21 Days/21 Poems: The Meaning of Africa by Abioseh Nicol

The theme for today’s 21 Days/21 Poems is …Africa.  Yep, all of it.

The poem is long, the longest that I’ve post here on Kinna Reads.  I had thought of sniping it here are there, and including just two stanzas in the post.  But no, this is a poem that deserves to be read in its entirety.  But I will let you off with good behavior if you are short on time and you decide to read just the first and last stanzas :).

I cannot precisely date the poem.  It was included in a 1964 anthology of African verse, so let’s assume that it was written in the late 1950s to early 1960s.  It remains a very relevant poem to those of us who return to Africa after our sojourns in the West, those looking to define the “real Africa, and those seeking to understand the continent.  A great African nationalist piece, it also bravely depicts our self-doubt, and our fears about the way forward for the entire entity that is Africa.

Abioseh Nicol (1924-1994) was a Sierra Leonean academic, physician, writer and poem.

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.

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11 comments

  1. I admire her combination of very general observations (a wide blue sky like an “enamelled bowl”, the vagueness of “loud faith for freedom”) and very specific ones (the exact words painted on the side of the lorry, the fact that the country houses are roofed with “slanting corrugated zinc”) — I like this telescoping effect, moving in and out of the landscape, overhearing the poet’s thoughts, and then seeing the material landscape to which she’s applying them, so we’re never completely in the physical world, and never completely in her head (and yet we are, because all this is her memory), never settled, but always in motion.

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  2. Thanks for doing this 21 Days/21 Poems project; I have been reading along — and this one is so perceptive. Thanks again for taking the time to share.

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  3. I did not so much bother me about the length, it was just an enjoyable read. You keep fishing out great poems that even dates as far back as the 50’s. Great.

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    • Well, I’m heartened that the length did not bother you. There are lots of long poems that I’ve balked at posting here. I will post of such from now on.

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