An Analysis of Sola Owonibi’s ‘Africa’

Sola Owonibi’s ‘Africa’ is a postcolonial poem which interrogates Africa’s Otherness in the light of the persistence of Africa’s postcolonial woes. The poem is organised in five (5) stanzas of unequal number of lines. It is written in free verse, meaning that the poem has neither meter nor a rhyme scheme. The poem is also written in run-on-lines or enjambment; this means that the idea in a line flows into another line. Another evidence that the poem is written in run-on-line is the absence of punctuation marks at the end of the lines. Being written in free verse supports the style of the poem as poetry of commitment. Published in 2007 in a collection entitled Chants to the Ancestors, Owonibi’s ‘Africa’ is written against the background of the colonial encounter, whose consequences or fallouts could still be witnessed in Africa to this day. The poem’s subject matter is the continuous effect of colonialism on Africa; it is a voice of protest that echoes the voices of many other poets who have decried the continuous economic and political backwardness of the African continent owing to the various forms of neocolonial projects still being executed on the continent.

The first stanza of the poem is a quintet and reads: ‘Generous mother of the Universe/beautiful, simple, unexplored/until you lost your innocence to /rapists across the seas/an eternal stigma’. The stanza captures, at once, the precolonial and postcolonial history of Africa. What the poet attempts here is what Chinua Achebe urges all African intellectuals to do; to examine our history so that we can know ‘where the rain began to beat us’. The first and second lines of the poem capture Africa’s pre-colonial period/history, as well as the precolonial glory of Africa. The expression ‘Generous mother of the universe’ is a metaphor as it refers to Africa. It also constitutes personification; Africa is personified throughout the poem. Africa is portrayed as a life-giving space. Historical facts suggest that life on earth began in Africa, which is why Africa is the cradle of human civilisation. In a way, this poem serves to counter the colonialist discourse that African history began with slavery and colonisation and that before then Africa was a historical wilderness, where all forms of barbarity and primitivism thrived.

Pre-colonial Africa is described as ‘generous’ because Africa is the life spring of the earth. In fact, Africa’s generosity was her undoing in the colonial era, as evidence abounds which shows how the colonial masters benefitted from the benevolence of Africans but turned around to enslave the people. Africa’s pre-colonial period is also captured with epithets such as ‘beautiful’, ‘simple’ and ‘unexplored’. These epithets echo poems like ‘Black Woman’ by Leopold Sedar Senghor, ‘Africa’ by David Diop, Kofi Anwoonor’s ‘Anvil and the Hammer’ and ‘Piano and Drums’ by Gabriel Okara, in which Africa and her culture are succinctly described with the debilitating consequences of colonialism serving as their backdrop. For instance, the simplicity that characterises African culture is described in ‘Piano and Drums’ while the precolonial beauty of Africa is captured in ‘Black Woman’, Diop’s ‘Africa’, among the other poems.

The third and the fourth lines of the first stanza of Owonibi’s ‘Africa’ describe Africa’s loss of innocence due to the activities of the ‘rapists across the seas’. There is an implied metaphor in Africa being compared to a maiden (a virgin) whose innocence is taken by the colonial masters who are seen as ‘rapists’. These lines capture the evils of the colonial encounter on the continent of Africa. During colonisation, African resources, both human and material, were looted (raped), both during slavery and the ‘legitimate’ trade. The stanza ends with a line that illustrates the irreversible consequences of colonial rule: ‘an eternal stigma’. It is a generally agreed fact that colonialism altered the destiny of the continent forever and forever. In all, the poet deploys metaphor, personification, visual and organic imagery to capture the glorious history of Africa in the precolonial era, as well as the disruption of that history by the colonial incident.

The second stanza of Owonibi’s ‘Africa’ is a sestet and reads: ‘Land of civility and culture/embraced the treaties for dividends/the dividends came as/streams of sweat/rivers of tears/oceans of blood’. The idea that Africa is the cradle of human civilisation is captured in this stanza and it serves as a counter discourse to the colonialist history which reported that Africa was uncivilised and without a culture at the advent of colonialism. It is now known that this was just an excuse to justify the colonisation of the African peoples. The deceptive pacts that African leaders were tricked and, in some cases forced by the colonial agents to sign, are described as ‘treaties for dividends’, which constitute irony in the poem because the dividends that the treaties bring turn out to be tragic as can be seen in the lines, ‘streams of sweat’, ‘rivers of tears’ and ‘oceans of blood’. These expressions are metaphors but they also serve as hyperboles because they describe the magnitude of human suffering that colonialism brought on the peoples of Africa.

The alliteration in the expression ‘streams of sweat’ is exemplified in the repetition of the voiceless alveolar fricative or the sibilant sound /s/ which reinforces the trope of suffering experienced by those poor Africans who were forced to labour for colonial masters for free and in their own land. The colonial encounter brought untold anguish and death to the people of Africa and this is demonstrated in the expressions ‘rivers of tears’ and ‘oceans of blood’. Thus, through the tropes of metaphor, irony, visual imagery and alliteration, the persona represents the true pre-colonial history of Africa, as well as the deceptive and tragic activities of the colonial masters.

In the third stanza, the persona demonstrates the resilience of Africa as she was able to survive all the stages of colonialism and their cruelty. During slavery, Africa was looted of her human resources and during the ‘legitimate trade’, Africa was looted of her material resources. Yet Africa continues to thrive both in human and material resources. The expressions ‘the claws of angelic hawk/the bruises of satanic hugs’ are instances of metaphors pregnant with other poetic tropes like oxymoron and anaphora. Oxymoron is exemplified in the expressions ‘angelic hawks’ and ‘satanic hugs’ which, for me, describe the ambivalent, ironic and paradoxical character of the colonial agents like the missionaries and the administrators. The last line of the third stanza, ‘not without a scar’, emphasises the last line of the first stanza, both which talk about the irreparable damage that colonialism has done to Africa in political, economic and spiritual terms. Colonialism remains a scar on Africa’s body politic because despite of it being over, the effects are still visible and could be discoursed in terms of neocolonialism and the hybridity of the postcolonial subjects who are seen as psychological refugees and cultural outcasts and half-casts.

The penultimate stanza is a quatrain and reads: ‘The blood of the enslaved/the souls of the dehumanized/ cry for justice/cry for reparations’. Arising from colonial history, there have been calls for the victims of slavery and colonialism to be compensated through reparation because of the enduring effects of these historical crimes seen in terms of deprivation of rights and privileges which has continued to affect generations upon generations of Africans both at home and in the diaspora. It is expected that setting up a reparation mechanism will help heal the victims of these historical crimes. This is where the social commitment of Owonibi’s poem manifests, as well as his thought on poetry as an art which brings healing. The expressions, ‘The blood of the enslaved’ and ‘the souls of the dehumanised’ are metaphors which refer to the victims of slavery and colonialism, both of those who are dead and their survivors. There is the use of anaphora in the repetition of ‘cry for’ at the beginning of the last two lines of the stanza. They serve to heighten the voices that are demanding justice for the crimes of historical proportions so reported.

The final stanza of the poem issues a voice of protest, resilience and hope on the themes raised in the poem. The stanza has five lines and reads: ‘Let the cloud hear/and tell the rain/that cricket may be forced to/hole-up by the storm/yet it chirps under the torrents’. The stanza is rendered in an appropriated English and sends a clear message to the world that though Africa’s progress and development have been temporarily arrested by the colonial events, Africa has not and will not give up her protest song (‘chirps’) until all her demands and dreams are met and fulfilled. The stanza draws its material from the rich African oral tradition of proverbs and adages which can be seen in words such as ‘crickets’, a metaphor for Africa and ‘storm’, which is a metaphor for all the historical odds against Africa. The word ‘chirps’ is an auditory imagery while the expression ‘Let the cloud hear’ constitutes personification. In all, the poet deploys devices such as metaphor, personification, auditory and visual imagery, among others, to register his protest against the enduring effects of colonialism and to send a message of hope to all Africans not to give up, but that, like the cricket, they should press home their demands until true freedom is attained.

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4 thoughts on “An Analysis of Sola Owonibi’s ‘Africa’

  1. Thank you sir for this insightful write on the poem. The information I have gotten from here are very helpful.

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