L. S. Mensah was born and raised in Accra, and lives in the UK.
Five Questions with L. S. Mensah:
1. The proposed “Grand Inga Dam” hydro-electric project on the Congo River, which would be the largest hydro-electric in the world, looms large over my reading of this poem. Did you mean for this poem to speak to that project? If not, what were the main concerns you were writing towards?
My writing of this poem, in the first instance had nothing to do with the Grand Inga, since I had no idea about the project. On one level, it starts and ends as a spell poem, with the power of the words unleashed by the incantation. It is in line with some of the poems I've been writing, which explore different speech genres: riddles, oaths, invocations, libations, even curses, but in this case a spell (at least what I choose to call a spell).
In this poem, I use the river Congo as an allegorical canvas on which I attempt to hang a range of ideas about the on going disruptions (to put it mildly) in that part of Africa. In the African imaginary, the Congo region locates best of all, both in time and space, when and where someone turned our Rubik’s Cube, leaving us to rotate it to its original solid blocks of colour. Often when invoked as a comment on the modern African condition, it can elicit strong responses from African writers and intellectuals, including Chinua Achebe’s response to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". Perhaps the poetry equivalent to "Heart of Darkness" is Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo (A Study of the Negro Race)", which in its time also attracted its share of the racist blame. Go here for a discussion on that poem. The gaze, looking in has never been easy for us, whether it's the deracinated V. S. Naipaul 's well known views or Tim Butcher's "Blood River".
There is a point to be made that the relative peace which enabled West African poets to return to the past, and allowed them to explore indigenous poetic forms like the Ewe dirge, Ijala chant, the panegyric, the poetry of abuse, etc. was denied to the Congolese people. Right from 1960, their independence year, there was a civil war, not to mention the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961. If I'm correct, the present conflict has been raging since August 1998.
It would be worth one’s while to look at what the poets of the Congo region have had to say about their particular situation. When, as far back as 1958, Tchicaya U Tam'si (Congo Brazzaville) in 'Fragile' writes “endlessly I decalcify my joy” he makes you think sharply about the context from which this kind of verse emerges, for in this single line he sets up ideas about impurities, imperfections, depositions and hard water; all this about an emotion supposedly linked to happiness. The adverb of time, ‘endlessly’ placed right at the beginning of the line indicates that this cleansing process will go on forever. In a conflict or war situation, all the narratives of one-ness people have woven around themselves begin to fall apart, and the longer it goes on, the more they come to the realisation that they have always been strangers to each other.
Your reading of "To The Congo" as a comment on the Grand Inga however, puts a different but interesting slant on it, because it takes it from the political to the ecological, and therefore to concerns about harnessing natural resources for our use, and the price we, as well as the natural environment, pay for it.
2. Regardless of the intentions of this particular poem, do you feel, as a Ghanaian whose land (and greatest river) was so transformed by the damming of the Volta, that you have a particular perspective to provide the Congolese people? Do you feel Ghanaians have a particular responsibility to weigh in on the project?
The Congo has the unique distinction of being the only river in Africa, if not the world, which crosses the equator twice. This means there is water in its channels all year round. The primary aim of the Grand Inga therefore, is not for water supply. It is about meeting the energy needs of the Central & Southern African sub-regions. To achieve this, they would have to move or re-locate huge numbers of people.
In the case of the Akosombo Dam, the numbers for the Volta Lake vary but this article suggests 70,000, and also lists some problems faced by other dams across Africa. Many of these, including the Inga 1 and Inga 2, have not faired well managing problems foreseen and unforeseen, from decreased water levels in these reservoirs to invasive aquatic plant and animal species.
As with the situation in Ghana, the realities and intricacies of international financing require the energy needs of the various interest groups to be tiered, so that industry always gets a far higher percentage of the power than private homes. You see this clearly in times of power shortage. Homes and small business are always the first to have their power rationed.
That said, we should not be in the business of depriving others of their needs. It is the price of progress.
3. What role can poetry play in raising the environmental consciousness of Africa?
Heh! I found this most difficult to think around, and my answer may still be unsatisfactory, but I’ll give it a try.
African poetry can link us with those aspects of our philosophical traditions that require the individual to be responsible to his environment. In our small communities, where we all speak the same languages and worship the same deities, our farmers and fishermen set aside specific days when they do not farm or fish. These same communities sometimes structure their annual agricultural festivals around the idea of closing off particular ecological zones or areas, such as forests or water bodies for a period of time. The Bakatue Festival, celebrated by the people of Elmina/Edina comes to mind here. However, in the process of modernisation and urbanisation, when we move into ever larger conurbations, we forget or abandon these principles and expect someone else to mind our environment for us. Poets of the drier regions of the Savannah and the Sahel, where droughts are more frequent, are most likely to explore such issues. Tijan Sallah (The Gambia) says in 'Sahelian Earth', rather bluntly:
Very little water has fallen
On palmfronds to support
The throat of crows…
Rains have signed a contract of neglect
With our landscape…
Our inheritance has suddenly turned into
The restless despair of the camel's fate.
Chenjerai Hove (Zimbabwe) in 'Lost Bird' reminds us of the problems birds face in the urbanised, industrial environment:
Some say he fell in the chimney
of a nearby factory
others say he choked
And fell in the sewerage works
So he died, passed away without a tear.
Again and again, these poets remind us that when we let go of the natural environment by whatever means, we lose ourselves. Kofi Awoonor does this best in "The Sea Eats The Land At Home" when he personalises the impact of the destructive power of the sea:
Adena has lost the trinkets which
Were her dowry and her joy,
In the sea that eats the land at home,
Eats the whole land at home.
This powerful force of nature has taken away the symbols of her status in her community. It is a serious erasure of Adena’s identity. Of course it can be fixed by replacing the items of her dowry, but they say there’s nothing like the original.
4. Birds, especially African birds, clearly play an important role in the world of your poems. What is it about birds that drives you to return to them? Do they represent something consistent throughout all your poems, or does the meaning of the presence of birds change from poem to poem?
As a matter of fact there are two things I write consistently about; water in its many incarnations (sea, rivers, dew, rain, etc) and birds. In this poem the two meet. Invoking “the animal as an allegorical emblem” as Auden puts it in “The Dyer’s Hand”, allows one to adopt a Brechtian distance, all the while being aware that the poem deals with some aspect(s) of the human condition.
I’m not sure though, that I employ avian imagery in a naturalist’s kind of way. But poets are not always the best assessors of their own work. Often, in answering questions like these, the poet’s own self-delusions and subjectivities come into play. When we have laid bare our proclivities and psycho-pathologies, we become like Kweku Ananse, who in his attempt to hide the pot of wisdom, ends up losing everything when the pot breaks. It is impossible to gather these back into one's bosom.
Birds remind me of home, of those early evenings when the starlings perform their roosting dance, and the harsh cries of vultures in tall palm trees, especially when it rains. Birds also bring up questions of the exilic condition, free will and determinism, but these are outside the scope of this poem’s concerns. As for the birds I use, they change from poem to poem, depending of course, on the subject matter, though I have a few favourites I return to again and again.
5. Continuing with the last question, it seems at times that you are almost cataloguing the birds of Africa. Would you agree with this statement?
Yes I do have a habit of cataloguing everything around me, including birds, and I hope I live long enough to catalogue as many as I can, that is, before some of them become extinct. Since I got myself a copy of David Alderton’s The New Encyclopedia of British, European and African Birds, I have come to regard myself as a tinpot expert on birds, and it’s been wonderful!
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