Archive for the ‘SIERRA LEONEAN POETRY’ Category




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.




Syl 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!!