Telling the African Story: A Review of Janet Kofi-Tsekpo’s Yellow Iris

AiW Guest: Jovia Salifu

This month, Jovia Salifu continues our deep dive into Eight New Generation African Poets.

YellowIris-200x300As a lover of poetry, it is always a wonderful feeling to come across beautiful poetry. It is even more exciting when one identifies with the subjects and places being addressed. This is the kind of feeling I get from Yellow Iris, Janet Kofi-Tsekpo’s collection. This review focuses on the story the poems tell about Africa’s journey through history, from precolonial times to the present reality of underdevelopment and neocolonialism, and looking forward to a hopeful future. Pursuant to this, the poems which mark the crucial milestones in this journey through time are examined in detail here.

MudimbeThe contact between Africa and Europe, between so-called tradition and so-called modernity, is one of the major themes explored by Kofi-Tsekpo. Africa’s history is heavily influenced by the contact with Europeans, dating back to the fifteenth century in the case of Ghana. In The Invention of Africa, V.Y. Mudimbe, the renowned African thinker, writes about “a silent dependence on a Western episteme” by both African and non-African analysts of the continent (p.x). In reference to the works of Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere, Jesse Benjamin (2011 p.257) declares: “it becomes clear that efforts to break away from the colonial epistemology of modernity will be limited by their frames of reference, which are already tinged by this very same world view and mode of discourse.”

The poem “Beginnings” (p.17) appears to be the perfect starting point of the chronological retelling of the African story. The narrator reminisces about the simplicity of life in an earlier period.

When we were hungry we tore the waves and pulled out fish

the poem opens. Everything was so abundant that the fish they caught was “enough to feed a family of seals.” On land they hunted “rabbits and voles” and “ripped goats’ heads from bristling necks.” Life was simple, hustle-free, and very close to nature:

At times, we wore the skins of beasts

Pleasure was derived from even the most banal of things: “The raw flesh excited us.”

ShumwayAlong with the arrival of the Europeans came trade in goods and, more lucratively, in humans (Shumway, 2011). In “The Arch” (p.22), Kofi-Tsekpo describes the transatlantic slave trade in the voice of a captured slave in the dungeons of the Gold Coast. Narrated in the first person, the poem succeeds in conveying the powerful emotion of being enslaved. In a moment, one could be basking in the comfort of the seasonal routine of killing “a goat” to celebrate “the end of the rainy season” and, in the next, be whisked away by slave raiders and dumped in a horrible dungeon “underground” where “The smell of soot and blood” makes the “nose jump around like an ugly demon.” There could be no worse a betrayal than the complicity of family in one’s enslavement:

Suddenly, two of my cousins took me by the legs — I thought they were joking —

and then I looked in their eyes and was frightened.

Perhaps Africans are just as guilty as anyone else for the sins of the slave trade. Adu-Boahen (2010 p.124) would support this assertion: “Local merchants played the role of middlemen in the slave supply business and with time, there emerged a wealthy class of African merchants who made their fortune mainly through slave trading.”

When the slave finally has the opportunity to breathe fresh air, he is greeted with the image of the “arch … the short tunnel leading to water” or what in Ghana we call the Door of No Return. Beyond that, he sees “a very large hut floating on water.” This line leaves the reader in no doubt about the authenticity of the poem. Captured from the interior of the country, far away from the coast, it is most unlikely that the slave has ever seen a ship, hence his description of the ship as a floating hut. After three months or so of captivity, the slave is well aware that his life is no longer his. He has a master now, and the large pieces of cloth hanging above the floating hut can only be

the clothes of a giant master hanging out to dry

The significance of the slave castles and forts of Elmina, Komenda, Anomabo, Cape Coast, and others to the history of slavery in the Gold Coast cannot be overemphasised (Adu-Boahen, 2010 p.118). As a Ghanaian and one who is familiar with the Cape Coast and Elmina Castles, I am able to relate to the poem on a deeper level. In fewer words, The Arch succeeds in capturing the horrific ordeals of captives in the slave dungeons better than any of the present-day tour guides in the castles could have managed. My first visit to the Cape Coast Castle in 2007 was a real eye-opener. Despite being several hundred years removed from the event, the mere thought of being shackled and locked in those hideous dungeons frightened me. A few more seconds in there alone and I would have contracted claustrophobia.

After it was abolished in the nineteenth century, the slave trade was replaced by colonialism and now neocolonialism. In “The Book of Puddle” (p.26-27), Kofi-Tsekpo likens the Western domination of Africa to the spread of rainwater on a desert. The flooding is gradual and persistent, taking root as the “nomads” of the “desert” sleep at night. As the raindrops fill up the puddles “on the curb,” the entire desert land is gradually transformed into a “marshland” submerging all the existing knowledge of the nomads, even their language and religion. This total proliferation is echoed by Nkrumah when he argues that neocolonialism does not manifest only in the economic sphere, “but also in the political, religious, ideological, and cultural spheres” (Nkrumah, 1965, cited in Benjamin 2011 p.248). The “Book of Puddle” defines the new way of doing things, “forbidding the old ways of the desert” and the “nomads” are compelled to “live by the Puddle Laws in the marshlands.” The use of the present tense shows that this process is still on-going. This is Africa’s present.

In a flat, almost helpless tone, the poem describes the futility of the nomads’ efforts to resist this invasion. Those who dare to protest “are beaten down by harsh rains that cut through the marshlands.” The nomads find it “difficult to live in the marshlands, but there is no longer any desert that isn’t already claimed by rain.” The invasion is total and

No one can think of those from the desert

Curiously, the people of the “desert” seem to have brought this on themselves: “Through no fault but their own, they lie under the water.” After all, neocolonialism is facilitated both by external and internal agents (Benjamin, 2011). But in spite of this, all is not lost. Just before it ends, the poem offers a glimmer of hope, if only in a dream, the dream of “a lone puddle down in the heart of the marshlands” speaking “under a bright star, the language of the desert.”

This message of hope is taken up in “The Stump” (p.28), which opens with a sense of despair in the search for the path to progress:

The little island that was once a wood is now just a tuft of hair

Even though “the road” has been taken over by “the gulls” there is no turning back: “If we turned away now, we would have to reconsider everything and head back to where we started, migrating birds without instinct.” The only solution seems to be to “sit on a wall waiting for the tide to go out.” But when all seems to be lost, a ray of hope appears on the horizon: “And then, like a tropical bird, the stump of a rainbow appears; right there, on a crock of grass. Each time I turn my head to look, the stump gets brighter.”

In these poems, the author responds to the call for Africans to tell their own story in order to counter the biased versions of outsiders looking in. The first-person narrative brings to bear the narrator’s mind-state and unique perspective, like when the slave refers to the slave ship as “a very large hut floating on water” and its sails as “the clothes of a giant master” in “The Arch.” Even in The Book of Puddle where the subject switches from “we” to “they” and back to “us” the author leaves no doubt about the agency of the narrator in the action. Here we see that the African is not just the mute, hapless victim of the shenanigans of the European but a bona fide actor in his own history.

Beyond telling the African story, the poems touch on other themes, religion, gender, and love prominent among them. This review addresses just a fraction of the messages embedded in the well-crafted lines of the poems. No doubt other readers will pick up on different patterns. This allegorical quality of the poems can only be a plus and a testament to the distinction of the art. Born to a Ghanaian father and British mother, Janet Kofi-Tsekpo has proven herself capable of telling the African story fairly. Her ability as a writer is in no doubt at all. Her Zeena Ralph Memorial Prize (1996) is enough proof of that fact.

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Jovia

Jovia Salifu is a Ghanaian doctoral student at the University of Birmingham. His research explores the impact of women’s access to microcredit on household gender relations in Ghana. Jovia also loves to write and publishes his own blog at josalifu.wordpress.com.

 

Janet Kofi-Tsekpo lives in London. Her writing has appeared in Poetry Review, PN Review, Magma, Wasafiri, New Poetries V (Carcanet, 2011), The Best British Poetry 2012 (Salt, 2012), Ten: New Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010), Red (Peepal Tree, 2010) and more.

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Akashic Cover ImageJanet Kofi-Tsekpo’s Yellow Iris is part of Akashic Books’ chapbook set, Eight New Generation African Poets (April 2015). This 8-piece boxed collection features the work of eight African poets with an introduction by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, and each chapbook has its own introduction from a thoughtfully paired stalwart African poet and writer. Kofi-Tsekpo’s chapbook is introduced by Chris Abani.

The set also contains A Pagan Place by Peter Akinlabi; Who Are You Looking For by Amy Lukau; The Wire-Headed Heathen by Inua Ellams; Vuyelwa Maluleke’s Things We Lost in the FireMitu’s Spice Tour by Blessing Musariri; Viola Allo’s Bird From Africaand Bearing Heavy Things  by Liyou Libsekal.

For more on AiW’s deep dive into the box set, see our latest post in the series, AiW Guest Iquo DianaAbasi Eke’s review of A Pagan Place, by Peter Akinlabi.



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  1. Deep Rivulets of Feeling: A Review of Viola Allo’s Bird from Africa

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