By John Chukwuma Ajakah

Senegalese legendary poet, Birago Diop, in the didactic poem, Vanity, agrees with the preacher, King Solomon, as he makes a passionate plea to a rebellious generation to heed ancestral warnings and avert an impending doom. The poem, resonating a pervading mood of despair, is reminiscent of Solomon’s Vanity (Ecclesiastes12:8), which decries man’s insatiable quest for vain glory:


Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity

As the Preacher warns of the dreadful consequences of man’s arrogant disposition, the poet bemoans the rascality of his generation who ignore ancestral safe guards, preferring to tread on a destructive path. The psalmist, King David expresses a similar view about man:

Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in a balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity (Psalm 62:9)

Poetic Devices

Biblical allusion is the dormant device in the poem. Diop deploys imagery, personification, simile, hyperbole, euphemism, rhetorical questions, repetition, etc. in the presentation. The poet depicts the image of a disobedient and perverse generation, using some of the techniques to achieve emphasis and other special effects. The poem evokes a mood of lamentation. It creates resonant images of adults, wallowing in self-pity and agony as they are buffeted with traumatic experiences. After abdicating their obligations to the ancestors, the personae find themselves trapped in a pathetic squalor. They become objects of mockery and rejects. Their blatant disregard to tradition, culture and values pitches them against the ancestors. Consequently, they experience self-inflicted suffering, humiliation and neglect. The first stanza of Vanity aptly reveals a gloomy future:

If we tell, gently, gently

All that we shall one day have to tell,

Who then will hear our voices without laughter?

Sad complaining voices of beggars

Who indeed will hear them without laughter?

In the same vain that King Solomon warns of the repercussions of flippant disregard for divine injunctions, Diop chides his people, warning that the ancestors would turn their backs on them when they begin to experience self-imposed hardship due to their irreverent disposition:

When our Dead come with their Dead

When they have spoken to us with their clumsy voices;

Just as our ears were deaf

To their cries, to their wild appeal

They have left on the earth their cries,

In the air, on the water, where they have traced their signs.

The sentiments expressed in these lines are in tandem with the Preacher’s admonition in Proverbs 1: 22-32(abridged):

How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity …fools hate knowledge? …Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand and no man regarded; But ye… would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh; When your calamity cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you; Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me … but they shall not find me… they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord: They would none of my counsel: they despise all my reproof. Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way…For the turning away of the simple shall slay them…the prosperity of fools shall destroy them.

Thematic Treatment

Vanity portrays themes of neglect of traditional heritage, retributive justice, self-inflicted pain, rebellion, cultural alienation, civilisation, etc. The theme of neglect is depicted through the clarion call on the present generation to acknowledge the presence of the ancestors in their midst and accept the ancient pathways provided by their progenitors for a fulfilling lifestyle. The persona warns of the dire consequences of ignoring the ancestors. The iconoclasts holistically embrace civilisation, endangering the continual existence of their heritage. This provokes the persona’s apprehension in stanza 2:

If we cry roughly of our torments

Ever increasing from the start of things,

What eyes will watch our large mouths

Shaped by the laughter of big children

What eyes will watch our large mouths?

The palpable fear is reinforced in subsequent stanzas as the persona envisages the mockery of scorners. The last stanza reveals the aftermath of their regrettable choice.

And since we did not understand our dead

Since we have never listened to their cries

If we weep, gently, gently

If we cry roughly of our torments

What heart will listen to our clamouring,

What ear to our sobbing hearts?



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