Poetry reading by Abena Busia

The advantages of being in a university environment are insurmountable. The academic conversations that make up everyday life make everything more interesting. Plus there is always an event happening somewhere, a famous someone speaking somewhere…

Some weeks back I received an invitation to attend a poetry reading by Abena Busia, a Ghanian poet,academic and activist. She is the daughter of Kofi Abrefa Busia, an ex-prime minister of the Republic of Ghana. I was in awe as I sat in the gallery facing this humble and graceful lady as she carried us through history with the words of her intriguing poems.

Abena Busia

To give you an introduction to Abena Busia is hard as her profile is impressive and her list of achievements long. Born in Accra, Ghana, she spent the first years of her childhood in Ghana, as well as in Holland and Mexico, before her family finally settled in Oxford, England. She read for a B.A. in English Language and Literature at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, in 1976, and a D.Phil in Social Anthropology (Race Relations) at St. Antony’s College in 1984. She is an associate professor in English at Rutgers University where she has taught since 1981. (Yes, since 1981!)

Abena Busia

My main fascination with her is that in addition to being a teacher, she is a poet and short story writer. It is the central experience of exile, across three continents which informs both her writing and her teaching. Her first collection of poems is titled ‘Testimonies of Exile’ Her experiences of Africa as a daughter in exile come through many of her poems. Her poems share the cultural complexities that have coloured her world since childhood. Her second collection of poems is titled ‘Traces of Life: A Collection of Elegies and Praise Poems. This collection was published in 2008. It is a personal collection narrated from her own point-of-view and gives glimpses into the political make-up of Ghana.

The last poem she read during the poetry reading that night was titled Testament for the first accused: Nelson Mandela for the twenty-seven years. She wrote this poem in 1990 in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. She was asked to read it at a public gathering honouring Nelson Mandela. The poem take the listeners along a journey to feel what 27 years really means. The changes that took place while Mandela was in prison. For sometimes we casually say 27 years in prison without realizing the true magnitude of the time lost.

I have posted the poem below for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

I know Patrice Lumumba had been sometime dead,
and Sylvanus Olympio only just,
though I’m not sure why,
As I try to re-connect myself with my child’s mind,
and the memories of events that jumble there
A knowledge of our distant world, pieced together,
through overheard conversations
and voices on the radio.

In 1962 the world was a very different place:

I didn’t know where Montgomery was,
but I’d learnt the meaning of boycott.
Didn’t understand Mau Mau,
except it taught the impact of lies,
and what all freedoms cost.
I remember your name, and vague talk of a trial,
and treason being a serious thing;
Sisulu and Mbeki, Goldberg and Mahlaba,
Kathrada, Motsoaledi and Mlangeni, at Rivonia.
These names I have learnt through the years,
but at the time, what I recall for sure,
Is Abebe Bikila’s second Olympic Gold,
And Cassius Clay proving he was the greatest,
By the time you made your statement,
And disappeared.

We have not seen you since.

I didn’t mark your fiftieth birthday,
but in Ghana J.B. Danquah was already dead,
and we had lived through coups
and countercoups already,
at the start of a second republic.
While Baldwin warned of The Fire Next Time,
the White Rhodesians declared UDI,
and the Zimbabweans braced for war.
But we were killing our brothers already in Biafra,
while the whole world watched,
and a young Christopher Okigbo reminded us
that even the poets were dying.
And you were still alive,
And you were still not free.

Though James Brown danced us off the streets,
And “Soul came to Soul” in Ghana,
No one remembered Paul Robeson, and
Mahalia Jackson sung her last.
Singing “We Shall Overcome”,
Through frustrated Freedom summers we left
Mississippi, Watts, and Newark burning-
And Medgar, Malcolm and Martin dead. All dead.
And you were still alive,
And you were still not free.

In an angry and lonely world,
we marked the passage of your tenth year
reading Letters to Martha, and Soledad Brother.
All “Souls were on Ice”
As Arthur Nortje killed himself in an Oxford room,
and an exiled Kabaka died.
We freed Angela Davis, but, on your desolate island,
You were still alive,
And you were still not free.

Your sixtieth birthday reminded us
“This struggle was your life”.
But by then, your life had become our struggle
as we buried Hector Petersen,
and a hundred slaughtered children
on the scorched streets of Soweto.
With a jailed Thandi Modisi
We “Cried Freedom” for a murdered Steven Biko,
People young enough to be your children,
And children younger than your children, dead,
So many of them dead.
Yet you at least were still alive,
But you were still not free.

We shouted Frelimo and another empire fell,
Antonio Jacinto “Survived Tarrafal”,
But Augustinho Neto was dead.
Eduardo Mondlane had been many years murdered,
And we have since mourned the wreckage
of Samora Machel
On the South African side of Mozambique’s mountains,
And you were still alive,
And you were still not free.

By your twentieth year,
Anwar Sadat had sued for peace in the Knesset,
And had been later killed for his pains.
And Haille Sellassie the Lion of Judah, had disappeared
Leaving no memorial, except a three thousand year
Imperial kingdom, now decades at war.
And in Eritrea, Tigre, the Sudan, the Spanish Sahara,
The “Harvest of our Dreams” “Reaped a Whirlwind”
of nightmares
And we searched for Jannani Luwum
amongst Kampla’s martyred.
Marley, who sang for Manley and Mugabe,
was so young dead
But you were still alive,
And you were still not free.

The decades bring the deaths of leaders,
the power and the myth that was Nkrumah
lie broken, like his shattered statue
On the Accra streets.
And in the same week that Jomo Kenyatta
“Faced his sacred Mount Kenya” for the final time,
Kofi Busia’s “Challenge to Africa”
in Search of Democracy
Ended. All your peers dead.
But you were still alive,
And you were still not free.

Yet, on a continent being “liberated” “redeemed”,
Proclaiming “Uhuru”, the people were marching.
Twenty-five years after Sharpeville, we march-
Ten years after Soweto, we march.
And when they killed mothers and babies
On their march through Mamelodi,
Still, with them, we march,
For you were still alive,
And you were still not free.

By the time we reached your seventieth birthday,
Another generation of children
Had learned to call your name.
We carry old images of your face, in our hearts,
And on the T-shirts on our backs,
As an icon of a new morning.
The Tembu warrior prince, the lawyer-activist,
The prisoner.
Around the world we marched in our millions,
Demanding your return into this troubled world,
So sadly bereft of heroes,
For you were still alive,
And you were still not free.

You disappeared from our view,
in a world which had taken no small step on the moon
for man;
no Apollos, no Challengers, no Salyuts.
No photographs of the furthest planets,
no walks in space.
The small steps taken on earth for mankind
had included
No Flower Power Love concerts in Woodstock,
No One Love Peace concerts in Kingston, Jamaica
No Art Against Apartheid freedom concerts in Sun City,
No Bands in Aid proclaiming “We are the World”.
That world had known no “Cultural Revolution” in China,
No drafted U.S. troops in Vietnam,
No “Killing Fields” in Cambodia.
No vanished Prisoner Without a Name
in a Cell Without a Number, mourned by the
Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo- And through this all
You were still alive,
And you were still not free.

And now it is the Lord’s Day,
the eleventh of February 1990,
And it is five a.m. in Los Angeles, California,
It is eight a.m. in New York and Kingston Jamaica,
It is one p.m. in Stockholm, London, and Accra Ghana,
And half the marching world has paused-
To keep vigil,
For it is three p.m. in Cape Town, South Africa,
And we wait to see your face.
After twenty-seven years of fighting, marching
and singing
We keep a ninety-minute watch;
To see you take these next few steps
On this, your No Easy Walk
To our uncertain Freedom;
To witness your release into this changing world,
Unceasingly, the same.
For you are still alive,
But we are still not free.
Amandla Mandela,
A Luta Continua.


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