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Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Africa by David Diop

Africa my Africa
Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs
Africa of whom my grandmother sings
On the banks of the distant river
I have never known you
But your blood flows in my veins
Your beautiful black blood that irrigates the fields
The blood of your sweat
The sweat of your work
The work of your slavery
Africa, tell me Africa

Is this your back that is unbent
This back that never breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying no to the whip under the midday sun
But a grave voice answers me
Impetuous child that tree, young and strong
That tree over there
Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers
That is your Africa springing up anew
springing up patiently, obstinately
Whose fruit bit by bit acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.


David Mandessi Diop, born on the 9th of July, 1927 in Bordeaux, France, hails from Senegal, a West African nation. Born to a Senegalese father and a Cameroonian mother, Diop was raised by his mother right after his father's death. With his primary school education in Senegal, Diop continued with his education at Lyćee Marcelin Berthlot in Paris during the Second World War.
David began writing whilst in school. At the teenage age of 15, he had his poems published in "Preśence Africaine". Thus, David Mandessi Diop can be referred to as one of the youngest African poet. Although, Diop is of an African descent, he spent most of his life in France. He also  did spend a significant time in West Africa as he fiercely vied for the independence of African colonies- especially French West African Colonies.

Diop recognised the plight of African nations in colonialism. Although he didn't witness firsthand the pain and suffering of his African brethren; he wasn't unaware of it. Diop thus fought for Africa through his poems. With his ardent reverence to the works of Martinique Aime Ceśaire as well as Leopold Senghor - integral founders of the Negritude Movement, Diop composed poems speaking against colonial rule, oppression of Africans, western values as well as the assimilation of the European culture. His poems are symbolic of his political resistance against French colonial rule..
In 1956, Diop's first book of poems was published in the "Preśence Africaine". It's titled "Coups de pillon " which was later translated to "Hammer Blows" in 1975 by Simon Mpondo and Frank Jones and it called for a revolution of African nations that they may be rid of European rule and assimilation.
Sadly, Diop passed away along with his wife in 1960, precisely on the 29th of August in the crash of Air France Flight 343 while returning to France from Dakar. The great African poet died at the age of 33, but it is indeed true that his work and legacy live on even in his death. One of his amazing work, widely recognised and read is "Africa" or "Africa My Africa".
The poem of 22 lines is Diop's beautiful rendering of his motherland, Africa. Before getting captivated by the anti-colonial and anti-slavery theme of his poem, we ought to to take a moment to appreciate Diop's praise and imagery of Africa. In the first line, Diop refers to Africa as being "of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs". Diop isn't just praising Africa, he's praising the "proud warriors" in "ancestral savannahs".
Before colonialism, Africa was subdivided into groups and each group had their warrior who also doubled most times as the king or leader of the tribe or group. They would lead their people in times of war. Among these proud warriors is Abu al- Abbas Ahmed al-Takrui Al- Massufi al-Tinbukti popularly called Ahmed Baba. He was the leader of the Songhai Empire which ruled two - thirds of West Africa- Niger, Gambia, Guinea, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania and Northern Nigeria.
There's also Behanzin Hossu Bowelle nicknamed "The King Shark". He was the most powerful King among West African Nations around the last year's of the 19th century. The Shark king overpowered the French Expedition in 1890 and made them pay for using the Cotonou port. Cetshwayo Kampande of Zululand is not excluded among Diop's list of proud warriors. Cetshwo fought against the British and caused them the biggest defeat which they never had from any African leader who opposed them at that time. He went as far as killing the heir to the French throne; Prince Napoleon.
"Ancestral savannahs" refers to the different nations in Africa. Africa is known as a tropical grassland which is one of the best definition and example of a savannah and according to Diop, "proud warriors" dwell in these "ancestral savannahs" . Why does Diop refer to the savannahs as "ancestral"? This is because, Africa has long been in existence and by the reason of birth, offspring's are called Africans for it is their heritage. Diop therefore  expresses the principle of citizenship by birth/inheritance.
In the second line, Diop mentions "Africa" again. This time, he speaks of Africa from what he has been told. David Diop never really grew up in Africa, but through his poem, we get to see that he wasn't also in the dark about his motherland. His "grandmother sings" of Africa to him as a child. It was a culture in Africa- and still is- for knowledge to be passed through folktales and songs. David Diop's "grandmother" passed down her knowledge of Africa through songs. Many times, children wouldn't understand what the stories or songs meant but, they would have it resonating in their hearts and heads just as Diop because in the 4th line, he says he has "never known" Africa.
Due to the absence of relevant punctuation, line 3 and line 4 is interpreted in two different views. First, line 3 could be an enjambment into line 4. Thus it would read:

         Africa of whom my grandmother sings
         On the banks of the distant river

This would mean that Diop's grandmother sings of Africa on the "bank of the distant river". Most likely referring to the fact that his grandmother was a victim of slave trade. The poet is specific with by using 'the" "distant river" which is most likely to be the Atlantic ocean which connects Africa to other continents. If she sings of Africa from the banks of " the distant river" then she is away from her soil; Africa.
The other view however views line 3 and line 4 as two separate lines meaning line 3 doesn't run into line 4. The poem would therefore read:
     "Africa of whom my grandmother sings.
      On the banks of the distant river,
      I have never known you."

It's interpretation would therefore hold a different meaning and this meaning is made complete with line 5. This is the poet saying that he is on "the banks of the distant river" and even though his "grandmother sings" of Africa, he has "never known" Africa. This perspective agrees with the fact that Diop didn't live most of his life in the "ancestral savannahs". Instead, he spent his after primary school life in France where he studied. Even though he was being told stories and tales of Africa, he was unable to experience these stories for himself because he was "on the banks of distant rivers".
 In the next line, Diop affirms his status as an African by saying "But your blood flows in my veins". In this one sentence , Diop clarifies that although he hasn't actually stayed or pitched his tent in Africa, he is still an African and by descent at that. He doesn't stop there, he goes further to  "describe" the African blood which "flows through" his veins. Diop calls it "beautiful" and "black". Two things significantly occur here. The first being, Diop makes a great significant reference to the African race by using the word "black".
By referring to the African blood as "Beautiful black blood" he also depicts the general skin colour "black". He calls the African skin "beautiful". Also, Diop's use of "blood" signifies life, for the blood is the source of life to man. He therefore describes his source of life as "". His source of life is that which "irrigates the fields". What fields? We should ask. The field referred to by Diop is that of the colonial masters and every white man who had a black slave or more.
During the era of colonialism and slavery, Africans were sold for the cheapest price-  a bottle of gin and if you were lucky enough, you'd be sold for a mirror- a small one.  Slaves were taken overseas and there was often a bid for them by white men. Most of the buyers were owners of huge plantations and they needed a lot of manpower to take care of their plantations. African slaves were taken to work in such plantations with bad working conditions- that's if there was any condition at all. It's in this view that Diop goes on to say;

      "The blood of your sweat
       The sweat of your work
       The work of your slavery"

Their sweat is as though it were blood, dripping from pores on sunny days while they worked irrigating the fields of their masters. Their work is as though it were sweat, salty and unappealing to taste because it is forced labour and the products are unappealing to the workers- the slaves. And like a circle, Diop returns to the very beginning where he says that their blood "irrigates the fields". "The work of your slavery" simply refers to their state of slavery as being "work". In other words, they are in slavery to work and the work of their slavery is the irrigation of fields.

"Africa, tell me Africa
 Is this your back that is unbent
This back that never breaks under the weight of           humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying no to the whip under the midday sun"

Diop goes on to call his ancestral home as though she were present as a being at his time of speaking. He asks her (Africa), "Is this your back that is unbent". In slavery and under colonialism, it's very easy to give up under the weight and pressure. It's the mundane thing to do. But, like Diop says, Africa remains "unbent".
The back in the human body is the system which holds everything together. It's the place of balance, strength and support. If the back is damaged, the body is damaged. In this light, Africa's source of strength, balance and support is "unbent". It refuses to give in and up to the strokes and horse whips of the white man.  It "never breaks under the weight of humiliation" even though it trembles with "red scars" and it says "no to the whip under the midday sun".
 Africa answers him;

"But a grave voice answers me
Impetuous child that tree, young and strong
That tree over there
Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers
That is your Africa springing up anew
springing up patiently, obstinately
Whose fruit bit by bit acquires
The bitter taste of liberty."

Africa then answers him as a grave voice- low pitched but serious, like a tired old woman to her grandson. She calls him an "impetuous child" as though he were in haste to draw up a conclusion as to who Africa is. She tells Diop, that "that tree over there"  which is "young and strong" is Africa. Africa is referred to as a tree which is quite symbolic.

A tree is seen as a source of life. Its roots are planted in the soil and it grows with time, to produce fruits. The beauty of a tree is in the watering. A tree which is poorly watered ends up with dry and brown leaves while a tree well watered produces green leaves and healthy fruits. Africa as a tree is a source of life, growing  slowly and steadily, being watered with raindrops of hope for a better future- freedom from slavery.

Africa is the tree which is "splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers". Ever seen a black tree?  Probably not, but Diop did. Africa as a tree grows and glows magnificently alone in the midst of "white and faded flowers". The Europeans / colonial masters are referred to as "white and faded flowers". With the 'white" to symbolise their skin colour, Diop compares them to "faded flowers".

Unlike Africa who is a "young and strong" tree, the white men are flowers, which is essentially a product of a plant or tree. Flowers are seen to be colourful and attractive but for some reason or the other, they (the whites) are faded- they've lost their colour. Although they are flowers, Africans see them beyond the facade of flimsy glories. Africa springs up "patiently" and "obstinately". She grows steadily without rushing, but stubbornly and persistent, unwilling to bend under the whip of the horse skin. As a fruit bearing tree, Africa bears fruit whose lips acquire "the bitter taste of liberty". They are the ones who experienced the period of independence and many more who still fight against neo-colonialism.

1) Slavery in Africa
2) The beauty of Africa
3) Effect of colonialism on Africa
4) The Plight of Africans in Diaspora
5) Africa's Independence struggle

Literary Devices
1) Repetition: There's the repetition of the word "Africa" in the poem.

      "Beautiful black blood"(Line 7)

     "The blood of your sweat
      The sweat of your work
      The work of your slavery" (Line 8-10)

4)Personification: Diop gives human qualities to "Africa" presenting it as though the continent- Africa, were human. He uses words like "your blood ", "your back", "your sweat",,"your work" etc.

5) Paradox: In line 21- 22, Diop makes a paradoxical statement. He writes that the "fruits " of Africa acquire "bit by bit" the "bitter taste of liberty". Liberty or freedom is meant to be enjoyed but in this scenario, liberty is "bitter".

6)Metaphor : "taste of liberty"- (Line 22)
   There's also the use of inexplicit metaphor in line 16 and 17 as Diop compares Africa to a tree- "young and strong".

7) Imagery: Diop makes use of captivating and expressive words to paint sceneries in the mind of readers. Words like "ancestral savannahs" make readers imagine how old Africa is. Also "The blood of your sweat" depicts the image of black slaves hoeing grounds, tilling the soil, harvesting wheat...

8) Symbolism: Words such as "Tree" is used to symbolise Africa as a source of life as well as the process of growth. "black blood" is also used symbolise Africa as a race and colour. "white faded flower" is symbolic of the European and colonial masters whose beauty fades.

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