Shortlisted Poems for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize 2014

Entrants to the prize had to submit ten poems. Here is a sample poem from each of the six shortlisted poets.

VIOLA ALLO: From Farm to Schoolroom

After George Ella Lyon

I am from cassava, from mortars and pestles and grinding stones, from cracked corn, fried plantains, and pounded cocoyams. I am from shelled black beans, from the song of pods curling back in the dry season. I am the child who springs forward from the farm and into the schoolroom.

I am from rainwater and bucket baths, from braids woven too tight (my scalp hurts for days and I must sleep face-down on my pillow). I am from rub oil on your legs so you don’t look like a ghost. I am from so many uniforms in so many shades of calming blue, soothing like Vaseline on dry skin.

I am from oily faces and blackened elbows packed on wooden benches. I am from Good morning, Sir! From shoes scuffing on cement floors, from teachers’ whips stacked against the wall, from buttocks burning on the bench. I am from clearing the grass, weeding the path, and if you get in the way of my education you are not my friend.

I am from conferences and world summits, from development agendas for the Third World. I am from universal primary education for the African child, from higher education in science and technology for Africa’s youth. I am from pass your exams in ten subjects. I am from bio, chem, physics, maths, geo, econ, history, lit, English, French.

I am from modernization through industrial agriculture in tropical Africa. I am from plantations of cocoa, coffee, rubber, bananas, oil palms lined up and looking up like beggars in big cities—the tourist eye tires of my monotony. I am from why are you frowning? From sweet bananas and pineapples, from gray petroleum pipelines cutting through the jungle.

I am from clean Africa, educated Africa. I am the cost-effective mono-crop sprayed and kept pristine with the pesticide of new knowledge: current events and world history with a focus on the 20th century. I am from 1884, the Berlin Conference, and the Scramble for Africa. I am from nationalism in the 1940s, independence in the 1960s, democracy in the 1990s.

I am from the Republic of Cameroon. I am from social and economic advancement through education. I am from the youth are the future of Africa. I am from the airplane bound for the New World where my good English and French will serve me well.

INUA ELLAMS: Crime And Punishment 3 

An afternoon indoors but for sunbeams flecking
the audience of relatives, it could be any evening
any century before ‘Nigeria’ was coined to group
the villages, the hundreds of thousands of families
gathered where the wind is low, the rumbling forest
paused for the passing Griot/Storyteller/PopStar
of the time. My uncle tells a joke in this tradition
risen before the hushed cluster of us. An American
Businessman, he says, thumbs tucked in his belt,
stomach puffed out and you can picture so perfect
the TexasOil/GunToting/WarOnTerror/NewMoney
Rich who counts out 5,000 in cash and throws it
in the coffin of a deceased colleague – a Ghanaian
uncle adds, us, laughing. The English Businessman,
not to be outdone, uncle says, stiffening his top lip,
his nose pinched and you can picture so perfect
the Old Etonian/ForQueenAndCountry/OldMoney
Rich who counts out 5,000 in cash and throws it
in the coffin of the recently deceased. Both regard
the Nigerian, uncle says, relaxing now to his Casual
The Nigerian shakes his head at the new world order,
shrugs at the old, writes a cheque for 15, throws it
in the coffin, gathers the cash and leaves to applause,
glorious laughter, the CrazyTrickster/MoneySwindler/

AMY LUKAU: Thoughts of Isaac 

[T]he day i saw you.

They took you
to Ethiopia

no more talking

i will not be your Sarah
you my Abraham

no defying reality:

offspring will never number the stars

& yet I still hear

absence of your laughter.

NICK MAKOHA: Beatitude by Nick Makoha

When a rebel leader promises you the world seen in commercials,
he will hold a shotgun to the radio announcer’s mouth,
and use a quilt of bristling static to muffle the tears.

When the bodies disappear, discarded like the husk of mangoes.
He will weep with you in those hours of reckoning and judgement
into the hollow night when the crowds disperse.

When by paraffin light his whiskey breath tells you
your mother’s wailings in your father’s bed are a song
for our nation, as he sits with you on the veranda to witness a sunrise,

say nothing. Slaughter your herd. Feed the soldiers
who looted your mills and factories. Let them dance
in your garden while an old man watches.

Then when they sleep and your blood turns to kerosene,
find your mother gathering water at the well to stave off
the burning. Shave her head with a razor from the kiosk.

When the fury has gathered, take her hand and run
past the fields an odour of blood and bones. Past the checkpoint,
past the swamp towards the smoky disc flaring in the horizon.

Run till your knuckles become as white as handkerchiefs,
Run into the night’s fluorescent silence. Run till your lungs
become a furnace of flames. Run past the border.

Run till you no longer see yourself in other men’s eyes.
Run past sleep, past darkness visible.
Stop when you find a country where they do not know your name.

VUYELWA MALULEKE: My mother says: 

you do not need a gun to hurt him
do it when you are a sober morning
when your voice is as beautiful as a broken violin
make it go further than your nails under his skin
and though you know how he likes his eggs
where his books are in your room
how his chest rests in your lap, unguarded
he is not the only one you will bend your bones for
do not be sorry, he will keep you to practice forgiveness
do not be sorry, he will want you again and again
after you are out of his mouth, his bathroom cupboard, his bed
shackle your sorry to your tongue and love your futures wit it.

Girls like you are always attractively disfigured
all your holes are on the inside and no one visits the wounds
it was your first heartbreak that did it
you are not the words of this one’s love letters
how many lies has he told you? how many lovers?
how many children?
And still, will yours not be his?

Riding Chinese Machines by Liyou Mesfin Libsekal 

There are beasts in this city
they creak and they crank
and groan from first dawn
when their African-tongued masters wake
to guide them lax and human-handed
through the late rush
when they‘re handled down and un-animated
still as we sleep, towering or bowing
always heavy

we pour cement through the cities
towns, through the wild
onwards, outwards
like fingers of eager hands
stretched across the earth
dug in

the lions investigate
and buried marvel rumbles
squeezed for progress

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