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19 Jul Written by  Ladi Opaluwa

Love Poems

I am thinking of Africa. I am thinking of Negritude; I am unsure of what it means myself. It is one of those words whose definition I forget as soon as I close the dictionary. Still, I love the word. I love avant-garde, too, and literati, those queer words and the ideas they define, but not as much as negritude, a word of similar etymology with nigger, yet not offensive. It is a decade-long fixation. My obsession with it began upon discovering it in the introduction to A Selection of African Poetry ― Introduced and Annotated by K.E. Senanu and Theo Vincent, and was sustained by reading and rereading the poems from the book, mostly early to mid-twentieth century poems.

In his brief, wondrous life, David Diop (1927-1960), wrote Africa, a poem that personified Africa as one maltreated by his master. In the view of the narrator, Africa is black, beautiful, strong, and hardworking. Towards the end the continent suddenly becomes a tree: ...that tree young and strong/That tree over there/Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers/That is your Africa Springing up anew/Springing up patiently, obstinately/Whose fruit bit by bit acquires/ /The bitter taste of liberty (before Google helped sort and store information, memorising was quite a popular sport). Sadly, he died on the wake of his country’s independence, and before most countries on his beloved continent would be liberated.

Like Diop’s, the poems in the book are largely preoccupied with issues of black identity and colonialism. It is more or less a collection of love songs by nationalist writers, men who in moments of melancholy found writing odes to their fatherland therapeutic. What may have begun with one homesick African writer, say Leopold Senghor, sitting with a pen and pad by the window of a Parisian apartment became Abioseh Nicol contemplating The Meaning of Africa, Kofi Awoonor lamenting the invasion of his homeland in The Cathedral, and Lenrie Peters on his return home with his boots full of pride, asserting that It is Time for Reckoning Africa.

Negritude was a love fuelled by nostalgia, propagated by black literati. The theme was so pervasive among writers of the era that Ezekiel Mphahlele cautioned in a speech in 1963 “We should not allow ourselves to be bullied at gunpoint into producing literature that is supposed to contain a negritude theme and style.” Not many heeded his advice. I wondered if there was an invisible patron rewarding the romanticisation of Africa.

Occasionally, as in Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo’s Pomegranate, this love veers towards the erotic. ‘The rays of the newborn sun/search under the branches/the breast of the ripe pomegranate/and bite it till it bleeds/discreet and shuddering kiss/hard and scalding embrace/soon the pure thrust/that would draw purple blood’. What vivid shift from nationalism to carnality. The poem was as incongruous to the collection as Song of Solomon is to the Bible. In my juvenile judgment, I thought I had stumble on porn and it was read accordingly, with secrecy and guilt.

I did not understand all the poems―the notes following each poem sometimes compounded my confusion― but I loved them still. Besides reading, there are few pleasurable pastimes as owning the book you love, and I did own three copies of A Selection of African Poetry. The cover only needed to be wrinkled or dog-eared to send me off to the pirated books bookshop with only N300. I had different editions. Every poem added or removed was celebrated and mourned equally. I had other poetry books, too, the West African Verse―edited by Donatus Nwoga, and Poems of Black Africa―edited by Wole Soyinka. But this, for me, was the book, the holy book of African poetry.

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