Samora Machel among the poets!

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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