Bellagio Publishing Network  

BPN Newsletter Issue No 23, October 1998 


The word on its way: a poetry caravan from Gorée to Timbuktu

Jan Kees van de Werk

Jan Kees van de Werk is a founder member of APNET. Zuidereind 73, 1243 KM `s-Graveland, Netherlands. Fax +31 35 656 4610.

Every country needs its own literature, oral and written, whose authors, each in their own way, depict the reality of their environment, offer food for thought, render an account of their own situation.

The role African literature can play locally is still underestimated in the north today because of the north's emphasis on the necessities of life: water, bread, clothing. The notion that books could also belong to the necessities of life is practically considered blasphemy.

Culture is not a luxury. Culture is the spiritual backbone of a society. Literature especially assimilates the past, reflects the present and offers a perspective on the future. One's own imagining by means of the word is of the utmost importance.

Much of one's own culture, the coherent body of beliefs and ways of living, and the natural changes, have been stored in the oral literature and are kept, incorporated and passed on in a particular manner. Because of the increasingly rapid urbanisation of Africa and the way in which the continent is marginalised in the northern media and in international relations, the images, writings and consciousness of rural Africa especially are threatened with being reduced to the clichéd image of the illiterate battlefield where there is only the ongoing naked struggle to survive. In light of this, poetry, the word and the form it takes, quickly appears to have no relation whatsoever to the order of the day. This despite the fact that the order of yesterday, today and tomorrow is the central tenet of oral literature.

The line that continues from story-telling through poetry reciting, to recording in books, runs obstinately on to the establishment of a written literary tradition with an emerging reading and writing culture: a writing culture at first strongly influenced by the north, but that shifts the boundaries to encompass oral literature forms. It cannot be overemphasised that the great writers pay tribute to the performance techniques and richness of imagery and ideas in oral literature whose tradition they extend on to paper.

In 1992 the Gorée Institute, together with the South African poet Breyten Breytenbach and the Dutchman Jan Kees van de Werk, organised a small poetry festival on the former slave island of Gorée off the coast of Senegal. Poets from Senegal, Niger, Mali, Togo, South Africa and their colleagues from Europe `sang' along Babylonian lines above the proverbial confusion of tongues. Once again it became clear just how important it was for African poets to meet each other on their own continent, to talk about their work and let each other hear it. For over a week they talked about their profession; poems were written and read on the spot and opinions about `in which language do I write and for whom?' were exchanged and mutually adapted.

The Touareg poet from Niger went at it with a participant from Togo about the quality of the work and richness of imagery from their respective backgrounds. The poet from Mali and his colleague from South Africa discussed how knowledge can be imparted through poetry. The Wolof language street poets of Dakar debated with the Senegalese poets who wrote in French and more in the vein of the literary salon. One poet tested out his ideas on political poetry with another poet.

One important (re)discovery was the spontaneous participation of the extremely varied audience, whereby especially the improvised contributions from the living literate memory (the oral tradition) breathed life into the entire proceedings through young and old and with or without the support of song or musical instrument.

The Gorée experience showed that the most exciting and riveting performances were held on the beach and in village squares because of the spontaneous contributions and unforeseen interaction with the audience. Inspired by the experience, Breyten Breytenbach, André Zaaiman, director of the pan-African Gorée Institute, Aishatou Sow, administrative assistant, Ireen Dubel from HIVOS Netherlands, Mary Stephen, the Chinese documentary film maker, Chenjerai Hove, the Zimbabwean writer, and a few others discussed the power of the word and the possibility of writers from Africa renewing themselves through unexpected mutual contact with the various realities of the continent. Their words could come into contact with new languages, other images and new surroundings and could invent in a greater whole.

The wish arose to organise a similar festival to that in Gorée, only this time more mobile: a journey from Gorée to Timbuktu which would take place in theatres and cultural centres in the big cities but more in village squares, by river banks, in markets and in fields. Those are places where the participants will undoubtedly confront the local `masters' of the word: the people who use `the word' every day in an evocative and therefore literary metaphorical way in ceremonies; the traditional storytellers.

The idea is to have ten poets from the four corners of Africa travel from Gorée by car, train and boat to Timbuktu in Mali, one of the birthplaces of African history and treasure chest of the world.

During the journey through the landscape, time, history and oneself, the participants will set down their impressions on paper. Participants will attend regular working sessions in which they will compare each other's texts, written from their different backgrounds and various experience. Everyone will be asked beforehand to write down and send their ideas concerning `the word', which can be tested in the light of their subsequent experience. Within the overall performance structure priority will not be given to translation; `the wind' or `a full moon' in Chinese do not have to be translated for a Dutchman in order to be felt. The gist of things will be explained, when necessary, in the lingua franca of the moment. It is up to everyone to sing in whatever language they like from Twi to Tamacheck.

Such a poetry caravan along historical routes not only crosses boundaries in a geographical sense but also refers in a figurative sense to the boundless pride and identity of the continent that sets its talent in motion and shares it with its surroundings. It is hard to imagine what clearer, more lively manifestation there could be that would break down prejudices and promote understanding (Moslem-animist, nomad-settled, city-rural, literate-illiterate, male-female) in direct contact with an audience for whom the book is practically inaccessible. [end] [BPN, no 23, 1998, pp 14-15.]

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