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Poetry Slam Activism in Francophone Africa

This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.

In the past 10 months social movements have sprung around the world at an impressive pace. It all started with an act of despair in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, and has now spread across 87 countries and 951 cities around the world according to the organizers of the United for #GlobalChange (October 15) Movement.

Demonstrating outside institutions is one way of expressing a desire for change in a society.  However, other forms of activism have existed for a while now and are now rekindled all around the world as a show of protest against the status-quo. Poetry slam is a well-known channel of expression for many activists in North America but the rest of the world has now embraced this unique blend of poetry and rhythmic oral story telling.

Many have found it difficult at times to relate to a form of expression that is often wrongly perceived as limited to the urban youth of North America. Poetry slam is however now firmly entrenched in the culture of many countries, especially in Africa because it incorporates the African tradition of oral story telling. Here are a few examples of poetry slam across the African continent and the context in which they were expressed.

The Arab revolution

King Bobo on UniversalSlam wrote a tribute to the youth of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya entitled ‘Liberté chérie j’écris ton nom‘ ( Beloved freedom, I write thy name) [fr]:

Liberté chérie j’écris ton nom
Ecoutez ce vent de liberté qui souffle dans toutes les langues
La jeunesse tunisienne s’exprime sur les murs
Avec des slogans tracés à la peinture
Liberté, liberté, liberté
La jeunesse égyptienne grave sur les sépultures
Des hiéroglyphes modernes inscrits pour le futur
La jeunesse syrienne ne voit que des balles perdues
Qui ricochent un peu partout et qui tracent sur les murs
Les poètes libyens de Benghazi murmurent
Des poèmes satiriques comme des caricatures

Beloved Freedom, I write thy name
Listen to the wind of liberty that blows in all languages
Tunisian youth write on the walls
With slogans drawn as paintings
Freedom, freedom, freedom
Egyptian youth etch on the graves
Modern hieroglyphics inscribed for the future
Syrian youth only see stray bullets
That ricochet around and leave marks on the walls
Libyan poets in Benghazi murmur
Satirical poems as caricatures

Algeria

Fodil Belhadj, an Algerian author, poet and blogger on Regards Africains (African eyes) [fr], slams about the promise of Algeria's independence [fr] and makes an analogy with his own story and his exile from his homeland [fr]

Fodil Belhadj also posts on his blog an open letter to the Algerian army [fr] :

.. Cela s’appelle l’autodétermination Chère Armée Algérienne. L’aurais-tu par je ne sais quel crime oublié ? Ah oui j’avais oublié que les Algériens s’étaient « trompés » en mandatant 188 députés du Front islamique du salut. Oui c’est vrai z’avaient qu’à pas voter pour de méchants islamistes, alors que toi tu es tellement, tellement sympathique. Chère Armée Algérienne. C’est tout ce que tu as trouvé comme argument spécieux, s’il en est, pour écraser ton propre peuple et rassurer « ta » communauté internationale…!
Sache donc grande muette puisque tu feins de ne point le comprendre, et à défaut de l’admettre, que démocratie signifie : Se soumettre au verdict des urnes.

.. it's called self-determination, my dear Algerian army. How could you possibly forget? That's right, I forgot that Algerian “made a mistake” by voting for 188 MPs [Members of Parliament] of the Islamic Front (FIS). It's true that they should not have voted for the bad, mean Islamists and that you are so much more sympathetic. My dear Algerian army. Is that all the argument you have left to keep oppressing your people and reassure “your” international community.. ?
You ought to know, oh great silent one [nickname given to the army in many francophone nations], even if you pretend not to get it, that democracy means accepting the verdict of the voting poll

Republic of Congo

Abd al Malik is a well-known singer and poet who grew up in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. Socially and politically engaged, most notably on the perception of Islam in France, he created with other artists the group ‘New African Poets’ (NAP) [fr]. In his poem, ‘Soldat de plomb’ (Toy soldier), Malik describes the struggle of a disaffected youth trying to fit in:

Soldat de plomb, soldat de plomb
Bien sûr qu'un sourire nous aurait fait plaisir,
Juste un peu d'attention et peut-être ça aurait été autrement.
Nous aurions été des enfants normaux et pas des enfants soldats,

Toy soldier, toy soldier
Of course a smile would have been nice,
A little bit of attention and maybe things have gone differently
We could have been normal children instead of child soldiers

Morocco

In Morocco, the independent news portal Mamfakinch described how the February 20 movement voiced their desire for change a few months ago in a different manner [fr]:

Nous sommes jeunes, nous sommes capables d’innovation ! Pour ne pas tomber dans la banalisation de nos formes de protestation, et au vu de l’essoufflement que peuvent ressentir nos concitoyens et principalement les jeunes par les sit-in répétitifs, la coordination de Rabat des jeunes du 20 févier a décidé de diversifier ses formes des contestations.
C’est dans cet esprit nous avons choisi, après un long débat, de faire un Flash-mob: Plus précisément, un Freeze ( on explique plus bas le principe) et un petit concert de musique et poèmes contestataires.

We are young and we are capable of innovating! For the protests not to grow stale, and since we've seen citizen movement, especially the youngsters grow tired by the repeated sit-ins, the coordination committee decided to diversify its way of protesting.
After a lengthy debate, we chose to do a flash-mob, more precisely a freeze, a small concert and some activist poetry.

Here is a video of part of the protest:

Madagascar

Some may argue that the original seeds of peotry slam were sowed in Madagascar. Malagasy culture has always incorporated Hainteny (Malagasy for “knowledge of words”), a traditional form of Malagasy oral literature and poetry involving heavy use of metaphor.

Kabary is the the spoken public discourse of the Hainteny and the earlier form of Kabary dates back to the 18th century. Kabary are often used during social gathering such as engagement parties or wedding where the speaker for each family would engage in verbal jousting. Usually declined by men, here is a rare instance of a Kabary spoken by Malagasy women [mg]:

Mauritius

Poetry slam has also taken a foothold on the island of Mauritius. Stefan Hart de Keating also known as StefH2K is one of the pioneer of poetry slam in the Indian Ocean. StefH2K explains that the presence during the slam is just as important as the quality of the text.

Fictif discusses the identity crisis that the Asian minority can sometimes feel in Mauritius [fr, kr]:

LE Sino-Mauricien

Aujourd’hui
Je veux slamer
Pour tous ceux
Qui comme moi en ont marre
D’être mis à l’écart
Car je ne suis pas qu’un petit Chinois
Mais un Mauricien
Comme toi… comme toi… comme toi
Oublie mon accent chinois
Ma langue maternelle, c’est le créole
Ki to ti kroir toi ? Mo pa konn koz kréol ?
Même si je regarde Jackie Chan à la télé
Ou pratique le kung-fu
Fou, hein ?
Ma danse préférée reste le séga

The Chinese-Mauritian

I want to slam
For those like me
Who are tired
Of being ostracized
Because I am not only a small Chinese guy
I am also a Mauritian
Like you, like you, like you
Forget my Chinese accent for a minute
My mother tongue is Creole
What did you think? That I cannot speak Creole?
Even if I watch Jackie Chan on TV
Or practice Kung-fu
Fooled you huh?
My favorite dance is still séga

There are many causes for which people protests in the streets or engage in political discourse. What has come to fruition is that the manner in which we do so tend to feed into one another more rapidly. Similarily, poetry slam has moved beyond borders to reach as a unique channel for self-expression and social activism. In fact, the rise of social media probably played a role in the quicker dissemination of poetry slam as a universal voice for the oppressed.

This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.

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