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Seeing Africa Through the Eyes of Poets

Three poets
Participants take part in poetry critiques at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa Poets’ Residency on Goree Island in Dakar, Senegal. From left to right: Efe Azino, Fumni Aluko, and Gbenga Adesina, all from Nigeria. Amanda Fortier/Open Society Foundations

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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