Home » General » Presidents Who Were Favoured By the Muses [opinion]

Poetry with a nationalist accent is one of the most enduring monuments of African literature. A thread of love letters – impassioned, potent, poetic endearments to Africa – was unwound at the high tide of liberation. Europe has commissioned poet laureates to give its official occasions the rhyme factor. In Africa, a coterie of heads of states has signed up to give the poetry of the continent presidential signatures.

Leopold Sedar Senghor, the first president of Senegal and founding exponent of the Negritude movement, has been inducted as one of the continent’s foremost poetic thoroughbreds.

“Poetry has lost one of its masters, Senegal a statesman, Africa a visionary,” Jacques Chirac, then French president, said on hearing of Senghor’s death in 2001.

Senghor is one of the Francophone poets of international repute. Prolific and varied, he is the better known of the poetic heads of states, with several volumes and accolades under his belt.

It may well be inferred that while political office was Senghor’s day job, poetry was his prime vocation.

There are other leaders whose work has not made it to the usual orbit of literary discussions but, all the same, merits critical hindsight.

These include Agostinho Neto (Angola), Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana) and Thabo Mbeki (South Africa).

We take an Africa Day-themed look at these presidents and prime ministers’ strivings poetry – a wafer-thin but important contribution to the dumpsite of African literature.

We defer to later discussion, various other African politicians (locally, Herbert Chitepo, Edison Zvobgo and Lazarus Dokora) who contributed their own sidebars to the artistic ferment of pan-Africanism.

Agostinho Neto

Neto’s poetry appears in three anthologies, notably “Sacred Hope”.

I first fell for his work in a thin volume of Angolan verse translated from Portuguese I picked from my father’s bookshelf as a teenager.

For this discussion we single out the poem “We Shall Return” for its thematic proximity to the issues of the day, particularly resource nationalism.

Written towards the threshold of independence, the poem anticipates prosperity for Angola’s alienated masses when they return: “To our landsRed with coffeeWhite with cottonGreen with maize fieldswe shall return. To our mines of diamondsGold, copper, oilwe shall return.”

The means by which poverty and deprivation were to be abolished in the native’s own land, his birthright even, was the ostensible master-key of self-government, hence the closing verse: “We shall returnto liberated Angolaindependent Angola.”

Neto shares the optimism of his generation that the liberation of Africa would realise better prospects for the long disempowered indigenes.

Fair first step but a far cry from the finishing line!

Many Africans resident in their own countries are still subjects instead of citizens, desperately impoverished and victims of civil wars and petty power struggles.

Precipitate class disparities between the rulers and the ruled have replaced the racial imbalances of colonialism.

Africans, far and wide, still gasp for the air of peace and freedom yearn for the right to decent living.

The great evil of the age is conspiracy by politicians and big corporations to bar the ordinary Africans from their civic dues – a shady coalescence to deny Africans a share of their own wealth.

May I hasten to point out that Neto’s poem is a more pressing imperative today than it was on conception?

Problems that were topical upon the inception of the OAU (now AU) 51 years ago are the same problems leaders are deliberating, even deferring today.

On the occasion of the Golden Jubilee celebrations last year, then AU chairperson Hailmariam Desalegn acknowledged: “We all recognise that Africa’s aspirations of lasting peace and prosperity still remain to be realised and the vision of our founding fathers is yet to be fulfilled.

“It is my earnest hope that by 2063, we will have a continent free from the scourge from conflicts and abject poverty.” What glaring irony!

Patrice Lumumba

Eloquent champion of self-determination and uncompromising nationalist, Lumumba is one of the principal pan-Africanist firebrands.

Before his accession, Lumumba wrote poetry for magazines, some of which is reproduced in biographies and web homages.

These include “Dawn in the Heart of Africa”, “May Our People Triumph”, “Weep, Beloved Black Brother”, which may well be different translations of the same poem from French.

Lumumba’s hand is long, free and untrimmed, apparently from the passionate intensity characteristic of the statesman.

Africa’s surrogacy – condemnation to produce and labour to develop other continents, while bleeding itself to underdevelopment – is handled in elaborate measure.

“Weep, O my black beloved brother deep buried in eternal, bestial nightO you, whose dust simooms and hurricanes have scattered all over the vast earth,You, by whose hands the pyramids were reared,” Lumumba laments in “May Our People Triumph”.

Besides being the beast of burden, Africa is also the washbasin, given under military subjugation: “You, who were taught but one perpetual lesson,One motto, which was — slavery or death You, who lay hidden in impenetrable junglesAnd silently succumbed to countless death.”

The poem ends on an optimistic note as the banks of a great river flourish with hope for the starved indigenes when strategic resource deposits are finally appropriated to the native as Congo is finally “happy and free in the very heart of vast black Africa”.

Tragically, Lumumba’s dream too is still to be actualised. The poet himself was brutally murdered in the line of patriotic duty.

His story is captured in the documentary “Death Colonial Style”, a prototypal account of the West’s one-size-fit-all capitalist crusade and its destabilising trail in the Third World.

Lumumba also engages at length the consorting of organised religion with colonialism, slavery and racism. He, however, makes the distinction between professed claimants and genuine adherents of religion.

“Any people that oppresses another people is neither civilised nor Christian,” Lumumba said in his address to International Seminar organised by the Congress for the Freedom of Culture in 1959.

Kwame Nkrumah

Militant and non-conformist, feted by some as the archetypal pan-Africanist and the greatest African statesman in contradistinction to Nelson Mandela, Nkrumah is the least prolific of the poetic heads of states.

His little-known lyrical legacy is the small poem which he recited at the inception of the OAU in Addis Ababa: “Ethiopia, Africa’s bright gem,Set high among verdant hills… Ethiopia the wiseShall riseAnd remould with us the full figureOf Africa’s hopesAnd destiny.”

Whereas the centre is still out of order, Nkrumah’s prophecy is not to be discounted should one antedate and consubstantiate it with the vision of the psalmist: “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands to God.”

Africa’s ultimate solution is divine realignment.

Thabo Mbeki

We close the instalment with the conclusion of Mbeki’s forceful prose-poem “I am an African”.

Obert Gutu has attempted a sequel of a sort, “I am a New African, Marechera-inspired,” but being personally averse to “Dambudzo relics”, I will give it up to Mbeki for the more hard-wearing delivery.

“Whoever we may be, whatever our immediate interest, however, much we carry baggage from our past, however much we have been caught by the fashion of cynicism and loss of faith in the capacity of the people, let us err today and say – nothing can stop us now!” Mbeki observes.

Source : The Herald