Welcome to Ghanaian Literature Week hosted at Kinna Reads. This week, forgive me in advance as I flood your emails and WordPress feeds with reviews of beautiful poetry coming from Ghana. I can’t wait to discover new writing and other interesting posts on Ghanaian literature from the aggregator post on Kinna’s blog. Unfortunately, I’m unable to take part in any events that may happen in Ghana, but if any of you want to take part actively, join the discussion on twitter with the hashtag #GhanaLit. You won’t regret it, trust me.
I have looked a long time for poetry that comes from the era of Ghana’s last coup d’etat that happened on 31st December 1981. Incidentally, the coup was followed by three years of the worse famine and drought in the history of Ghana as a nation. My late dad used to tell many stories of how there was death spread across the land and my mum to this day tells countless stories of how difficult it was to live one day after another in a military regime starved of food. Just by very good fortune, I found this poem by one of Ghana and Africa’s leading poets, Kofi Anyidoho. This poem was written on 1st August 1983, in the eye of the famine and the early years of a military regime that ruled for 11 years till 1992. It’s a keepsake. (I am beginning to change my diction now about poetry from Africa. Any leading poet in Africa is a leading poet in the world. Anyidoho is no exception).
The News From Home – Kofi Anyidoho
I have not come this far
only to sit by the roadside
and break into tears
I could have wept at home
without a journey of several thorns
I have not spread my wings
so wide only to be huddled into corners
at the mere mention of storms
To those who hear of military coups
and rumours of civil strife
and bushfires and bad harvests at home
and come to me looking for fears and tears
I must say I am tired
tired of all devotion to death and dying.
I too have heard of
all the bushfires
the sudden deaths
and fierce speeches
I have heard of
all the empty market stalls
the cooking pots all filled with memory and ash
And I am tired
tired of all these noises of
condolence from those who
love to look upon the anger of the hungry
nod their heard and stroll back home
worrying and forever worrying
about overweight and special diet for dogs and cats.
Like an orphan stranded
on dunghills of owners of earth
I shall keep my sorrows to myself
folding them with infinite care
corner upon corner
taking pains the foldings draw circles
around hidden spaces where still
our hopes grow roots even
in this hour of finite chaos
Those who sent their funeral clothes
to the washerman
awaiting the mortuary men to come
bearing our corpse in large display
Let them wait for the next and next
season only to see how well earthchildren
grow fruit and even flower
from rottenness of early morning dreams
I am tired
tired of all crocodile condolence.
Kofi Anyidoho spent years away from Ghana studying first for an M.A. in Folklore Indiana University-Bloomington and a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin (I’ve visited that lovely campus). It was from one of these places I suppose he writes this poem from far away, upon hearing the difficulty that is engulfing his country in 1983.
The poem opens sadly, with Anyidoho lamenting that he has not ‘come this far’ (line 1) only to weep at foreign roadsides, far away from home. He could have stayed and ‘wept at home’ (line 4) without this ‘journey of several thorns’ (line 5). This last reference makes it seem that it was not an easy journey he made and would have preferred that on top of his difficulty, he did not have to ‘break into tears’ (line 3) on foreign shores. But what makes him cry? We will find out.
The second paragraph continues the lament, saying that he has ‘not spread his wings so wide’ (line 6-7); another reference to the fact that he flew out of the country on a foreign mission at the time this poem was written. This spreading of wings may also refer to the fact that, being out in the world, he was embracing a bigger world than what Ghana offered him, more freedom from a military regime, more release from a famine. But the news he heard from Ghana was terrible and before that line 7 closed, he was ‘huddled in corners’, losing his spread wings at the ‘mention of storms’ (line 8). The storms; troubles from home; home Ghana.
In the next stanza, he clarifies things. He is talking to those who hear of ‘military coups’ (line 9) and ‘civil strife’ (line 10) and ‘bushfires and bad harvests at home’ (line 11). This was the picture of those dark days of Ghana’s last coup and famine. Fires burnt huge farms and farmland, the harvests were terrible, people were protesting and the government was mean. But Anyidoho was protesting something and we had better listen. He was protesting to those who hear these rumours from his home country and come to him ‘looking for fears and tears’ (line 12), expecting him to carry, express and the explain the dark days of his homeland; he was protesting that he himself, huddled up in a corner, unable to take flight, had become ‘tired of all devotion to death and dying’ (line 15). He calls this devotion because he had probably heard too much of it and though it was hard, it had almost become second nature, a burden too difficult, too tasking that he had was tired of going on bearing and hearing more bad news everyday. He was tired of them telling him about it like he did not already know.
In the next stanza, he tells us why. It is because he says that he also has heard of all the ‘bushfires’ (line 17), ‘sudden deaths’ (line 18) both from famine and military upheavals, and ‘fierce speeches’ (line 19). I will guess that this reference to fierce speeches was an actual reference to the architect of that coup, Ghana’s former president Jerry John Rawlings, who, even from his days as a young flight lieutenant who had toppled an elected government, was popular for making ‘boom’, declarative, passionate speeches. After he resigned from the presidency in 2001, he was nicknamed ‘Boom’ for the continued explosiveness of his utterances. This should surely be Anyidoho’s reference.
He continued to say that he had heard of ‘the empty market stalls’ (line 21), a picture of abject poverty and hunger, and ‘the cooking pots all filled with memory and ash’ (line 22); memories of feasts gone by and ashes of foods that could have been eaten but were burnt in those raging bushfires (ref. line 17).
The next stanza is a slight protest at the people surrounding him, in the country he was in, who offered ‘condolence’ (line 25) at his country’s misfortune while at the same time, ‘love to look upon the anger of the hungry’ (line 26). This sadistic demeanour that makes them ‘nod their head and stroll back home’ (line 27) (stroll; a careless word with no urgency), and go on to worry forever about ‘overweight and special diet for dogs and cats’ (line 28). Anyidoho is abhorred by fake condolence that does nothing to help his starving country while his guests can afford to be obese over excess food and plan junk special diets for their pet dogs and cats. He abhorred.
But we begin to see light in the last three stanzas because Anyidoho likens himself to ‘an orphan stranded/ on dunghills of owners of earth’ (line 29-30), who has decided to fold his sorrows kept to himself ‘with infinite care’ (line 32) so that these folds will conceal spaces in which he can plant new hopes that will ‘grow roots’ (line 36) ‘in this hour of finite chaos’ (line 37). Where is the light? He calls the chaos finite; there will be an end to it. It will end soon, just like my hope and prayer for Somalia.
Look at the stanza before last! Anyidoho says that there are people who have ‘sent their funeral cloths to the washerman’ (line 38-39), expecting to attend funerals even when men have not yet died; the attitude of people who had written Ghanaians off long before their country totally came to its knees. These people were only waiting for the mortuary men to carry out corpses of people left orphaned on the dunghills of the owners of earth. But listen, Anyidoho says that even on the dunghills, the ‘earthchildren’ (line 43) will sprout, ‘grow fruit and even flower’ (line 44) from what right now looks like ‘rottenness of early morning dreams’ (line 45). Rottenness of the hopes they once had for a country that preceded all sub-Saharan Africa to independence. [Note: two years later, Anyidoho published a collection of poetry titled Earthchild (Woeli Publishing, 1985)].
He closes by saying that while he waits, he is tired, tired of all fake love and the condescending rottenness of ‘crocodile condolences’ (line 48). Why crocodile condolences? Because that will make you remember ‘crocodile tears’, accepted as insincere effusion for a cause one mocks in disguise. Anyidoho deserves applause for providing this beautiful poem reviewed for Ghanaian Literature Week.