The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry
edited by Stella and Frank Chipasula
(Heinemann ISBN 0-435-90680-1)
Warm night of Mozambique
and the distant sounds of a xylophone reach me
– distant and regular –
where are they coming from? Even I do not know.
In my iron sheet and board shack
I turn on the radio that lulls me to sleep...
But voices from America stir my soul and my nerves
and it is for me that Robeson and Marian sing
Negro spirituals from Harlem
Let my people go
Oh let my people go
let my people go
and I open my eyes and cannot sleep
inside me Anderson and Paul resound
Let my people go.
I sit at the table to write
(deep inside me
oh let my people go)
let my people go
and now I am nothing but the instrument
of my swirling blood
Marian coming to my help
with her low voice, my sister.
I am writing
over my table familiar faces are bending
my mother with her rough hands and her face tired
with rebellions, pains, humiliations
tattooing in black the virgin white paper
and Paul that I do not know
but he is of the same blood and of the same beloved sap of Mozambique
and miseries, wire-meshed windows, the goodbyes of magaiças
cottonfields and my unforgettable white friend
and Zé my brother and Paul
and you my friend with the gentle blue look
holding my hand and making me write
with gall flowing from our rebellion.
All come and bend over my shoulder
while I am writing, from the heart of the night
Marian and Paul, watching from the radio light
let my people go
oh let my people go...
from Let my people go by Mozambique’s Noémia de Sousa
Women poets have been scandalously under-represented in anthologies of African poetry. This excellent new collection shows just how much we have been missing. It’s powerful, thoughtful, sensitive stuff. There are contributions from 40 or so poets, including Ghana’s exiled Ama Ata Aidoo and Zindzi Mandela (daughter of Nelson and Winnie). The mix of styles and voices is just right – some quiet, passionate and intimate, others loud, bold and protesting. And there is a good representation of women writing in languages other than English, giving you the chance to compare the elliptical style and metaphysical sensitivities of some of the North African poets (writing originally in Arabic or French) with the open and energetic nature of some of the Southern African poets (writing in English or Portuguese). In terms of the poets’ backgrounds too, the editors have gone for variety. Gwendoline C Konie is a company director and Zambia’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Algeria’s Leila Djabali wrote from behind bars as a political prisoner, while Gcina Mhlophe resorted to a public toilet in a Johannesburg park to write during breaks from her factory job.
directed by John Boorman
This film is made with the best intentions with John Boorman clearly attempting to draw the world’s attention to the plight of the democratic movement in Burma, whose leader Aung San Suu Kyi has only just been released after six years of detention.
But, like The Killing Fields, the struggle is presented through the eyes of a Western protagonist. At least in this instance, it is a woman doctor rather than the rugged, male, journalist hero of films like Salvador or Under Fire. As if to nod wryly to the latter tradition, the one American adventurer photographer to appear in this film quickly makes his exit, leaving Laura Bowman in the centre of the frame.
Set in 1988 – the year of the student uprisings against the military dictatorship, Bowman (played by Patricia Arquette) becomes caught up in events while holidaying with her sister. It transpires that Bowman’s husband and young son were recently murdered and the trip has been planned to help her overcome her grief. Consequently the film is as much about her journey to recover as she comes to terms with her own personal tragedy inspired by the fortitude of those around her as it is about the country itself. Separated from her sister and the tour party when her passport is stolen, she is left behind in Rangoon where she is taken under the wing of a kindly tourist guide U Aung Ko (played by U Aung Ko) who turns out to be a former university professor and political prisoner. Soon, though, it is she who becomes his protector as he is wounded while being pursued by the army.
If Beyond Rangoon addresses the situation in Burma – there is even a glimpse of Aung San Suu Kyi defiantly confronting the phalanx of soldiers – it does so as an adventure story. As such it is not quite good enough, with the drama palling and Arquette unable to sustain the role. It needs to be sharp and thrilling for the message to reach a mainstream middle-America audience. Lethal Weapon 2 – with its Afrikaner villains – did more to provoke a discussion on apartheid in South Africa than Cry Freedom, simply because it was watched by so many more people. What are audiences supposed to do as they leave the cinema? The situation is dire in Burma and for real change to take place we will need to look ‘beyond Rangoon’.
The Burma Action campaign group can be contacted at Collins Studios, Collins Yard, Islington Green, London NI 2XU. Tel: 0171 359 7679. Fax: 0171 354 3987.
by Towering Inferno
(Island CID 8039 CD/MC)
Deeply moving, Kaddish is a record which addresses dangerous times. Described as ‘the most frightening musical document’ this 75-minute impressionistic journey takes us into the memory of central Europe, exploring the Holocaust and its repercussions for us all. The effect is achieved through sheer diversity. Industrial rock guitars fuse with string quartets; folk and old partisan songs with minimally-inclined piano parts. The mix and pitch is handled with delicacy. Strong sounds are used with a primeval force. They shock, while other sections impart an overwhelming sadness.
Stylistically Kaddish defies definition – it is not wholly jazz, rock or classical. Towering Inferno’s two core members – Richard Wolfson and Andy Saunders – have assembled a variety of musicians from numerous traditions. African drummer Gaspar Lawal, the London Welsh Chorale and the peerless Hungarian folk singer Márta Sebestyéa interact with the Electra Strings quartet. Many of the texts are provided by Endre Szakarosi and his words are laden with sadness. ‘The wind blows through me,’ runs the lyric. ‘This sky will cover you when you fall down.’ Far off in the distances voices murmur, straining for audibility against the onslaught of heavy machinery.
The Kaddish – which provided Towering Inferno with their focus – is the Hebrew prayer for the dead. Sung at the end of this work it signifies many things: a mourning for the Holocaust’s dead, an articulation of faith in the midst of chaos as well as, paradoxically, a secular prayer for a world which continues to tear itself apart over ancient conflicts.
In January 1988 the British House of Lords held a debate on cultural diplomacy in which Lord St John of Fawsley (former Conservative Minister for the Arts) stated: ‘If I were asked what had been this country’s three greatest contributions to world civilization I should reply unhesitatingly: the common law, parliamentary government, English language and literature. And at the heart of all three lies the idea of liberty. I do not believe that we can export our institutions indiscriminately, but by informing people of how they work and flourish, by imparting thoughts about them, we can enhance the chances for freedom elsewhere.’
Robert Phillipson does not quote these extraordinary words in Linguistic Imperialism but he does allude to similar claims made in 1935 by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) on the foundation of the British Council: ‘Our object is to assist the largest number possible to appreciate fully the glories of our literature, our contribution to the arts and sciences, and our pre-eminent contribution to political practice. This can be best achieved by promoting the study of our language abroad.’
In both of these speeches the planned spreading of English throughout the world is directly linked to rosy political objectives of an unabashedly colonial kind. Phillipson’s argument in Linguistic Imperialism rests on the well-established thesis that colonialism has not come to an end but is today largely prosecuted by non-military means. What is original about his treatise is that it provides the first systematic examination of the enormous significance of language to most neo-colonial enterprises. He considers the role of language important enough to merit the development of a new concept, ‘linguicism’, which he sees as important as that of racism.
Linguicism, for Phillipson, is an assembly of ‘ideologies, structures and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources (both material and immaterial) between groups which are defined on the basis of language’.
CHRIS STOWERS / PANOS
One important aspect of linguicism is the teaching of English as a foreign and second language and its maintenance as a ‘national’ language in communities whose mother tongue is not English. Phillipson explores the complex political and economic history behind the astonishingly successful attempts to make English a ‘world’ language – but his intention in doing so is to change this state of affairs. He demonstrates the cultural, social and psychological damage inflicted by the fallacies of the English language teaching profession.
The main problem with English, he says, is the monolingual emphasis with which it is taught. This has the effect not only of downgrading the mother tongues of learners, but of tragically undervaluing the rich multilingualism which is typical of most of the developing world. Fallaciously identified with modernity, progress, freedom, civilization and reason, English commands monumental financial, official and popular backing in parts of the globe where its role is dubious. As a result indigenous languages ‘are not accorded enough resources to develop so that the same functions could be performed in them’.
One reason for this is that decision-making élites in developing countries have usually been persuaded to share the interests of their neo-colonial patrons. Sir Anthony Parsons, former Foreign Policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher, stated this policy without disguise and was quoted by the British Council in a recruitment brochure of 1988: ‘It is really dazzlingly obvious. If you are thoroughly familiar with someone else’s language and literature, if you know and love the country, the arts, the people, you will be instinctively disposed to buy goods from them rather than a less well-known source, to support them actively when you consider them to be right and to avoid criticizing them too fiercely when you regard them as being in the wrong.’ This makes the massive annual enlistment of international students by British universities seem a much less disinterested and beneficent process than their prospectuses could ever intimate.
I find Phillipson’s book peculiarly challenging because I teach English Studies in one of those universities. Indeed, I have recently been asked as part of my job to act as a consultant to the English programme of a Middle Eastern University, to which I am about to be flown for five days as a visiting ‘expert’ at the British Council’s expense. Linguistic Imperialism thus strikes at the very roots of my everyday life. I know well the personal tempt-ation to concentrate on the purely ‘professional’ tasks in hand and to neglect to consider the ideological purposes of a job like mine. Phillipson analyses the convenient disconnection of educational practice from the political and economic ends it serves – what he calls the divorce of ‘culture’ from ‘structure’. By reminding us that these two things are really indissoluble, and that educationalists have accordingly a moral duty to rethink what they do, Linguistic Imperialism acts as the bad conscience of an ideological project which has so often been depicted in glowingly innocent terms. It should be recommended to anyone convinced of the ‘superiority’ of the English language, or of the necessity of its universal dissemination.
Linguistic Imperialism by Robert Phillipson is published by Oxford University Press, 1992.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995