted a large African clientele, and I’d make the deceased colleague a Ghanaian. It worked, they got the joke and months later, I attempted to write it down as poem.
The poem is a comment on all of the above, but I primarily wrote is as a response to the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative which is actual and growing so rapidly, we can’t keep up with ourselves. Embedded in this narrative is a growing awareness of how we fit on the world stage, who we were, who we have become, why we are, and the various ways we take advantage of those aspects of our identity.
The poem echoes a trend in contemporary African art: the growing bravery and agency to be unapologetic about ourselves; to show our scars (if any) and laugh proudly ‘so what? my scars are bigger than yours!’
ABR: As a Nigerian poet, how has Nigeria influenced your works?
ELLAMS: I think the strong narrative slant to my work comes from my childhood in Nigeria, the stories I was told and observing my father talk; the way he would gist with his friends over suya and jollof rice, the mythical yet everyday quality to those early years govern the way I write. My father was a Muslim when he married my mother who was a Christian and I grew up following both faiths. This taught me to balance opposing (apparently) faiths, opinions and worlds from an early age and a lot of my work is about balancing truths and lies to tell a greater truth. It is heart breaking to see how things have deteriorated – that I as a child could hold both faiths in mind effortlessly, yet it is causing such havoc in the country.
ABR: Can you talk about your future projects and things you are currently working on?
ELLAMS: I am currently working on three books and three plays. A pamphlet of poems called Crime and Punishment, another called #Afterhours and my first full collection called Of All The Boys Of Plateau Private School. I’m also working on a poetry and basketball project called ‘Spalding Suite’ with a team of five other poets of which I am a contributing editor. I’m working on another poetry/basketball epic called ‘The Half God of Rainfall,’ and finally, working on two versions of the same play. The first, the hour long version is called Fast Cuts and Snapshots and the second, the two hour long version is called Barber Shop Chronicles – both plays explore contemporary African masculinity, globalisation and fatherhood through the lens of barber shops.
Inua Ellams is a Nigerian poet, playwright and performer. He has published two poetry collections, Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars and Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales. His first play The 14th Tale (a one-man, self-performed show) was awarded a Fringe First at the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival, and another play called Black T-Shirt Collection was staged at the Royal National Theatre (UK). He is currently working on new plays and poetry collections. Follow him on Twitter @InuaEllams.