Poetry from the Horn of Africa



On March 6, Warscapes magazine—a welcome newcomer to the international arts, politics, and literary scene edited by the passionate Bhakti Shringarpure—hosted “An Evening of Poetry from the Horn of Africa,” a night I won’t soon forget. Novelist Maaza Mengiste (born in Ethiopia) thought-provoking as usual, introduced the event, which was held at Alwan for the Arts in New York City. Poetry from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia—that is, the Horn of Africa, was on display and in fine form. A panel of distinguished poets participated, bringing much needed (and under-appreciated) voices to a cosmopolitan audience. (Mantle contributor Savita Pawnday was also in the house!)


Here are some tidbits from this one-of-a-kind evening:


Solomon Deressa


Energized by his first glass of scotch since he left Ethiopia, the poet wonders, “how has poetry fallen to me?” Not a patriot of any place, Deressa proudly recalled of his time in Ethiopia: “among Christians I was not a Christian; among Marxists I was not a Marxist.” His belief lies in the “temple of laziness because it solves all problems.”


What could that possibly mean?


With a watery voice, Deressa read “The Poem Sheathed,” delivered as if his words were the waters of the Eritrean (Red) Sea slapping and sloshing against an old, but sure, boat. In “The Poem Sheathed,” Deressa laments the learned who lean on the past rather than live in the present or look to the future. “The present is already here,” one line reminds. And yet, like life itself, the poem ends with a question: “How did all this begin?”


Ali Jimale Ahmed


Call him “Ali the Humble.” Before reading some poetry published in his slim but evocative collection Fear Is a Cow and others first published on Warscapes, Ahmed introduced five levels of poetic credentials in his homeland of Somalia. Ahmed gave the Somali version of the terms and then translated their meanings. In order of decreasing skill (and appreciation?):


1. The Mouth of Wealth (that is, everything that comes from this poet is gold)


2. The Generous Mouth


3. The Mouth Like a Sword (didn’t quite understand the meaning here—piercing? Sharp? Violent?)


4. One Who is not Really a Great Orator / One We Can Live With or With Out (in this category, Ahmed slotted himself. My purchase of his book Fear is a Cow suggests otherwise…)


5. The Rote Memorizer


Ahmed read four poems. “Bastardized Times,” his first selection, exposes the lyricism of Ahmed’s work. In nifty turns, the poet’s deceptively straightforward phrases force the listener (reader) to think twice. For example: his choice to refer to the old man’s age as “twice forty” rather than “eighty years old.” With word choices like “ambulatory” or “adumbrations of time,“ “Bastardized Times” is a poem tattooed with delightfully quirky, but precisely descriptive phrases.


In “Crest of Time,” Ahmed took the audience for a ride, “crisscrossing the earth / and riding the crest of time,” again and again, before he finally “plots against plots.” Just like the other three poems Ahmed delivered, “Crest of Time” came to a hard stop. At the end of each recitation, I felt as if I had been brought quickly to the edge of a cliff, my tiptoes peeking over the edge, arms flailing, praying not to be pushed over the edge with the whisper of another word.



Charles Cantalupo and Kassahun Checole


What felt like a moment lifted right out of PEN World Voices Festival, Cantalupo (USA) and Checole (of Eritrea) riffed off each other, reciting poetry from the Horn of Africa in its original tongue and in English translation. The two make for a dynamic, poetic duo. Most of the work they recited was written by the political activist and Eritrean poet laureate Reesom Haile (who Cantalupo translates for Red Sea Press, for which Checole is the editor) and came from two stellar collections: We Have Our Voice and We Invented the Wheel. Checole, by the way, in the words of Cantalupo, has “done more for African literature than anyone I know,” a tremendous accolade that echoed Mengiste’s own introductory remarks.


Cantalupo was seductive; Checole was convincing. They make for a great team and—for this audience member—were the highlight of the night. The twosome read ten poems, by far the most politically charged portion of the program. To wit:


“Foreign Aid”


I give.


I give some more!

So Why Insult me for giving?


You make me beg.

Haile’s poetry is terse, witty, biting, and challenging. In turns his subject matter touches on politics, communication, freedom, sex, and religion. In “Voice,” Haile raises up the advantages of the Internet, grateful that the network can provide a platform for Africans to speak for themselves, rather than have others (outsiders) speak on their behalf (“Speech online / Can set you free”).


Language, in “Our Language,” is analogized as a delectable food, while the sexually charged “Whose Daughter?” ends on a comical note about coffee.


In “No Regrets,” Haile forces a second look at one of Christianity’s foundational tales:


Forget Eden. We’re not going back. Adam and Eve Had no regrets. "Good riddance," She said. "So we were fed. He treated us like animals. Adam, I love you." "I love you, too" He said. "Nothing beats bread Baked with your sweat." Forget Eden. We’re not going back. Adam and Eve Had no regrets


The Cantalupo-Chekole tandem also read work of another Eritrean poet, Angessom Isaak. His most famous poem, “Freedom’s Colors,” challenges state rule and impositions of authority’s idea of liberty. The poem (translated by Cantalupo and Ghirmai Negash here) ends with this powerful stanza:


I experience freedom As more than one color. I understand freedom As more colors than one – More than I have ever seen, More than I have ever heard, And more than I can explain.


The session ended with the powerful and uplifting “We Have,” Haile’s most famous poem. It ends as such:


We have God and a future.

We have men and women

Who belong in our nation

And we belong with them.

Rejoice, I say it again.

We have women and men.



Surafel Wondimu and Anna Moschovakis


The evening ended on a musical note. Unable to make it to the reading because he is in Ethiopia, New York City-based poet Moschovakis played recordings of two of Wondimu’s poems, “Democratia” (sp?) and “ABCD.” Womdimu recorded himself reading in French, accompanied by music; Moschovakis then translated.


“Democratia” is an artfully angry poem that shames the goddess Athena for thrusting the false promises of democracy upon the gullible masses. It is a chimera for which people die, the poet claims, a “pie in the sky baked by the words of Socrates.” It is hard not to be attracted to such a stinging reprimand.


I believe I accurately transcribed the poem on which this amazing night ended. “ABCD” is a cautionary poem for Africa’s youth:






Children of Africa,

Be Nurtured by your alphabet,

That you may nurture your continent


Warscapes is to be commended for putting on such an illuminating event. We must have more events like this, Mengiste told me. I couldn’t agree more.



Article by Shaun Randol


Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Maaza Mengiste, Poetry, Solomon Deressa, Africa, Ali Jimale Ahmed, Charles Cantalupo, Kassahun Checole, Surafel Wondimu