The Rising of the Ashes | Tahar Ben Jelloun

In this country the dead travel

as statues and flames

They wear eyeglasses

and stretch out their scorched arms for flight.

We say they became invisible

Left to offer the living the years that remained of their lives.

Thus only years litter the desert: a century, more.

Lives for the taking, as jackals gorged on lives tremble to say:

“Death is not fatal just as night is the sun’s shadow.”

From The Rising of the Ashes by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Copyright © 2010 by Tahar Ben Jelloun and Cullen Goldblatt.

Tahar Ben Jelloun is a Moroccan writer. The entirety of his work is written in French, although his first language is Arabic. He became known for his 1985 novel L’Enfant de Sable. Today he lives in Paris and continues to write.

Laughing Drums |David Amadu

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
Beyond redemption.
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
Without Comparison
But I say it’s beyond human realism
So let’s play our joyful laughing drums
To the sound of children chewing crumbs.

David Amadu is a poet based in Sierra Leone.

From A Place by Titilope Sonuga

From A Place by Titilope Sonuga

I come from a place

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
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
boardroom sharp
briefcase in hand
between the mainland and the island

I come from a place
of jaw dropping mansions and

face-me-I-face-you-rooms
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
419 email

You will never understand who I am until you know
exactly where I come from

Poem taken from the Spoken Word album ‘Mother Tongue’. Reproduced from https://literature.britishcouncil.org/blog/2015/writing-a-new-nigeria/

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/

Birds of Chibok | Viola Allo

For the kidnapped girls of Government Secondary School Chibok, Nigeria

I.

We are the children
of the birds. They call up
to us, call down
to us, call out
to us. Forever talking /
walkabout
with song
we sing back to them /
to each other
always the same
mournful / hopeful song
of home.

II.

This forced flight /
brutal bite /
terrorist
blight
this blow to the wings
of people / country /
continent /
planet
is no sweet roar /
no true / ancient tune.
It cannot
win.

III.

We are the children
of Chibok / birds
of Chibok.
Tally our hijacked
days, rally your voices
to remember us
and sing. Tomorrow is
your baby today / unblemished
great egret on the Niger /
gifted with cries / songs
deeper / longer
than the reddened
rivers of our time.

 

Manifesto on Ars Poetica | Frank Chipasula

 

My poetry is exacting a confession

from me: I will not keep the truth from my song.

I will not bar the voice undressed by the bees

from entering the gourd of my bow-harp.

I will not wash the blood off the image

I will let it flow from the gullet

slit by the assassin’s dagger through

the run-on line until it rages in the verbs of terror;

And I will distil life into the horrible adjectives;

I will not clean the poem to impress the tyrant

I will not bend my verses into the bow of a praise song.

I will put the symbols of murder hidden in high offices

in the center of my crude lines of accusations.

I will undress our raped land and expose her wounds.

I will pierce the silence around our land with sharp metaphors

And I will point the light of my poems into the dark

nooks where our people are pounded to pulp.

I will not coat my words in lumps of sugar

I will serve them to our people with the bitter quinine:

I will not keep the truth from my heartstringed guitar;

I will thread the voice from the broken lips

through my volatile verbs that burn the lies.

I will ask only that the poem watch the world closely;

I will ask only that the image put a lamp on the dark

ceiling in the dark sky of my land and light the dirt.

Today, my poetry has exacted a confession from me.

 

The New Testament | Nike Adesuyi

I walk the coasts of Ibeju Lekki

White sands, a blue sea and a

Happy sun distil putrid visions

*

I run into the winds;

A kite buoyed on the wings of fun

*

I race the wind to an infinity of sands and shells

Until my feet are shocked by the magic of Mammon

Asphalt scarifies the polish of the sands like tribal marks

*

Beyond the billowing wrapper of the sea,

In places secret to the coastal eyes,

Principalities and powers are violating

Our maiden of mercies

*

In Ogoni** the fishes are fevered

From the typhoid of crude

Oil paints the sea black

And all the waters mourn.

**  Ogoniland in Nigeria, where Shell Oil company vastly polluted the Niger Delta river.

NIKE ADESUYI is a Nigerian poet, and a member of WRITA. She is the editorial manager of a thriving publications company in Lagos. Her poems have been published in several anthologies.

On Kwesi Brew | Liyou Mesfin Libeskal

Liyou Mesfin Libeskal is the winner of the Brunnel University African Poetry Prize. She discusses Kwesi Brew, one of Ghana’s greatest poets, in this review. Find more of her work here and on Facebook

Kwesi Brew

Ghanaian poet and diplomat Kwesi Brew, is one of the most celebrated figures in his country’s literary history. Brew’s poetry, centered around struggle and poverty, people and country, always has a distinctly natural quality and flow, no matter how intricate the lines are. One of the first poems I read by the late poet was The Executioner’s Dream, and the lines, “I dreamt I saw an eye, a pretty eye/ In your hands/ Glittering, wet and sickening; Like a dull onyx set in a crown of thorns” entranced me and prompted me to seek out more of Brew’s work.

What is so captivating about his poems is not only the ease with which he creates intensity, but also the fact that throughout his body of work, there is an air of melancholy which never fails to move me. Brew’s poems have an effortless way of immersing the reader into whatever he is depicting, subtly pulling at heartstrings, making us feel what he decides. Brew in a sense, forces us to see with him without being forceful, he just gives us his words and lets us follow. In The Slums of Nima Brew connects the slums to Ghana or even Africa in general by depicting “violent” thieves who step aside to make room for an old man to pass before them. In doing so, he shows us the culture that remains, even in a place which may be different from what we know. By using the universal idea of respect for elders, he connects us with thieves in the slums, and suddenly, we are not so different.

In another one of my favorites, Ghana’s Philosophy of Survival, Brew starts off “we are the punching bag of fate/ on whom the hands of destiny wearies/ and the show of blows gradually lose/ their viciousness on our patience/ until they become the caresses of admiration/ and time heals all wounds/ comes with a balm and without tears,/ soothes the bruises on our spirits.” Here, we see the absolute power of Brew’s words as he encapsulates so eloquently, in one stanza, the reaction to years of strife of a people long oppressed. With this, he not only addresses Ghana’s history of colonization, but also a very real aspect of human nature, allowing the reader to connect to a part of historic reality he/she may not relate to.

In my view, this is the essence of what Brew does with words, he grabs hold of you and brings you in, regardless of whether or not you are Ghanaian or African, whether or not you’ve seen the places or been the people or even felt the emotions his words convey. What his poetry does, is connect.

This, to me, is not simply down to powerful imagery or potent lines, or the weight of sheer sadness and beauty Brew communicates; it is because Brew leads with an undeniable essence of truth and vulnerability. I think this is perhaps why his work captivates us with remarkable ease. Brew is not only a literary treasure for Ghanaians and Africans, but for the world. I would recommend his work to anyone interested in literature who has yet to discover his stunning poetry.

 Liyou Mesfin Libsekal  is an Ethiopian poet born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She spent the majority of her childhood in different parts of East Africa. She earned a BA in Anthropology from the George Washington University in 2012; she now lives in her home country. She’s the winner of the 2014 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Her poems include “Riding Chinese Machines” and can be found here. 

Read our interview with Liyou here.

Zimbabwe: Letter to my unborn child (excerpt) | Batsirai Chigama

Child
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
All-weather wings
A heart as warm
I want you to find love
Give 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/ 

Read the Full Poem Here

Reading Africa | Etinosa Agbonlahor

We don’t whisper here
We sigh, we gasp, we moan
We cry, we shout, we groan
No, we don’t whisper here.
-Segun Akinlolu, Can’t You See?

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 OnadipeAn 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 FarahChris 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

Originally published on Africa is Done Suffering. 

Uganda: Falling | Betty Kituyi

The rain is gently
clapping at the rocks
outside my kitchen.

Its music
waters
my desert.

A new song forms,
the sound of raindrops
washing my face.

The rain is steadily
Taking me home
By twilight.

I am learning
from the weeping clouds
that falling isn’t dying.

Betty Kituyi is a writer and scientist from Uganda. She is the coordinator of Café Scientifique-Uganda, a robotics program for youth, and the third winner of the fourth BN Poetry Award, 2012, Uganda. She is also a high school educator with decades of experience in the Ugandan education sector.