Posts Tagged ‘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, 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.


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.

The Sunset is Hope

The Sunset is Hope

In Africa, everyone is a fighter.

The African spirit is a spirit that is constantly seeking, always searching, always roaming, constantly restless. No, maybe I should be talking about the African soul instead.

Many poets have chronicled the passion and soul of a continent that has fought herself out of wars, colonialism, apartheid and is now warring against neo-colonialism. Now, the truth is that Africans have always had reason to be on edge. It is only natural that our poets script our collective journey along the walls of a common history.
There is no disputing the fact that Africa is seen by Africans as a Nation: The Motherland. This is important to anyone who reads African poetry, because then, you can see through Zambian eyes to understand Nigerian poetry. You can see through Senegalese poetry by wearing Ghanaian glasses. And you can appreciate South African poetry even if you are sitting on the banks of the Nile in Egypt. When a poet anywhere on the continent says “me”, he speaks more as a citizen of the Greater country than as a staunch nationalist. A classic example of such context is the poem “Young Africa’s Plea” written by Osadebe (review coming soon).

Claiming Tomorrow

Claiming Tomorrow

Many of the established African poets who are studied and read today draw on themes that were common to Africans everywhere, even bordering on the Diaspora. In fact, greatness in achievement has in times past been likened to whose poetry has helped shape Pan-Africanist ideals most. This helped to push Pan-Africanism and improved the cooperation between states in forging out common destinies. Imagine this: Leopold Sedar Senghor, one of the leading poets coming out of Africa, was a one-time Senegalese president, Kofi Awoonor, one of Ghana’s leading poets was Ambassador to Brazil and his compatriot Atukwei Okai has served in like capacity to a poet Laureate, Dennis Osadebe was a founding Father of the National Council on Nigeria and the Cameroons while Wole Soyinka has long served as the most outspoken voice on political decadence in Nigeria. This is a small mirror to the large image of poets all over the continent fighting for the popular rights of the common man made unpopular. How could I even leave out Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, not poet but playwright, who was forced into exile for 22 years for standing against Kenyan rule, having taken the lead in standing against colonial rule? And all this with a pen!

But Africans don’t only write about their struggles, after all, great love stories await the warriors who come from the battle. The most beautiful words have been woven for unnamed damsels who have represented the African woman. Sometimes, even the continent itself has been eulogised as a woman. The affection that Africans attach to their home is intense.

So in this blog, many diverse lyrics will be explored: the romantic, the emancipationary, the dirge, the attributive, the epic, the melancholic, the landmark, the historic. None of them will be far from the soul of African poetry. None of them will stray from the identity of the man who blends in with the heart of his continent. The man whose very footsteps are the heartbeat of the place he calls home. This home called Africa.

I am proud to belong here.