Elliot Ziwira @ the Bookstore
ALTHOUGH protest takes many forms, which makes it necessary for the African poet to capture as much his/her history of suffering, subjugation, displacement and alienation as a result of slavery and colonisation, it is not entirely true to say that his/her preoccupation is protest, since he/she also has to harness the joys, thrills and aspirations of his/her people.
The African poet, as will be discussed using Lusophone poets Agostinho Neto, Noemia de Sousa, and Marcelino dos Santos, faces the unenviable contradiction of time and place, which makes it imperative for him/her to shift ideological bases to effectively capture the prevailing events in his/her time because he/she cannot help being a philosopher and a town-crier at the same time, as Franz Fanon posits in “The Wretched of the Earth” (1967).
The poet in the African worldview plays a plethora of roles, which makes it possible for him to identify with his people through articulation of the cultural mores and values that shape his or her society through language.
African philosophers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi waThiong’o, Okot p’Bitek and Chinweizu et al, though perching on different branches of the same tree, are in agreement that the African artist plays a significant role in mapping out the destiny of his/her society, therefore, to him/her form ceases to be a preoccupation, but rather an unconscious endgame in his/her battle with the oppressive machinations of slavery, imperialism and colonialism; which he/she can only fight through content, for “the artist’s feeling is his law”, (Casper David Friedrich).
According to Fanon (1967), the African artist cannot entirely abandon (or purport to grow out of) the contradictions of colonial education inculcated in him, because of its subtle nature, but he should go beyond it to instil a sense of combat in his people.
Fanon (1967:193) writes: “The continued cohesion of the people constitutes for the intellectual an invitation to go farther than his cry of protest. The lament first makes the indictment; then it makes an appeal. In the period that follows, the words of command are heard.
“The crystallisation of the national consciousness will both disrupt literary styles and themes, and also create a completely new public.”
A “completely new public”, indeed and a completely new audience, hence, he/she has to go beyond individual limitations.
Slavery, colonialism or segregation are evils that the African poet cannot wish way, or pretend that they never happened, hence, he/she cannot avoid expressing “a degree of objective realism”, through “an appeal to the history, sufferings and struggles of the people,” (Ngara, 1990: 108).
The emotive and combative nature of Lusophone poetry, goes beyond ideological theorising, which find favour in Thomas S. Bvuma and Dambudzo Marechera in the poems “The Real Poetry” and “In Jail the only Telephone is the Washbasin Hole: Blow and we Will Hear”, respectively.
To Bvuma: “The real poetry/Was carved across centuries/Of chains and whips/It was written in the red streams/Resisting the violence of ‘Effective Occupation’. . . Its beat was bones in Bissau/Its metaphors massacres in Mozambique/Its alliteration agony in Angola/Its form and zenith/Fighting in Zimbabwe,” (“The Real Poetry” in “Every Stone That Turns”, 1997).
It is, indeed, “the pain and pleasure/Of a people in struggle”, (Bvuma, 1997), hence, to reduce that to contrived formalism, as Formalists like Fish, Robert Frost (1930) and Jacobson (1916) advocate, is rather atrocious because the history of suffering cannot be articulated through “classroom lectures”, or “from the rhyme & reason of England/Nor the Israeli chant that stutters bullets against Palestinians,” (Marechera).
The people’s poet, therefore, should write: “about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out,” (Cesaire, 1994:21); because he/she functions as the custodian of the mores and values that inspire societal aspirations, thus, he/she cannot avoid the protest tag.
Agostinho Neto’s poetry, like that of Antonio Jacinto, Marcelino dos Santos and Noemia de Sousa, reflects the history of resistance in Angola spearheaded by the People’s Movement for the liberation of Angola (MPLA), in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde under Party for Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) and Mozambique under the tutelage of Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO).
Although his earlier poems, especially “The Blood and the Seed”, expose an intellectual alienation, bordering on unassailable revolutionary rhetoric, Neto combatively shifts with the tide in protest in “February”, “Contract workers”, and “Hoisting the flag”.
It is imperative here to follow Fanon’s train of thought, in putting Neto’s poetry in context, not merely as liberation poetry, but as a record of the events prevailing at the time.
Theory precedes action, which makes the poem “The Blood and Seed”, evocative and thought provoking.
The poem strikes chords with David Diop’s “Africa” and Noemia de Sousa’s “Black Blood”, not so much in their obtrusive way as Ngara (1990) puts it, but putting into context the reasons for combat, without necessarily being overt, since the colonial censorship machinery was ever oiled.
Imagery and metaphors become a rallying point as Neto makes effective use of “cries”, “voices”, “drums” and “hymns”, in “The Blood and the Seed”, as is illustrated in the following lines: “Our cries/are drums heralding desire/in the tumultuous voices, music of nations/our cries are hymns of love that hearts/might flourish on the earth like seeds in the sun/the cries of Africa/cries of mornings when the dead grew from the seas/chained/the blood and the seed.”
There may be an aspect of idealism, inclined towards Formalism, which appears to be divorced from concrete action, but protest is inferred through a revisit to the seas of slavery where the seed of protest is soaked in blood.
The “cries” merge with the “drums” of a yearning hope to erupt in “tumultuous voices” reflective of revolt, which in the end brings joy or “music” to “nations”. The revolutionary consciousness is inculcated through the cries that stir “desire” for nationhood, patriotism, historical awareness and hope.
This rather theoretical grounding for combat also obtains in Noemia de Sousa’s poem “Black Blood” which has the trappings of Leopold Senghor’s “Black Woman”, only different in its effective use of irony; as is illuminated in the following lines: “Oh my mother Africa/Great pagan, sensual slave/mystic, charmed/to your transgressing daughter/Give forgiveness.”
The historical allusion in the poem drowns the ironic reference to “pagan” and “slave” through the use of the words “great”, “sensual” and “charmed” to heighten hope and patriotism.
This sense of awareness and hope is emblazoned in the last stanza as the persona yeans: “Mother! my mother Africa/of slave songs in the moonlight/I cannot, CANNOT deny/the black, the savage blood/you gave me/because deep in me/is strongest of all.”
As the seeds of protest are sown through adept use of imagery and symbolism, the next phase, as categorised by Fanon (1967), becomes the consciousness to reject individualistic intellectualism to capture, through less contrived language, to directly address the people and incite them to action.
As pointed out by Ngara (1990) mere articulation of the reasons for suffering is not enough, hence, the poet should go beyond philosophising “for independence cannot be given on a platter; it calls for suffering, endurance and sacrifice,” (Ngara,1990:104).
As form ceases to be of importance, the real struggle for liberation in Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Angola, takes a simplistic stance towards protest, as, “there is neither complicated stylisation nor artificial adornments; the poets make no show of intellectual erudition,” (ibid: 1990: 107).
The silent songs in Neto’s “Contract workers”, who simply “sing” to hide their disgust and suffering, find an outlet in his poem “February” , Antonio Jacinto’s “The people went to War”, Helder Neto’s “We shall not Mourn the dead” and Marcelino dos Santos’ “To point a moral to a comrade”.
The pervading imagery in the poems is blood, which is symbolic of sacrifice, belonging and regeneration.
Neto alludes to slavery and imperialism as the root of the African’s suffering in “February”, through reference to the Atlantic, which is both the source of trouble and hate, as well as a swathe of hope, for it is on hate that revolutions are premised, “grave pure hate”, as Denis Brutus puts it.
The images of “crows” and “jackals” “with bestial hunger for battered flesh”, are metonymic of the predatory nature of colonialism.
However, the allusion to “green” in reference to the land, is symbolic of hope as the oppressed are “fired/now with blood, now with life, now with death”, to turn back the arms of the clock in their favour “even while facing death, in the course of time/in blood stained waters.”
Such is the nature of sacrifice, such is the voice of protest that quests for liberation; total liberation of the people of colour, which is amplified through the collective voice in Marcelino dos Santos’ “To point a moral to a comrade”, as the individualist “I” or “You” is replaced with the collective “We”; because: “What matters is not what I want/or what YOU want/but what we want . . . /Each of us has a private wish/but what WE want/is not what I want or YOU want/but what WE want.”
The African poet, therefore, should always bear in mind that he, “speaks not for himself only but his fellow men. His cry is their cry, which he alone can utter…He must suffer with them, rejoice with them, work with them, fight with them. Otherwise what he says will not appeal to them and so will lack significance”, (Thomson, 1975:60).
He/she cannot help being combative, for his/her history of suffering calls for such; and there should be no pretence in that, but can he/she really be blind to the entertainment aspect of poetry, which is manifest in form?
He surely cannot escape, for whatever words he chooses are steeped in the images and symbols that are symbiotic with his/her personal contact with suffering, displacement and oppression, as Bvuma (1997) and Marechera put it.
Whatever arrangement of lines he chooses are also not divorced from the traditional forms of his/her people’s poetry of hope, celebration and spirituality.
That surely is his/her idea of form, and therein lies the gist of entertainment, which inspires a people to rise above the seemingly obvious, through pain, reflection, hope, life and death.
African artistes cannot completely escape from the subtle snare of colonialism, which makes them both philosophers and griots.
They cannot help protesting because they are wont to, and they can also not divorce themselves from the poetic forms, acquired through exposure to Western education, or their people’s traditions.
In the end though, their poetry becomes protest poetry because it is only necessary to do so. Indeed, to African poets, poetry for poetry’s sake is not an encouraging idea of a collective response to collective suffering.