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Under Lockdown, A Nigerian Poet Encourages Others To Find 'Own Truth' In Poetry


Lagos, the biggest city in Africa, has been under lockdown for more than a month now. When a literary festival was canceled, the organizer began asking writers from across the continent to read African poetry that might bring some meaning to this moment. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports on her project.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Poet Lola Shoneyin was sitting at home in Lagos, thinking about how this was a privileged class lockdown, how poor people were still trying to make a living on the streets while middle-class and rich neighborhoods were eerily quiet. But she also thought about how this moment, this pandemic, was a kind of equalizer.

LOLA SHONEYIN: This is one time that people are genuinely nervous.

PERALTA: At this moment, both rich and poor are feeling a loss of control. The things that could get you out of trouble in the past seem useless.

SHONEYIN: Money can't save them - influence, power. And it doesn't look like religion can save them either from this. So it's put people in quite a vulnerable state.

PERALTA: This moment brought to mind the poem "Heavensgate" by the Nigerian Christopher Okigbo. Shoneyin's project was born. She posted a video on Twitter reading the first few lines.

SHONEYIN: (Reading) Before you, Mother Idoto, naked I stand before your watery presence, a prodigal.

PERALTA: It's about a profligate son coming back to a traditional Nigerian goddess, offering a total surrender and hoping for guidance. She then asked Lebo Mashile, a South African poet, to continue reading.

LEBO MASHILE: (Reading) Under your power wait I on bare foot, watchman for the watchword at heaven's gate.

PERALTA: Nigeria was one of the first African countries to record a case of COVID-19. They locked down quickly, and police aggressively enforced a curfew, killing 18 violators. The country thought it had tamed the virus. But cases are rising again, and the president's chief of staff, the man thought to be the second the most powerful in Nigeria, has died of COVID-19. I asked Shoneyin if she was looking for answers in poetry.

SHONEYIN: There are no answers. And I think if there are any answers to be discovered or uncovered, it will have to be on a personal level.

PERALTA: It's the beauty of poetry, she says. In it, everyone finds their own truth. But for the second poem in her project, she chose as something inspired by another tough time - "When The Lights Go Out" by South African poet Mongane Wally Serote. It's about the desolation of prisoners during the apartheid era, about how in that darkness, living in one's mind, there are still memories of a recognizable past. She enlisted more African poets to read.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) And you alone know that once, there were hopes - that once, the footsteps of the people sounded on the horizon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) And now silence strides across the sky, where the sun sweats, proclaiming a wish to rest.

PERALTA: It is when there is no hope, the poem concludes, that hope begins to walk again.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "DAYS TO COME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.