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The Role of an African Poet during a Time of War.

Article by: Dr. Christopher Okemwa |

The Role of an African Poet during a Time of War

Christopher Okemwa
Author:Dr. Christopher Okemwa
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The African continent has experienced armed conflicts, insurgencies, ethnic and religious skirmishes in the post-colonial era. Currently we have nomadic and ethnic violence in South Sudan, Boko Haramu and Bakassi conflicts in Cameroon, war of terrorism in Somali, various insurgencies in Morocco and Algeria, Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria; and ethnic violence, religious cleansing and cattle rustling in various parts of Kenya.

multi cultural children
Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and cattle rustling in various parts of Kenya.

What role does an African writer have to play during a time of war or conflict? Can a writer afford to sit back and watch as her continent goes through coups d'etat, armed conflicts, post-election violence, insurgencies and ethnic violence? Can she hold back her pen from giving opinions over the wars and skirmishes?

multi cultural children
war of terrorism in Somali
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Recently, when I expressed my intention to compile an international anthology of poems on the Ukraine war, heads turned, question marks appeared on faces and the global air became heavy with curiosity. One Russian poet passionately protested, claiming that such an anthology would provoke emotions and tears. He stated thus:

"Sorry, dear friend! But I think it is immoral to write poems about a monstrous global cataclysm that threatens the extermination of all mankind! I hope that you sincerely do not understand the provocativeness of the stated topic! I think that the publication of such an anthology will only aggravate the international situation! Sorry…"

The anthology he is referring to, Ukraine: A World Anthology of Poems on War, is now published and excellently selling on Amazon and bookstores around the world.

Russia-Ukraine War
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Now this brings us to the question: Can a poet, or writer for that matter, including the African griot, shy away from writing about the war and armed conflicts around her? Can she shy away from the mess she sees around her, including religious cleansing, tribal conflicts, and coup d'etats? While earlier critics from the West condemned African poetry because of its preoccupation with content as opposed to its strategy of presentation, there are other critics who have switched allegiance to African writings because, as they claim, it carries a soul within it. True, indeed, art is life, or an expression of life, and this art must give us the true meaning of human existence, without which it is art-for-art's-sake.

"Poetry demands human compassion. Without which poetry becomes just a jumble of dead words, void, a lifeless entity. Who would like to read that poem which is just a formation of words and sound without any true soul? In addition, to bring out the soul of our poetry we need to establish direct relations with our surroundings, with our present time and with human compassion."

Nilavronill Shoovro
Nilavronill Shoovro

As my friend-poet, Nilavronill Shoovro, states in the OPA website, art must have human compassion; it must be about life in the society where the poet is from. Being part of that society, a poet must be able to access materials from it. The society, its people, its activities, its politics, economics, gossips, quarrels, should be part of the poet’s materials for his craft.

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An African poet cannot practice art-for-art’s sake, for she, at the time of conflict, has no time to necessarily engage in rhyme schemes and meter patterns, but to express her emotions towards the oppression and injustices she is witnessing around her. The African griot exists to act as a social and political commentator, and not to spread empty words that means nothing, no matter how imaginative those words may be. In Africa, and many societies in the world for that matter, art is not created for its own sake, but for a purpose. It must not be an empty imagination, but a product of developments within the society in which the artist lives. She must demonstrate a social commitment and be a public voice in her own right and deal with public concerns in her poetry.

"The product of a writer's imaginative involvement - what Shakespeare called mirror unto nature - becomes a reflection of society: its economic structure, its class formation, its conflicts and contradictions; its class power political and cultural struggles; its structure of values … (Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, 1981, 72)."

William Shakespeare

An African poet and writer will therefore preoccupy herself with her society's politics, culture and values. Her poetry must reflect life itself, that is, people's hopes, aspirations, and wishes. Without direct relation to real life, the poet will lose the soul of her writing and her poetry will become word-play on a page. Which reader will be interested in such soulless, dead writing?

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Going back to the Russian friend-poet who wrote to condemn the proposed anthology about the Ukraine war, myriad questions at the time came to my mind: Can poets afford to just watch as people die around them? Can they restrain themselves from writing anything about war simply because it is immoral to write poems about a monstrous global cataclysm that threatens the extermination of all mankind? Can they afford to hold back because someone thinks that they will aggravate the international situation? As I pondered the inflamed response of my Russian friend, the second e-mail suddenly arrived from Canada, spewing venom:

"Christopher, I do not subscribe to NATO's narrative so I would like to know what position are you taking on Ukraine for this book. If it is convenient for you I'd appreciate your focus on this issue."
insurgencies in Morocco and Algeria

What position I was taking on this book? I think she must have been choking with anger. But the question was irrelevant. I shuddered and asked myself: Can poets hesitate to write war poetry because country, friends and enemies will construe them to have taken a political side? Are we in this world to kill or not to kill? And are required to strictly stand on one side or the other? I replied to the poet as follows:

A poet is a creative writer, “Creative” here means not only putting words together during the composition process but also creating humanity, of course not as God does, for a poet cannot be God, and it is blasphemy to even think so, but the poet “creates” humanity by interlacing elements of life that bring peace, harmony, happiness and dignity to lives, and thereby adding value to human existence and survival.

UN SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

The Canadian poet was humbled. She wrote back in a tone of peace and tranquility:

Thank you, Christopher. But as they say, everything is political...even not taking a stand is political. Everyone wants peace but it's not happening...there is a path to it and it is fraught with political mines.

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The heat was off and the debate ended there. A poet cannot immerse himself in political hatred among nations at war or in ethnic conflicts. Poets are a special race and a special tribe. Being a community of their own kind, they are expected to provide answers to predicaments in societies and therefore cannot support one country against another or incite people of a certain nation to take up arms against another, or to simply hate or segregate. We are a sort of tribe who use our art to interweave peace and restore some dignity to humanity, thereby “creating” humanity.

Currently, it may not be possible in Russia to write poetry against the war. Currently it is not easy to condemn oppression in some nations in Africa. Should poets allow their independent voices to be muzzled from expressing the truth against oppression and injustice? No, a true poet stands up for the truth and speaks with authority, and she will carry her pen as though it were a spear and join the war. She should be ferocious and fierce while at war in order to correct the wrongs within a community and embrace the rights and as Ngugi wa Thiong'o observes, in order to influence a people's consciousness and politics. The poet or writer should be the answer to the myriad conflicts in Africa and elsewhere. She should be the guide towards finding a solution. People look up to her for direction, for counsel and as a source of hope and inspiration.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

An African poet or writer who shies away from condemning ethnic conflicts in her country or decides to hold back her pen from proffering solutions on tribal wars, religious conflicts and political violence around her, is not a true writer. She is a dead wood of an artist. No true writer just watches as people around her suffer or experience oppression or death at the hands of tyrants. A poet, as part of that moment of war, part of the times, part of the society where the conflict is taking place, should strive to participate in the ongoing events. If she detaches herself from the society's war and conflicts, then her writings will be useless and will not embody a soul. Her writing will fall part, will fail to touch our human cord and will only be art-for-art's-sake and without a purpose. G. V. Plekhanov (1912) in his book, Art and Social Life, declares that art must have a social purpose, must be an honest impression of what we see around us.

G. V. Plekhanov (1912)
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Dr. Christopher Okemwa, Ph.D

Christopher Okemwa is a lecturer of Literature as well as the director of the School of Post Graduate Studies at Kisii University, Kenya. He holds a PhD degree in Literature from Moi University, as well as an MA and a Bachelor of Education degree in literature from the University of Nairobi, Kenya. Two of his books for children, Sabina the Rain Girl and Chubot, the Cursed One, feature on the reading lists (SDG 2 - Zero Hunger & SDG 5 - Gender Equity) of the African Chapter of the United Nations SDG Book Club. He is the founder and director of Kistrech International Poetry Festival in Kenya. Christopher Okemwa is the editor of Ukraine: A World Anthology of Poems on War, published by Kistrech Theatre International. In 2024 he will serve as a member of the jury for the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature which in 2024 will focus on children's literature.

About the African Perspectives Series

The African Perspective Series was launched at the 2022 Nigeria International Book Fair with the first set of commissioned papers written and presented by authors of the UN SDG Book Club African Chapter. The objective of African Perspectives is to have African authors contribute to the global conversation around development challenges afflicting the African continent and to publish these important papers in the SDG Book Club blog hosted in the Stories section of the UN Namibia site. In this way, our authors' ideas about the way forward for African development, can reach the widest possible interested audience. The African Perspectives Series is an initiative and property of Borders Literature for all Nations.

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