Songs of Sorrow

I.

Dzogbese Lisa has treated me thus
It has led me among the sharps of the forest
Returning is not possible
And going forward is a great difficulty
The affairs of this world are like the chameleon feces
Into which I have stepped
When I clean it cannot go.

I am on the world’s extreme corner,
I am not sitting in the row with the eminent
But those who are lucky
Sit in the middle and forget
I am on the world’s extreme corner
I can only go beyond and forget.

My people, I have been somewhere
If I turn here, the rain beats me
If I turn there the sun burns me
The firewood of this world
Is for only those who can take heart
That is why not all can gather it.
The world is not good for anybody
But you are so happy with your fate;
Alas! The travellers are back
All covered with debt.

II.

Something has happened to me
The things so great that I cannot weep;
I have no sons to fire the gun when I die
And no daughters to wail when I close my mouth
I have wandered on the wilderness
The great wilderness men call life
The rain has beaten me,
And the sharp stumps cut as keen as knives
I shall go beyond and rest.
I have no kin and no brother,
Death has made war upon our house;

And Kpeti’s great household is no more,
Only the broken fence stands;
And those who dared not look in his face
Have come out as men.
How well their pride is with them.
Let those gone before take note
They have treated their offspring badly.
What is the wailing for?
Somebody is dead. Agosu himself
Alas! A snake has bitten me
My right arm is broken,
And the tree on which I lean is fallen.

 

Agosi if you go tell them,
Tell Nyidevu, Kpeti, and Kove
That they have done us evil;
Tell them their house is falling
And the trees in the fence
Have been eaten by termites;
That the martels curse them.
Ask them why they idle there
While we suffer, and eat sand.
And the crow and the vulture
Hover always above our broken fences
And strangers walk over our portion.

THE ANALYSIS OF THE POEM

 

The poem, Songs of Sorrow is drawn from the laments of a man besieged by his own misfortune and inevitable fate. The author, George Kofi Nyidevu Awoonor-Williams who hails from the Gold-coast, present-day Ghana was able to depict poetic traditions of his native Ewe people which heavily influenced his writing.

 

The poem portrays a man in despair that fervently ascribes his misfortune to his ancestors and the reason for his assertion is not farfetched. There is in African philosophy, an understanding that death in itself is a channel by which the departed become ancestral spirit in the life hereafter, with a responsibility to cater for the living.

 

This perception has largely nurtured a belief that men who have come about great success and fortune must have been aided by ancestral spirits. This view is also portrayed in Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ when the protagonist, Okonkwo was admonished by an elder at a kindred meeting – those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble. It is in this unique understanding and distinctiveness that Awoonor delivers this poem. Hence the opening;

 

‘Dzogbese Lisa has treated me thus’
It has led me along the sharps of the forest…’

 

Awoonor portray the man to be of great helplessness at the circumstances surrounding his present condition as though his personal effort were incapable of changing his situation. A deeper understanding of the myth behind the poem may suggest that the author was perhaps explaining the occurrence of death from a philosophical point of view;

 

…Returning is not possible and going forward is a great difficulty.’

 

The poem has in its narrative a lamentation of suffering, however, the author also conveys a proverbial message that suffering in itself is a part of life, an aspect of human endeavour that one must brazen out.

 

‘The affairs of this world are like the chameleon feces
Into which I have stepped
When I clean it cannot go’

 

An aspect of our social construct is also drawn out of this work; and the author cleverly portrayed the man complaining bitterly about his social standing in his immediate environment.

 

I am on the world’s extreme corner,
I am not sitting in the row with the eminent
But those who are lucky
Sit in the middle and forget
I am on the world’s extreme corner
I can only go beyond and forget

 

He identifies those who sit in the front row as being ‘the eminent’, the well-to-do, who live their lives in stupendous wealth. The next class of persons being the ‘middle class’, he portrays them, in my view, to be deluded by the respite of comfort, as they cling to the eminent who have abundant wealth. ‘…but those who are lucky sit in the middle and forget’.

 

The writer in this poem deliberately or inadvertently amplifies the disparity between the rich and the poor. There is a great divide in the class struggle and this perhaps why the man in the poem is so conscious of his state. He is reminded daily of his predicament, and he laments; that only death may allay him of the suffering:

 

‘…I can only go beyond and forget’.

 

The author’s language in the poem carries the strong harmony of his native Ewe tongue into English. Ewe is a highly tonal language, sung as much as spoken, with tonality determining the meaning of innumerable words. It would not be out of place to describe the poem as a song of laments.

 

‘My people, I have been somewhere
If I turn here, the rain beats me
If I turn there the sun burns me’

 

Awoonor also extols those who have been able to break even in life, he recognised that success was difficult to attain and fortune, hard to gather. Awoonor expresses that wealth would only accrue to those who are resolute;

 

‘The firewood of this world
Is for only those who can take heart
That is why not all can gather it.’

 

Again, the man in the poem takes solace in the stoic belief of a divine fate. He excuses his indolence with the idea that his ancestors allowed this fate (his predicament) befall him.

 

‘…the world is not good for anybody
But you are so happy with your fate
Alas! The travellers are back
All covered with debt’

 

The second part of the poem portrays the man reflecting on the outcome of his life. His grief is profound as he reels out his catalogue of woes. The poem depicts the man to be in the evening of his life (elderly) and he appears to be the sole surviving heir from a linage of great men. By this poem, Awoonor also alludes to the myth surrounding childlessness in African culture and the embarrassment that accompanies it.


‘Something has happened to me
The thing so great that I cannot weep;
I have no sons to fire the gun when I die
And no daughters to wail when I close my mouth
I have wandered on the wilderness
The great wilderness men call life
The rain has beaten me,
And the sharp stumps cut as keen as knives
I shall go beyond and rest.
I have no kin and no brother,
Death has made war upon our house’

The poem closely with the news of the demise of Agosi, presumably, his closest associate with whom he shouldered his grief and with this singular occurrence he completely resigns to fate;


‘Somebody is dead. Agosi himself
Alas! A snake has bitten me
My right arm is broken,
And the tree on which I lean is fallen’

The poem ends with a charge to Agosi, to convey their displeasure to the ancestors; as though to admonish the gods;

‘Agosi if you go tell them,
Tell Nyidevu, Kpeti, and Kove
That they have done us evil…;
Ask them why they idle there
While we suffer, and eat sand.
And the crow and the vulture
Hover always above our broken fences
And strangers walk over our portion.’

Awoonor delivers the poem with great dexterity and mastery; he is acclaimed to have written drafts in Ewe before producing both Ewe and English final versions. Awoonor met his untimely death on September 21, 2013, he was among those killed in an attack at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.

Odianosen Erhonsele
Volunteer, AIFA Reading Society

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