How African Historical, Socio-economic, Socio-political and Cultural Experiences Influence Modern African Poetry

Modern African Poetry

Modern African Poetry did not grow or develop in vacuum; it was given impetus, shape, direction and even area of concern by the social, political and economic forces in a particular society.

However, the inaugural of the scholarly engagement with Modern African Poetry is best seen as coinciding with efforts of making Modern African Literature a subject of academic enquiry in the 1960s.

In Modern African Poetry, writers (poets in particular) and their works are implicated in the larger struggles which define three phases in the development of African Literature: pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial. Each of these periods is marked by peculiarities, i.e. issues they showcase (cultural, social, economic, intellectual and political issues). These three phases are marked by certain socio-political experiences and ideologies common to Modern African Poetry, namely: Slavery, Colonialism, Neo-colonialism/Post- colonial disillusionment, Cultural conflict, Apartheid and Economic exploitation.

It is also important to note that Modern African Poetry deals with collective destinies of the African within its own human and physical environment. Although a particular human living condition which the poet expresses is inserted in a time and space frame work, his creative imagination has a temporal and spatial forward and backward movement which unfolds the evolution of the society and the life lived in it. Since African Poetry takes “matter” from the realities of African living conditions and value systems in the past and present, one easily recognizes it in socio-historical events, names and environments.

Politics is usually integrated into a people’s culture and everybody is in one way or the other affected by politics. Political practices are part of a people’s culture; thus, politics forms an important thematic preoccupation for Modern African Writers.

Again, Modern African poetry helps us to better understand the historical and cultural events of Africa. Reading Okot P’ Bitek’s “Song of lawino and song of Ocol” or Gabriel Okara’s “The Fisherman’s Invocation” in one way or the other, provokes you to reassess the impact of colonialism on the African and your relationship-weather as a husband, public official or as a student; so there is no doubt that historical, political and indigenous cultural forces shape Modern African Poetry.

The poets of Modern African Poetry from the three literary regions of Africa- West, East and South Africa, inculcate these historical, cultural and socio-political experiences and ideologies to their poetry and their poems seeks to address and correct these experiences. This makes Modern African Poetry a Protest Poetry. In order to achieve their set goals, they inculcate ideas, values and feeling to their poetry.

Having said that, we will now embark on a careful analysis of selected poems of Modern African Poets from the three literary regions of Africa to ascertain to what extent the socio-economic, historical, indigenous cultural and socio-political situations in most African nations have shaped or influenced their poetry (i.e. Modern African Poetry). To carry out this analysis, we shall first visit West Africa.

From Western Africa, we shall study the works of David Diop who was born in July, 1927 at Bordeaux in France of a Cameroonian Mother and a Senegalese Father. An intimate reading of Diop’s poetry reveals that the content of his poetry is determined by the circumstances he found himself. His poetry can be referred to as “Poetry of Revolution.” He belonged to and was influenced by the ideological and literary movement in Africa that went by the name “NEGRITUDE.”

In other words, David Diop belonged to the period of protest poetry writing in Africa. Though he died young in a plane crash, his few surviving poems have placed him as a credible Modern African Poet. Like poets of his time who had undergone and experienced the humiliation of colonization, most of his poems are full of nostalgia for Africa’s glory past. The hypocritical and destructive influences of colonial rule and his dreams and vision for a free and independent Africa are all embedded in his poems. David Diop in his poems expresses his sincere faith that Africa will one day break the shackles of slavery and return to its former glory. He glorifies everything that is Africa and denigrates anything that is Europe in his poems. He did this because he was a Negritude poet and one of the hallmarks of Negritude poetry is the appraisal of Africa and her heritage.

In his poem, “The Vultures” which is an extended metaphor and signifies colonialism, we see how the colonial masters forcefully and violently made their way to Africa through “civilization” and “missionary” activities. This is evident in lines two and three of the poem:
When civilization kicked us in the face
When holy water slapped our cringing brows.

The above lines (2 & 3) also show the inhumanity of the white man and the humanity of the black man as civilization which represents the white man kicked the black man on his face. The whites are “The Vultures.”

The poem somehow opens with suspense by the use of “In those days” and “when” and tells us how the colonial masters used government, Christian religion and Indirect Rule System to subjugate Africans. The poet also showcases the evils or negative effects of colonialism on the Africans: the impoverishment of the people, the destruction of the cultural values and making slaves out of Africans. This is evident in lines 4 and 5 of the poem:
The Vultures built in the shadows of their talons
The bloodstained monument of tutelage.

In his poem, “Africa,” Diop recalls the days of slavery before colonization when Africans were carted away by Europeans to different parts of Europe to work in their plantations:
Your blood split over the fields
The blood of your sweat
            The sweat of your toil
The toil of slavery
The slavery of your children.

While identifying with this ancient continent with its rich agrarian past that he has come to know through folklore, he draws upon racial memory to recall its sad history of slavery and colonialism. Thus, in the next five angry and accusatory lines, the rhetorical question enumerates the sufferings of Africans under the domination of colonial rule and hints at a revolution that would lead to a glorious future for Africa:
Africa, tell me Africa
         Are you the back that bends
Lies down under the weight of humbleness?
The trembling back striped red
That says yes to the sjambok on the roads of noon?

The lines express the poem persona’s anger on the Europeans and express empathy to the injustices done to the Africans. They were humiliated by the colonial masters.

Also, Africans are dehumanized as the Europeans hypocritically try to make them forget their sufferings by preaching and reminding them about God and the blessings that await them in heaven in “The Vultures”
And the monotonous rhythm of the paternoster
Drowned the howling in the plantation

Recalling the evils done by the Europeans to Africans, Diop then goes on to lament the hypocrisy and inhumane treatment meted out to Africans. He tells that the colonial masters are hypocrites and at the same time inhuman because they force the African female slaves into sexual relations; discarded their initial promises of friendship to Africans as soon as they established themselves in Africa.

Colonialism denied Africans of their humanity, culture, language, labour (the reward of their labour as they could not eat the fruit of their labour) etc.

Arriving East Africa, Jared Angira’s poems portray these historical, cultural and socio-political experiences and ideologies. Angira is from Kenya; he writes about the new form of colonialism, “neo-colonialism” and its central theme is that of post-colonial disillusionment. This is the era where fellow black (of petty bourgeoisie class and intellectual class) oppress the majority blacks (of low class). He details the period after Africa’s independence.

In his poem “Obliggato from the Public gallery” present in his collection Cascades, we see the familiar theme of post-colonial disillusionment. The tone and mood of the poem is anger and bitterness as it satirizes and lashes out at the politicians who have betrayed the national ideal:
The public has no believe
In democracy
It has mocked his expectation
The public has no hope
In the party
The party partitioned himself
For the zombies are the particans
In the “nation”
(Cascades, p.88)

The attainment of independence has not resulted in true independence for all; rather, it has revealed the true ambition of few emancipated intellectuals which has always been to fill the vacuum created by the departure of the colonizers. The new political class is corrupt and demands the position of the colonizers. The emancipated African intellectuals intend to do the same.

Also, in “Noticeboard,” Angira portrays his disillusionment and disappointment on the emancipated African intellectuals:
When that passes
Transforming itself into
            Records of experience
We too pass
Into antiavity
Leaving, tightly bolted
Behind us
The door that we kept
Knocking so long

Angira is concerned with the suffering of the oppressed masses. He examines every aspect of the socio-economic and political life of his society and the suffering placed on the masses by the emancipated African intellectuals. Independence is not promising anything good; the politicians have betrayed the masses; they are not doing what they are supposed to do. This is also evident in “The Stage,” another poem of Angira, where he showcases the economic and political problems faced by Africans.
To him, present generation of Africa has no meaningful political ideology. This democracy is what obtains in many African countries.

South African literaturs are often times Literatures that protest against apartheid in South Africa. In other words, South African writers through their writings bring to limelight the conquest and humiliation of the indigenous people who came to be denied literally their rights in their own country. The poetry of Oswald Mtshali, Sounds of a Cowhide Drums, expresses the agony and sufferings of the Black in apartheid South Africa much as it dramatizes the political violence which apartheid elicited and unleashed. For apartheid is only sustained at great lost.

In his collection, Sounds of a Cowhide Drums, his poems largely treat apartheid, poverty, suffering, fear and humiliation in Apartheid South Africa. It will not be out of place to call the poems of Mtshali “Protest poems of Alienation and Augment” or “Poems of Lamentation.” This is because his poems are informed by the agonized collective cries of a down trodden, repressed and oppressed people in their own land. The atmosphere of his poems is also characterized and dominated by ‘fear’ and ‘hostility.’ In his poem, “Detribalized,” he details the theme of survival and poverty in Apartheid South Africa.
He skipped school
during play time
to hock sweets
pilfered in town/peanuts, shoe laces
caddied at the golf course

Here, Mtshali gives a rich image of deep poverty and subsequently that of survival. Stealing and skipping school to sell his pilfered goods is the only way the boy can think of surviving. He comes out of school half -baked in his academics:
He can write
only his name;
He can read
the world:
our own and only paper
The Golden city post-murder, rape and robbery

The above lines reveal that the boy can only write his name and can only read- not literally- “the Golden post.” It means that he is familiar with what the newspaper writes. It also reveals that the boy is a typical apartheid South African. “Murder, rape and robbery” are the iniquities of apartheid South Africa and the boy has been at the ‘fore’ (a main prison in Johannesburg) doing prison terms for these crimes:
Just as unavoidable
and unpleasant
as going to desists

The entire poem attacks and undermines the value system of apartheid.

Another of Mtshali’s poems, “Just a Passerby” evokes images of helplessness of the black South African under apartheid who witnesses white ‘clobber’ to death a fellow black:
I heard him scream with pain
Like a victim of slaughter

This is a very ironic and sarcastic piece of poetry through which the poet expresses the helpless condition of many blacks in apartheid South Africa. The poem incorporates a number of themes besides describing the gruesome incident of a brother being ‘clobbered’ while he (poet) passes by without rendering any help. The poet draws an ironic parallel with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The religion of the whites (Christianity) that preaches to be your brother’s keeper is in itself, the root cause of violence. But the irony of what the poet considers an escapist religion is that the poet instead of helping his brother from ticklers, goes instead to the church to pray for the brother’s soul. The denial in the last line of the poem:
“O! No! I heard nothing. I’ve been to church.”

The denial reveals that the poem’s persona is unwilling to acknowledge the brutal killing of his brother for the reason that he may be ‘clobber’ too.

The poem is indicative of the height of violence and the helplessness of the people in the society the poet lives in. 

In sum, from the aforementioned points, it is obvious and glaring that historical, indigenous culture, socio-economic and socio-political forces influence Modern African Poetry as Modern African Poets inculcate these ideas to their works in order to correct them; thereby making Modern African Poetry a Protest poetry.

Tamuno Reuben

Those who seek knowledge seek power because the pen is mightier than the sword.

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