The Meaning of Africa – Abioseh Nicol

Posted: August 18, 2011 in SIERRA LEONEAN POETRY
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Abioseh Nicol (1924–1994) was born as Davidson Sylvester Hector Willoughby Nicol in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone. His descended from a Creole family; an educated and elite ex-slave community. He attended primary school in Nigeria and, in 1946, graduated from Christ’s College and then later from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom where he did research in biochemistry. He earned his Ph.D. in 1958 and lectured at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.

Nicol has written poetry, articles and short stories that have appeared in a number of publications. He won the Margaret Wrong Prize and Medal for Literature in Africa in 1952. Many reviewers have acclaimed his work to be dramatic and representative of rural, idyllic Africa. This poem, THE MEANING OF AFRICA, is one of his more notable pieces and speaks volumes about his love for the continent.

The Meaning of Africa

Africa, you were once just a name to me
But now you lie before me with sombre green challenge
To that loud faith for freedom (life more abundant)
Which we once professed shouting
Into the silent listening microphone
Or on an alien platform to a sea
Of white perplexed faces troubled
With secret Imperial guilt; shouting
Of you with a vision euphemistic
As you always appear
To your lonely sons on distant shores.

Then the cold sky and continent would disappear
In a grey mental mist.
And in its stead the hibiscus blooms in shameless scarlet
and the bougainvillea in mauve passion
entwines itself around strong branches
the palm trees stand like tall proud moral women
shaking their plaited locks against the
cool suggestive evening breeze;
the short twilight passes;
the white full moon turns its round gladness
towards the swept open space
between the trees; there will be
dancing tonight; and in my brimming heart
plenty of love and laughter.
Oh, I got tired of the cold northern sun
Of white anxious ghost-like faces
Of crouching over heatless fires
In my lonely bedroom.
The only thing I never tired of
was the persistent kindness
Of you too few unafraid
Of my grave dusky strangeness.

So I came back
Sailing down the Guinea Coast.
Loving the sophistication
Of your brave new cities:
Dakar, Accra, Cotonou,
Lagos, Bathurst and Bissau;
Liberia, Freetown, Libreville,
Freedom is really in the mind.

Go up-country, so they said,
To see the real Africa.
For whomsoever you may be,
That is where you come from.
Go for bush, inside the bush,
You will find your hidden heart,
Your mute ancestral spirit.
So I went, dancing on my way.

Now you lie before me passive
With your unanswering green challenge.
Is this all you are?
This long uneven red road, this occasional succession
Of huddled heaps of four mud walls
And thatched, falling grass roofs
Sometimes ennobled by a thin layer
Of white plaster, and covered with thin
Slanting corrugated zinc.
These patient faces on weather-beaten bodies
Bowing under heavy market loads.
The pedalling cyclist wavers by
On the wrong side of the road,
As if uncertain of his new emancipation.
The squawking chickens, the pregnant she-goats
Lumber awkwardly with fear across the road,
Across the windscreen view of my four-cylinder kit car.
An overloaded lorry speeds madly towards me
Full of produce, passengers, with driver leaning
Out into the swirling dust to pilot his
Swinging obsessed vehicle along,
Beside him on the raised seat his first-class
Passenger, clutching and timid; but he drives on
At so, so many miles per hour, peering out with
Bloodshot eyes, unshaved face and dedicated look;
His motto painted on each side: Sunshine Transport,
We get you there quick, quick. The Lord is my Shepherd.

The red dust settles down on the green leaves.

I know you will not make me want, Lord,
Though I have reddened your green pastures
It is only because I have wanted so much
That I have always been found wanting.
From South and East, and from my West
(The sandy desert holds the North)
We look across a vast continent
And blindly call it ours.

You are not a country, Africa,
You are a concept,
Fashioned in our minds, each to each,
To hide our separate fears,
To dream our separate dreams.
Only those within you who know
Their circumscribed plot,
And till it well with steady plough
Can from that harvest then look up
To the vast blue inside
Of the enamelled bowl of sky
Which covers you and say
‘This is my Africa’ meaning
‘I am content and happy.
I am fulfilled, within,
Without and roundabout
I have gained the little longings
Of my hands, my loins, my heart
And the soul that follows in my shadow.’
I know now that is what you are, Africa:
Happiness, contentment, and fulfilment,
And a small bird singing on a mango tree.

This poem, albeit long, is a testament to Nicol’s understanding of Africa. And when he explains it, he speaks for all his brothers, Africa’s ‘lonely sons on distant shores.’

In the first stanza, he mentions how from afar on distant shores, from other continents, Africa was just to him a name for which they had screamed freedom. Born in 1924, he was in England in the days when most of the continent was still under colonial rule and he makes us understand that he was part of them that shouted freedom into ‘the silent listening microphone’ while ‘white perplexed faces’ looked on with ‘Imperialist guilt’. While he vehemently defended and decreed the freedom of Africa, the continent appeared in his mind and those of all the other Africans in the diaspora, with all glorious appeal, euphemistic.

In the second stanza, he mentions how ‘the cold sky and continent’ of Europe will disappear from his mind and he’ll get on to dreaming about hibiscus blooms, bougainvillea, palm trees, and many African markers that brim his heart with ‘plenty of love and laughter’. These things make him weary of ‘the cold northern sun’ and the faces of white people he calls ‘anxious, ghost-like’ and how he bends over heatless fires in a lonely bedroom. He will only stay alight by the kindness of the few who were not afraid of his blackness. This is miserable.

So in his own words, he comes back down to Africa in stanza three, fascinated by the braveness of its new cities. He mentions in one breath Liberia, Freetown and Libreville. The first embodies Freedom, as it comes from the two words “Liberty Area”, the Land of the Free. Freetown is the English translation of the French Libreville, one in Sierra Leone, the other in Gabon. All these evoke passions of liberation and Nicol is immediately engrossed. He is asked to explore the hinterlands, ‘For whomsoever you may be/That is where you come from” in the fourth stanza and he goes away dancing.

But in five, he is disappointed almost. The Africa he finds in the hinterlands is undeveloped, showing red road, thatch roofing falling off mud walls, if they be complicated, then the houses will have thin, white plastering and be covered with corrugated zinc roofs. He sees weary-looking people with patience written on their faces. He sees simple lives led by simple men, not worried by their seeming poverty and almost unmoved, uncaring and unaffected by all the emancipation noise that he and his brothers have been making on their behalf.

That line that sits hanging alone in the middle “The red dust settles down on the green leaves” is a dampened hope. The green is fertility, vibrancy and newness. The red coats it and covers it. The red dirties it and makes it worth nothing. For Nicol, his positive acclaim for an energetic Africa is met by apathetic-looking listlessness. He meets an anti-climax and he moans in the ensuing verse, asking God for forgiveness. He says that it is because “I have wanted so much” that he may have been disappointed that he didn’t see the glamour he thought Africa had. In fact, what he sees humbles him that poor people take pride in their lowliness and call the Lord their ‘Shepherd’.

Nicol ends philosophically, calling Africa a concept that dwells only in the mind and is better understood by the people who dwell in her. ‘We look across a vast continent/And blindly call it ours.’ It is not ours. It is a dream. It is a notion, a theory, a perception, an impression, a belief. And for what it means to us all separately, it makes us ‘dream our separate dreams’. He concludes that Africa belongs more to those dwelling in her than those outside because her in-dwellers can look down at God’s providence ‘inside/Of the enamelled bowl of sky’ and say ‘This is my Africa’. And in their eyes, Nicol has found a new meaning to Africa he never knew before. That Africa means:

‘I am content and happy.
I am fulfilled, within,
Without and roundabout
I have gained the little longings
Of my hands, my loins, my heart
And the soul that follows in my shadow.’

He knows the full extent of Africa’s meaning now:

Happiness, contentment, and fulfilment,
And a small bird singing on a mango tree.

This poem is a brilliant statement of the affection of Africans for the continent. It goes beyond all saying that Africa is the only continent that was made to be loved and felt a part of. I have said in a place that America is to be honoured and defended, Europe is to be romanticised, Asia is to be spoken of with mystique but Africa is to be loved. This is where Nicol enforces the concept. Beautiful poem by all standards and if you have been able to stay on the page till this line, bless your soul for it.

  1. parrish says:

    I like the way he wakes from his dream of Africa to the reality of what his eyes actually see, the idea of an exiles longing & the homecoming realisation that confronts him, yes there’s excitement, modernity but there’s also acceptance & maybe not stagnation because there are green shoots/leaves under the dust but a pace slow enough to appear almost static. Thanks for the introduction to a writer I was unaware of.


  2. Jonathan says:

    Thank you for posting this! I first read this poem in a book that is now out of print and, as an African living in the US, identified with so much in it! I’ve been looking for it for a while–thanks for making it available!


  3. Sundaygar says:

    This is one of my best loved poems. I cannot read it without thinking back to my youth filled with joy, laughter and a deep, deep love of Africa. As a Liberian who was displaced bacause ofhte Liberian civil war, this poem gave me solace . Now that I am home again, I know that Africa to me is love, peace, an deep contentment.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. chisom onyekaba says:

    This is one of the poems that caught my fancy and it has really motivated me to comment on it. As a Nigerian, I’ll say am proud to be an African child. Kudos!!! And more grease to your elbows!!!


  5. nasiba begam says:

    nasiba i am very happy to read this poem.It develops patriotism.


  6. africanbookreview says:

    Reblogged this on The African Book Review.


  7. farida says:

    Proud African…………………


  8. farida says:



  9. jagatha says:

    this is really nice poem. it shows the African people pathotic


  10. igbokwe henry uche says:

    I love this with passion.


  11. the poet visualises Africa as a rural landscape, a world of harmony and agriculturalists. He casts the westernised African into the cyclical journey which is completed as the altered African returns to an altered Africa, often to help in an attempt to build a meaningful future out of a usable past…


  12. […] poem, “The Meaning of Africa.” The final stanza gives the answer but the entire poem, available here, carries the reader through the seeking and finding […]


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