“A Lutta Continua!”: A brief review of the poetry of Lusophone Africa.

(First carried by Cameroon Tribune of Friday, February 13, 1987).

Mention the name Agostinho Antonio Neto in Cameroonian intellectual circles and a few people may remember that he was the first president of the People’s Republic of Angola. Talk about Marcelino dos Santos and do not be surprised at the blank expression on many faces. Tell them that both men are two outstanding Lusophone (i.e. Portuguese-speaking) poets and you would either have eye-brows raised in amazement, or shoulders shrugged in indifference because Lusophone literature is still, to a large extent, an uncharted territory to many African intellectuals.

The following is a bird’s-eye view of the most popular genre in Lusophone African literature today, that is, poetry, and the reasons for its predominance. But first of all, why is Lusophone literature so little known in Africa today?

The first important reason is one of language. Unlike English and French, Portuguese is not widely learnt outside former Portuguese colonies (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe Islands). More importantly, the works of Lusophone African writers were hardly ever translated into English or French and so many of such writers remain virtually unknown to the outside world.

The second reason is political in nature. The works of Lusophone African writers were often banned in Portugal and its colonies and the writers themselves were either persecuted, imprisoned or driven into exile. The few available original works were usually published in limited editions mainly in Socialist countries of Eastern Europe, or in such left-leaning African countries as Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania, Sekou Toure’s Guinea, or Houari Boumedienne’s Algeria. Thus, unlike their English and French-speaking counterparts, Lusophone African writers remained largely unknown even within Portugal itself, and its colonies.

Yet a written literary tradition in the former Portuguese colonies dates back a long time. From its inception, such literature reflected the African rejection of Portuguese rule. It was thus a literature born and nurtured in a war situation, hence the predominance of poetry over prose. In war times, poetry, because of its concise form, has always proven to be a much more convenient form for communicating pressing statements and releasing pent-up feelings than the novel or the short story whose complex form and length require more concentration and a much calmer and peaceful environment. Accordingly, to better appraise the development of Lusophone poetry in Africa, it is indispensable to make a brief survey of Portuguese colonial rule and African reaction to it.

Resistance to the Portuguese dates back to their arrival in Africa in the 15th century. Poets make constant references to such prominent historical figures as Rainha Jinga, a 17th century Angolan Queen, who led her people in revolt against the Portuguese (see, for example, Neto’s poem “Hoisting the Flag”). Constant reference is also made to Gungunyana, Mozambique’s best known traditional leader, who organized the last localised war against the Portuguese in the late 1890s. These revolts were often harshly crushed by the superior might of the Portuguese army.

Like all colonial powers, Portugal was mainly interested in exploiting the colonies for her own benefit; but unlike the other powers, Portugal was extremely backward which affected the colonies as well. Whereas in British and French colonies, educated Africans were already playing a prominent role in politics as far back as the 18th century, it was not until the early part of the 20th century that an urban elite, composed mainly of mulattos, Asians and a few Africans – “assimilados” – began to emerge in Portuguese colonies. Between 1910 and 1926 a liberal Portuguese Republic tolerated political associations and publications. Angola, the most developed of the colonies, took the lead with such publications as A Voz de Angola Clamando no Deserto (The Voice of Angola Crying out in the Wilderness) and O Futuro de Angola (The Future of Angola) in which such men of talent and learning as Jose de Fontes Pereira and Cordeiro de Matta openly questioned the legitimacy of Portuguese rule in their country.

The poetry of that period already showed the poets’ preoccupation with the sufferings of their people although the criticism of Portuguese rule was usually vague and couched in religious terms. The language of such poetry was reminiscent of the language of classical European poetry. A good example is Rui de Noronha, a prolific, skilled and powerful Mozambican poet who wrote poems (e.g. “Rise and Walk”) in the style of the Italian sonnet.

The hopes of progressive political and literary forces were bashed by the Salazar coup d’état of 1926, which set up one of the most reactionary and ruthless dictatorships in Europe. All over Europe and Asia, forces of progress were engaged in an increasingly virulent struggle with emerging Fascism and Nazism that were raising racism and terror into an institution. In Portuguese colonies, forced labour and its slave wages were being enforced with ruthless efficiency. In reaction, many poets made forced labour a recurring theme in their poetry (e.g. Neto’s “Departure for forced labour”).

In Mozambique, Africans were being recruited for labour in South African gold mines where they worked as virtual slaves for low wages, coming back home – if they ever came back at all — old and broken, with lungs eaten by mine dust. It should be said in passing that the mineral mines are a powerful leitmotiv in the literature of Southern Africa, especially that written by blacks (for example, Peter Abraham’s novel Mine Boy).

Lusophone poetry, like Negritude poetry in Francophone Africa, received a shot-in-the-arm from the Second World War. Everywhere in Europe and Asia, Fascism and Nazism were in retreat before the massive drive of the forces of progress. Anti-colonial struggles were emerging in Africa and Asia as patriotic forces picked up the word “freedom” and glued it forever on the lips of oppressed and colonised peoples.

Lusophone poets reacted to this trend by freeing their poetry from the constraints of conventional European poetry. They adopted the freer and more varied form propounded by surrealist writers such as André Breton and Jean Paul Sartre in France  and artists such as Pablo Piccaso and Salvador Dali in Spain.  Negritude poets, led by Senghor, Aimé Césaire and Léon Gontran Damas in Paris, had already long embraced the style of surrealist writers, of Latin American writers and North American black writers and jazz musicians.

For the first time ever, Lusophone African poets too began to incorporate African culture into their poetry through the use of African words and expressions. Agostinho Antonio Neto in Angola, and Jose Luandino Vieira, Angola’s best known novelist and short story writer, set the tone in this respect with their extensive use of words and expressions from Kimbundu, the language of the Luanda region.

In Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde Islands, such poets as Kaoberdiano Dambara, Gabriel Mariano and Sampadjudo, even began to write in their native Creole, quite a defiance to the Portuguese colonialists who took a delight in denigrating African languages. Poets were now increasingly comparing the past history of Africa (especially slavery) to their contemporary colonial situation, thus revealing to the world the brutality of the colonial system. Such re-awakening emphasised African values, which the poets increasingly reasserted as they presented the African situation as part and parcel of a world-wide struggle by progressive mankind against the forces of obscurantism and repression.

The backward nature of Portugal relative to the other colonial powers in Europe, and its fierce repression of any form of dissent to its rule in its African colonies, did not augur well for creative writing.  Writers were brutally repressed and cowed to submission and many had to flee into exile to avoid being thrown into prison, or worse, being killed. Agostinho Antonio Neto, for example, spent years in prison camps on the island of Sao Tome and Principe, off the Angolan coast.

It was not until the onset of the wars of liberation in many Lusophone African countries, as recently as the 1960s, that many Lusophone poets came to the notice of the intellectual world. Lusophone literature in Africa is only now beginning to create its own ‘lebensraum’, a space it can call its own around the table of African literary creativity.

For such literature to fully emerge, however, it seems to me that two factors are indispensable: Portuguese, as a language, will have to wiggle its way somehow into the school programmes of other African non-Lusophone countries. It is only if it becomes widely studied and spoken outside its former territories that literary creativity from those countries can be fully appreciated; failing which, a sustained effort would have to be made to bring Lusophone literature in Africa to the limelight through translation.


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