Posts Tagged ‘literature’

Achebe44Three days ago was World Poetry Day. Two days ago, Chinua Achebe passed away. Today, I weep.

The only novel of his I have read is the world-acclaimed ‘Things Fall Apart’ but it was so impressive, I read it twice.  I also have read reviews of his last publication, ‘There was a Country’, which comes across as probably his most criticised work.

Achebe is popular as the Father of African literature in English language. When his death was announced, so many lovers of literature spent the day quoting witty and proverbial texts from any of his books that they had read. I simply tweeted ‘Chinua Achebe’.

On Wikipedia, you find this text that says: “Things Fall Apart went on to become one of the most important books in African literature. Selling over 8 million copies around the world, it was translated into 50 languages, making Achebe the most translated African writer of all time.”

‘There was a Country’ seems to be a book that defends Biafra’s role in the 1960s Biafran war which the region fought against the rest of Nigeria, in search of secession.  The cruelty with which the war was won, where the nation starved the Biafra region of food and supplies, causing the death of about a million people, makes the war one to forget. Achebe was a Biafran and after that war, he withdrew from public service, constantly criticising successive Nigerian governments till his death. He turned down state awards in both 2005 and 2011, in a statement of defiance of governments that did little to care for the people. His whole life was a protest and it showed remarkably in his work, Things Fall Apart. Reviews of his other works suggest that in all of them, he was staunch in his protest, earlier of colonialism and later of corruption and graft in his native Nigeria. During the Biafran war, he wrote more poetry because that was more convenient and that was what he could squeeze his emotion and life into at the time.

Chinua is gone. Did we not know he would? We did. Because that is the end destined for us all. And even as we mourn his passing, we reflect on the life he lived among us and the contribution he made to African literature in English.  There is no voice louder than his on the work he chose for his life to do.  At 82, he had played his part.

Achebe was close to Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo (very good friends with Achebe’s son) with whom he stood in the Biafran war. You can read this reviewed poem of Okigbo’s here on this blog. Okigbo died as an early casualty of the Biafran war himself in 1967. Chinua wrote for Okigbo this poem I will like to leave us all with. Let Paradise keep you, Chinua.

WAKE FOR OKIGBO

For whom are we searching?
For whom are we searching?
For Okigbo we are searching!

Nzomalizo!
Has he gone for firewood, let him return.
Has he gone to fetch water, let him return.
Has he gone to the marketplace, let him return.
For Okigbo we are searching!
Nzomalizo!
For whom are we searching?
For whom are we searching?
For Okigbo we are searching!
Nzomalizo!

Has he gone for firewood, may Ugboko not take him.
Has he gone to the stream, may Iyi not swallow him!
Has he gone to the market, then keep from him you
Tumult of the marketplace!
Has he gone to battle,
Please Ogbonuke step aside for him!
For Okigbo we are searching!
Nzomalizo!

They bring home a dance, who is to dance it for us?
They bring home a war, who will fight it for us?
The one we call repeatedly,
there’s something he alone can do
It is Okigbo we are calling!
Nzomalizo!
Witness the dance, how it arrives
The war, how it has broken out
But the caller of the dance is nowhere to be found
The brave one in battle is nowhere in sight!
Do you not see now that whom we call again
And again, there is something he alone can do?
It is Okigbo we are calling!
Nzomalizo!

The dance ends abruptly
The spirit dancers fold their dance and depart in midday
Rain soaks the stalwart, soaks the two-sided drum!
The flute is broken that elevates the spirit
The music pot shattered that accompanies the leg in
its measure
Brave one of my blood!
Brave one of Igbo land!
Brave one in the middle of so much blood!
Owner of riches in the dwelling place of spirit
Okigbo is the one I am calling!
Nzomalizo!

In memory of the poet Christopher Okigbo (1932-1967)
Translated from the Igbo by Ifeanyi Menkit. Ref: Poetry Foundation Ghana.

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POET’S PROFILE – LEOPOLD SEDAR SENGHOR

Senghor

Senghor

The greatest of the Francophone African poets you will ever read is Leopold Sedar Senghor. He was born in Senegal, in 1906, and schooled both in Dakar and in Paris, France. He was the first West African to graduate from the Sorbonne (a part of the University of Paris, founded in 1253 that contains the faculties of science and literature) and teach in a French university. He is acclaimed as the father of Negritude (from Negro), a philosophy that affirms the black identity and touts the black man’s values as something to celebrate and be proud of. His poetry shows it in abundance.

Senghor was a statesman. He fought with the French in the Second World War and became a prisoner of war in then Nazi Germany. He became the Deputy for Senegal in the French Constituent Assembly, President of the Council of the Republic and Counselling Minister at the office of the President of the French Community. In 1960, he became the President of the Federal Republic of Mali and later in the same year, the President of an Independent Republic of Senegal. He was president until 1980.

His poetry revealed the contrast between the French way of life being foisted on French African colonies under a purported Policy of Assimilation and the original unblemished values of the African. In this light, he was either always too busy praising Negritude or denouncing the French ideal. This poem comes from his publication, Chants d’Ombre (Songs from the Shadow). I hope I got my French right there.

I WILL PRONOUNCE YOUR NAME

I will pronounce your name, Naett, I will declaim you, Naett!
Naett, your name is mild like cinnamon, it is the fragrance in which the lemon grove sleeps
Naett, your name is the sugared clarity of blooming coffee trees
And it resembles the savannah, that blossoms forth under the masculine ardour of the midday sun
Name of dew, fresher than shadows of tamarind,
Fresher even than the short dusk, when the heat of the day is silenced,
Naett, that is the dry tornado, the hard clap of lightning
Naett, coin of gold, shining coal, you my night, my sun!…
I am you hero, and now I have become your sorcerer, in order to pronounce your names.
Princess of Elissa, banished from Futa on the fateful day.

REVIEW

Very few lyric poems are filled with so much self-indulgence. Senghor is deliriously and starry-eyed, singing the praise of a lady he names as Naett. It is important to read Senghor’s poetry with Negritude themes as many commentators have likened Naett to Africa, to whom he writes this letter from France. To declaim someone (line 1) is to mention their name theatrically, poetically. Well, this is a poem. So in mentioning her name, Senghor says “Naett” dreamily as one who is totally consumed. Undisplaced, his love for Africa was as strong.

From lines 2-8, Senghor likens the name Naett to a host of natural breath-takers. Mind that he is not even praising the lady herself yet but only her name. In line 2, her name is like cinnamon, an aromatic spice and fragrance. He is a lover of the savannah, the African plains, and to him, her name is like it (line 4) when the African midday sun causes it to blossom. Her name is compared to dew (line 5), that early morning remnant of night mist and also to the short dusk (line 6), very welcome respite from the heat of day. Her name evokes power, as of a dry tornado (line 7) and inspires him to confess his love for blackness, something that Western literature is mute on. He calls her shining coal, my night (line 8): strange references for beauty. Does night entice? But it is black and he likes it. Does coal shine? No, but Senghor’s coal is of another beauty. His sun! Africa and Blackness! Negritude!

In the last two lines, her name has transformed him into a sorcerer (line 9). For her only. And this is important because the African sorcerer deals in invocation, incantation and chanting. He mentions the names and sings in praise of his divine spirit. And to him, nothing can help him “to pronounce your names” better than being a sorcerer. Note that, he has never said she had names until now. And now, as a sorcerer, he proceeds to call her Princess of Elissa, banished from Futa on the fateful day (line 10). Futa was a West African kingdom that had its capital as Futa Djallon and blossomed around present-day Guinea. She was banished from there. African royalty, if indeed she was a princess, were banished for serious crimes, for example, falling in love with a commoner when a prince is the allowed. Could Senghor’s love have cost the girl a kingdom? We will never know. If Naett is Africa, how would this sentence translate? I am lost, really.