We Have Crossed Many Rivers

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We Have Crossed Many Rivers: New Poetry from Africa is a fascinating anthology of some of the finest contemporary poetic voices from twenty-nine African countries. Inspired by the examples of first generation African poets like Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, Dennis Brutus, and Mazisi Kunene, the poets in this anthology display rootedness in, and preoccupation with, the discourses of identity and political freedom. At the same time, they engage the more contemporary themes of human and economic rights, governance, the natural environment, love, family and generational relations representative of the African continent. Poems from Tanure Ojaide, Yewande Omotoso, Reesom Haile and Frank Chipasula are inlcluded and in all there are contributions from 68 poets.



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Published 31 July 2012
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EAN13 9789788422884
Language English

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We Have Crossed
Many Rivers
New Poetry from AfricaMalthouse African Poetry
Idris Amali, Generals without War
J. P. Clark, A Lot from Paradise
Gesiere Brisibe-Dorgu, Reflections
Harry Garuba, Voices from the Fringe
Taban lo Liyong, Homage to Onyame
Angela Miri, Running Waters
Tanure Ojaide, The Endless Song
Tanure Ojaide, Fate of Vultures & Other Poems
Tanure Ojaide, The Daydream of Ants
Tanure Ojaide The Beauty I Have Seen
Dike Okoro, Dance of the Heart
Dike Okoro (ed.) Echoes From the Mountain by Mazisi
Dike Okoro (ed.) A Long Dream: Poems by Okogbule Wonodi
Tayo Olafioye, Arrowheads to my Heart
Tayo Olafioye, A Stroke of Hope
Abubakar Othman, The Palm of TimeWe Have Crossed
Many Rivers
New Poetry from Africa
Edited By
dikê okoroPublished by
Malthouse Press Limited
43 Onitana Street, Off Stadium Hotel Road,
Surulere, Lagos, Lagos State
E-mail: malthouselagos@yahoo.co.uk
Tel: +234 (0)802 600 3203
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted, transcribed,
stored in a retrieval system or translated into any language or computer language, in any form
or by any means, electronic, mechanical, magnetic, chemical, thermal, manual or otherwise,
without the prior consent in writing of Malthouse Press Limited, Lagos, Nigeria.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade, or otherwise, be lent,
re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in writing, in any
form of binding or cover other than in which it is published and without a similar condition,
including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
© Dike Okoro 2012
First Published 2012
ISBN 978-978-8244-32-7
African Books Collective Ltd
Email: abc@africanbookscollective.com
Website: http://www.africanbookscollective.comD e d i c a t i o n
To the Memory of My Mother
Clara OkoroA c k n o w l e d g e m e n t s
The editor and his publisher gratefully acknowledge the poets themselves and the following
copyright holders for permission to reprint the poems in this anthology:
“What Ola Says”, “News from Harlem”, & “New name”, all unpublished, used by author's
permission (Kwame Dawes); “The River is Rising”, by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley; copyright: The
River is Rising, & Autumn House Press, 2007. “Coming Home: for Besie-Nyesuah,” by Patricia
Jabbeh Wesley; copyright: The River is Rising, & Autumn House Press, 2007; “We Departed
Our Homelands and We Came,” Patricia Jabbeh Wesley: Copyright: Patricia Jabbeh Wesley,
Where the Road Turns, & Autumn House Press, 2010. “When Monrovia Rises” first appeared
in Black Renaissance Noire: Vol. 11 Issue 2-3, Spring 2012. “The Rain Storm”: From Gerald
Moore & Ulli Beier, eds. The Penguin Modern African Poetry. London: Penguin, 1998. “The
Kiss” published by Frank Chipasula, ed, in Bending the Bow: An Anthology of African Love
Poetry. Carbondale, IL. Southern Illinois University Press, 2009. “Lament for a Teller of Tales
Lost in a Season of AIDS”, From Drocella Mwisha Rwanika & Nyunda ya Rubango, eds. Le
Destin Unique de Sony Labu Tansi. Ivry-sur-Seine, France: Silex/Nouvelles du Sud, 2000.
“Haven't We Forgotten Something,” published by author's permission. “A Song in Spring (for
Masauko)”, published in The Literary Olympians (Boston: Ford-Brown, 1992). “Histories,” &
“Sanctificum,” published in Sanctificum, Copper Canyon Press. Both appear here by author's
permission (Chris Abani). The following poems by Ogaga Ifowodo: “Homeland” & “For
Onoriode” taken From Homeland and Other Poems, revised edition (Trenton, NJ: Africa World
Press, 2008. Published by author's permission. “History Lesson” by Ogaga Ifowodo first
appeared in: Drumvoices Revue, vol. 13, nos. 1 & 2, Spring-Summer 2005; “Freetown” by
Ogaga Ifowodo first published in: Poetry International, Special Double Issue Featuring English
Language Poetry from Around the World, 7/8 2003-4, and included in the anthology, Voices
from all Over: Poems with Notes and Activities, ed. Rustum Kozain (Cape Town: Oxford,
2006). “God Punish You, Lord Lugard,” by Ogaga Ifowodo appeared in: From Madiba
(Trenton NJ: Africa World Press, 2003); “From Scetis to Sohag” & “Nile Procession” appear by
author's permission (Matthew Shenoda); “Between Neighbor & Nation”: published by author's
permission (Matthew Shenoda) & Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bones, BOA Editions, 2009.
“Mwogo” & “War” by Alexandre Kimenyi appear by permission of author's family. “Song for
Lost Fruits,” “Waiting,” “Iroko in the Wind”, “Flowers in the Tomb” by Chimalum Nwankwo &
African Heritage Press Permission; Kofi Anyidoho to Heinemann Educational Books and
African Commentary; for Tanure Ojaide to Per Contra for “To the Janja Weed” and the author;
for Tijan Sallah for permission to publish; to Lupenga Mphande for permission to publish; to
Mxolisi Nyezwa for permission to publish; Emmanuel Sigauke for permission to publish; for
Mbizo Chirasha for permission to publish; for Prince Mensah for permission to publish; for
Roland Bankole Marke for permission to publish; “Go Crazy Over Me” by Saba Kidane first
appeared in Who said Merhawi is dead”: Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre, and
Arabic. Translated by Charles Cantalupo and Ghirmai Negash, eds. Used by permission of
Hedri Publishers; Reesom Haile poems are taken from We Have Our Voice (Lawrenceville NJ
& Asmara: Red Sea Press, 2000) and We Invented the Wheel (Lawrenceville NJ & Asmara:
Red Sea Press, 2002); Used by permission of the publishers; “Remembering Sahel” by Paulos
Netabay first appeared in Rattapallax 13: 50-51. 2006; Amadou Lamine Sall, to Editions
Simoncini and Nouvelles Editions; for Analla Gnoussira, to Nouvelles Editions; for Abena P.A.
Busia, to Africa Heritage Press; for Syl Cheney Coker, to Heinemann Educational Books; for
Iyamide Hazeley, to Zora Press and Women's Press. The editor and his publisher also
gratefully acknowledge Faustine Boateng Gyima for translations from French to English of the
poems by Veronique Tadjo and Amadou Lamine Sall; poems by Smahan Zaim, Anas Filali,
Abdeslam Mesbah, Mohamed Said Raihani, Abdelkarim Tabbal and Mohamed Said Raihani all
appear by permission of authors and as translated by Mohamed Said Raihani.Where it was not possible to contact poets or their publishers by the time of this publication,
we publish the works in the hope of advancing the poet's reputation. We apologize for any
errors and/or omissions in this volume, and welcome any queries or corrections for future
editions.I n t r o d u c t i o n
This volume attempts to showcase and contextualize established and emerging poetic voices
of contemporary Africa by creating a medium through which they may be read as they engage
in dialogue regarding the realities of the African milieu.
Most of the poems published here are by established and emerging poets born on the
African continent but are now resident in the West. Also, poets born on the continent and
currently serving academicians in African universities, poets working outside of academia, and
those poets currently making their mark in the continent's poetic circuits are represented.
Above all, this collection attempts to show the kind of maturity in form and affection for
themes that reveal the attempt to use literature to engage the realities in the African milieu.
As editor, I have read and selected poems that work along the lines of what the Nigerian
scholar-poet Tanure Ojaide refers to as literature that reproduces social experiences. This is a
major role the poems included in this book serve. Each poem merits its own selection and
straddles the ideology that inspired this book: to showcase through contemporary African
poetry how African poets use art to illustrate their philosophical, cultural, geographical,
spiritual, political and sociological ties to the continent. By no means are these poems mere
representations of voices staking hold to their identity as Africans. Rather, these poems are
conscious texts because of the serious connections they have to the environment, human
condition, plight of the people, preservation of history, culture, beauty, both physically and
spiritually, of the continent of Africa and its peoples.
For years, Africa has been noted for its civil wars and ethnic conflicts that often result in
loss of lives, genocide and permanently scarring ethnic groups. The poets Patricia Jabbeh
Wesley, Tanure Ojaide, Ogaga Ifowodo, Benjamin Kwakye, Alexandre Kimenyi, and many
others profoundly deal with these conflicts thematically in creative ways that make their
language memorable to readers. Through striking images that illustrate the harsh living
conditions of people in a time of war, the brutality of ethnic violence influenced by greed and
religion, and the adverse effect of war crimes on the lives of survivors we see hope and loyalty
to truth projected in these poems. While they may not be serving deterrents to the crimes
committed or actions enforcing the hand of the law, they convey ethical measures needed
now and more than ever to educate the young and adults enrolled in schools across the
continent and poetry lovers across the world, who admire quality poetry, irrespective of where
it is written or what culture informs its composition.
Unlike previous anthologies of African poetry that seemed to be dominated by male voices,
this anthology attempts to strike a balance in terms of gender representation. In fact, this is
the only anthology of African poetry featuring female voices comparable to their male
counterparts. In large part this aspect of the book has more to do with the representation of
quality rather than a mere attempt at fixing a gender norm that has been heavily criticized for
decades. The women featured in this book are mostly published creative writers, university
professors, journalists, PhD students in the area of English and independent writers. Akachi
Adimora-Ezeigbo, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Joyce Ashuntantang, Rosemary Ekosso, Raaja
Garbi, Arja Salafranca, Asabe Kabir Usman, Colleen Higgs, Nathalie Etoke, Jumoke
Verissimo, Ketty Nivyabandi, Jemeo Nanyonjo, Ketty Nivyabandi, Mnguember Vicky Sylvester,
Mwendwa Mbaabu and Saba Kidane, among others, share a common goal: using their poetic
lens to inspire, enlighten and dazzle their readership. In each of the poems contributed by
these women we find experiences enriched by human relationships, absence, love, exile,
nostalgia for childhood, meditation on history, affection for the African continent, childhood,
wars, freedom, femininity, family ties, love for humanity, empathy for the poor, intimate
relationships, mother-daughter relationships, undying love for tradition and culture, and
numerous other themes that add vitality to life and existence.The aforementioned themes also resonate in the poems contributed by the majority of the
male poets such as Lupenga Mphande, Tanure Ojaide, Kwame Dawes, Dike Okoro, and
Frank Chipasula, among others, who deal with the theme of loss excellently. Their poems
possess the same abiding sensibility anchored by emotive diction and memorable language.
In the poem “Remembering” which is dedicated to a close friend that died, Ojaide uses
couplets beautified by anaphora to reinforce and confirm events that took place at about the
same time and day he lost his friend.
The day the farmer lost all his harvest to locusts
the day the herdsman lost all his cows to rinderpest
the day the fisherman lost his boat and nets to a storm
the day there was a total eclipse of the sun
the day fire left dry leaves to burn out green ones
the day water failed to quench the burning thirst
the day the wind refused to blow away smothering fumes
the day the earth opened up a bottomless pit to another world
that was the day of the summer solstice when in
Jerusalem and my best friend died in Nigeria
In “A Tribute to My Mother” Dike Okoro laments the death of his mother, using striking
imagery and memorable language to convey his admiration for his mother:
When you get there remember the nest you left behind is safe I have wiped my eyes enough
since the news of your passing Turned this home beautified by your presence into a house of
silence The hymns have been on all day here, your favourite the most frequent Not because it
would bring you back, but because it gives us, your Beloved children, a reason to believe you
will always be here With us, in this battlefield where survival rules the affairs of men
Similarly, Rosemary Ekosso's poem is inspired by a similar theme; her memory of her father's
burial is beautifully captured in the poem “The Day We Planted Father”:
In April we planted him
In a cool, restful twilight
Teetering on the edge of
Deep dark eternity
The deep dark bowels
Softened by April showers
(Regenerating, rejuvenating)
Opened up, swallowed him
As we bravely sang
And did not cry, not then anyway
Characteristically, African poetry draws heavily on the need to engage readers on the reality
of human experience. Some of the finest poems in this anthology attempt to do so. ArjaSalafranca's speaker in the poem “Sindisiwe,” holding a camera, shares her observation and
concern for street children caught in the harsh world of poverty:
Your mother sits on the opposite side of a busy thoroughfare,
She's been there for years.
Children like you have been begging there for years.
You may even have been there since you were a baby
On your mother's back.
In “A Song in Spring (for Masauko)” Frank Chipasula shares with readers a father's love for
his son, using his observation of the child's play in the sun to illustrate his fondness for his son
and his belief that even in exile his son carries the culture of his people in Malawi. The poem,
interestingly, shares with us a child's innocence and the profound impact the natural cycle of
sunlight has in inviting children to the open to play:
My son dances in the circle
of his own light:
See his feet blossom
as he dances to a distant song.
Chris Abani's poem “Histories” touches on a lot of themes but would be remembered most for
its direct examination of how some children in Africa are exposed to the ritual of killing animals
for food. The poem is detailed in its description of the experience, and the speaker's language
appears to be both convincing and thought-provoking:
Boys are taught to kill early.
I was five
when I shot a chick in my first ritual.
I was eight
when chickens became easy
but turkeys drew loathing.
I was ten
when I killed a goat. I was made to stare
into that goat's eyes before pulling
my knife across its throat.
We Have Crossed Many Rivers: New Poetry from Africa uses art to address a continent's
challenges while bringing to knowledge the inhumanity and devastation experienced by those
affected by ethnic wars and genocide. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley localizes but presents a
universal dilemma in the poem “When Monrovia Rises”, declaring,
The city is not a crippled woman at all. This city
is not a blind man at a potholed roadside, his
cane, longer than his eye, waiting for coins to fall
into his bowl, in a land where all the coins were lost
at war. When Monrovia rises, the city rises with
a bang, and I, throwing off my damp beddings,wake up with a soft prayer on my lips. Even God
in the Heavens knows how fragile this place is.
This city is not an egg or it would have long emerged
from its shell, a small fiery woman with the legs
of snakes. All day, boys younger than history can
remember, shout at one another on a street corner
near me about a country they have never seen.
Girls wearing old t-shirts speak a new language,
a corruption by that same ugly war…
Similarly, Ogaga Ifowodo, in remembering Sierra Leone's civil war,
adumbrates in his poem titled “Freetown”, where his speaker laments
the amputation of a young war victim:
They needed to teach him the vocabulary
for its choice sacrifice of the new gods,
so they set his hands on a fallen headstone;
the bright edges of stainless steel flashed, dazzled
the sun with the arc of the strike. Only one wrist fell clean,
the other flailed, hanging on slender hope
as the city's defenders stressed the lesson
and marching to another front — the old school
that thought learning served the cause — they made sure to set
at the head of the band the four boys abducted
on their way to school a week before — promoted
sergeant-majors of the people's army
and led home to enact their first acts of valour —
each wearing back to school the dread-digit diploma.
In rethinking the thematic direction of this anthology, I have noted the importance of
assembling voices that represent different generations. Equally, I have been challenged to
read and select poems that can be read and appreciated not only for their artistic beauty but
for their lasting impression on the reader. Sometimes poems of this nature gravitate toward
those bearing on the theme of love. Love is a natural experience that many, if not most of us,
experience during our lifetime. It is a way of understanding the world and ourselves. Although
there are several poems in this anthology that seem to advance the relevance of this theme in
their own unique ways, I'm pressed to note the contributions by Jumoke Verissimo, Mvula ya
Nangolo, and Joyce Ashuntantang.
In the following lines from her poem “Sequence (Of Desire),” Jumoke Verissimo writes:
you are a kola nut
my aftertaste of loin-tussle
the sweetness that follows bitternessThere is no memory without you
You are the store house of a quest.
When tomorrow asks for yesterday
It is your name I call
You are the tingling
You are kola nut
Particularly to be noted in the lines cited above is the pleasantness of the speaking voice. In
fact, the speaker's tone lends affection to the diction of the poem. This is a love poem with
lines that are bound to resonate familiar experiences for most readers. It foretells a young
woman's nostalgic feelings for a man she admires and loves dearly.
Similarly, the first and second stanzas in Mvula ya Nangolo's poem
“Three Clouds Above” give us a certain affection and admiration for the subject by a speaker
who seems to choose the right words in capturing our imagination. This is a love poem that
dwells on the abstract, and it makes sense for only those who value the impact of nature on
the natural world and lives of humans:
Three beautiful clouds merged above
The rain drops not seen by a naked eye
Started falling into her heart of hearts
Creating a tiny lake of love forever
Three beautiful clouds merged above
Gathered we were but couldn't see
How she held out her hand to receive the rain
Drop after drop she led the rain into her heart
As often noted, African writers are apt to criticize, either directly or indirectly, the impact of
modernity on the lives of the people living in the rural areas, the landscape, and other forms of
development that affect adversely the living conditions of people. We note this trend in the
lines quoted from Lupenga Mphande's poem “The sawyers” where his speaker opines,
Behind my house there was an enormous muwula tree
Centuries old by any measure, I am sure. One day
Men with a handsaw arrived and sawed the tree down
They cut up the big muwula tree into logs
And constructed a sawhorse of narrow plank scaffolding
On which they rolled up the logs, one by one,
And hoisted the saw eight feet above ground.
One stood on the springy planks holding one end of the saw
The other on the ground below, holding the other end.
They pushed the sharp-toothed edge of the saw backwards And forwards, turning the wood
into planks, sawing the logs right through,
Spraying the grass below with a haze of sawdust.It was hard work but timber is what was in demand -
The central theme of this poem is the irony that trails locals after the destruction of their
natural environment. The trees cut down were meant to fetch money for the cutters who
needed to pay their children's school fees. Yet the irony of the poem lies in the fact that one of
the cutters of the trees, the ground man, walks about with a limp following an injury sustained
while working along the same area, and his children are not enrolled in school. This is a
testament to some of the challenges faced by the poor or those working professions where
very little, or no attention, is paid to their physical wellbeing by their employers.
On the contrary, other poems serve their own artistic and cultural purpose. Alan Finlay's poem
“Death of a Tyrant” echoes a trend that has been associated with the continent for years.
Tyrants are all over the world, but as history has taught us, dictators who have ruled countries
in Africa and died in office do not seem to have learnt any lesson in life until their demise.
Finlay ponders the fate of tyrants in the following lines:
like a small trickle of oceanic shame
the drunk dogs lap at your heels…
history already remembers you in past tense
(you are gone already)
like the bloodmouths of those
who have spoken:
- they will tear down your memorials
- they will paint over your streets
In a poem titled “Tales of their Passing” Chimalum Nwankwo's speaker, in a similar tone,
echoes the concerns of Finlay's speaker in the lines above, stating,
All vessels will lose their hallowed lids
Over blessings or their secret horrors
That was how we read our stories
Sealed under the roof of our tongues
Hammered down by the General's rules
With bolts of blood and fired screws
Who can forget the tales of their passing
The fire wood bundles of all our agonies
Agony, despair, and anguish characterize the reigns of tyrants. Historically, most African
dictators have experienced violent and bloody ends during their time in office. These poems
sort of forewarn of the role of these rulers in the lives of their people. I have selected these
poems for their penetrating imagery and provocative lines. My aim is to give readers an
opportunity to grasp as much as possible from a wide selection of some of the finest voices
writing poetry today in contemporary African literature.
To say the least, this anthology brings to mind the words of the late Okogbule Wonodi, one
of Africa's finest first generation poets, who argued that: “for a Nigerian or African writer to beauthentic he must be versed in the oral literature of his people.” Indeed I agree with him, for
many of the finest poems experiment with oral forms in this book. Such poems by Tanure
Ojaide, Tijan Sallah, Lupenga Mphande, Kwame Dawes, Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, Matthew
Shenoda, Ashur Etwebi, Mbizo Chirasha, Nathalie Etoke, Frank Chipasula, Jumoke Verrisimo,
Vonani Bila, Dike Okoro, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Joyce Ashuntantang, Chimalum Nwankwo,
Gabriel Ebinyo Egbowei, among others, draw heavily on their native spoken and sung forms.
This book will serve that purpose and much more. The poems assembled here are very
strong examples of the varying forms, styles, and changes taking place and characterizing
modern African poetry, unlike the sixties and seventies generation considered the first
generation of African poets, who were chiefly preoccupied with themes linked to colonialism
and independence. The poems here, by virtue of their unique lens, attempt to define the poets
postcolonial experiences and realities through subjects covered, which include nostalgia,
representation of female voices, concern for the environment and affection for issues affecting
contemporary life on the continent.
Dike Okoro, PhD
Northwestern University, Evanston
June 2012