POET’S PROFILE – SYL CHENEY-COKERSyl Cheney-Coker (born 1945) is a poet, novelist, and journalist from Freetown, Sierra Leone. He has Creole backgrounds. He was educated early in Sierra Leone and then in the United States and he has a global sense of literary history. He has introduced styles and techniques from French and Latin American literatures to Sierra Leone. Most of his life has been spent away from his native country and through those eyes he has written extensively (in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction) about the condition of exile and the view of Africa from an African abroad.
He has taught both African and Latin American literature in a number of countries, having learnt to speak Spanish fluently after sojourning in Argentina, Chile, America and the Philippines. His volumes of poetry include Concerto for an Exile (1973) and The Graveyard also has Teeth (1980). Cheney-Coker has written of his love for the continent of his birth and the agony of having to live away from it since he could not tolerate the one-party government of then President Siaka Stevens. In many of his works, he shows the passion and love for the continent that is innate in all true African poets.
The agony: I say their agony!
the agony of imagining their squalor but never knowing it
the agony of cramping them in roach infected shacks
the agony of treating them like chattel slaves
5 the agony of feeding them abstract theories they do not understand
the agony of their lugubrious eyes and battered souls
the agony of giving them party cards but never party support
the agony of marshalling them on election day but never on banquet nights
the agony of giving them melliferous words but mildewed bread
10 the agony of their cooking hearths dampened with unused
the agony of their naked feet on the hot burning tarmac
the agony of their children with projectile bellies
the agony of long miserable nights
the agony of their thatched houses with too many holes
15 the agony of erecting hotels but being barred from them
the agony of watching the cavalcade of limousines
the agony of grand state balls for God knows who
the agony of those who study meaningless ‘isms and incomprehensible languages
the agony of intolerable fees for schools but with no jobs in sight
20 the agony of it all I say the agony of it all
but above all the damn agony of appealing to their patience
Africa beware! their patience is running out!
This poem is a protest poem which identifies with the down-trodden African peasant who does most of the work that drives his country yet paying him insignificant rewards. In the lines of the poem, Cheney-Coker identifies many points of “agony” of the peasant and illustrates singular experiences of these men left poor by their politicians, that makes for pondering. In the lines of the poem, he has disregarded the correct use of grammar in first-letter capitalisation except in the first and last lines…and even the last line has a second sentence that disregards the rule too. This is a statement of his anger; when people are angry, their respect for the rules is usually close to nothing.
Cheney-Coker seems to bundle this long list of complaints for the politicians of Africa. He enumerates how they marshal these peasants at election time (line8) and forget them at banquet nights; how they are treated like slaves, left in roach-infested shacks and being used as labour for the many luxuries that the politicians enjoy. They are scornfully given party cards but never part support. They have little to take care of their children who develop projectile bellies (line 12) and for whom intolerable school fees (line 19) are paid to study meaningless languages and ‘isms ready for non-existent jobs. This looks like a tall pile of complaints which are building up anger one after another. To be able to appease the peasant, you must appease him layer by layer and agony by agony. A tall order, this.
But Cheney-Coker says the height of it all – the supposed icing – is being asked to being asked to be patient about it all. And he calls it “the damn agony” (line 21). Who can bottle up such intense frustration with a slick of patience? It won’t be long before the patience is broken.
I chose this poem as a tribute to the revolutions that started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt and the Middle East, albeit being suppressed this very minute in Libya. This poem is a prophecy of all those happenings in a way, pre-informing African leaders that their people want them to know that “their patience is running out” (line 22). If only African leaders read African poetry!!