How I Found the African Poem
The whole thing started back in 1963 when I studied cultural sociology in New York. A mission priest, a good friend of mine from High School, was struggling with his doctorate at Columbia University which would enable him to train future missionaries to Africa. One evening he told me that he was examining the first books of two African authors. He was comparing them, he said to find the “African essence” –but he wasn’t getting anywhere. He was just conveying his worries over a beer or two, but in me his words lit a spark and I accepted the challenge. I asked him to lend me the two novels he was working on so I could study the African topic for myself. Up to that moment I had been engaged exclusively in cultural studies of Japan, India and China. Afew days later he brought me the two oeuvres Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Le pauvre Christ de Bomba by Mongo Beti. Both works were published in 1956 and said to be the beginning of African world literature. Achebe was from Nigeria and he wrote with English colonialism in the background; Beti was from Cameroon and had experienced the francophone missionary schools. I read the two books within two days, and it became clear to me why my doctoral friend didn’t make any progress. He had overlooked that the two authors wrote each with their own – and different – colonial background, and they didn’t want to broadcast any ideal type of African wisdom. On the contrary: they spoke out fiercely against their masters. Therefore my friend could not find a lot of “Ur-Africanism”. Yet that is what he had been looking for in the two books: an ahistorical, primordial African worldview. Such were the views of this time, passed on for example by the bestselling missionary non-fiction book La Philosophie bantoue of the Belgian Francisan Placide Tempels. My colleague overlooked that the subject of the two novelists was not the “Africanism” of the anthropologists but, in the end, decolonialisation. This was hardly a fault of his. Colonialism was generally still (in 1963!) taken for granted and considered to be a good thing too. In this context Moto Beti had to be a mudraker. And how dare Chinua Achebe claim that everything was falling apart, if Christianity had brought salvation to an Africa that rose out of “confusion and chaos”. I started to realize that these books were not celebrating old values but challenging the European colonial masters. They contained the message: Give us our freedom! They, the African people, had something to say to me, it wasn’t me who had to lecture them. From that very day I began systematically to collect and read newly published African literature.
When I was teaching history and English literature to the graduating High School class in the former Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) I discovered quickly that the curriculum was centered on all things British. For the diploma the school required the mastery of three Shakespeare plays. That was way too much for African students, and I as an individual teacher did not have the time and opportunity during the intense regular lessons to focus on African literature written in English. Therefore I offered courses in African history and contemporary African literature on school-free Saturday mornings. We met outdoors because were not allowed into the official school building for this kind of lesson.
Surprisingly many, many students came, perhaps out of curiosity. When asked for the name of an African poet or writer they remained silent. Some thought that there was no such person. I discussed at that time besides the work of Chinua Achebe three poems: one each by Oswald Mbuyseni Mtshali (South Africa), by Roland Tombekai (Liberia) and by Dennis Brutus who came from Rhodesia but lived in exile. The students were excited. And I was deeply moved and content. Nothing could take away from my elation. When later on I was expelled from the school and also the country because of my allegedly communist propaganda, I left Rhodesia knowing that poems can have an audience on the African continent.
In 1971 I moved to Bern, Switzerland, to help found an NGO that focused on information from and about the developing world. Its name was i3w, the acronym stands for Information 3rd world. Many Europeans – especially politicians, but missionaries too – had not understood yet that we all together were part of a lengthy and arduous decolonization process. In fact they used to say: “The Africans are free now and independent! What more do they want?”
At that time there were only three translated African authors and books on the German book market, namely Thomas Mofolo with Chaka, Peter Abraham with Mine Boy and Camara Laye with Einer aus Kurusa (original title L’enfant noir).
In the former GDR, the German Democratic Republic, one could find additional translations of African works. Because this happened during the Cold war the existence of these books from Africa was for the West a conclusive proof of their suspicion that all contemporary African writers were at heart staunch Communists.
But there was one oeuvre that was beyond doubt: the big poetry anthology Schwarzer Orpheus (Black Orpheus), first published in 1954 and then in a second much expanded edition by Hanser Verlag in 1964. Our NGO, the i3w, advertised the poetry collection wherever possible so that schools and churches would get to know some of the contemporary poetry that came out of Africa. Yet even at that time Schwarzer Orpheus conveyed an outdated and often nostalgically glossed over image of Africa. The idea of Négritude with its beautiful black bodies and its enthusiasm for old myths was gone; the day after independence, Africa landed hard in reality. This happened also because Europe had outwardly withdrawn but in European minds everything stayed the same. Power had been turned over, yet there was no liberation from domination. There was a new national anthem, but no new culture. Many of the new masters became colonialists in their own country, more arrogant and tough than the old colonialists ever dared to be.
Most people in the German-speaking part of Europe had no idea that in the meantime there existed a vivid and ambitious African literature. One example of these efforts is the novel by Ayi Kwe Armah from Ghana The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Die Schönen sind noch nicht geboren) first published in London in 1968. Chinua Achebe had also accused his homeland Nigeria after the country had lived through a most cruel civil war. At this point already I was struck by how much more witty and aggressive the literature from the Anglophone parts of Africa tended to be, how much more anger and radicalism it contained than the works from the francophone parts. How come? I wanted to know more.
In the early 1970es I met Gerd Meurer, a whirlwind of a journalist. Meurer worked as a freelancer for the major Swiss newspaper NZZ and he was responsible for the African bureau (that still existed at that time) of Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle in Cologne. We became a good journalistic team specializing in literature and poetry – and in African famines. We started to interview writers and poets of the African continent. A lot of this material is archived at the University of Mainz today. At the Deutsche Welle we produced regularly literary programmes which then were translated in various languages. I always tried to favor poetry. Oral literature – especially the poem – was particularly well suited to the radio. Gerd and I were joined by Jochen Klicker from the radio station RIAS Berlin and Rupert Neudeck from Deutschlandfunk in Cologne was also very interested in this undertaking. Through these radio journalists African literature found its way into the German-speaking countries. Broadcasting paved the way.
Starting in the early 1970s I tried to convince people interested in what’s happening in the developing world and especially publishers that modern African literature should be made available in German. Most of them dismissed the idea; it would not be marketable they said. But how could people ask for something they didn’t know anything about? In the end I was able to win two publishing companies namely the former Otto Walter Verlag (in Olten, Switzerland) and the Peter Hammer Verlag (in Wuppertal, Germany) for the book series Dialog Afrika. In this I had the valuable support of Gerd Meurer and Jochen Klicker. I had chosen sixteen works – eight for each of the publishing companies – and planned their translation.
But again there were some political difficulties. For the leftists in the German writer’s association Deutscher Schriftstellerverband we were not literary insiders and therefore not to be trusted. In addition we had intentionally also chosen books from other countries than South Africa and now we were accused of undermining the fight against apartheid. We were reminded that we as mere journalists should not venture into the field of literature. And then there were ideologues who complained that we had selected books in colonial languages. In Switzerland the Dialog Afrika series sold well, about 2000 people were interested in these books. In Germany everything was slow, although there was at least one publisher from Frankfurt, the Lembeck Verlag, who specialized in novels from the francophone African countries.
It was at this time that I started to translate African poems myself. I started out with South African poetry, because poems played a very important role in the fight against apartheid. These people did not have time nor publishers for thick novels. Next I worked on poems from Angola, wehre the poem was praised as a weapon in the fight for independence.
The NGO epd Entwicklungspolitik in Frankfurt, Germany, was a sympathetic partner in my undertaking. We published for schools booklets with poems from all parts of Africa that had been translated and provided with some introductory notes.
Because of these literary activities I became part of a group who took over the forever quarrelling interlit Festival, an event that was created and sponsored by the left literature association of West Germany. As in many organizations of the 1970s there was a lot of infighting going on that damaged the action and the members. Our new group brought the event to Erlangen, Germany, where I knew the mayor Dietmar Hahlweg from my university days. We were not only a group that was very interested in intercultural exchange but also, given the difficult circumstances, working quite peacefully together to bring the literature of all three non-European continents on the stage.
I was responsible for the African region. From the beginning I insisted that we invite as many African poets as possible to our readings. And so we made personal contact with writers like Wole Soyinka, Francis Bebey, Niyi Osundare and Zakes Mda. All of us – organizers, presenters, translators and writers from the three southern continents – lived closely together for one full week and exchanged ideas day and night. On these occasions I tried to translate the poems which the poets read to the audience in their own language.
1979 – finally! – Germany had its first big Africa-Festival in Berlin. This week was not without rancor but still it was a historical major event. Among others the Zimbabwean poet Dambudzo Marechera read at the festival, and a small audience heard poems that were very different from what we Europeans expected out of Africa. The poems were products of exile; they made things like the woodworm in the beams a poetical subject. Wole Soyinka captivated us with a long and multidimensional poem of Ogun. We were also deeply impressed by the South African Dennis Brutus with his nuclear poem “A Terrible Knowledge” which he wrote while in exile in the USA.
All this was explosive matter and it brought about that a small circle of Peter Ripken, Gerd Meurer and myself, together with the then-director of the Frankfurter Buchmesse Peter Weidhaas, decided to make Africa the main focus of this important book fair. It was the first time the book fair had such a focus and it was such a big success that from then on each year the book fair profiled a different country or region.
To continue and sustain the Africa interest of this fair a small organization named litprom was founded in Frankfurt, with the goal of supporting African literature. As time went on, this organization also embraced literature from Asia and Latin America, including the Caribbean. Today litprom is still translating literature from these three continents. litprom and with it Africa have found their niche in the German-speaking region.
In 1989 and 1990 I travelled through Namibia and Zimbabwe with the circus/theatre federlos. The year before I had been a consultant for federlos when the group had been touring Nigeria and West Africa. Since this organization practiced the principle of mutuality, we had now to find writers, musicians and artists, men and women, from these countries who could and wanted to perform in a common programme in Switzerland. Out of this undertaking grew many good relationships to local poets – and if possible poetesses! – in Nigeria, and Ghana and also in Namibia and Zimbabwe. Among others we had readings in Switzerland by Zaynab Alkali, Nigeria, and Tsitsi Dangarembga, Zimbabwe.
In the 1990s I started together with the Goethe Institute or with the Zurich organization Nawao which originated in the circus/theatre federlos to organize poetry writing courses in Africa. The Nigerian poet Zaynab Alkali and I for example taught a week-long intense writing seminar in Maiduguri, Northern Nigeria. Zaynab took over the courses in short story writing I focused on poetry. The result of this cooperation was the book Vultures in the Air. Voices from Northern Nigeria. Two similar if shorter seminars took place in Harare (Zimbabwe) and in Nairobi (Kenia).
Together with Bernard Kojo Laing, a poet from Ghana, I sat in the jury of a literary competition in Ghana organized by the Goethe Insitute. There too I focused on the field of poetry. The distinguished works, that was the plan, would be published in the Ghanaian publishing house Woeli.
In 1996 I was part of Joachim Sartorius’ project Atlas der neuen Poesie (Atlas of New Poetry). The book was published by Rwohlt Taschenbuch Verlag. In this assignment I recognized how large the world of poetry is and how little space Africa is given in that universe. From our Western perspective we only see the poems connected with Apartheid and the struggle against it. But now that this time is officially over we must give Africa more room to stretch and grow.
I wanted to produce an anthology for the entire continent of Africa. Only, what is an idealist to do when everybody tells him his project would border on megalomania? I was told again and again that there was no market for poetry. Still, something began to dawn: big newspapers started to publish poetry. In Switzerland one of the largest papers, the Tagesanzeiger of Zurich, printed one poem a day. Maybe it grows from here? I remember how Niyi Osundare had been writing for a Nigerian newspaper; at least once a week he commented on the news in form of a ballad or a skit.
In time for the turn of the millennium I planned to compile a new anthology of poetry from all of Africa. The last such undertaking was the more than fifty year old opus Schwarzer Orpheus (Black Orpheus) and its poems could not communicate the contemporary Africa and its many contrasts and contradictions. I had collected numerous poetry books that had been published since 1960 in English, French, Portuguese, and Afrikaans and also a few booklets in Swahili. After intense reading I selected about a thousand poems that could make up this anthology. But no publisher was interested in the project. Most of them didn’t even answer to my request; two of them said such a book should have at the most 150 pages, but even that much would not fit into their publishing program.
Disappointed I put my dream aside. On my 70th birthday I transferred my entire Africana library to the University of Basel.
Then one day late in 2011 I had a visitor, an older gaunt gentleman of a certain age, an educator in love with poetry, and he said to me: “Al, you have to complete this oeuvre in time for your 80th birthday!” His words hit me like lightning. I took my friend seriously. At once I suspended my project dealing with agriculture and the African city. As if under a spell I restarted the anthology. And since that visit myself and a small team of translators have been working on that book relentlessly.
Quite a few of the poets, from Francis Bebey and Dambudzo Marechera to Ken Saro-Wiwa and Kofi Awonoor, have encouraged me during their lifetime. They more or less ordered me to see to it that their poems live on in the German language after their death. I have thus become their trustee.
I took a different course of action than other anthologies. I contacted first the still living poets. From all my years working with African literature I had the addresses of many African writers. I also wrote to my African colleagues at interlit und asked them for suggestions and mail contacts of contemporary African poets. This procedure was very successful. A great many writers participated, most of them enthusiastically.
A few drops of bitterness remain. There were a few authors that I really wanted to have in the anthology but I could not find electronic addresses nor any other means of communication.
A few poets from South Africa and especially from the francophone region reacted positively to my request but then they didn’t send any texts despite having been reminded several times.
But to be fair I wanted to include also the ones I couldn’t reach personally and so I reprinted selected poems from their poetry collections.
There is one big advantage to this kind of anthology: I can truly say that this is not just a Eurocentric selection, the African poets themselves had their say in determining the content. At the same time a book like this can demonstrate how differently the poets choose what’s to be published.
The result is an fascinating anthology, or so I think. In any case, the long and winding road to it was an intellectual adventure, exciting und very instructive for myself too. In these past years, every day there appeared another kernel of the new Africa. The poems became windows, to see out and in, with new views and new horizons: from horrible pools of blood to Homeric laughter, from the ambiguities of the Yoruba-god Ogun to clear cut vultures, from jubilation to deepest grief. In this way every verse of every poem reveals brightness and shadows of the contemporary Africa. Sometimes one gets the impression that there is a direct way from the Kalashnikov to the poetic statement. At times the reader is praying with the poet, sometimes he or she is cursing all variations of evil.
There are new forms of poetry apparent. Rap is one of them, often shameless and hard to bear. But this kind of poetry is part of the whole. More and more poetry is even communicated via short SMS. The spectrum of poetry has bradened. Yet whatever form poetry takes, poems make up the netting of a society.
Why an African poetry collection now?
Everybody wants to do “business” with Africa nowadays. The Chinese for example try to create – finally – a functioning infrastructure in Africa in order to be able to exchange commodities. But if they do not include poets and artists in their endeavor they will build in an empty space. Without friendship and deep understanding everything ends in a new kind of colonialism. We all need African companions and escorts who lead us to Africa in a non-shallow way.
Poems are one possibility for that. They can be of assistance to a businessman as well as an aid worker. Poems are a special form of philosophy. Like nothing else they reveal needs and show weaknesses without offending. Poems are honest.
Africa’s people want to emerge from the mess that colonialism left behind. Poems can serve as bridges. Once upon a time, in the Middle Ages of the West, a Christophorus figure was needed as an ideal and allegory. The Africa of today needs poetry and images, symbols, and signs. The contemporary Africa expresses itself tentatively and boldly through poems. Poems are the new script of the continent.
This collection contains more than 550 poems. Most of them were written between 1960 and 2014, and they come from all African regions, from South Africa to Egypt. Everywhere something is sprouting, but then is suffocated right away. To counteract this dynamic we need a thunderbolt or a bane, but also rites for awakening and an evocation of the future. Lamenting alone does not help; badly needed is also the encouragement for a new dance with today’s reality.
A poetry collection like this should be available in all libraries, should be used in schools and in introductory courses for aid workers; it should touch the world of business as well, because money alone will not be enough. I state boldly: Money and poetry belong together despite all their contradictions. Africa comes to us via the poem, and we approach Africa’s people with the help of poetry.