Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi, Okayplayer.
The 10 Best African Poems of All Time
These are the lines that have woken imaginations and stirred souls across the continent and beyond.
Poetry has long held a special place among African people. From the umusizi w’Umwami court poets of Rwanda, to the Kwadwumfo poets of the Akan tribe in Ghana, to oriki poetry among the Yoruba, to Izibongo among the Zulu and Xhosa people, to the Nzakara poets of Sudan, poetry has been used for functional, occasional, and political reasons. Largely oral and passed down from one generation to another through word of mouth, traditional African poetry has survived centuries.
Modern African poetry, on the other hand, is written and succeeds the European colonialization of African nations. Although most of the themes in these poems are often political, communal, and postcolonial in approach, some are informed by the individual and the introspective. If Frank Chipasula’s “A Love Poem for My Country” is a biting elegy from an exiled poet and Dennis Brutus’s “Letter to Martha 4” is an outright prison poem, Kwesi Brew’s “The Mesh” is a tender love song and Kwame Dawes’s “Eshu or Ambition” is a testament of crossroads and self-indulgence.
In honor of the depth and range of African poetry, we have gathered some of the best African poems of all time, from both pioneering and contemporary poets. Honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the list, but we encourage you to still seek out include Niyi Osundare’s “Not My Business,” Susan Kiguli’s “Because I Love this Land,” “Piano and Drums” by Gabriel Okara, “Psalm 151” by Theresa Lola, “Africa” by David Diop, “Songs of Sorrow” by Kofi Awoonor, and Leopold Sedar Senghor’s “Black Woman.”
"Telephone Conversation" by Wole Soyinka
When the Nigerian poet and playwright won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the Swedish committee noted how Wole Soyinka, “in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones, fashions the drama of existence.” Perhaps his most famous poem, Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation” is a sardonic commentary on racial politics. In the form of a dialogue between a white operator and a Black caller, the poem is outstanding not only for its humorous approach to a rather serious issue, but also for its spectacular use of imagery.
“Facially, I am brunette, but madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond.”
"Song of Lawino" by Okot p’Bitek
Okot p’Bitek’s “Song of Lawino” is widely regarded as one of the best modern African epic poems. A postcolonial critique on neocolonialism, the monologue-like poem is a long lamentation on how Western culture has permeated and affected African culture. Lawino, the speaker, sings of her husband’s demonization of the Acholi tradition while holding colonial traditions in high regard.
“Listen Ocol, my old friend,
The ways of your ancestors
Their customs are solid
And not hollow
They are not thin, not easily breakable
They cannot be blown away
By the winds
Because their roots reach deep
into the soil.”
"Home" by Warsan Shire
Since the publication of her collection of poems, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, in 2011, Warsan Shire has become an instrumental voice for refugees and immigrants — from Somali to Syria, Mexico to Malawi. A statement on the war crisis in the poet’s native country, “Home” talks about war and the consequences of war in Africa, while yet addressing immigration policies in the Global North.
“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats”
"Ibadan" by J.P. Clark
An ode to one of the largest cities in Africa, J.P. Clark’s “Ibadan” is popular for its sparse and succinct imagery in the stretch of only five lines. The ancient Yoruba city is known for its brown roofs and affluence, its old structures and new landscapes, and the poet manages to capture this beautifully. Not only does the poem makes us see the city in a painterly way, we are also informed about the varied city that is Ibadan.
running splash of rust
and gold — flung and scattered
among seven hills like broken
china in the sun.”
"Water" by Koleka Putuma
When Koleka Putuma performed her winning poem for the PEN SA Student Writing Prize at TEDxStellenbosch, it caused a bit of stir among the mostly white audience. Written during the #RhodesMustFall protests, “Water” revisits the question of religion and race with a scathing yet wise tone.
“Since the days of Elijah we have been engineered to kneel to whiteness
And we are not even sure if the days of Elijah even existed
Because whoever wrote the bible did not include us
But I would rather exist in that god-less holy book than in the history books that did not tell
"What Invisible Rat" by Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo
Born in colonial Madagascar, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo is considered to be Africa’s first modern poet. Influenced by the Malagasy folk hain-teny and French poetry, his poems often explore inner turmoil and the tortured artist. “What Invisible Rat” from his Translations from the Night (1935), is famous not only for its existential anguish, but for also serving as a window into the poet’s life.
“What invisible rat,
come from the walls of night,
nibbles the milky cake of moon?
when it will have slipped away,
there will be traces of blood-stained teeth.”
How to Survive the Fire by Romeo Oriogun
In 2017, the Nigerian poet Romeo Oriogun won the Brunel International Poetry Prize with a packet of poems that included “How to Survive the Fire.” The poem, charged with lyric and imagery, has been a living anthem on the endangered lives of queer Nigerians as well as the politics of silence for the LGBTQ+ Nigerian.
“I tell you the truth, my mouth is clean
but on my tongue are cities
where boys are beaten to death.
Say Lagos, say Onitsha, say Lafia,
say cities where the only freedom
for a man who loves another man is to leave.
I tell you this so you understand my silence,
understand why I crawled into my voice,
I do not want to die.”
"The Passage" by Christopher Okigbo
Perhaps the most popular poem from one of Nigeria’s finest poets, “The Passage” appeared in Christopher Okigbo’s first poetry collection, Heavensgate (1962). Half ode and half prayer, the poem appreciates the Igbo deity called Idoto, and extensively celebrates African spirituality and rites, especially as a sharp contrast to colonial religion.
“Before you, my mother Idoto,
Naked I stand;
Before your weary presence,
Leaning on an oilbean,
Lost in your legend
Under your power wait I
"vocabulary" by Safia Elhillo
For Safia Elhillo, language informs one’s identity and vice versa. From her collection January Children (2017), which explores the traumas of colonialism and the postcolonial struggle for a sense of self, “vocabulary” investigates the multiplicity of language — the Arabic of the poet’s native Sudan and English.
“oum kalthoum said where the wind stops her ships we stop ours
oum kalthoum said where love stops her ships we stop ours
um kalthoum is stuck
oum kalthoum is home”
"An African Elegy" by Ben Okri
Although Ben Okri is famous for his novel The Famished Road, which won the Booker Prize in 1991, his poetry has held an important place in modern African poetics. Where an elegy should be mournful, “An African Elegy” is hopeful and even contemplative of the African condition: it is true that the continent is fraught with hardship and pain, but there are miracles and surprises.
“We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of the earth.”
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