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Sunday, 1 October 2017

Freetown by Syl Cheney-Coker

Africa I have long been away from you
wandering like a Fulani cow
but every night
amidst the horrors of highway deaths
and the menace of neon-eyed gods
I feel the warmth of your arms
centrifugal mother reaching out to your sons
we with our different designs innumerable facets
but all calling you mother womb of the earth
liking your image but hating our differences
because we have become the shame of your race
and now on this third anniversary of my flight
my heart becomes a citadel of disgust
and I am unable to write the poem of your life

my creation haunts me behind the mythical dream
my river dammed by the poisonous weeds in its bed
and I think of my brothers with “black skin and white masks “
(I myself am one heh heh heh)
my sisters who plaster their skins with white cosmetics
to look whiter than the snows of Europe
but listen to the sufferings of our hearts

there are those who when they come to plead
say make us Black Englishmen decorated Afro-Saxons
Creole masters leading native races
but we African wandering urchins
who will return one day
say oh listen Africa
the tomtoms of the revolution
beat in our hearts at night

make us the seven hundred parts of your race
stretching from the east to the west
but united inside your womb
because I have dreamt in the shadows of Freetown
crashing under the yoke of its ferocious civilization!


Syl Cheney- Coker is one the African poets who are influenced by the African culture. He was born in 1945 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 1966, he travelled to the United States to further his education. He returned briefly to Sierra Leone after his schooling and accepted a job offer at the University of Philippines in 1975. Later, he moved to Nigeria to teach at the University of Maiduguri and in 1988, he returned to the United States as a writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa. The poet spent a huge part of his adult life outside of his country. In the early 1990s, Cheney-Coker went back to Freetown to become the editor of a fortnightly newspaper, the Vanguard. After the military coup of 1997, his life was threatened by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council because of his journalistic activities. So, he left for Las Vegas, Nevada to continue his writing career.

It was in this situation that the self-exiled poet wrote the poem, Freetown. Freetown is a nostalgic poem in which the poet expresses his passionate desire for his home after his long absence.

From the first line, he admits his long absence from his home and goes on to compare himself to a Fulani cow which wanders in search of pasture. He left his country in search for greener pastures in the West. Later, he describes this western world as horrific and also a menace: ‘amidst the horrors of highway deaths and the menace of neon-eyed gods ‘ (lines 4 &5).  Neon is a type of gas that is used in brightly coloured electric signs and lights. So, ‘Neon-eyed gods' symbolizes headlights either on the streets or cars. Upon the horrors and menace of the American city life, Cheney-Coker still feels the warmth of Africa (line 6). This clearly means that he is missing home. Africa is a ‘centrifugal mother' who carries her sons in her arms lovingly and also reaches out to them wherever they are. Africans are scattered away from home but Mother Africa still reaches out to them by reminding them of the warmth in her arms. ‘We with our different designs innumerable facets‘ explains that Africa is rich in culture. Africa hosts a large diversity of ethnicities, cultures and languages. Her sons call her the womb of the earth. She is considered to be the oldest inhabited territory on earth, with the human species originating from the continent. This motherly image is liked but the differences are hated : ‘liking your image but hating our differences ‘ (line 10). Africans are not embracing the rich culture and so there is disunity in diversity. Many have left the continent because of the unstable conditions characterized by war, brutality and corruption and bad leadership. For example, the causes of the civil war of 1991 in Sierra Leone were corrupt government and competition for natural resources. Also, in 1967, the major cause of the civil war in Nigeria was the persecution of the Igbos living in the Northern part of the country. Because of this disunity, ‘we have become the shame of your race ‘(line 11). ‘This third anniversary ‘ suggests the time-frame in which he wrote the poem, that is, the third year of his self-exile. Cheney-Coker’s heart becomes ‘a citadel of disgust‘ (line13). Citadel means fortress and so citadel of disgust means the extremity of disgust he has for this shameful situation. So, because of this disgust or maybe his long absence, he is ‘unable to write the poem of your life’ (line14).

In the next line, ‘my creation ‘ refers to his Creole ancestry as he was born to Creole parents. Descendants of the freed slaves who settled in Sierra Leone between 1789 and 1792 are called Creole. ‘Mythical dream‘ may mean his desire for his home as he feels its ‘warmth'. ‘My river’ which is his life is ‘dammed by the poisonous weeds in its bed' (line 16).  The poisonous weeds mean the ‘horrors ‘ and ‘menace’ associated with the Western world . Lines 15 and 16 are the reasons why he wants to return home as he is ‘haunted' and ‘dammed' by the poisonous weeds of the west. The poet then thinks of his brothers with ‘black skin and white masks’. This denotes that his black brothers were already embracing the culture of the whites by wearing their masks that is, their clothes, language, food and so on. Syl is also one of them : ‘I myself am one heh heh heh’. Heh heh heh , an onomatopoeia which suggests laughter, means that the poet sees the situation as humorous and ridiculous. He didn’t forget his sisters 'who plaster their skins with white cosmetics to look whiter than the snows of Europe’. African women were losing their identity as black by trying to lighten their skin colour with the ‘white cosmetics ‘ to look even whiter than the whites.

Moreover, the poet pleads that ‘the sufferings of our hearts ‘ be listened to. He goes on to say that some Africans want to become ‘Black Englishmen decorated Afro-Saxons' (line 22). Such oxymoronic statement suggests that they do not want to retain their personal identity. They want to become both black and white, thereby creating an identity crisis. There is a dilemma between the indigenous African culture and the Western culture. They even demand to be Creole, who are neither truly white nor genuinely black . But, even though Cheney-Coker is of Creole ancestry, he says he and the other ‘African wandering urchins ‘ will return one day (lines 25 & 26).  The Africans are not helping their cultural heritage while wandering, when their homelands is under siege by its corrupt leaders. They think they can find refuge and succor in the western world although their black skins yearn for home, Africa. ‘The tom-toms of the revolution beat in our hearts at night ‘ (line 28-29) means that the Africans now want a change. Tom-tom is a monotonous beating, rhythm and rhythmical sound. The Africans want to change and instead of being partially African, they want to be completely Africans. They are ready to embrace their culture now. They want unity in diversity. They no longer want to be the shame of the African race. Hence, they are ready to reject the enslaving enculturation of their souls by Western policies.  They now plead to be made ‘the seven hundred parts of your race stretching from the east to the west but united inside your womb’ (lines 30-32). The womb is a metaphorical depiction of Africa as a home : a safe haven for its children.  He pleads that we remain united because ‘I have dreamt in the shadows of Freetown crashing under the yoke of its ferocious civilization ‘ (lines 33-34). Civilization, which is a relatively high level of cultural and technological development, in this sense is a yoke. The poet has dreamt that Freetown would collapse in this ‘ferocious' civilization. He is actually referring to the whole of Africa not just Freetown. Freetown is a case study because that is where he is from. Instead of it collapsing, he suggests that we embrace our rich African culture and retain our personal identity. We should be united in our diversity.

1) Nostalgia
2) Dilemma of the African elites
3) Need for unity in diversity
4) Essence of patriotism
5) Pains of civilization


1) Metaphor
….. ‘ neon-eyed gods‘
….. ‘womb of the earth'
….. ‘citadel of disgust‘
….. ‘my river dammed  by the poisonous weeds in its bed‘
….. ‘white masks‘
….. ‘plaster their skins‘
….. ‘wandering urchins'
….. ‘tomtoms of the revolution’
….. ‘yoke of the ferocious civilization’

2) Simile
….. ‘wandering like a Fulani cow‘
….. ‘to look whiter than the snows of Europe’

3) Oxymoron
….. ‘ferocious civilization’
….. ‘Black Englishmen’

4) Apostrophe
….. ‘Africa I have long been away from you'

5) Personification
….. ‘centrifugal mother’
….. ‘I feel the warmth of your arms’

6) Alliteration
….. ‘horrors of highway deaths'
….. ‘different designs’

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