Structurally a poem of seven uneven stanzas, The Grieved Lands of Africa was originally written in the Portuguese Language and later translated into the English Language. The poem is repleted with repetitions, both on word and phrasal levels, which convey emphatically the central message of the poem.
Its writer, Agostinho Neto, was a fierce nationalist who fought for the independence of his country and in fact became the first indigenous president of Angola. Angola like everywhere else in Africa underwent the dark age of European colonialism — colonised by Portugal. The poet must have written this particular poem during his struggle for Angolan independence from Portuguese colonialists.
The Grieved Lands of Africa portrays a general overview of the African experience since the coming of the first Europeans to Africa, the transatlantic slave trade, and the colonial exploitation that followed. Coincidentally, the earliest contact between Europe and West Africa was made by the Portuguese (in the 15th century) — a people who would later colonise Neto’s Angola.
The poem appears to say there is no difference between the primordial transatlantic slave trade and colonialism; that slavery is slavery no matter what name one calls it or embellishments one gives it. It is an outright depiction of a slavery movement that shook the continent of Africa vigorously.
There are three key words in the poem which not only form part of its title but are also repeated throughout the poem. Grieved, Lands, Africa.
Grieved, a deverbalised adjective, is attributive in its context of usage, “The grieved lands of Africa”, in that it modifies the noun, “lands” (in a modifier-headword-qualifier noun phrase structure). Grieved on the surface level leans towards sorrow, suffering, and hardship. Lands of Africa is indicative of the kingdoms, villages, nations, etc. the African continent is composed of, each treated individually in plurality but share the same grief.
“The Grieved Lands of Africa” therefore is suggestive of the several centuries the Africa continent was in the servitude of another continent; maimed, exploited, stripped of her humanity, her people taken as slaves any which way.
The slavery itself is relative especially during the colonial era. For example, Angola and Belgian Congo had more in common than Nigeria and Ghana. In Angola, there was forced labour. People were killed, imprisoned and subjected to a whole lot of inhumane things.
The first stanza of the poem begins with the emphatic “The grieved lands of Africa”. Here, the poet persona identifies the suffering and hardship Africa and her people underwent, affecting them with immeasurable “woes” and sorrowful experiences. This manifests in form of “ancient and modern slave(ry)”. The “ancient slave” refers to the typical African snatched away by the European slavers and transported through the Transatlantic route to foreign lands to work as slaves on plantations and under inhumane conditions. The “modern slave” in this context refers to the African man, stripped of his rights, governed by people from foreign lands in his own land. While the “ancient” wave is acknowledged as slavery, the “modern” one is called colonialism. The poet persona however believes that there is no difference between the two. That colonialism is just another form of slavery dressed in the garbs of modernism.
The two categories are slaved for the benefit of people “of other seas” against their wish. “The degrading sweat” refers to the dehumanizing conditions attached to the slavery, “impure dance”, stage-managed by European countries.
The second stanza of the poem is particular about colonialism, the modern slavery. It begins also with “The grieved lands of Africa”. This stanza demonstrates how African lands were forcefully colonised through “the wickedness of iron and fire”. The preexisting African systems were “crushed” with the superimposition of foreign systems. While the poet is explicit enough to pinpoint “iron and fire” as a symbol of modernisation, the periphrastic statement, “the wickedness of iron and fire” is a signification of the superior firearms and ammunition used by Europeans in securing territories in the African continent and with which several atrocities and brutalities were committed against the African populace.
“Flower” capitalized like a proper noun may also refer to the glorious African sons and daughters “crushed in the forest” in the name of modernisation — in the colonialist’s efforts of bringing civilisation to Africa. There is also this exploitative side to it — Africa was robbed of its natural and human resources.
This stanza follows the repetitive pattern of the last two stanzas in that its first line is a repetition of what we have in the first lines of the last two stanzas. The third stanza continues where the second stanza stops. It reveals how the European colonisers perpetuated the colonial rule and how they responded viciously to any challenge, however feeble, to their sustained administering of African lands. They persecuted the challengers, threw them into jail, and sometimes killed them. The poet himself was thrown into prison while demanding for his county’s independence.
The poem further extends to “the dreams soon undone in jingling of jailer’s keys”. Dreams rot away when the bearers had “the jingling jailer’s keys” as a barrier between them and the realisation of their dreams. The ones outside feared being incarcerated. There was no total happiness as evidenced in “stiffled laughter” (what kind of a man is happy when he has become a slave in his own land?) and “voices of laments” ruled the air.
For the first time in the poem, there is a departure from the first line repetition. Perhaps, this signifies a change in the mood of the poem. “The grieved lands of Africa” is substituted with third person plural pronoun “they” and its variants in this stanza and subsequent stanzas. There is also the incorporation of “us” in this stanza and “we” in other parts. What this implies is that there are two entities in this poem. The first — the grieved lands of Africa. The second — the new generation of Africans conscious of their identity and the sad experiences of their forebears.
The poet persona suggests that the bitter experiences Africa had undergone will continue to be “alive in themselves” as long as they (“with us alive”) are alive; as long as there are people to tell them. These inhumanities are inerasable and are “in the perpetual alliance of everything that lives”. There is no way the African history is told without mentioning the atrocities meted on an entire race. The receptors of these atrocities are therefore forever immortalised on the pages of history. The sad memories stay evergreen.
The grieved lands of Africa “shout the sound of life” despite the many unimaginable things it had undergone; “the corpses thrown in Atlantic/In putrid offering of incoherence/And death and in the clearness/Of rivers”. These notwithstanding, the grieved Africa shouts life.
“Life” here may mean independence, freedom and liberty. It may also mean or include the readiness to outlive the sad memories. Whatever “life” means, the grieved lands of Africa is undeterred by the gory details of their past to exude in it.
The poet persona paints a mental image of the kind of life “the grieved lands of Africa” aspires to live. One of “harmonious sound of consciences/Contained in the honest blood of men”; lived in “the strong desire of men” and “the sincerity/the pure and simple rightness of the stars’ existence”.
This kind of life is one where there is sense of what is right and what is wrong, sincerity and the African consciousness.
The first line of the seventh stanza is a repetition of the first line of the sixth stanza: “They live”. This emphatic statement is a signification of the will to outlive an unpleasant past.
The poet persona further confirms what we have earlier suspected in Stanza 4 that the poet persona and his/her contemporaries are Africans: “We … imperishable particles of the grieved lands of Africa”.
Upon a better reflection, one may conclude that Agostinho Neto’s The Grieved Lands of Africa is a comprehensive poem that chronicles the severe treatment underwent in the hands of people “of other seas”, noting the resultant grief caused by this ill-treatment. The poem also captures aspirations of Africans for better living conditions and conscience-internalised society. By inference, the poem portrays the slavers from “other seas” as brutal, wicked and conscience-dead. The “imperishable” people of the grieved Africa whom the poet persona exemplifies are ready to piece together Africa’s traumatic past and forge a better future for the continent.