The Arts

March 2, 2020

Chilekezi: The Nigerian poet with love from the Gambia


…Says it’s a beautiful country with people homely and friendly

By Chukwuma Ajakah

With the release of his anthology of poems titled  Songs of a Stranger at the Smiling Coast,  Nigerian writer and insurance educator, Obinna Chilekezi Charles recaptures enchanting memories of one of Africa’s most alluring countries, The Gambia in a literary world.

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The dominant thematic focus of the poems reminds one of renowned 18th  century romantic poets like William Wordsworth and John Keats whose works eloquently celebrated nature.   The poet reveals that he is motivated by the sublime beauty of Banjul during his sojourn there to pen the lines: “My love for the tourist country came accidentally, as I had little knowledge of that country until I was invited there to take up an appointment as a visiting lecturer at the West African Insurance Institute some years back. Loneliness and the beautiful weather then prompted me to take up the saddle and write poems again and again.”

The anthology published by Kraft Books Limited comprises over 50 contemporary poems with the related subject matter and thematic preoccupation. In the introduction, Obinna affirms that “The Gambia is a beautiful country with a people that are homely and friendly to a fault…I have not only visited the country, but I have also travelled in it from Banjul to Basse, which is just like from the beginning to the end.” These thoughts resonate stridently in lines such as:  Do I need further to explain/ Why I should stay here in the smiling coast/ Leaving behind my town just for hers/ Swim with her along with the flow of the River Gambia/ Watching in lust.

The poems are broadly structured into six parts subtitled, “Love”, “Moments of Doubts”, “A Big Tear on My Face”, “Soxna, Let Me Go”, “Nature” and “Prayerful”.   In the first part, the poet explores the central theme of infatuated love through the following:  Do I Need Further Reason, I Was Too Far to Understand, For Love Can Be a Prevalence of Tricks, Your Face Sparkled and  Let Us Just Kiss and Say Goodbye.    The second part of  Songs of a Stranger at the Smiling Coast, “Moments of Doubts” ushers in elements of disillusionment, portraying the theme of unrequited love through the poems, “Too  Strong to  Ignore”, “As  You  Slide  Away”, “Stolen  Moment at the  River  Gambia”, “Scar for the  Wrong  Reason”,  and  “Moment of  Doubt”.  The third part, “A Big Tear on My Face”, predominantly features poems that reveal a twist of fate and theme of alienation. The poet persona’s disenchantment with the object of his obsession rivets in The Flower I Love Gone, Xenophobia, A Big Drop of Tear, Just Like an Eclipsed Sun, Like the Wind Rattling,  and  I knew You Were Not Where I Left You.

The poet portrays the enchanting river as a mistress who has held the persona captive and pleads for his release in the fourth part, “Soxna, Let Me Go” which features poems like Unbound Me, Let Me Go, You and I in this Dream, Your Silence Will Hatch to a Song Again and  Hopeless Despair.    The fifth part, “Nature” comprises verses that thematically depict the beauty of nature in a manner reminiscent of early romantic poets:  Nature,  Early Morning Rain, Banjul this Afternoon, Life Without a Blanket, Let it Rain and  Dawn of a  Dazzling  Sun while the last segment, “Prayerful”, borders on religious piety:  We Forget Too Soon, Sacrificial Giving, Acts of Love and  You Are Lord Indeed.

All through the collection, the poet tactfully engrafts images of nature into figurative expressions such as metaphor, hyperbole, simile and personification. The subject matter, “river Gambia” recurs in virtually all the poems as in:  “I have desired you, as/ The Sahara desert desires your river Gambia/ I drank from river the Gambia/ And hung my cup on a strange tree/,  Thinking of  you  flows naturally/  As the water in river  Gambia  do,…river Niger will surely meet river Gambia and  Sweet melodies out of the river Gambia.  Moreover, the poet romanticizes with nature through the deployment of symbolic and emotive imagery:  smiling coast, sweet air, stars in the sky in a conflict, a whirlwind of the storms, rising sun, areas along the rivers, flowers in hands, birds in their beautiful coloured feathers,  and season when flowers bloom… with lipstick red smiles.

Using classical allusion to Greek mythology, the poet depicts the fate of the persona as one alienated from his own people and now entrapped in a strange, but enthralling island:  I’ve owed all apology/ For apparently abandoning my home for that of hers/ But here I am, far… away from home/ With an abandoned apology in my pocket/ Maybe I too have been kept a prisoner by Calypso, the witch of love/ And the Greek Poseidon had abandoned me to fate/.  With the initial euphoria gone, the poet persona becomes nostalgic and begins to nurse the hope of returning home:  Brothers see me counting one by one the seagulls at her river bank/ And the sands at the bank of the smiling coast of The Gambia/ This has further distanced the road to home from my sight/ But I know, one day I must go home to the River Niger.