Kwadwo Osei Nyame

My poetry has exacted a confession from me: I will not keep the truth from my song and the heartstringed instrument;

I will not clean the poem to impress the tyrant

I will not bend my verses into the bow of a praise song.

I will ask only that the poem watch the world closely;

Today my poetry has exacted a confession from me.

(Frank Chipasula, 'Manifesto on Ars Poetica')

Two decades ago Ken Goodwin, in examining the transformations in its formal properties and thematic content that African poetry had undergone since its evolution, observed in his work Understanding African Poetry that '"African poetry in English"' initially 'meant, in the main, poetry by white South Africans'. Beginning with the work of the first black Africans to publish poetry, pioneer poets such as Phyllis Wheat-ley, who wrote in the late eighteenth century, and the Nigerian Dennis Chukude Osadebay, whose Africa Sings (1952) 'was published shortly before the modern revolution in African poetry' (Goodwin, 1982, p. v), Goodwin described early forms of African poetry as 'derived from English models', 'naive', and 'sometimes pathetic in their acceptance, or partial acceptance of the white man's values'. 'Even when they look forward to national independence, as they often do', he argued, it is independence seen largely in terms set by the colonial powers. Much of this poetry is based on such models as eighteenth- or nineteenth-century English hymns, the stan-zaic poems of the English and American romantics and their successors, or early twentieth-century English and American free verse. African names provide little more than exotic colour in a way hardly . . . authentic. (Ibid.)

Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier writing in The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry, one of the first anthologies of African poetry in English to be published in Africa after independence, also observed that the work of Africa's pioneer poets was 'not only parochial but strangely archaic, with stanzas and diction derived from hymns or Victorian ballads'. Using the Ibadan school of Nigerian poets as an example, they concluded that much African poetry of the early 1960s suffered 'from an overdose of [Ezra] Pound, [Gerard Manley] Hopkins or [T. S.] Eliot (Moore and Beier, 1984, p. 23). A similar viewpoint led Chinweizu, Jemie and Madubuike to argue in their controversial work, Toward the Decolonisation of African Literature: African Fiction and Poetry and Their Critics, that both African poetry in English and the criticism of it, especially between the years 1950—75, were 'modernist and eurocentric' (Chinweizu, Jemie and Madubuike, 1980, p. 163).

It is worth mentioning briefly the Négritude movement, which developed in Francophone Africa and the Caribbean as a counter-ideological movement of resistance against the culturally dominant ideology of French colonialism and its policy of assimilation. Négritude poets like Léopold Senghor from Senegal and Aimé Césaire from the Caribbean deployed the philosophy of Négritude 'as the proclamation of African cultural value', and as 'an assertion ... of the Blackman's right to a culture of his own' (Reed and Wake, 1972, p. vi.) I mention Négritude briefly because a parallel, though less well-known movement emerged in Anglophone Africa, which also aimed at rejecting British colonial domination. This movement was so concerned, in Goodwin's words, with the 'modernization' and then the 'radicalization and indigenization' of African poetry that it ultimately enforced a shift from 'the English nature of the medium to the African nature of the content' (Goodwin, 1982, p. v.). The main characteristic of this mode of African self-assertion was evident in the work of the African poets who had written extensively in their mother tongues and then translated their work into English. The Ewe dirges of

Kofi Awoonor, the Zulu poems of Mazisi Kunene and the energetic Luo songs of Okot p'Bitek are all examples of this indirect and often fruitful approach to the task of finding an acceptable English 'voice'. (Moore and Beier, 1963, p. 20)

Although it is not easy to outline clear-cut thematic or stylistic patterns in describing the major developments and transitional moments in African poetry, the one poet whose work may be said to most exemplify the evolution of African poetry from a European modernist perspective towards more identifiably African concerns is the Nigerian Christopher Okigbo. In a special collection of essays, Critical Perspectives on Christopher Okigbo, the editor describes Okigbo as 'one of the most original, distinctive and important of African poets' (Nwoga, 1984, p. 3). At the beginning of his career Okigbo was adjudged to be eurocentric and modernist in his approach to poetry. For example, one of his earliest critics wrote an article titled 'Ezra Pound in African Poetry: Christopher Okigbo', in which he argued that 'Ezra Pound bulks glaringly' in Okigbo's work (Egudu, 1984, p. 347).

However, Okigbo's poetry was also conspicuous for its blending of both European and African narrative themes and forms. Molara Leslie notes, for example, how in devoting the poem 'The Lament of the Masks' to the English and Irish poet W. B. Yeats, 'Okigbo does not use a modern English style in the poem' but rather 'sings Yeats in the style of the traditional Yoruba praise song in which the attributes of a hero, ancestor or aristocrat are hailed in animal imagery and analogy from nature' (Leslie, 1984, p. 289). Okigbo was, as Leslie observes, later to make a conscious effort to 'speak more and more in an African voice' (ibid., p. 290). This was clearly intended to counter the claims that his poetry was eurocentric and modernist in both content and form. More important perhaps, however, is the fact that Okigbo's African voice was often a critical one, primarily because he saw himself as a nationalist and a patriot of his country Nigeria. This accounts for the jarring, apocalyptic tone of his poems 'Come Thunder', 'Hurrah for Thunder' and 'Elegy for Alto', which are all part of his collection of poems Paths of Thunder. These poems prophesied about political strife and war in Nigeria and Africa generally. By 1968, when the first of the poems in Paths of Thunder were published, Nigeria had already experienced its first military coup. In 'Come Thunder', for example, the poet warns politicians about the consequences of this continued misuse of power:

Now that the triumphant march has entered the last street corners, Remember, O dancers, the thunder among the clouds . . . The death sentence lies in ambush along the corridors of power And a great fearful thing already tugs at the cables of the open air (Okigbo, 1971, p. 66)

Okigbo was asking politicians not to be complacent about 'the triumphant march' of independence because he had observed the haste with which those in power were clamouring for the nation's resources after Nigeria attained independence from British colonial rule. Likewise, in 'Hurrah for Thunder', the poet warns about the dangers inherent in the actions of politicians and greedy leaders who scramble for the spoils of office:

Hurrah for thunder — Alas the elephant has fallen

But already the hunters are talking about pumpkins: If they share the meat let them remember thunder. If I don't learn to shut my mouth I'll soon go to hell, I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell. (Ibid., p. 67)

The elephant in the poem refers to the monolith of colonialism, which had been overthrown. The meat that the hunters or politicians or national leaders share is a euphemism for the corrupt practices of national politicians. The words 'pumpkins' and 'meat' symbolize the extent to which the nation's resources had become food for the consumption of a greedy and powerful few. 'Hurrah for Thunder' is particularly important for its prophetic temperament. Okigbo, watchman, voice and critic of his society, and hence the 'town-crier', was later to die in the service of his community when he fought as a solider on the Biafran side during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70. He could not 'shut' his 'mouth'; instead, he took up arms and became the poet-activist who fought for his political convictions.

David Cook's Origin East Africa: A Makerere Anthology (1969), which was about the first work in the Heinemann's African writers series to combine short stories and poems, is another interesting collection. This anthology provides instructive background material on the poems. Although the volume contains only a few poems by writers like John Nagenda, Joseph Waiguru and Joseph Gatuiiria, the collection as a whole is an interesting product of Cook's personal interest in developing creative writing at Uganda's Makerere University. There is also Arne Zettersten's East African Literature: An Anthology (1983), which combines poems by older East African poets like Okot p'Bitek, Taban lo Liyong and Micere Githae Mugo with those of then lesser-known poets like Stephen Lubega, Amin Kassam, Jared Angira and Yusuf O. Kassam. Poetry anthologies often have introductions which help the reader or critic to set the poems in their social, cultural and political contexts. Thus, it is disappointing to hear David Cook and David Rubadiri contend in their Poems from East Africa that they 'are quite sure that critical comment would be out of place from the editors of a volume of new verse' (Cook and Rubadiri, 1971, p. xv; emphasis added). This position is unhelpful to the student of African poetry interested in exploring the major issues the poets are addressing.

One of the most attention-grabbing poems in Cook's and Rubadiri's anthology is the self-consciously polemical 'Portrait of an Asian as an East African' by Jagjit Singh. Engaging with black on black racism, the poet bids 'farewell' to his 'beloved illusions' when he realizes that it is not 'only the toes of Africa' that are 'infected' by 'the cancer of colour'. He is a victim of racism, one of the 'malignant cells', who must 'fade away soon' as 'black surgeons, too', have started prescribing 'new drugs' (Singh, in Cook and Rubadiri, 1971, p. 158) - a sign of new forms of racism.

The volume also contains poems like Jim Chaplin's 'Slum Day' which, although documenting the mundane activities of existence in prosaic language, has a certain direct and sombre relevance to life, and as such makes for easy interpretation:

Partners stretch and yawn,

Their girls catch up on sleep.

And children tumble their way to school

Contemporary Lusophone poetry is markedly different from its earlier versions in its combination of the themes of war, liberation, revolution and anti-colonial resistance with other issues considered apolitical. Don Burness's A Horse of White Clouds: Poems from Lusophone Africa (1989) is a unique collection, with poems in both the Portuguese original and their English translations, side by side. Burness writes of the collection's composition:

I have chosen poets who sing gently sad songs and poets who cry out ululations of pain. I have included poets who confidently and at times angrily challenge Portuguese domination. I have chosen poets who are friends of understatement, who suggest rather than assert and I have chosen poets who think in political terms and I have chosen poets who see the totality of human experience as appropriate fields for literature - lost dreams of childhood, spiritual love, erotic love, love for the rivers, mountains, clouds, and beautiful landscapes of Africa. (Burness, 1989, 'Introduction')

This is a remarkable departure from earlier collections such as Poems from Angola, whose editor Michael Wolfers informed his readers that there was a 'nearly total correlation to be found in Angolan poetry between political commitment and artistic achievement' (Wolfers, 1979, pp. vi-vii).

The poetry of protest, exile, liberation and nationalism of the 1990s, not only from Angola but also throughout Africa, remains highly political. However, although A Horse of White Clouds departs in some ways from the thoroughly polemical posture of earlier Lusophone writing, it still has poems of direct relevance to the individual's dilemma in society. The Cape Verdian Joas Rodrigues's 'Synopsis For a Return to Childhood' is a poem in which the child persona yearns nostalgically for a lost childhood:

It is when the rains come

That I return to the days of my childhood

I seek to recapture time.

Though this is another version of 'the return to the African past' which permeates African writing, the poet does not merely crave old values but combines his celebration of the beauty and innocence of youth and childhood with some forcefully rendered, painful reminders of unpleasant experiences in his past:

I see again in waters turned red running over the red earth The blood of my own revenge.

Wole Soyinka's anthology Poems of Black Africa (1975) includes poems from major and already-established African poets such as Léopold Senghor, John Pepper-Clark, Dennis Brutus and Okot p'Bitek. The anthology is thematically divided into the following subsections: 'Alien Perspective'; 'Ancestors and Gods'; 'Animistic Phases'; 'Black Thoughts'; 'Captivity'; 'Compatriot'; 'Cosmopolis'; 'Early Passage'; 'Ethics, Mores, Abstractions: Man, the Philosopher'; 'Exile'; 'Indictment and Summons'; 'Land and Liberty'; 'Man in Nature'; 'Mating Cry'; 'Mortality'; 'Poets Passage'; 'Praise-Singer and Critic'; 'Prayers, Invocations' and 'Miscellany'. The anthology includes several poems from West Africa, and has been a popular choice in secondary schools in Africa, having been used as examination material for the West African Examinations Council's GCE 'O' and 'A' Levels. Soyinka writes in his introduction that the poems he selected 'embrace most of the experience of the African world — modern and historic — though naturally no claim is made' in them 'for an unattainable comprehensiveness of themes; or for their mutual exclusiveness' (Soyinka, 1975, p. 13). Especially from today's perspective, however, a most obvious omission is the collection's lack of women poets. The only identified woman poet in Poems of Black Africa is the Mozam-bican Noemia de Sousa, though there might be one or two more, given that at least six of the contributors are not identified by gender.

Another of the better-known publications is Adewale Maja-Pearce's 1990 volume The Heinemann Book of African Poetry in English, which very much resembles Soyinka's Poems of Black Africa. Readers already familiar with Poems of Black Africa might notice immediately that such poems as Kofi Awoonor's 'Songs of Sorrow', Dennis Brutus's 'Nightsong City', Odia Ofeimun's 'How Can I Sing', J. P. Clark Bekederemo's 'The Causalities', Lenrie Peter's 'Isatou Died' and Arthur Nortje's 'Waiting' and 'Autopsy' and re-anthologized in Maja-Pearce's collection. However, despite the exasperation caused by the repetition of such well-known poems, Maja-Pearce's volume is a slight improvement upon Poems of Black Africa, particularly where the question of women's representation is concerned. Maja-Pearce's inclusion of the Nigerians Molara Ogundipe-Leslie and Catherine Obianuju Acholonu and the Kenyan by marriage Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye gives more space to African women than does Poems of Black Africa and most other anthologies. Ogundipe-Leslie's two poems, 'Song at the African Middle Class' and 'On Reading an Archaeological Article', capture important aspects of the African experience. 'Song at the African Middle Class' is dedicated to the Angolan freedom fighter, poet and revolutionary Agostinho Neto. While Ogundipe-Leslie demonstrates her appreciation of the achievements of pioneer nationalist revolutionaries like Neto, she is critical of the African middle class — those who led their nations to independence from colonial rule — which Neto represents. Moving beyond mere adulation, she asks whether, if given another opportunity, this class would be able to fulfil the great expectations that their people had of them at independence: 'will they be of their people's needs'?

Obviously unsatisfied with the state of affairs, the poet intimates to her readers that African nationalists have failed their people woefully in many ways. 'On Reading an Archaeological Article', which celebrates the legendary power of the poet's African ancestress, the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti, offers suggestions towards resolving the impasse in Africa's leadership crises. Ogundipe-Leslie proposes another view of power, which questions the sole claim to knowledge by Africa's men of power:

How long shall we say another world lives not spinned on the axis of maleness

Equal power sharing between men and women is seen as imperative to true democracy. The poem also expresses the view that only such a sense of justice will ensure that political power in post-independence Africa is put to proper use. It alerts us to the need to pay attention to gender issues, a subject that I will explore further on in this essay.

In terms of its immediate visibility or topicality, the most striking feature of African poetry in the years after decolonization and national independence in Africa has been its overtly political function. African poets have adopted a radical political tone in confronting dominant ideologies of culture and politics such as neocolonialism and apartheid. South African poetry, one area in which the poetry has been very political, has seen the publication of several collections and anthologies. One can think immediately of such works as Guy Butler and Chris Mann's A New Book of South African Verse (1979), Stephen Gray's The Penguin Book of Southern African Verse (1989), Michael Chapman's A Century of South African Poetry (1981) and the Heinemann collection, Seven South African Poets, all of which contain some poems of a highly political nature. Chapman's A Century of South African Poetry makes a claim to being the most extensive in historical range, covering 150 years of South African history, and with contributions from the likes of 'Thomas Pringle in the 1820s to the Soweto Poets of the 1970s' (Chapman, 1981, p. 13).

The censorship of the work of leading poets whose ideas are considered dangerous by African statesman and politicians also reflects the directly polemical function of the poetic imagination in Africa. For example, Butler and Mann (1979) inform their readers that 'the South African Minister of Justice . . . refused them permission to print four poems by Dennis Brutus' in spite of their repeated requests to do so. Their progressive political stance notwithstanding, the very composition of their anthology reflects to some extent the dominant cultural and political situation in which black South African languages and cultures have been marginalized from mainstream literary production and publication. Butler and Mann include mainly English and Afrikaans poets, with just a few poems by writers in 'one of the Nguni or Sotho languages' (ibid., p. 15).

Most editors and anthologists are often faced with the problem of choice, or what to include or exclude in collections. Central to this dilemma is the desire to represent and chart specific narrative forms or models of poetry as a means of elucidating how these models emerge in tandem with particular historical movements and ideologies. Thus while some readers may be spurred on by Chapman's and Dangor's (1982) introductory comments regarding the extent to which their anthology seeks to convey the extraordinary vitality of black poetry in southern Africa and, by adopting a loose chronological argument, to trace a distinctively black-orientated aesthetic development, others may question the exclusive politics implicit in the very notion of 'a distinctively black-orientated aesthetic' (ibid., p. 11).

It needs to be pointed out nonetheless that particularly in the context of apartheid South Africa, it is this search for a black aesthetic which led to the emergence of Soweto poetry, alternatively described as the 'New Black poetry or People's or Participatory poetry'. Soweto poetry is in several respects comparable to the Négritude poetry of the years of decolonization in Africa, which sought to challenge white racialist domination. Another South African collection, which sought to represent specifically black voices, was Robert Royston's Black Poets in South Africa, which was first published under the title To Whom It May Concern: An Anthology of Black South African Poetry. Most of the writers in Royston's collection belonged to the Black Consciousness movement, the liberation movement that was led at one point in time by Steve Biko. While several of the first wave of black South African writers had, as Royston explains, been 'made up almost exclusively of essayists, fiction writers and autobiographers' (Royston, 1974, p. 7), the turn to poetry was a landmark in the literary history of black South African writing and politics. Jacques Alvarez-Pereyre, whose The Poetry of Commitment in South Africa is probably the most influential study to have discussed South African protest poetry since the Second World War, explains that

The late sixties and early seventies saw a veritable flowering of poetry and drama in the black community. . . . This poetry revival can be explained in a number of ways. Experience had taught blacks that prose was a dangerous instrument because too explicit. The government tolerated poetry more readily because it reached a smaller audience. But the poem is also a hiding place, and a marvellous short cut to saying what is essential with great economy because it expresses the immediacy of emotion in a concentrated form. (Alvarez-Pereyre, 1984, p. 38)

Alvarez-Pereyre's study includes the discussion of older poets of the South African community such as Dennis Brutus and younger ones like Sipho Sepamla and Mafika Gwala. His discussion is aimed, among other things, at demonstrating how poetry for committed black writers 'reveals the "hidden face" of South African society'.

Poetry from central Africa has also been very critical of neocolonial politics and the politics of nationalism and national liberation in general. The Malawian Steve Chi-mombo is famous for his collection Napolo Poems (1987), and particularly for his appropriation of the symbolism of Malawian myth and folklore in the service of a scathing scrutiny of that society's politics. A good introduction not only to Chimombo's work but to poetry from central Africa in general is Mpalive-Hangson Msiska's and Adrian Roscoe's The Quiet Chameleon: Modern Poetry from Central Africa (1992). Frank Chipa-sula's When My Brothers Come Home: Poems from Central and Southern Africa (1985), is another important collection, which contains poems from Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Influential Malawian poet Jack Mapanje engages with contemporary Malawian politics in his poem 'When this carnival finally closes' (in Chipasula, 1985), which addresses a non-identified person, informing him that the 'very officers' who have been singing his praises will burn the scripts of the praises we sang to you and shatter the calabashes you drank from.

Unambiguously allegorical, this tale of the 'nation' cautions against the arrogance and egotism associated with the cult of hero-worship in African politics. Mapanje's 'Scrubbing the furious walls of Mikuyu' also emphasizes the roles of custodian and visionary that the writer or critic within society often plays through a series of rhetorical questions:

Shall I scrub these brave squiggles out of human memory then or should I perhaps superimpose my own, less caustic; dare I overwrite this precious scrawl?

An urgent sense of patriotism requires that the poet preserve the memory of his fellow prisoners, the oppressed, and those who are generally courageous enough to stand up to dictatorship within the society, but who end up being 'liquidated':

We have liquidated too many brave names out of the nation's memory; I will not rub out another nor inscribe my own, more ignoble

This is a comment on the artistic vocation in which the poet resolves to continue writing on behalf of his people. Mapanje is one of an increasing number of African poets who have been imprisoned and tortured by their governments for being critical. The re-repressive Malawian government under the despotic leadership of Hastings Kamuzu Banda banned his poetry. In Skipping Without Ropes Mapanje devotes the poems 'Warm thoughts for Ken Saro-Wiwa' and 'Reply to Ken Saro-Wiwa's letter' to Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni and Nigerian activist, poet, novelist and playwright, who was executed by the Nigerian junta led by General Sani Abacha for fighting against the exploitation of the land and resources of the Ogoni people by the Nigerian state and multinational companies like Shell. Mapanje's dedication illustrates the extent to which individual poets from different African nations collectively articulate discourses of resistance to counter common experiences of oppression.

Johnson, Ker and Maduka's New Poetry from Africa (1996) has the poem 'Night encounter' by Ken Saro-Wiwa. It is a poem which prognosticates the imminent danger Saro-Wiwa faced in confronting brutal dictatorship in his homeland.

One dark night, I met him

He laughed gently and I relaxed

In spite of the gun

But it was only the low laugh

Of one who was soon to die

The gun-toting soldier who is 'soon to die' reminds the reader of the late Nigerian dictator General Abacha. The tragedy, however, is that Abacha dies only after ensur ing the tragic destruction with his weapon — 'the gun' — of the man (Saro-Wiwa) whom he had met. Anyidoho's (1997) publication on the prison experiences and exile of Africans, The Word Behind Bars and the Paradox of Exile, is welcome because long overdue, although it is inadequately representative of the relationship of poetry to prison experience and politics in Africa. It makes an important beginning, however, by testifying to the importance of resisting dictatorship in Africa.

New Poetry from Africa also contains poems by older authors like Soyinka, Okot p'Bitek and Senghor and newer poets like Veronique Tadjo of the Ivory Coast. However, new poets like Tadjo with 'Tell me' are still dealing with the 'old theme' of Mother Africa that Négritude poetry and philosophy dealt with in the 1950s and 1960s. 'Tell me' describes the words of the griot who sings about Africa of time immemorial from the depth of. . . memory

A large amount of the existing poetry is by men. Consequently, one of the most disturbing features of contemporary African poetry in English is the invisibility of poems by women poets in general. The need to make women's voices heard inspires Cecily Lockett's significantly titled Breaking the Silence: A Century of South African Women's Poetry (1990). This collection is meant to 'break an area of silence in our poetic tradition, to interrupt that tradition and to change it by filling the silence with the voices of our women poets'. As Lockett writes:

Over a period of more than a hundred years that silence, imposed by anthropologists, literary critics and teachers of literature, has largely blanked out the articulation of women's concerns in poetry. Our literary tradition has been the product of a patriarchal society, which predicates experience as male and suppresses the female. As a result the work of women has been undervalued. (Lockett, 1990, p. 14)

Two important volumes that have appeared since the publication of Lockett's anthology are Stella and Frank Chipasula's The Heinemann Book of African Poetry (1995), the first volume of African poetry by women to be published by the major African publisher Heinemann, and Carole Boyce Davies' and Molara Ogundipe-Leslie's Moving Beyond Boundaries Volume 1: International Dimension of Black Women's Writing (1995), which is devoted generally to black women's poetry, and has contributions by African women. Both volumes are informed by the awareness that women have been displaced and marginalized from a male-dominated context of poetry production and publication. The Saudi-Arabian and north African woman contributor to Moving Beyond Boundaries, Fawzziya Abu Khalid, demonstrates how painful it is for women to be excluded from publication with the following statement to the editors: 'It's a warm and supportive feeling to know poetry from the heart of the desert is included in your collection. Your efforts in Moving the Boundaries will be (inshallah) appreciated all over the world' (Davies and Ogundipe-Leslie, 1995, p. 243).

The poets in Stella and Frank Chipasula's The Heinemann Book of African Poetry celebrate the joys and pains of motherhood, mothering, youth and love, at the same time as they question patriarchy, colonialism and poverty in Africa. Although many of these women have already published important collections, the majority of them are not well known. The editors of the volume therefore hope their anthology will 'redress the balance, bringing to light at least some of the abundant good poetry by women in Africa, which is so conspicuously missing from other collections' (Chipasula and Chipa-sula, 1995, p. x). The volume is also useful because it draws attention to the important historical roles of women such as Noemia de Sousa and the Sao Tomean Alda do Espirito Santo, who were both active participants in the struggle against colonialism. Readers unfamiliar with the contribution of women poet—activists to the nationalist struggle in Africa learn that 'African women poets are as concerned as the men about colonial oppression, and very often their denunciation of colonial atrocities is more ardent and passionate than the male poets' ' (ibid., pp. xviii—xix).

The Zimbabwean Kristina Rungano's poems 'Labour', 'Mother', 'The woman', 'This morning' and 'After the rain', are powerful and poignant statements on an African woman's experiences, although the self-reflexive 'I' of all the poems except 'Mother' hints that one woman's experiences cannot be easily assimilated to those of an entire group. Nonetheless, a poem like 'Labour' resonates symbolically as a discourse on women's experience. Reflecting on the difficulty of childbirth, the poet asserts:

For nine months I had borne him in my womb.

Nine months of disillusionment and pain

The importance of seeing childbirth as an undertaking as difficult as any other human one, which requires strength of mind, body and character, is conveyed here. The expectant mother anticipates enjoying the fruits of labour with her husband Kit, who looks on with 'warm contemplation' when she is 'borne to the labour ward'. Disappointment soon sets in for the woman, however, as the change in tone from optimism to pessimism in Rungano's narrative makes clear. The expectant mother in 'Labour' becomes a victim of male abuse in 'The woman', a poem whose focus is the harsh treatment some women receive from their husbands:

A minute ago I came from the well My body was weary and my heart tired And yet again I heard the sound of duty Then I got home and cooked your meal.

The overburdened woman is saddened to see her sacrifices for her husband going unappreciated. As she soon explains, she becomes a victim of domestic violence and abuse. Her husband beats her in his 'drunken lust' after she explains that she is tired and cannot meet his sexual 'demands'. The poem ends on an ambivalent note, however, for the woman says:

Yet tomorrow I shall again wake up to you You shall again be my Lord

The maltreated woman is disinclined to stand up to her man. However, the question she poses at the end: 'For are you not the fruit of the land?', potentially subverts the very idea that she condones male oppression. By framing it as a question, instead of an affirmative statement, Rungano leaves open the question of whether or not male dominance and patriarchy are a man's 'right' in Africa. The concluding sentences of the poem are uttered tongue-in-cheek. Consequently, it cannot be assumed that the oppressed woman is not interested in liberating herself from her husband's insensitive and sexist attitude.

The Heinemann Book of African Poetry also redresses another major imbalance in African anthologies: the obvious omission of writing from North Africa. It seeks, in the words of the editors, to reintegrate 'the Islamic Arab North and Egypt into the rest of the continent as a way of fostering solidarity among diverse cultures' (Chipasula and Chipasula, 1995, p. xvii). This effort at developing a truly international and multicultural portrait of Africa is really worthwhile, and is perhaps complemented by the fact that Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese woman writer based in Scotland, has only recently been named the first recipient of the newly instituted Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story The Museum, which is published in another path-breaking anthology of African literature, Yvonne Vera's short story collection Opening Spaces (1999).

The Ghanaian Naana Bayniwa-Horne's first volume of poetry, Sunkwa: Clingings onto Life (2000), which 'speaks', among other issues, 'to female selfhood and empowerment even as it draws close attention to specific ways in which women's oppression is manifest' (Bayniwa-Horne, 2000, preface), is another important recent publication. Bayniwa-Horne's volume represents one of the most powerful, articulate and fervent of the up-and-coming individual voices in African women's poetry. Her passionate voice complements that of her Ghanaian colleagues Abena Busia and Ama Ata Aidoo, whose Testimonies of Exile (1990) and An Angry Letter in January and Other Poems (1992), respectively, are already well-known collections in African poetry studies. In 'Who am I' Bayniwa-Horne asserts:

I am no Job to be bound in allegiance I am a Fantse woman He is a freak hooked on pain And I thrive on sunshine and rain. (Bayniwa-Horne, 2000, p. 57)

While expressing the poet's personal and individual will not to be put down by the trials and tribulations she faces as a woman, the poem can also be seen as testifying to women's refusal to remain an eternally oppressed group, be it in relation to racism or patriarchy, or any other form of oppression. Bayniwa-Horne's collection resounds with black women's experiences, especially in the context of what Carole Boyce Davies describes as the 'common imperative' for them 'of resistance, in different ways and on different levels, to a variety of oppressive situations in a variety of contexts' (Davies, 1995, p. xv).

Stewart Brown's anthology African New Voices (1997), which contains short stories and poems from nine African countries - Benin, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ghana, The Gambia, Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana - is 'intended to serve as a kind of showcase for African writers who are, for the most part, at the beginning of their literary careers, having published very little previously'. For Brown, 'the range of styles, concerns and voices to be found in even this brief selection does suggest something of the continuing vigour and linguistic cunning that characterizes the work of African authors using the English language as their primary medium of literary expression' (Brown, 1997, p. 138). Tijan M. Sallah's poem 'Bosnia Hercegovina', although addressing the perennial topic of war, is innovative and experimental in style and form. Ostensibly about civil war in Eastern Europe, it reverberates with lessons for Africa's troubled warring nations:

He watched his siblings crumble to ashes.

His world is brittle; Serbs, Moslems, Croats;

Turf and counter-turf: Generals with instincts

For erasing tolerance and tenderness.

The Generals are drunk in their hearts.

'Bosnia Hercegovina' evokes the traumatized landscape of Yugoslavia and Bosnia as war zones, but only to use that foreign locale to discuss issues also largely African. Sallah's native Gambia has witnessed some of the multiple military coups in Africa led by army men who soon transform themselves into 'Generals'. The word 'siblings' in the first stanza refers to Sallah's African neighbours and the people from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia who have recently experienced 'civil war', as it is often wrongly described.

Sallah's own edited collection, New Poets of West Africa (1995), deals with the subject of the everyday, an increasingly important trope in recent African poetry. Thus Dick Dawson declares that the poems in Revival: An Anthology of African Poetry, though 'peculiarly African' in 'their protest against exploitation' and 'the conflict of the traditional and the modern', also include 'themes like love, friendship, conservation and nature' which are universal (Dawson, 1989, introduction). An apparently apolitical poem in Revival, 'Drat you, mosquito', reads:

I'm after your blood I wish you . . . and all Your kind

Had perished in the flood

Anonymously written and animated by the picture of a child, the poet is probably after the mosquito's blood because it carries a disease — malaria — that has had deadly consequences (especially for children) in Africa. Malaria is curable, but if we consider that the devastation caused by the mosquito in under-resourced areas could be alleviated through improved preventive resources and medical care in Africa, then even this poem can ultimately be read as political, since it is governments which are in the final event among those most responsible for providing the resources for their people to combat such diseases.

Alongside the critique of all kinds of oppressive and totalitarian regimes, ideologies and discourses, African poetry has not abandoned the debate over language and form and its search for the most appropriate narrative style and aesthetics. Thus, Chipasula asserts of When My Brothers Come Home that those who are concerned about whether this collection of African poetry fits in with Western literary tradition must bear in mind that it is in the nature of syncretic literatures to partake of both worlds, although it may or may not retain the original constituent traits in the pure form. This anthology has its place in world literature, of which Western literature is only a small part, because the poems deal with universal human concerns and values. This poetry is not, however, a mere extension of Western literary traditions; instead it reflects in its major themes and attitudes the contentious relationship between Europe and Africa. (Chipasula, 1985, pp. 3—4)

Unquestionably, much African poetry is concerned with the oppositional relationship between Europe and Africa, but it is not always as concerned, particularly at the present moment, with negating colonial identity as it once was. Among the most stimulating poetry is that which engages with the internal dynamics of African history and politics. African poetry has a remarkable historical pedigree in the life and work of such poet—activists and anti-colonial agitators as South Africa's Dennis Brutus, the Angolans Agostinho Neto and Antonio Jacinto, the Mozambican woman freedom fighter Noemia de Sousa, and the Sao Tomean heroine Alda do Espirito Santo; yet a contemporary generation of writers and poet—activists like Malawi's Mapanje, Kenya's Micere Mugo and Nigeria's Ken Saro-Wiwa have demonstrated the extent to which to be political is also to write about or critique the contradictions inherent within the often dominant discourses of nationalism, and other narratives of 'community' and 'nation'.


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  • ruby
    What are the poetic devices used in the poem Drat you mosquito?
    4 years ago
  • katrin
    What are the critics of African women poetry collections by Frank and Stella Chipasula?
    2 years ago
  • hamid
    How is lusophone poetry different from negritude poetry?
    2 years ago
  • travis
    How effective is the poet's deployment of imagery and repetition by agostinho neto?
    8 months ago

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