Rodney Saint-Éloi: “Je n’ai pas de mots pour dire l’Afrique”

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[Many thanks to Sophie Maríñez for bringing this item to our attention.] Rodney Saint-Eloi—poet, editor, and founder of the Mémoire d’encrier publishing house—writes from Senegal about his thoughts on Africa: “I do not have words to express Africa.” Before his return to Canada for the Montreal Book Fair, the Haitian poet send his message of love for Africa. Here are translated excerpts from Le Point:

I do not have words to express Africa.

I do not have much to say about Africa, except for my indebtedness and hopes. I do not have the arrogance to tell you where to draw on to trace the future, the light and strength to gaze upon tomorrow. I do not know how to make or remake the history of a continent. I came to Dakar to understand and to listen … To listen to the elegance, the knowledge and the know-how of others: Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Achille Mbembe, Alain Mabanckou, Françoise Vergès, Felwine Sarr, Kossi Efoui, Lydie Moudileno…

I notice and ardently hope that the African future of the world will be embodied. I do not have words to express Africa, but rather to learn. To learn [about] yesterday, today and tomorrow. I learn [about] the living. I learn the best way to live in the world. I learn [about] this upright humanity that offers me reasons to hope. In Dakar, I discovered that I have brothers and sisters from here to infinity. It is a poem that (re)starts there, in the shiver of a baobab. I do not have much to say by virtue of being Haitian. I have no lessons to give anyone. I am in the midst of my people, in this gathering of giving and receiving, as poet-president Senghor wished. There is nothing more paradoxical for a Haitian than Africa, between fascination and alienation, ghosts and adoration.

The words of Jean Price-Mars come to mind, deploring the fact that Africa is “the most humiliating apostrophe that can be addressed to a Haitian. In a pinch, the most distinguished man in this country (Haiti) would rather have some resemblance to an Eskimo, a Siberian, or a Tunguskan rather than to be reminded of his Guinean or Sudanese ancestry.” I grew up with words and books. And dreams, too. Africa was part of my dreams about living in the world. At a very young age, I read the poet Léon Laleau, who spoke of betrayal. “[. . . ] Feel this suffering. And this desperation equal to none other. To tame with words from France, this heart that came to me from Senegal?” [Sentez-vous cette souffrance. Et ce désespoir à nul autre égal. D’apprivoiser avec des mots de France, ce cœur qui m’est venu du Sénégal?] Or in my brain, the nostalgic drum of Car Brouard rumbles: “Drum when you sound, my soul screams out to Africa.” [Tambour quand tu résonnes, Mon âme hurle vers l’Afrique.]

I was in Dakar also to evoke presences that I could not betray. They are the authors who have spent their lives here. Beginning in the 1960s, a whole generation of Haitian writers had placed their hopes on this African future of the world. I quote Jean F. Brierre, Félix Morisseau-Leroy, Roger Dorsinville, Gérard Chenet, Lucien Lemoine and Jacqueline Scott Lemoine. I met them all, and their voices are submerged in me. They all communicated to me this passion for Africa. And I immerse myself again with Roger Dorsinville in L’Afrique des rois (1975); Jean Brierre’s Le Chant Gorée speaks to me. I still live this full consciousness of Africa, capable of sustaining the utopias of the world. These writers gave a meaning, a journey, an intelligence of the world, and a horizon to my dreams so that they may exist, express the world and die. I want to speak without betraying the voices that preceded me.

Before returning to my home in Montreal, since I do have to return, a journalist and filmmaker friend gave me the joy of taking me to see Gérard Chenêt in Toubab Dyalaw. Gérard Chenêt is 90 years old. This is the second time I meet him. I watched from afar his movements in the sea, until I found him a few minutes later, rooted like an old centenarian, shirtless, in front of me, near his sculptures. I walked into his legend in broad daylight. I hear his voice say, “I want to lay on the ocean, to cover myself with the sheet of the sky, my head on the rock of Toubab Dyalaw.”

I left a fragment of one of my poems for my Dakar friends to think about:

Comrades, for two centuries

I am mad about the same madness

I am mad about the same story

I say the same words every night

I learn the verb to be

I raise my head

I raise my head

And I say to the four horizons

Honor

Who will answer “Respect?”

[Camarades, depuis deux siècles; Je suis fou de la même folie ; Je suis fou de la même histoire ; Je redis tous les soirs les mêmes mots ; J’apprends le verbe être ; Je lève la tête ; Je lève la tête ; Et je dis aux quatre horizons ; Honneur ; Qui me dira respect.]

[Translated by Ivette Romero.] For the original article (in French), see http://afrique.lepoint.fr/culture/rodney-saint-eloi-je-n-ai-pas-de-mots-pour-dire-l-afrique-15-11-2017-2172664_2256.php

[Rodney Saint-Éloi, Dakar, 2017, by Antoine Tempé.]

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