Seeing Africa Through the Eyes of Poets

Ile de Goree is a special place. A small island approximately a mile off the coast of Senegal, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with no cars and only about a thousand inhabitants. It was here that 22 poets spent four days this month, producing works for the purpose of “rethinking Africa”—an endeavor perhaps better suited to poetry than policy papers.

“Poetry is to good storytelling what revolution is to politics,” says Breyten Breytenbach. “Poetry helps sharpen the blade through which we can cut through deeper issues.”

Breytenbach, a well-known poet from South Africa, is a founding member of the Goree Institute, an organization that promotes arts and culture in Africa, and was one of the two instructors at the poets’ residency on Goree Island. Organized by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, the residency was led by Breytenbach and Veronique Tadjo, a prominent Ivorian writer and scholar. It welcomed participants from Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo—all of whom came to reignite a literary tradition that has begun to fade, and to help promote arts, culture, and freedom of expression as intrinsically effective methods of fostering open societies in the region.

Many of the residents weren’t poets by trade, but rather a broad cross-section of West African society. There was the biotechnologist from Togo who had never written a poem in his life. There was the Nigerian Canadian civil engineer who decided to move back to frenetic Lagos from the quiet prairie city of Edmonton, Alberta, so her poetry could be inspired by the hardships of life in Nigeria.

Over the course of four days, each of the poets worked on four poems, at times splitting into separate Anglophone and Francophone groups to workshop and discuss their efforts. Some of them worked for more than 10 hours a day. There were poetry slams and spoken word performances, and on the final night, a reading by all the participants. Each of them had written a poem dedicated to Goree Island on pieces of cloth, which were then pinned together to form a united Francophone/Anglophone West African poetry flag. That flag is now on display at the Musée Historique (Historical Museum) on the island for a month, after which it will be stored at the Goree Institute.

The residency encouraged even those who had lived in Africa for their whole lives to reimagine the continent, and in turn, how they exist within it. “Rethinking Africa is to rethink Africans,” said Urbain Amoussou, a Togolese participant.

Below, read one of the poems created at the residency, written by Gbenga Adesina, a 24-year-old poet from Nigeria.

How to Fall in Love with an African City

In time, you too will come to learn dear friend, the soft rustle,
Soft whoosh of affection for a city like a lover like a love song: Nairobi, Abuja, Dakar
throbbing in your ribs: Accra, Harare, Port Novo, carving a place for themselves, to nestle
In spite of yourself in the jar
of things you call loved.

I know eyes have their own memories and fears
and you come here seeking only the darkness you’ve been
promised. But come again to Abidjan friend, come to Yamoussoukro, come
to Kigali, to Luanda, to Lagos, where the city vowels sing to you, sing to you.
Sidewalks that are nations on their own. Yellow buses that write you into a story
Wi-Fi spots and shopping malls and smiles that warm your arms and strangers that become
friends in an instant. Grilled meats that introduce your tongue to you.

In time, you too will come to learn dear friend, the soft rustle, soft
Whoosh of affection for a city like a lover like a love song: Nairobi, Abuja, Kigali,
Dakar throbbing in your ribs. What it means for a city to hold you by the hands
and love you and lead you to places you’ve never been inside yourself
again and again at the junction of laughter.

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The experience in Goree is wonderful and very enriching for me as a poet.We re-thought Africa,discuss its problems,expressed our collective anxiety over the then impending elections in Nigeria,with we the Nigerians in the group telling others that we will reclaim our country,and which has come to pass. We forged brotherhood between francophone and anglophone Africa. Goree poetry residency was just great;and of course we wrote new poems and reshaped many others to reflect Africa better.

The Goree Poets Residency is one that Africa can be proud of, I think. It was both an honour and a privilege to be with Breyten and Veronique and to have valuable feedback from fellow poets. And four nights sleeping to the lullaby of the sea waves was the best therapy for spirit, soul and body.

As our voices fade in the wind of Goree, we memories keeps singing its songs. This residency has been the occasion to sit down with pairs, and question Mother-Africa, seeing her trough our re-inventive eyes.

Qu'il s'agissent de la réécrire ou de la remodeller, elle et ses enfants, nous nous sommes faits faiseurs de mots et re-faiseurs de mondes. OSIWA nous a permis ça, entre frères et soeur de différentes nations, nous nous sommes confrontés à la barrière de la langue, tentant autant que possible de la dompter. "Des africains nouveaux, des mots nouveaux pour une afrique nouvelle, pour une fraternité nouvelle."

I love Africa! Peaceful and noble people with the virtue of modesty and morality. Treasurous, glorious, green and sunny, it's amazing!

The poem by Gbenga Adesina reflects a feeling I have for a city that I only knew briefly, but memories of the bustle and life of Lagos stay with me 50 years later, thanks for the visit

Where and when can we see more of this vibrant poetry from the sadly beautiful Goree Island?

nice to know

This is wonderful. I wish I was there with you.
When you do it again , please let me know .

Adding a voice to the voice
Never in pieces
Never in slices
And there we go
In one voice
Invincible VOICE
Shot out at birth bed
And never silenced at death bed
As echos have bred echos
And here are permanent reverberations
In you, in me, in everyone
Leaving the voice to live
Voice: The perpetual heritage
Our freedom!

I like the poem by Gbenga Adesina. Particularly the manner in which he romantices Africa. Again it reinforces my optimism that sure yes, Africa can do it; Africa can be the primus inter paraes among the continents of the world. I wish i had a chance to sketch my dream of Africa through my poetry on the island too.

Looks like an amazing experience. I am a African American poet living in Bamako and I would love to be involved in this project or to work with the Goree Insititute on future poetry project in the region.

This is fantastic!
would love to be able to work with Open Societies Foundations to reflect on some of the experiences in the sometimes forgoten West African islans of Cabo Verde!

The music of this poem would lure tourists and could be part of a visit Africa campaign.

What a glorious poem! I live in Japan but it makes me want to move to Africa in spite of all the hardships I can imagine. Thank you for sharing this gem in a nutshell!

You dared be bohemian in style, and that holds the attraction Gbenga. It's fresh; like you would say, 'organic'.

Thanks, I feel that poem. My very
1st trip to Africa drew poetry from my soul--some of it was joyous because my ancestors finally returned home, while some of it uncovered the forgotten horror and angst. I wasn't prepared for that outpouring and haven't written much since. I'd love to participate in a writing retreat for the children of the Diaspora.

This poem expresses exactly the core of African People, culture, etc. The world needs hugs of Mother-Africa's arms. Very inspiring to rethink ourselves as an one world, one people, one nation.

Such an incredible experience and an amazing opportunity to learn and grow in the company of other brilliant poets and instructors. It is a memory I will hold on to for a very long time. Many thanks to OSIWA for making it possible!

This residency is so inspirational. I dream of poets like Breyton Breytenbach coming to Cape Town to host a similar residency in District Six with a group of Southern Africans to rethink Africa! This would sharpen some much needed critical thought in a situation of rising 'scapegoating', xenophobia, greed and, once again, the privileging of 'race' as a signifier of difference - amongst other complexities.

Qui que tu sois
Où que tu sois

Sur mon front dazibaos sont ma race et mon Ummah-nité
Mais saches que nos êtres s’abreuvent de vitalité
Dans l’Unique Mer qui désaltère, la Divinité
Que nos racines vont s’habiller de majesté
Dans l’unique altesse étoffe, notre Humanité

Ce fut des moments mémorables que nous eûmes partagés à Gorée. Une telle initiative est à saluer. Il faut avoir une grande générosité d'âme, et une vision positive dirigée vers notre mère Afrique pour organiser une telle chose : réunir les poètes Africains pour repenser l'Afrique. Nous étions des poètes venus de divers horizons. Au début, on était juste des poètes qui s'étaient réunis pour réinventer l'Afrique. Ensuite, on est devenus des amis réunis pour repenser l'Afrique. Et avant de quitter l'île de Gorée, on était frères et sœurs. On était une famille qui a nourri et qui nourrit toujours la volonté de réinventer l'Africain. Ce fut une belle expérience riche en partage et en émotion. Bravo OSIWA ! Il est des moments gravés au creux du marbre pur de notre cœur. On ne les oublie pas ! Vive l'Afrique ! Et vive la poésie !

Et un grand merci à Breyten et Veronique, nos instructeurs au regard précis et à la plume gaie ! Sans oublier, bien sûr, la dynamique Amanda. MERCI

Identity Apples - poem by Mbizo Chirasha.

I am a fat skeleton, resurrecting
From the sad memories of dada
And dark mysteries of animism
I am Buganda
I bleed hope
I drip the honey of fortune
Makerere; think tank of Africa
I dance with you wakimbizi dance
I am Tanganyika
I smell and fester with the smoke of African genesis
I am the beginning
Kilimanjaro; the anthill of rituals
I am the smile of Africa
My glee erase the deception of sadness
My tooth bling freedom
I am myself, I am Gambia
When others seep with bullets stuck in their stomachs
I sneeze copper spoons from my mouth every dawn
I am the Colombia of Africa
I am the Cinderella of Africa
Where mediums feast with the ghost of Kamuzu in Mulange trees
Here spirits walk naked and free
I am the land of sensations
I am the land of reactions
Coughing forex blues
I still smell the scent of Nehanda’s breath
I am African renaissance blooming
I stink the soot of Chimurenga
I am the mute laughter of Njelele hills
I am Soweto
Swallowed by Kwaito and gong
I am a decade of wrong and gong
I am the blister of freedom vomited from the belly of apartheid
I see the dawn of the coming sun in Madiba’s eyebrows
I am Abuja
Blast furnace of corruption
Nigeria, the Jerusalem of noblemen, priests, professors and prophets
I am Guinea, i bling with African floridirization
I am blessed with many tongues
My thighs washed by river Nile
I am the mystery of pyramids
I am the graffiti of Nefertiti
I am the rich breast of Nzinga
I am Switzerland of Africa
The rhythm of Kalahari sunset
The rhyme of Sahara, yapping, yelping
I am Damara, I am Herero, I am Nama, I am lozi, I am Vambo
I am bitterness, I am sweetness
I am Liberia
I am king kongo
Mobutu roasted my diamonds into the stink of deep brown blisters
Frying daughters in corruption microwaves
Souls swallowed by the beat of Ndombolo and the wind of Rhumba
I am the Paris of Africa
I see my wounds
I am rhythm of beauty
I am Congo
I am Bantu
I am Jola
I am Mandinga
I sing of you
I sing Thixo
I sing of Ogun
I sing of God
I sing of Tshaka
I sing of Jesus
I sing of children
of Garangaja and Banyamulenge
Whose sun is dozing in the mist of poverty
I am the ghost of Mombasa
I am the virginity of Nyanza
I am scarlet face of Mandinga
I am cherry lips of Buganda
Come Sankara, come Wagadugu
I am Msiri of Garangadze kingdom
My heart beats under rhythm of words and dance
I am the dead in the trees blowing with wind,
I can not be deleted by civilization.
I am not Kaffir, I am not Khoisun
I am the sun breaking from the villages of the east with great inspiration of revolutions
Its fingers caressing the bloom of hibiscus

Mbizo Chirasha is an internationally acclaimed Performance poet, Writer, Creative /Literary Projects Specialist, an Advocate of Girl Child Voices and Literacy Development .He is the Founder and Projects Curator of a multiple Community, Literary, and Grassroots Projects including Girl Child Creativity Project, Girl Child Voices Fiesta, Urban Colleges Writers Prize, and Young Writers Caravan.
Mbizo Chirasha has worked with NGOS and other institutions as an Interventionist [using creative arts as models of community education, information dissemination and dialogue].The interventions include HIV/AIDS Branding Project [Social Family Health Namibia 2009 - 2010 ], HIV/AIDs Nutrition Project[Catholic Relief Services 2006] , Arts for Drought Mitigation[Swedish Cooperative Centre2006]
He is widely published in more than Hundred Journals, Magazines, and Anthologies around the world. He Co-edited Silent Voices Tribute to Achebe Poetry Anthology , Nigeria and the Breaking Silence Poetry anthology,Ghana.His Poetry collections include Good Morning President ,Diaspora Publishers , 2011 , United Kingdom and Whispering Woes of Ganges and Zambezi,Cyberwit Press ,India ,2010.
He was the Poet-in-Residence from 2001-2004 for the Iranian embassy/UN Dialogue among Civilizations Project; Focal Poet for the United Nations Information Centre from 2001-2008; Convener/Event Consultant This Africa Poetry Night 2004 - 2006; Official Performance Poet Zimbabwe International Travel Expo in 2007; Poet in Residence of the International Conference of African Culture and Development/ ICACD 2009; and Official Poet Sadc Poetry Festival, Namibia 2009.In 2010 Chirasha was invited as an Official Poet in Residence of ISOLA Conference in Kenya.
In 2003 Mbizo Chirasha was a Special Young Literary Arts Delegate of Zimbabwe International Book Fair to the Goteborg International Book Fair in Sweden. He performed at Sida/African Pavilion, Nordic African Institute and Swedish Writers Union. In 2006 was invited to be the only Poet /Artist in Residence at Atelier Art School in Alexandra Egypt. In 2009 was a Special participating Delegate representing Zebra Publishing House at the UNESCO Photo –Novel Writing Project in Tanzania..
Mbizo Chirasha works as a Performing Poet for Educational, Diplomatic, International, National, Media and Cooperate organizations .He also works as a Proof Reader/Editor , Poet /Writer in Residences for Institutions , Media Relations Strategist for projects,GirlChildVoices /Talent Advocate, Literacy Development Activist and Creative/Literary Projects Advisor/Specialist.


I find it welcome development and looking for more involvement in the field of poetry.

Goree Island and the OSIWA residency made me see my beloved Afrika from a water's eyes. It was an amazing experience I still don't want to wake up from. It feels like a dream come through.

I love the report of the experience and Gbenga's poem is really really beautiful. It is good to know that such programmes exist in Africa. Bringing together so many poets is not something we see often. Most times, the fiction writers get more... Still, well done! We pray to see more!

Gabenga Adesina's poem is beautiful. I also want to let the whole group of Ile de Goree participants know about a world-wide organization called 100 Thousand Poets for Change. Every year in September, poets all around the world create events to support peace, justice, and sustainability. We are working together to make the world a better place. Check it out!

This is particularly interesting. . As an African poet, i would have loved to take part in this too.

The residency at Goree was a dream come true. Every moment is deeply treasured. The thought of Africa rising is a vision we hold deep within our souls, and Poetry further cements the dream. Thanks to OSIWA for making this a reality.


Last night I dreamt of the Sudan,
all night I am in its great desert
in the roiling, soiling heat.
The sky is no longer blue
but a pale washed out grey
and there are no points of reference.

I wander from clay baked village to village,
the dark people in their vibrant clothes
giving me water and the cool shade of their homes.
The phosphored ghosts of Christ and Mohamed
also roam these open wastes, the birdless margins,
looking for a place to lie down side by side.

But the pitiless spaces make room for nothing
except the shimmer of hallucinations and
there are no small-shadowed places.
Beyond Khartoum there is only the desert
Beyond Meroe there is only the desert
Beyond the horizon the Nile has no tears.

Karen Petersen

"United We will stand and divided We shall fall" We will change the face of Africa if We take responsibility and own it !


When I think of Africa,I think of Kenya
Oh! Kenya a beautiful nation,I adore you Kenya
the nice sandy beaches at the coast,the warm ocean waters,I love being a Kenyan,the core of Africa.

I feel good,very good reading about this initiative.Africa has made the first world, why not the third world.Why not Africa.Cheers

I highly appreciate the talents of African poets. I am an upcoming poet too. I have not published any of my over 100 poems. Allow me to give you one of them for a reading. Leave a comment and possible advice.

Thank you

Solomon Ochwo Oburu

Bob the Belly

Bob the belly is forever
Occupying first places
In parties, he is in high table
In the car he is in front seat
In church he is near the altar
When his buttocks complain
He assures him firmly,
"My friend, stay there
You were created to be
In the boys quarters
In sewage you shall dwell
With all your children
And children’s children"

Great masterpiece that connects the people to true image of our nations and continents. Poems are great words change and hope.

This is something I would have loved to be part of

I loved the metaphor of knowing the city like knowing oneself.
It's interesting and inspiring that poetry unites us because here in Mèxico we often get together from different cities to share our poetry too.
Thanks for showing me a bit of your great continent, Africa. Thanks Gbenga Adesina for your lovely poem!

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