Samora among the poets!

Here and there people still talk about ‘where I was’ and what I was doing ‘when I first heard about the passing on of Machel on 19 October 1986.’ But very rarely do you here about ‘Machel the poet.’

To be precise, Machel belongs to a generation of Lusophone ‘poets and revolutionaries.’ That phrase sounds very romantic. However those familiar with the history of the armed struggle in Mozambique and Angola are used to it. For example, Mozambique’s new president, Armando Guebuza is a poet of remarkable talent and so were Neto of Angola, Samora Machel, his wife Josina and other colleagues.

Josina Machel, the first wife of Samora Machel, a distinguished guerilla and “an exemplary educationist and a high quality cadre'” was a marvelous poet. In “This Is The Time”, she says:

“The blood shed by our heroes

make us sad but resolute.

It is the price of our freedom

We keep them close in our hearts’

revolutionary generations

are already being born.”

Josina died of natural causes in 1971 at the age of twenty-five. On her death, Samora Machel, who was a private kind of poet, wrote a poem entitled “Josina, You Are Not Dead.” Selected lines from Samora’s poem read:

“Josina, you are not dead

because we have assumed

your responsibilities’

Out of your memory

I will fashion a hoe to turn the sad

enriched by your sacrifice

and new fruits will grow.”

Husband and wife refused to accept death. Samora Machel the poet was the first President of Mozambique. He was born in 1933 at Chilembene in Mozambique’s Gaza province in the South. A peasant by birth and a nurse by profession,

Samora Machel joined FRELIMO in 1963, got military training in Algeria, became FRELIMO commander-in-chief in 1968 and was subsequently elected to succeed Mondlane who was assassinated on February 3 1969 in Dar es Salaam.

To some Samora was “a solitary man of action and of very few words” who scribbled a few poems in the middle of the night for Mozambique Revolution, FRELIMO’S official organ/journal.

At another level, Armando Guebuza’s poetry is the quintessence of a genre that has grown to be known in African literature as “war poetry.” This is the kind of poetry written and read by nationalists and fighters in Portuguese speaking African territories especially Mozambique and Angola.

Coming from countries with traditions of slavery, colonial and company forced labour and assimilation and its dismal pretensions, Angolan and Mozambican

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revolutionary poets reflect on the plight of a people who were forced to find a rallying point in order to struggle for self-rule.

The war poems of Guebuza seek an African identity defined by common suffering. His most well known poem is called “If You Ask Me Who I Am”:

“If you ask me

Who I am

I will tell you nothing.

I will tell you nothing.

I’ll show you the scars of centuries

Which furrow my black back

I’ll look at you with eyes of hatred

Shot red with blood

Shed through the years’

I’ll tell you nothing

But you will know why I fight.”

“Fight” is a key word in such poems from Mozambique and Angola. Some of these poets grew up in the revolution. Guebuza himself joined the struggle at the tender age of twenty in 1963. He hails form Mozambique’s northern province of Nampula, specifically from Murrupula. He got military training in Tanzania under FRELIMO(Mozambique Liberation Front) He got involved in active guerilla fighting, became a commander and rose to the rank of General. Before becoming President (this 2005) he had served the ruling FRELIMO government in various capacities.

The kind of consciousness that springs from collective suffering under the heavy boot of Portuguese imperialism is also evident in the poems of the father of the Angolan war of liberation, Agostinho Neto. Aware that noone else would fight on behalf of the oppressed Angolan black race but them, Neto joined the war. He scribbled somewhere; a sad but hopeful farewell poem/song:

“My mother (all black mothers)

Whose sons have gone

You taught me to wait and hope’

But life

Killed in me the mystic hope

I do not wait now

I am he who is awaited.”

The poem further bites into raw flesh and gets down to capture the

black white divide in colonial Angola:


We are naked children in bush villages

School less children – playing with a ball of rags

In the sands at noon.

We ourselves

Contract workers burning live

In coffee plantations

Ignorant black men

Who must respect the white man

And fear the rich’

Your children



Ashamed to call you mother.”

The story of Agostinho Neto is almost synonymous with the story of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the liberation of Angola), which championed the struggle for Angolan independence and is the ruling party since 1976. Neto, a qualified medical doctor himself was in and out of prison in the 1960s for his political views and activities. His poems were “smuggled out of prisons and are the best known of all Angolan poetry.”

They are also said to “form the basis of many popular songs” sang during the struggle for Angolan independence. They have been translated into many languages including English, Chinese, French, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croat, Spanish and Vietnamese!

Like Armando Guebuza’s poems, Neto’s tend to be very simple,

passionate, leftist and full of sweet pain. This way, they do not fail to touch the hearts and souls of all colonized and oppressed people. Neto’s poems have a practical appeal. Sometimes they enact the rhythm of soldiers on the march and yet they carry an internal protest:

“Breaking stones

Carrying stones

Breaking stones

Carrying stones

In the sun

In the rain

Breaking stones

Carrying stones

Old age comes fast.”

In addition, “war poetry” of Angola and Mozambique can yearn for seemingly simple items, wishes and desires. In such wishes are genuine desires to return to the ‘African source’ symbolized by drums, bracelets, dances, rivers, sex’ images that make the world before colonialism enviable and sorely missed. Jose Craveirinha of FRELIMO, for instance, has one such poem called “I want To Be A Drum.” The persona here wishes he were just, of all the things, an African drum!

“Let me be a drum

body and soul just a drum

just a drum in the hot night

worn with its cry in the full moon

of my land’

I want to be a drum

and not a river

a flower’

nor even poetry

Let me be a drum

just a drum!”

Craveirinha gave everything to the struggle. He began as a journalist but got heavily tortured for supporting the struggle in 1966. His poems make suffering a game and crying just another form of music. Yet in this poem he gives voice to the suffering black people everywhere and everytime. Guebuza must have taken a leaf from Craveirinha, especially the ability to laugh at pain or laugh when one should be crying. In a poem called “Those Strange Times,” Guebuza writes:

“Those strange times

When the whip hissed

and tore

a man’s living flesh

rising a cry of rage’

It is a time of revolt

against the whip

This is the time of armed struggle.”

Indeed the struggle became the school for Guebuza and the radical in him was bathed, toweled and dried. Jorge Rebelo, FRELIMO secretary for information, will be remembered for his poem called “Poem.” A work of genius, “Poem” is important for arguing why and how revolutionary poetry should be simple and useful. Jorge Rebelo would “forge simple words” that “even children can understand” and:

“Words which will enter every house

like the wind

and fall like red-hot embers

on our people’s souls.

For in our land

bullets are beginning to flower.”

It is the war itself that gave birth to such a literary tradition.

Written on the move or at the spur of the moment and between battles, there was here the pressure to record a thought, a philosophy’ Yet the seemingly simple and innocence of Rebelo’s poems were the diamond-hardness of this poet’s vision.

The war poem like song, dance and generally addresses the immediate people; a friend, mother, father, a lover and you and me. This poem tends to be a familiar voice talking to familiar people about familiar issues.

The leadership of Agostinho Neto (MPLA) and Mondlane (FRELIMO), rich intellectuals, promoted a culture of poetry. And for us today, this raises the issue of the role of intellectualism in both the struggle for independence and development of Africa.

Due to his training, the intellectual, if he or she is conscious and decides to be useful, can help in the definition of ideals. He or she should, if given the right environment, unbundled the grand dreams and make them accessible to the ordinary cadres.

October 2006
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