Archive for May, 2011




I had to review this poem by Mtshali because it has come up, along with others, as most-searched and leading to traffic on this blog. I find also that Southern African poets are probably the most read along with Nigerian poets and many enquiries to my blog have brought up same names and demographics. I intend to obey that wind and review more Nigerian and Southern African poetry but also, I will wander into the hinterlands for poems from Sudan, Ethiopia, the Arab African nations, Francophone and Lusophone Africa for what goes through their literary minds as well.

Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali is a South African poet who was born in Vryheid, Natal. After his early education, he left for Johannesburg with a dream to pursue further schooling in the University of Witwatersrand but he fell victim to the endemic workings of the apartheid era in which he was born. He did not gain admission and resigned to live in Soweto, a Bantu suburb of Johannesburg, about which he writes this poem. His dreams took him to an M.A in the United States and lectureship at Pace College, a U.S-funded model College in Soweto.


Nightfall comes like
a dreaded disease
seeping through the pores
of a healthy body
and ravaging it beyond repair

A murderer’s hand,
lurking in the shadows,
clasping the dagger,
strikes down the helpless victim.

I am the victim.
I am slaughtered
every night in the streets.
I am cornered by the fear
gnawing at my timid heart;
in my helplessness I languish.

Man has ceased to be man
Man has become beast
Man has become prey.

I am the prey;
I am the quarry to be run down
by the marauding beast
let loose by cruel nightfall
from his cage of death.

Where is my refuge?
Where am I safe?
Not in my matchbox house
Where I barricade myself against nightfall.

I tremble at his crunching footsteps,
I quake at his deafening knock at the door.
“Open up!” he barks like a rabid dog
thirsty for my blood.

Nightfall! Nightfall!
You are my mortal enemy.
But why were you ever created?
Why can’t it be daytime?
Daytime forever more?

This poem sees Mtshali going almost emotional in his protest against the treatment of black South Africans under the Soweto night sky.

Soweto is an acronym for South-West Townships and is located in that bearing from Johannesburg. It hosts some of the largest populations of slum-dwellers in the world and is the setting for Mtshali’s poem. In review, nightfall comes like “a dreaded disease” (line 2) that ravages beyond repair. (inf. line 5). Obviously, the poet sees a worry about the fall of night and we are yet to find out why so.

But he does not make us wonder long!! In the next stanza (how good is it to say “strophe” here?), Mtshali uses four lines to graphically describe the cold murder of the helpless victim (line 9). Note that he uses the definite article “the” to describe the victim, indicative of the fact that these deaths are commonplace. Then we begin to see why nightfall calls his wrath.

The poet puts himself in the place of all the murdered, calling himself the victim and the slaughtered (lines 10-11). “Slaughter” gives us a feel of the animalistic way in which human life is treated and brings more attention to the worth of the life of the black man hiding in the Soweto nightfall. He goes on to say (lines 12-15) that as the representative of all the victims, he fears every night in the streets, knowing that his death cannot be far off. “Gnawing” in line 14 paints the picture of something that is slowly being bitten off in small chunks and the comparison is this: for all the many black men- estimated to be more than a million- living in the shacks of Soweto, taking one or two lives a night is a slow, albeit sure way of killing the population off. Mtshali is talking about the apartheid era, certainly, and we can only deduce the murderers to be the law-officers whose duty it was to enforce the tyrannical decrees of the regime during the times.

Lines 16-18 sum up the whole poem. “Man has ceased to be man” shows that either way, the human race has changed. For the good? No. For in the ensuing lines Mtshali likens Man to a beast and then to a prey. This Man has become the hunter and the hunted.

The law-officers never took men in broad daylight and killed them. They came marauding in the night as if unleashed by night itself from its cage of death. This is pathetic. And why night is a conspirator in this heinous crime earns it the accolade “Cruel” in line 22.

It was a hopeless situation then and houses were as impotent to keep one safe as it was to just stand outside in the night and get shot. A desperate “barricade” (line 27) against nightfall was useless even as the offenders march straight to doorsteps and order men out to their death. Hounds and mad dogs “thirsty for my blood” (line 31).

So the curses of Nightfall continue as Mtshali signs out embittered. If the night will bring death to the black oppressed man, then it was a sworn mortal enemy (line 33) and in the conclusion of his rant, our poet wishes that we had “Daytime forever more”.

The irony of the poem is that Nightfall refuses to bring the rest that is deserved and common. A long poem and review too but as I have often said, it is with reading the sacred lines of Africa’s great poets that the history and tomorrow of this great continent can be appreciated.

I was away for three weeks, if you count Easter, and was privileged to go on a tour of parts of Ghana during the period. I am serving as a Chemical Engineer under training with Ghana’s energy giant, the Volta River Authority (V.R.A) and this year marks 50 years of the Authority’s existence.

The Akosombo Dam

The Akosombo Dam

Many programmes and activities were lined up for the commemoration of the anniversary and I was glad to find that Professor Atukwei Okai’s name had been tucked in the middle of the programme list for the grand durbar held at Akosombo on the 29th of April, to read a poem titled “The Bond of 1962.” I was elated.

Atukwei Okai

Atukwei Okai

Professor Atukwei Okai is the General Secretary of the Pan-African Writers’ Association and has served in some capacity as Ghana’s poet-laureate. He has been part of a new effort to whip up exuberance on poetic headlines here in Ghana and has appeared at several state functions in recent months, reciting one or other, or talking about poetry, basically. I hadn’t listened to him live until this day at Akosombo.

Okai’s poetry is merciless on the non-native Ghanaian and even sometimes to outsiders of certain Ghanaian languages. He has shown time and again that his poetry is for performance and he loads his lines with countless native words that make non-speakers lose the understanding of his work. But even listening to the words as they roll and drum and hum will make you appreciate the power behind his lines.

In December 2010, he had been with V.R.A at Aboadze, Takoradi where I presently am. I wasn’t there yet and his recital on that day has left a catch-phrase among the company’s circles to date. His poem was replete with repetitions of “It Was Awesome”, (stresses on the Awwww), that have left everyone quoting and repeating those lines during the company’s events. He made his mark.

So, at Akosombo, where he read to us “The Bond of 1962”, I was listening for a phrase to keep after the poem had been done. In a resplendent blue three-piece robe, he took us on a journey of the sealing of the deals that brought Ghana’s 1020MW hydro Akosombo dam to life. And in the trip of those words he said, “We conjured rain” which has served as our lifeblood as an industrialising economy.

I don’t know if I’ll listen to Professor Atukwei Okai again but if I don’t, I will be content to have ever heard that man live, who wrote my favourite Ghanaian poem of all time, “SUNSET SONATA.”