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 almost every morning before regular classes commenced. The days we did not, then it was a section of the multiplication table or what we called times table that we regurgitated. But just like other pupils, I did not have the faintest impression of what the poem meant. And of course 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 when we discontinued reciting them as we advanced to higher classes in school. It was so in my case until ten years later 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 favorite, and the chapter was entitled ‘Impetuous Son’.
I remember this vividly. In ten years’ time many things had changed in my life, as 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, 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 Achebe‘s novel again, 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 usually do when we feel we have achieved a bit of maturity. 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 the deceased in question is so famous. There is an instant aura of respect that seem to surround dead people. I wanted to learn about this well-known chap who was not yet known to me. By now you are familiar with why this was so - my former disinterest in literature. Thus I set out to read the novel. With each line I read, I had 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 perhaps fully understand its message. I must add, however, that the man Chinua Achebe influenced my style of writing, although I had started writing some years earlier.
The unabridged version of the poem starts like a love song of two lovers, just like the biblical Song of Solomon. It tells of the love of the French-born Cameroonian poet David Diop for Africa, his Africa. Notwithstanding his absence in Africa even from birth, it is sodden with his strong passion for the continent. If this is so with him, this love, how much more then should it be with those born and living in the continent. However, many have argued, and reasonably, that this love of his was only as a result of his not being born and brought up in Africa, a classic illustration of the saying ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder.’
In addition to the absence were the effusive stories and songs he heard of the continent from his grandmother. Such stories and songs, naturally depicted a disproportionately positive image of his homeland, and caused him to seek to understate if not secrete its shortcomings in between the lines.
I have begun to reason the same way myself too. Nonetheless, we cannot take away from the truth that Monsieur David Diop (for he was indeed French), as well as other Africans, whether they had, in Diop’s word, ‘known’ Africa or not, did at one time harbor, to whatever extent, some affection for Africa. It was this affection that prompted Diop into composing this poem amongst several others. It is this same affection that has stirred many Africans to do the wonderful deeds they have done in, for, and to the continent at certain points of their lives. It is this same affection that has made me, in the little way I can, to publish not quite a few articles on socio-cultural problems on the continent in our national newspapers, suggesting ways of tackling them.
Anyway, still on that great poem of Diop’s, it also portrays Africa as bent, broken, and humiliated by her former slave and colonial masters. I do not entirely agree with him on this, however. He sees Africa, as a juvenile tree again towering unaided above other white and faded flowers which I reckon to be imperialist West. It springs up but gradually and stubbornly still, and gains its independence and prominence unabatedly. I do not want to criticize the poem. I only candidly state what I make of the poem as regards my now somewhat advanced understanding of historic Africa, and my observation of modern Africa.
Thanks, ironically, to my Western education. As you should know by now, I am not a socio-political scientist or anything of that sort, I am only a graduate of Biological Sciences. But I have been driven by Africa’s black blood that flows in my veins to bare my soul on this African issue. Driven, for I cannot escape my Africaness whether I now consider Africa unfavourably or migrate to another continent as almost every child of Africa nursed by her has done or seeks to do at all costs. By the way, who better to tell the story of Africa than an African himself?
I am from Nigeria, the most populous black nation in the world. Above all, I am African – black African. I cannot, however, add that I am a proud African, because to do so will be to tell a lie. I do love Africa, without doubt, but I do not take it that a feeling of love for something or someone should necessitate a feeling or sense of pride for such. And this goes for Africa as well. I have not always been pleased that I am black, what with racial prejudice, the infamous slave trade and colonial history, ruthless dictatorship, endemic corruption, poverty (which Africa is synonymous with), gross underdevelopment, rampant illegal emigration, and a hosts of other things which only make you bury your face in your palms with a grimace, and grind your teeth in mixed feelings of shame and displeasure whenever the subject Africa is brought up in a negative light.
In actual fact, I have wished time and again that I were European, particularly Western European, or at least American. Call it childlike or childish. But it is undeniably the desire of many a young and old Africans alike, especially those in urban or semi-urban areas who are somewhat exposed to Western life. It is, after all, what results in colossal emigration from the continent. Let me add that I myself could have climbed on this emigration bandwagon had I the wherewithal to purchase the ticket. Besides, I could not afford accompanying illegal emigrants to sneak up the foreign, far-flung, northern corner of the world, for I loved my life dearly. Most importantly, I was not that desperate, since my family was a small and bourgeois one.
By now I have made clear that I will speak on the Africa poem, not with sentiments, not with bias by reason of my negritude, but with pure objectivity, based on obvious facts many are willing to turn a blind eye to. I will explain in a few words why Diop’s tree may never grow again and bear fruit. I begin with the white flowers – how they became luxuriant. The Europeans simply developed because of their love for science and inventions, and a culture or society that allowed for this love for and advancement of science and inventions. Simply put, the Europeans adopted a civilised lifestyle of making greater use of technology.
This enabled them to conquer and rule the world. Africa, on the other hand, lacks social attitudes that facilitate scientific endeavours. And so she does not have the foundation that will develop her technological potentials. An average African’s concern is the acquisition of material wealth. Give him a good house, a car, money, and many wives, and the African man is content. And this, dear reader, is why I know beyond doubt that Africa, my Africa may never grow to the heights of true greatness and independence Diop envisaged. Scientific and technological development distinguishes the developed countries from the underdeveloped ones. The standard of living, social security, military, and political power of a society all depend on the advancement of her science and technology. Because Africa may never realise this, her countries will continually be plagued with underdevelopment.