A Brief Note on Poetry in Africa

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To master the art of compressing feelings, thoughts and emotions, putting them down into short words that mean so much should be one of the most profound things human beings have achieved. Throughout time, poets all over the world — Oduor Oduku, Beverley Nambozo, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Kofi Awoonor, Alfonsina Storni, Kenneth Rexroth, Chen Ziang, and many others — have given life to words through poetry.

In pre-colonial Kenya, freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi wrote poems. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, when slave trade was booming in Africa, many indigenous poets crafted poems that confronted socio-political order. In postcolonial times of the 70s until 90s, when the government in place is seen as unjust, we also find many works of poetry expressing such discontents.

Poetry is a good starting place for important discussions because human beings are drawn to artistic creativity. Music, poetry, and dance are softer avenues through which to spark sensitive conversations, because they take us through an experience to make us feel more open and comfortable to react towards something irking or interesting.

First time inside The Indian Ocean Mombasa Beach Dec 2012

First time inside The Indian Ocean Mombasa Beach Dec 2012

Some people are more interested in reading long essays or trying to interpret artworks whose contents are complexly crafted, but even in the case of graphic exhibition, there is poetry in the style of presentation that makes interpretation easier. Drawings are used with the accompaniment of a few words, for example, in the case of graffiti.



Fatuma’s Voice – Purposeful Poetry and Spoken Word every Friday evening in Nairobi, Kenya

In the African setting, poetry was mostly presented orally – in villages, during ceremonies like weddings, circumcision, and funerals. It made its way through song, elegies, folktales, riddles, and panegyrics. Most of African written poetry began showing during the post-colonial era, where more Africans were getting educated and most countries had begun what is known as the second liberation, i.e. battling with the government of the day against corruption and impunity.

Poetry Celebration by Dawn Schwanke

Poetry Celebration by Dawn Schwanke

Just as many other forms of art, poetry has evolved with time. There is more use of technology and other modern trends in its presentation. As younger people continue to explore their talents in their quest to find their roots, present day spoken word and performance poetry has added more gist in the manner many Africans understand poetry. More poets and younger audiences continue to flock in forums such as Poetry Africa in South Africa to Fatuma’s Voice in Kenya, Gabon’s Slam Poetry in Libreville and Tobiya Poetic Jazz in Ethiopia to express themselves. With intermixing of cultures, afro-urban lifestyles, and keen political correctness, we express ourselves better about our daily struggles, our social woes and personal concerns. We are celebrating each other, even with all the fears of newer challenges.