My Random Thoughts on Africa
Africa, tell me Africa Is this you, this back that is bent,
This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation,
This back trembling with red scars
And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun?
But a grave voice answers me:
Impetuous son, that tree young and strong,
That tree over there
In splendid loneliness amidst white and faded flowers,
That is Africa, your Africa
That grows again patiently, obstinately
And its fruit bit by bit acquires
The bitter taste of liberty
David Diop – “Africa”
Like every other child in my class at primary school, and like other pupils in various schools all over Nigeria, and perhaps across the African continent, I recited this poem amongst other poems and rhymes every other morning before regular classes commenced. On other days, when we made no recitations, it was a section of the multiplication table or what we called times table that we regurgitated. But just like my fellow pupils, I did not have even the faintest impression of what the poem meant. And this was the same case with the rest of the other recitations, even though we gladly chanted them by heart. We just reeled them off. And although these poems were usually rhythmic and melodious, we could not but forget them as soon as we discontinued reciting them on advancing to higher classes in school. It was so in my case until years later – ten years, I think – when I came across this particular poem again. That was in senior secondary two or three – three I suppose to be more likely – when in an English Literature class we read this. The book was Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, which later became a personal favourite, and the chapter was entitled “Impetuous Son”.
I remember this vividly. In ten years’ time many things had changed in my life, as is of course expected, but what had not yet come under the sway of the passing of time was my grasp of literature. In fact, I did not love literature: I believed it was for girls or for boring adults like my English Literature teacher herself. And to crown it all, I was a science student and, obviously, did not feel any need to learn the “uninteresting subject” which, by reason of the school’s strong – and sound – policy on effective English education, was compulsory. If you were in art, commercial or science class, it did not matter. The class was most boring as opposed to Physics, Chemistry and Biology classes which were more rational and practical, and was always eagerly anticipated.
Since I neither saw the benefit nor the beauty of poetry, prose and every other thing in between that altogether make up literature, I did not quite get a grip on what the Africa poem was all about. I finally did some seven years later. This was after I had, by some strange turn of events, fallen in love with poetry, prose and some of the other things in between. I was reading that novel again, that Achebe‘s novel, when I regained contact with the poem. The book was rediscovered while I was tidying one of my long forgotten and dusty cupboards, and relieving myself of some old defunct personal effects – something we most often do when we are older and feel we have got a bit mature. Incidentally, it was a month after Achebe died, and so when I came across the book I did not think twice about reading it. I wanted to know more about the recently deceased, as we humans tend to do, especially when such a one is famed. I wanted to learn about this well-known chap who was yet well unknown to me. By now you are familiar with why this was so: my previous distaste for anything literary. Thus I set out to read the novel. But with each line I read, I felt a growing glow of fondness for him, and I understood clearly why he was who he was. The novel was like music, composed not by sound or tone, but by poetry and philosophy. Admittedly, I read and re-read the book over and over again, and it was in so doing that I not only memorised the poem again, but also got to