Reflections: An Anthology of New Work by African Women Poets

Reviewed by George

Anthonia C. Kalu, Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi, and Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, eds., Reflections: An Anthology of New Work by African Women Poets (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2013)

The appearance of this anthology is a momentous publishing event, both aesthetically and politically. Aesthetically in that it brings together previously unpublished poems by seventy-one African women poets from sixteen different countries, with all of the poetic contributions substantive and notable in themselves—not a one disappoints. Politically in that the poets are from a great variety of backgrounds. Not all are professional poets or writers. Some live, work, or study (or have studied) in Africa; other have worked or studied in the US, Canada, or Europe. They come not only from Black Africa, but also from Arab Africa. Some were born abroad of African parentage; one was born in England and moved to Africa.

They speak with strength and eloquence on women’s issues and the meaning of womanhood; men, love, and children; politics; war; individual and social concerns; colonial and postcolonial Africa. They contribute richly to Africa’s vital and engaging contemporary literature, thoroughly discrediting any “Dark Continent” caricature.

The purpose of the collection is well stated by the three poet/editors – now academics in the US, but two originally from Nigeria and one from Cameroon – in their Introduction:

This anthology of previously unpublished poems by African women is a tribute to their enduring creativity and an acknowledgement of their individual and collective efforts to enrich African literature. Their poems reflect the diversity of African women’s experiences, observations and thinking about a wide range of issues on the continent and globally—love, identity, family, politics, sexuality, motherhood, hunger, hope, war, peace, and more. The poets’ new perspectives propel readers to a contemporary Africa and beyond popular stereotypes of African womanhood. The subjects addressed in this collection are accessible and of broad interest.

Most true. These poems present a universality grounded in the specificity of contemporary Africa, and, as the editors point out further in the Introduction, join the oral culture of traditional Africa with the voices of both Western feminism and African womanism. They also address the troubled, violent history of colonial and especially postcolonial Africa, exploring both the social matrix and the individual’s role in finding herself within this matrix.

A vast number of poems in Reflections are about what it means to be a woman in Africa, whether housewife and mother, educated or not, Westernized or not, a lover both affirming and jilted by her male companion, a professional worker or a menial, a woman raped or with venereal disease, HIV/AIDS, or subjected to the traditional African practice of clitoridectomy. Feminists, I think, will appreciate the broad range of topics covered in these poems, which touch on virtually all aspects of a woman’s life, both African and global, though that universality is consistently evoked through African specificity.

A number of the poems deserve special mention. Jasmine Ntoutoume’s defiant “Noises in the Blood,” Lamia Ben Youssef Zayafoon’s affirmative “The Beautiful Widow of the Green Mountain,” Imali J. Abala’s rueful “The Conundrum of My Life” evoke the general meaning of womanhood, while Sandra A. Mushi’s “Reflections,” Lydia E. Epangué’s “Mamazon” and Pat T. Nkweteyim’s “I Celebrate Me” celebrate African womanhood in particular. Rosalyn Mutia’s “Ode to Feminist Criticism” is a paean to feminism, Makhosazana Xaba’s “Preparing for a Dinner Party” dissects the social opprobrium that accompanies being lesbian, and T. Mojisola Bakare’s “Not a Slave” and “Makuchi’s “Invisible” look specifically at the world of work for African female domestic workers.

Thérèse Kuoh-Moukoury’s “African Art” celebrates Africa through its traditional art, while Sitawa Namwalie takes an ironic look at the “official” classification of Africa as “impoverished” by the “experts” in “Eh, Kumbe I’m Poor.” Powerful antiwar sentiment is expressed by Susan Nalugwa Kiguli in “To War Mongers Everywhere” and by Nathalie Hoblebou Ouandaogo/Rouamba in her sardonic “In Honor of Child Soldiers.” The Diaspora of Africans seeking education and a supposed better life in the US or Europe is explored through three poems: Chiseche Salome Mibenge’s “$55 from Q St. to Washington Dulles on Memorial Day,” Oghomwensemwen Aimie Adeyinka-Edward’s “Immigration” and Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka’s “Code of Exile.”

These are but some of the themes commented on and human relationships analyzed in this deeply accomplished and reflective anthology, which is both a significant contribution to world poetry as well as an outstanding showcase of contemporary African women authors.

Biographical Notes succinctly sum up the lives and works of the contributors, whose birthdates (where they are given) range from 1937 to 1992. While most of the poems were originally written in English, some were translated from French, and the originals are presented in the Appendix, which also includes a most unusual poem, Harriet Naboro’s “Leave Me Alone,” whose lines are penned in five different languages—the African languages of Luo, Samia, Luganda and Swahili, plus English, with the whole as translated completely into English found in the body of the anthology.

Three countries provide the largest number of poets: Nigeria, a center for African creative literature, and Kenya and Uganda, which have active associations for promoting women writers, as noted in the Introduction. Following up these in numbers are poets from Cameroon. The contributions are grouped according to geographical location, with the contributors and countries in each section given alphabetically – a nice demonstration of equality within diversity in this altogether fine book.

Reviewed by George Fish Indianapolis