'Slovo' is Slovak for 'Word'

Niet takych slov, mami... runs the first line of my poem, To the Mediterranean Dead; at least in its Slovak version.

Revue Svetovej Literatury (World Literature Review) is a Slovak magazine published out of Bratislava by the Slovak Literary Translators’ Society and I got my copy of the special edition on African Exilic and Diasporan writing yesterday. It is all Slovak to me so I am not as clued up on the contributions of the other writers in the issue, (Biyi Bandele, Brian Chikwava, E.C. Osondu, Ishmeal Beah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Leila Aboulela, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Segun Afolabi, Parselelo Kantai, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Sefi Atta & Ken Kamoche among others). The obvious exceptions of course will be the contributions of Tolu Ogunlesi (We are all Africans) and Helon Habila (The Immigrants) which were first published in earlier editions of African Writing.

As for my contribution, To the Mediterranean Dead, it was first published in my 2006 poetry collection, Memories of Stone, and was inspired by news reports of dead migrant Africans washed up on the beaches of Southern Europe amidst the shipwreck of their boats. Working on the Slovak version with my translator – and editor of the issue – Dr. Dobrota Pucherova, I was reminded how difficult it is to port ideas across cultures especially within the compressed syntax of poetry. Take the concept of a wedding uniform for instance, as in the line

and see the lime-green jacquard of our festive uniform,

I don’t suppose that many Slovakians will regularly attend weddings where a hundred invitees arrive wearing the same festive and ostentatious uniform. Yet, the same day Dobrota’s email arrived to ask about this line, I was able to point her to an online newspaper whose daily newscast showed President Goodluck Jonathan in festive uniform. In the archive picture I reproduce below, the President (right) is pictured with a uniformly clad state Oyo State Governor Alao Akala. (No suggestion that they are getting married, of course.)

Still the whole idea of festive uniforms tends to underline the disconcerting proximity between our seasons of ostentation and our seasons of want… There are probably both local and strategic reasons why rational people clamber onto leaky fishing boats for transatlantic voyages. On the local side we might chalk up naming-, wedding-, burial- and chieftaincy-ceremonies that are done in a day and paid for in two to five years of anxious saving, borrowing and, well, theft.  At the strategic level, consider the lifestyle of our cabinets of stewards who are totally disconnected from the privations of the patrons that they are supposed to serve.

Anyhow, the poem itself is a ‘conversation’ between a husband on a floundering boat and a wife waiting on a European beach, having made the crossing earlier. The first two verses are the husband ‘addressing’ his wife who he calls ‘Ma’mi’; the words in italics are the wife’s. She calls her husband ‘Ba’mi’. Here is

For the Mediterranean Dead

Words will not suffice, Ma’mi,
to tell you of the things my eyes have seen
these past few weeks upon the toss of sea.
Our life has passed by me in fevered dreams.
I have relived our daughter’s birth.
I have relived our daughter’s death.
And I have lived my here and now:
the brimming, speechless eyes
of a desperate stranger, going,
saying through me,
his goodbyes…

I will not say goodbye, Ma’mi,
I have seen a delirious future
like a train overshot his station.
I dream a life after her death,
and it is good, Ma’mi,
you must hang on yet.
As I hang on.

***

I go out to the beach to wait for them this dawn.
They do not arrive.
Instead, by first light,
the waves begin to bring strange detritus,
bits of bright-paint wood,
ribs of planking,
toys and bracelets…
I count six items that might be from a boat
and leave for home.
You will come tomorrow, Ba’mi. I know this.
You will come tomorrow

***

‘When we left Nouadhibou it was raining men.’
This is a joke they have, these old spinsters,
like they want to say and laugh off
anything you have on them,
before you try to put them down with it.

It is many days since these waters drowned laughter.
I am still alive, Ma’mi,
but I’ll never laugh again.
Unless you carry laughter in your womb.

***

I go out to the beach of our rendezvous this dawn.
You do not arrive.
Instead, I close my eyes,
and in between our baby’s first stirrings
I feel the stomping of our wedding dance,
and see the lime-green jacquard of our festive uniform,
and in the rumbling of my womb
I feel your laughter, hear your vow again,
I feel your laughter, hear your vow again;
then cranes cry, and I start,
and the waves are lapping at my feet,
and there, between a crab and a white bauble,
your cowrie thong.

Welcome Ba’mi.

Welcome, and goodbye.

2 thoughts on “'Slovo' is Slovak for 'Word'”

  1. Chuma, this is a beautiful poem; it resonates with
    my feelings, too. Africa needs more attention, more
    voice. Why doesn’t anybody care? Perhaps it’s
    nothing to get out there; the rich countries owe
    Africa help and attention for the struggles neees
    to be raised. I wondered, if the word is Ba’mi or Ma’mi,
    there is a typo, isn’t it. I liked these lines best:

    “And I have lived my here and now:
    the brimming, speechless eyes
    of a desperate stranger, going,
    saying through me,
    his goodbyes”

    Intense and nicely woven, great tribute
    to these poor souls; survival is opportunity,
    but not for everyone…

  2. Glad you liked it, Ivana.

    Most of all of course, Africans need to help themselves… then it will all begin to come together.

    You wondered if the word was ‘Ba’mi’ or ‘Ma’mi’. Actually, it is both! The man calls his wife ‘Ma’mi’, and the woman calls her husband ‘Ba’mi’.

    All the best,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *