#Poetry4ChangeAfrica: Poem -“Elegy for a Nation” by Wole Soyinka (for the late Chinua Achebe at 70)

Elegy for a Nation

Ah, Chinua, are you grapevine wired?
It sings: our nation is not dead, not clinically
Yet. Now this may come as a surprise to you,
It was to me. I thought the form I spied
Beneath the frosted glass of a fifty-carat catafalque
Was the face of our own dear land — ‘own,’ ‘dear,’
Voluntary patriotese, you’ll note — we try to please.
An anthem’s sentiment upholds the myth.

Doctors IMF, World Bank and UNO refuse, it seems,
To issue a certificate of death – if debtors die
May creditors collect? We shall turn Parsees yet,
Lay this hulk in state upon the Tower of Silence,
Let vultures prove what we have seen, but fear to say –
For if Leviathan is dead, we are the maggots
Probing still her monstrous womb – one certainty
That mimics life after death. Is the world fooled?
Is this the price of hubris – to have dared
Sound Renaissance bugles for a continent?


Time was, our gazes roamed the land, godlike,
Pronounced it good, from Lagos to Lake Chad.
The hosts of interlopers would be exorcised,
Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater,
Enthroning ours as ours, bearing names
Lodged in marrow of the dead, attesting lineage.
Consecrated brooms would sweep our earth
Clean of usurpers’ footprints. We marched
To drums of ancient skins, homoeopathic
Beat against the boom of pale-knuckled guns.
We vied with the regal rectitude of Overamwen –
No stranger breath – he swore – shall desecrate
This hour of communion with our gods! We
Died with the women of Aba, they who held
A bridgehead against white levy, armed with pestle,
Sash and spindle, and a potent nudity – eloquent
Abomination in the timeless rites of wrongs.


Grim cycle of embattled years. Again we died
With miners of Iva valley who undermined
More than mere seams of anthracite. All too soon,
Alas, we would augment, in mimic claims,
In our own right, the register of martyrs. Oh,
How we’ve exercised the right of righteous folly
In defence of alien rhetoric . . . what God has joined, etcetera.
For God, read white, read slaver surrogates.


We scaled the ranges of Obudu, prospected
Jos Plateau, pilgrims on rock-hills of Idanre.
Floated on pontoons from Bussa to silt beds
Of eternal Niger, reclaimed the mangrove swamps,
Startling mudskipper, manatee, and mermaids.
Did others claim the mantle of discoverers?
Let them lay patents on ancestral lands, lay claim
To paternity of night and day – ours
Were hands that always were, hands that pleat
The warp of sunbeam and the weft of dew,
Ours to create the seamless out of paradox.


In the mind’s compost, meagre scrub yielded
Silos of grain. Walled cities to the north were
Sheaths of gold turbans, tuneful as minarets.
The dust of Durbars, pyrotechnic horsemen
And sparkling lances, all one with the ring of anvils
From Ogun’s land to Ikenga’s. Rainbow beads, jigida
From Bida’s furnaces vied across the sky with
Iyun glow and Ife bronzes, luscent on ivory arches
Of Benin. Legend lured Queen Amina to Moremi,
Old scars of strife redeemed in tapestries
Of myth, recreating birthpang, and rebirth. And, yes –


We would steal secrets from the gods. Let Sango’s axe
Spark thunderstones on rooftops, we would swing
In hawser hammocks on electric pylons, pulse through cities
In radiant energies, surge from battery racks to bathe
Town and hamlet in alchemical light. Orisa-oko
Would heal with herbs and scalpel. Ogun’s drill
Was poised to plumb the earth anew, spraying aloft
Reams of rare alloys. Futurists, were we not
Annunciators of the Millennium long before its advent?
In our now autumn days, behold our leaden feet
Fast welded to the starting block.


Vain griots! Still, we sang the hennaed lips and fingers
Of our gazelle womenfolk, fecund Muses tuned
To Senghorian cadences. We grew filament eyes
As heads of millet, as flakes of cotton responsive
To brittle breezes, wraith-like in the haze of Harmattan.
Green of the cornfields of Oyo, ochre of groundnut pyramids
Of Kano, indigo in the ancient dye-pots of Abeokuta
Bronzed in earth’s tonalities as children of one deity –
We were the cattle nomads, silent threads through
Forestries and cities, coastland and savannah,
Wafting Maiduguri to the sea, ocean mist to sand dunes.

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