African Poetry and the Burden of Recasting the Past
Jingles of Chains and Rage: The Portraiture of Africa’s phases in Jarinatu Disu’s African Reminiscence
Poetry as an art form is not only an overflow of feelings, emotions and thoughts but also a means through which history is recreated. The history of a people is transmitted either through the oral or the written forms. The histories of mythical and legendary figures are also translated through the aforementioned medium. Poetry, as mentioned earlier can also express the history of a people, but often, of great men and movers of nations in the form of epic. However, poetry that reconstructs a continent’s history and its metamorphosis over space and time is what one hardly finds. Poetry, nevertheless, has the power to transmit history in such a way that the poetically transmogrified historical reality ceases to be seen as a history in historiography but a charged work of art that in itself is complete and beautiful. This paper studies Jarinatu Disu’s African Reminiscence and points that poetry is a form of art that can also capture and translate the transient phases of Africa. This kind of representation of history transmutes history into a form called historical poetry. It is thus concluded that the poet underscore has captured the historical phases of Africa giving poetic spirit to the historical forces that shaped the African world.
Poets are seen as makers. Thus, the poetic process, or the process of poetry construction is comparable with masonry. There are objects used by the mason in construction and these include cement, blocks, stones and other implements used in the actual construction. The poet on the other hand uses words carefully selected from the repertoire of a language. The mason withstands storms, sun shine and rainfall in the process of erecting an edifice. The poet on the other hand suffers ‘tranquil’ isolation as he “recaptures” the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Wordsworth qtd in Ihiegbunam 141).
Poetry is one of the oldest genres of literature. In the days of Aristotle, literature itself was seen as poetry. Drama was also referred to as poetry by Aristotle in his Poetics. Poetry, itself however, is seen as a “mode of imitation” (Poetics 4). Imitation, thus, appears in the form of “epic poetry and tragedy, comedy also and dithyrambic poetry, and the music of the flute and the lyre” (4). The difference between these kinds of modes of imitation lies in “the medium, the objects, the manners or mode of imitation.” (1).
The epic poetry has a long history. Its strength lies in its representation of the high and might in the society and its language of imitation is high, lofty and elegant. Akparobaro F.B.O, in Introduction to Poetry observes that “the epic is a long poem, which tells the story of a hero whose exploit have a national significance” (107). The epic, however, does not reduce itself to the representation of men of lower provenance. Its language is lofty as well as its thematic thrust. Albeit, it is historical, or deals with mythical or legendary figures; the limitation of the epical representation lies in its bias, that is, the representation like tragedy of “a hero or a great national figure” (Ihiegbunam 149) and the language of imitation is “in a specially elevated style known as the epic style” (Akparobaro 107).
History, poetry, philosophy and politics are intertwined such that one cannot succinctly dichotomize the nexus between them. It suffices to say that, poetry is protean and fluidic. Its amoebic character makes it possible to express philosophical or historical realities without betraying its inalienable nature. In other words, poetry can absorb and reflect ideas constituting the foundation of other fields of life, but the expression remains poetry and not the idea it expresses. This fluidic nature of poetry and its ability to represent by means of language, language that is charged and divorced from the kind spoken in the marketplace is what makes Amechi Akwanya says in Discourse Analysis and Dramatic Literature that:
Representation by language is a property that literature (poetry) shares with several other intellectual and cultural practices, such as philosophy and history. Here differentiation is by reference to the specific object of representation: for philosophy, this object is idea; for history, it is events, and for literature action. Yet it is not always clear where the object of one practice ends and where the next practice begins. For instance, history takes interest in action in so far as the event is brought by human agency, implicates human beings in its processes, and influences their lives in different collectives. Literature may equally be interested in these things, but it focus is on probable action…(14)
Poetry (literature) lies between philosophy and history. History deals with events, philosophy with ideas while poetry with action. Prosody, prosaic language and versification are not the major dichotomy between poetry, history and philosophy. In his Poetics, Aristotle delineates neatly the nexus between the poet and the historian:
The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put in verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. (18)
The historian, whatever mode he adopts, his imitation remains historical. That is, if history is written in verse form, the form does not alter the content. So, the content of a historical work determines its existence. On the other hand, poetry deals with issues higher than philosophical investigations. Thus, poetry goes beyond the bounds of history and philosophy. It can capture ideas and events but do not betray its poetic existence.
African Poetry and the Burden of Recasting the Past
Many African literary scholars argued that literature is literature and cannot be attached to geographical locations. To them, literature is an independent entity and expresses itself in any kind of human language. Amechi Akwanya is a leading proponent in the contemporary times of this theory. In his Verbal Structures: Studies in the Nature and Organization of Patterns of Literary Language, he posits that:
Literature is presented as an object in the hands of the writer, a valuable object which can be transmitted in any language whatever. In consequence therefore, African literature cannot be authentic unless it is written in African languages. (15)
The status of African literature cannot be denied by African or European scholars because every society produces its literature in the language the people chose to: “African literature today enjoys a reputation far wider than its age” (Olaniyan and Quayson 1). So, French or English language, are legacies of colonialism and by their Africanisation, they become African.
Colonialism disrupted the history of Africa, its culture, and literature. The African griots chanted the history of their people and they are seen as the custodians of the mores, histories and philosophies of their societies. Liz Gunner in his “Africa and Orality” says that in the African continent, “orality manifested as types of formal speech communication… and a special mode of orality encoded a state’s history” (67). Oral African poetry is the tradition that has roots in the African world: It was spoken, recited and chanted. Oral form of poetry is still prevalent today and many African writers incorporate oral aesthetics in their written works. On the significance of Oral tradition today, F. M. Mbundu observes that:
Many countries have fallen and still fall back on their oral literature as sources of inspiration and courage in their attempt to liberate their countries from colonialists, tyrannical and corrupt rulers. The Mau Mau struggle in Kenya succeeded not because of their military strength but because they identified and developed those aspects of their oral literature that strengthened their resistance; songs of struggle, songs of praise, songs of faith and songs of hope….(135)
African poetry in the phase of pre colonial epoch manifested itself in the oral form and represented the African culture and history but in the colonial and postcolonial epochs, the African poetry assumed divergent forms. In the colonial era, some poets alienated from Africa became nostalgic, while others adopted nationalist garb, expressing their purviews in line with negritude ideology: The common enemy was colonialism. The past was also recreated as to debunk the colonial myth which holds that Africans were inferior species. African literature which emerges from the very crucible of colonialism was reactionary, and on the offensive. The age of post colonialism thrust upon the African poets new thematic concerns: the issues of bad governance, corruption, extra judicial killings, hunger and starvation, class antagonism and a myriad of other inanities plaguing Africa. Many African poets adopt Marxist ideology and directed their poetic impulses towards mass mobilization and class struggle. But in order not to hurriedly forget the past, African poets recreated the history of Africa poetically in such a way that the form does not lucidly deface the content. They are not concerned with the form but with the content of the historical events that shaped Africa. These events include slave trade, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, neo colonialism etc. These poets faithfully recreated the history of Africa in such a way that one is tempted to say that such creations are not fit enough to be tagged epic or ballad but historical poems.
Jingles of Chains and Rage: The Portraiture of Africa’s phases in Jarinatu Disu’s African Reminiscence
The collection reads like a historical portraiture of Africa. Disu has painstakingly researched into the African history and has reconstructed the phases of Africa’s development and evolution. This kind of reconstruction, albeit prosaically, was done by Walter Rodney in his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and Franz Fanon in his The Wretched of the Earth . This kind of representation of the past could further be seen in historical and political books. However, the reconstruction of the African history by Disu is such that the content reflects the historical transmogrification of Africa which she thematically captured with subheadings such as: “slave trade,” “vying for colonies,” “colonization,” “fight for independence,” “independence,” and “military rule.” She further foregrounds the thematic thrust of her poems with ample pictures. On pages two, four, six, fifteen, twenty one, twenty three, twenty five, twenty seven, thirty, thirty four, thirty six, thirty eight, forty three, forty six, and fifty; we see pictures like “slaves packed in a ship,” “Africa,” “Lilian the defiant” etc. In the poem: “The Vengeance of Heaven,” “Blessing of 16, 10, 1700,” “Your shoes,” and “Sengbe the Mende” the poetess captures slave trade in its inhuman forms. “The Vengeance of Heaven,” tells the story of Queen Bess and Sir John of England. Sir John travels to Africa and buys slaves and ships them to the new world. The Queen tells him that
If any African be carried away
Without their free consent
It will be detestable.
The vengeance of heaven
Would be called upon the undertaking. (1)
In 1562, there is a safe transportation of the “lucrative cargo” (1) in 1564, the Queen legalizes slave trade but in the year 1588, there is a disaster as “vengeance of heaven/descended, grabbed him at sea” and John is destroyed. Slaves are described as: “lucrative cargo,” “chattels,” “virile ones,” “cargo,” “wretched souls trapped in black groggy bodies” (2). The trade is carried out by both European men and women. In “Blessing of 16, 10, 1700,” a lady called blessing embarks on a journey to “Guinea Coast” in the year 1700 as to transport to the new world African slaves. On the journey, she lost “two of her crews” but her “cargo” reaches
“The new world” (2). Africans are further described:
Wretched souls trapped in black groggy bodies
Souls cracking with crystallized fear
Souls shrinking with fledging forlornness
Unable to escape…(3)
“Your shoes” is a searching question hurled to the heavens by a young African maiden:
Lord, if I were to be
In your shoes, and you were in big trouble
I would answer you. (5)
She does not know why God seems far in the days of adversity. She does not know why Europeans who claim to know God engage in such an evil trade. In the little girl’s confusion, a slave merchant came and she is “dragged off” to the slave market and is sold into slavery:
Ten dollars I bid
I bid ten dollars. (5)
After the abolishment of slave trade, Africa emerged from the epoch of slavery into a new era of colonialism. European capitalist powers met and partitioned Africa amongst themselves leading to the capturing and conquering of Africa by the European armed militias. This grim history is couched in the poem “The Pursuit.” Europeans signed “treaties” (8) and used “any methods to subjugate” (8) and dominate Africa.” The poems “Makoko Makoko” and “Fell’s Letter” reconstruct the scramble for Africa by European powers. In “Fell’s Letter,” the economic exploitation of Africa by Europeans is captured. The African chiefs who value mundane things albeit ignorant of the fact that those items were of inconsequential value to the Europeans sold the wealth of Africa in exchange for ephemeral things.
The old Dadianu Chief, I gave him
A broken Waterbury watch
Which charmingly enchanted him.
-never mind at our end, a mere dross. (10)
The description of the colonizing Europeans shows how destructive they are and how wretched they were when they set foot on Africa.
Two famished locusts
Weary and emaciated;
Dropped in on a fresh field of corn
One steamy August day. (14)
The Europeans are called “famished locusts” while Africa is the “fresh field of corn.” These Europeans came and with the destructive temper of locusts devoured the fresh African cultural, and historical fields. They came and disrupted the African political hegemony, “banished” some kings and then began:
Of a culture
A people. (The Visit 14)
“Echoes from a distant past” is a poem of remembrance. Although many forget the past, the poetess by the poem provokes our memories to recall what transpired in England and other parts of Europe prior to incursion into Africa. The poetess with the accuracy of a historian authenticates her thoughts with dates and other factual records. in London, “in a mid summer’s day 1816…” some “gentlemen” gather and deliberate upon modalities of invading West Africa by the brute of force. A soldier, “The Honourable Captain Frederick” (11) is called upon and saddled with the responsibility of dislodging
other Europeans such as “The French, the Portuguese, the Germans” out of the Gold Coast. They want “the English flag” to fly “alone there” (11).
Africans were used as human shield in the first and second world wars. Many West Africans were shipped to Burma to fight the enemies of the empire. “Lest you Forget” is a poem that tries to keep fresh in our minds the sacrifices Africans made in the era of colonialism for Europe. The poem is a conversation between a father and his son. The father was eighteen when he was shipped to Burma. Forty years after, the old man could not fathom why many Africans were taken to the warfront as sacrifices to the European gods of greed and avarice.
We were carried off to Burma
Our bodies drapped with empire clothes
Our feet clad with empire shoes
We shot! Were shot at!
Killed! Our bodies dismembered! (19)
At the end of the whole thing, many Africans were killed, traumatized and dismembered. But the reward for all their toil and bravery was “pieces of metals/ donations, the empire calls medals” (19). From the crucible of colonialism emerged the African intelligentsia and politicians fought hard to liberate themselves and the continent. In some places, the fight was done through the barrel of gun while in other nation states through negotiation on a round table. In the poems: “Forced to be free,” “Dates! Dates! Dates!,” “A double salute,” “Fly the flage revisited,” “A release of human spirit,” and “A coming and a leaving;” the poems lament the travail of Africa and Africans under the grips of colonialism. In “Forced to be free”
For instance, we read
We were not bound
Yet in chains everywhere
We were forced to be free
We had to be free (29)
The need for liberation forced Africans to rise up to the challenges posed by colonialism. “A double salute is a poem” that salutes the courage of Africans that sacrificed their lives on the altar of colonialism so as to liberate every inch of Africa:
Salute to those
Who fought it all the way
Some won and lived
Some lost and died
Wherever the gage of battle
Was thrown down,
Another man of vigour
Was sure to rise, to pick up, to continue. (32)
Some of the Africans that fought and win, fought and died or fought and lived to see the seeds of their struggles germinate into a gargantuan tree of freedom include:
Ennemil Quaw A Wassa Chief Deported
Oba Ovonrambe A Benin Oba Banished
Attahiru 1 A Sokoto Sarki killed
Nana Prempeh An Asante King Exiled
Mandela Struggle, his life Banished
Sarki Aliyu A Kano Ruler Killed (32)
For over a hundred years, Africa was chained by the fetters of capitalism, Africans “resorted to strikes/ Guerillas took to snipes” (Fly the flag revisited 33). In place of the “Union Jack of red and blue strips”, (33) fly African flags. Mandela symbolizes the spirit of Africa in the struggle for liberation and justice. His release from prison is documented in the poem “A release of the human spirit.” He was incarcerated on Roben Island for “26 years” (35) after his release from prison,
Street lights got coat in Washington
Rainbow coloured confetti rained in Manhattan
Youths ran amok in ecstasy in Lagos
With sublime satisfaction in Sweden went warm.
A living legend in his own lifetime. (35)
Independence came with a price poems like “African party politicians,” “African bureaucrats,” “African freedom revisited” capture post colonial Africa in the hands of African politicians who stepped into the shoes of the colonialists. “African party politicians” captures the insincerity of the African politicians who always at the election season “promise the people paradise” (38). But afterwards leave their offices, bequeathing “pythons/ perpetual poverty/ presented on a tattered platter” (38). “African Bureaucrats” on the other hand describes the features of the African bureaucrats: be suited, pot bellied/ be seated, air conditioned office.” (39) on the other side of life are the poor peasantry class and the proletariat who struggle daily with the harsh condition of unfriendly “rules, regulations, By laws” (39) made by the bureaucrats. The
Streaming down the
Street below (39)
The down trodden are left without succor, without hope. Independence thus became a source of hopelessness and disillusionment to Africans who hitherto envisaged a heaven of earth whensoever Africans take over the reins of power. The post colonial Africa breeds a continent dichotomized into two hostile classes. In the poem: “Smooth justice, rough justice” an ex-minister and a common thief are compared and contrasted. The ex-minister’s fault is “unceremonious embezzlement/unofficial enrichment” he stole “eleven million” (40) naira. He is sentenced gracefully to life imprisonment but the money is not confiscated from him. Thus, the possibility of using the money to buy his way out of prison is pertinent. On the other hand, the “dirty, beragged/ fifteen year old vagrant” who steals “a small fancy ring/ from the market” is stoned to death by “stony missiles/hurled by human hands” (40).
The kind of political system practiced by Africa prior to colonialism was the traditional monarchical system where nations were governed by kings and queens. These were old sages who were accustomed with the African political terrain. During colonial rule, their powers were stolen from them and this continued into the post colonial epoch of Africa. Thus, in the poem “Twin headed body,” the poet captures the scenario where in Africa, traditional rulers and politicians administer at the same time the administration of their jurisdictions. The traditional system has “old and wizened” (42) men while the political structure handed over to Africa was headed by “young and virile” western educated Africans who to some extent have alienated themselves from the grass root. The traditional ruling system: “maintains traditional principles/ known and understood by all” (42) but the western political system, its African practitioners
The young; virile variable
Changes and switches from laws to decrees
Continuously learning confused masses
To face another era of plundering
And stripping the treasury
Down to its mortar! (42)
Africa is free. The earliest to liberate themselves from the shackles of colonialism include Ghana, Nigeria Egypt and those who gain their independence later include Namibia, and South Africa. However, after independence, the colonialism structures were inherited by the African elite giving rise to a form of colonialism which “neo” is offended appended to. This situation is captured in “African freedom revisited I.” Africans “struggled/ to wrench freedom” from the hands of the colonialists. But after freedom was bought by blood, the freedom “captured/began to burn/we could not hold freedom” (49). What takes the place of freedom in Africa is “crisis,” others:
Economic enmity enmeshed us
Political persecutions paved us
Social struggles and strives strangled us
Freedom has long since fled
And left us jailed. (4)
The freedom gotten has now enslaved the people. In the 20th century spilling over to the 21st century, there were tensions in virtually all parts of Africa. These include unemployment, recession, which supplanted “the people’s simple enthusiasm” (20th century Additions 50). Since the political class failed to actualize the African dreams, the military stepped in and took over the reins of power. The damages done by the military is captured in the following poems “A piece of soldierly self parody,” “The military maze,” “Aimless tragedy,” “African freedom revisited II,” “Catastrophic catapulting,” “A case of transcendental morality” and “The new world order.”
Military dictatorship is a kind of government that deprives the people their freedoms and rights. Coup makers invade and disrupt the democratic processes. They take no “permission” and “govern” (51) without taking recourse to the feelings of the people. Coups thus give birth to “Vitriolic tides of/ Coups, civil wars and countercoups” (THE Military Maze 52). The atrocities committed by military dictatorship in Africa are adumbrated in the poem: “Aimless Tragedies:”
In exhaustible internecine
Civil wars, genocide
Destroyed dreams of peace
Angola to Biafra
Rwanda Hutu and Tutsi
Liberia, Eriteria and Ethiopia
Security of life and limb, slain
Add the Congo to Sierra Leone
And sprinkle a bit of Uganda
To make Africa truly independent
Aimless, sorrowful suicide (53)
Africa has become the centre piece of war, chaos and bloodbaths. We have “Colonels and con-men” (55) as our leaders. Arms of all kinds find their ways into Africa. Some are sold by the military and others by the leaders who armed political thugs to maim and murder their political opponents. Cocaine, guns, and other lethal weapons find their ways into Africa through the oceans:
Arms and cracks, cracks and arms
Criss cross the ocean
One legal, the other illegal
Both lethal, both buoyed up
By fear and insecurity (56)
Jarinatu Disu has meticulously captured the historical phases of Africa in her collection. She poeticized the history of Africa from the precolonial, colonial through to the postcolonial Africa. The condition of post colonial African societies is a function of the seeds of discord sown in the days of colonialism. Thus, in the words of Charles Nnolim, African writing was conceived in the days of colonialism as a
Response to colonial invasion and its abuses which threatened our collective security as a people; it has since then been sustained by reaction to our collective disenchantment with political independence; and it will further thrive by protests to abuses inherent in the inequities engendered by the kind of society we have chosen to operate – (62)
The thematic concern of the early African writers was summed up by Simon Gigandi Chinua Achebe. Gigandi in his African Literature and the Colonial Factor observes:
The political and cultural force of colonialism in Africa was so enduring that writers concerned with the nature of African society could not avoid the trauma and drama that accompanied the imposition of European rule on the continent. (55)
In the face of the onslaught against Africa and African culture and tradition, and the denigration of the African personality which was introduced in the epoch of slave trade, the African writer’s “motivation for producing an African literature was to restore the moral integrity and cultural autonomy of the African in the age of decolonization. (56). Chinua Achebe summed the thematic thrust of the African literature and the function of the African writer to his society in the following words:
African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and above all, they had dignity. It is the dignity that many African people all bust lost during the colonial period and it is this that must regain now. (8)
In fighting oppression in any form, remembrance plays a cogent function. The writer reminds the people where the rain begins to beat them via the adoption of history in the form of historical drama, historical novel and historical poetry. Jarinatu Disu has written a collection that chronicled the history of Africa’s evolution albeit poetically. The epilogue of the collection contains an encyclopedia of what happened to Africa prior to colonialism and after colonialism. It gives information in prose form to the background of the poems. “Aimless Tragedies” is explained in the epilogue in the following words:
From the 1960s to the end of the 20th century, independent African countries have plunged themselves into aimless, senseless genocide of greed and avarice. From Congo to Rwanda, Liberia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eriteria, Sierra Leone. When will it all end? (64)
Right now, South Sudan is engulfed in a civil war, and Boko Haram is right now ravaging Nigeria. Dele Bamidele observes that “millions of Nigerians have succumbed to the most gruesome manner of death in the hands of Boko Haram insurgency which has made life so cheap in Nigeria” (71). These happenings are functions of neo colonialism and democratic despotism in Africa.
Africa has endured phases of devastation, and denigration. These phases are amply captured in the three genres of literature. In poetry however, imagination often subdues its graphical content. Language often masks the source of inspiration in poetry but in Disu’s collection, history is transcended as history itself is reconstructed in such a way that the line between history and poetry is obliterated. The collection cannot be said to be history because of the heavy presence of imagination. The writer depends on the flight of fancy to go deep beyond the reach of history to awake the spirit that moves in the course of history. She revives the words that moved history by making the historical figures that enslaved Africa to speak. She put words in their mouth and we become watchmen watching the reenactment of history. The use of poetry, therefore, in the reconstruction of the transient history of Africa makes the end product powerful enough to affect our emotions and to think deeply about what transpired during slave trade, colonialism and postcolonial Africa.
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