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Poetry for peace

22 March 2022
Reading time: 6 minutes

In every language and in every country, poetry has played an important role in portraying the state of affairs throughout the world and through the ages. It has described love and betrayal, peace and war, happiness and sadness – and so much more. In Nigeria it has been no different.

On Monday, March 21, the world celebrated International Poetry Day and RNI was there to speak to two poets in the northeast of the country, which has been under attack since 2009, first by the Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’way Wa’l-Jihād (JAS), better known as Boko Haram, and then joined by its splinter group, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Thousands have died, millions displaced and there have been hundreds of cases of kidnappings and abductions, all providing much material for poets. But now that some semblance of peace exists, poets have used their words to promote peace.

Poetry has been described as literature that conveys a thought, describes a scene or tells a story in a concentrated, lyrical arrangement of words. Poems can be structured, with rhyming lines and meter, the rhythm and emphasis of a line based on syllabic beats. Poems can also be freeform, which follows no formal structure.

RNI reporter Aisha Jamal spoke to Abba Ali Yerima, a poet in Maiduguri, who said poetry had helped to give some meaning to the years of devastation caused by the JAS insurgency.

“After the emergence of the Boko Haram war in Borno State in 2009, peace was lost to the insurgency. I’m not an army officer or a member of the police force but, in search for peace, I put my thoughts and emotions into writing, portraying some of the damages of the war. My aim was to capture the public’s attention to embrace peace again, especially among the youths.”

He said poetry went much further back than the insurgency, capturing historic cultures from ancient times. However, since the insurgency began, many talented poets had chosen to remain silent, thinking their work would not be accepted and afraid that their words might lead to them to being targeted by insurgents.

“When I started writing, I knew a lot of people who used to write but then they chose to stop, thinking their work would not be accepted in the environment in which the people were living. But if you look deeply into it, poetry has played a vital role in restoring peace in Borno State because people have realised the richness it contains, giving them a feeling of belonging to their land and their environment,” Yerima said.

“I believe poetry is a reflection of what has taken place and is going on in their environment. It has helped people to see the horrific instances of the war and understand their fears and feelings about what people in Borno State have experienced. We, as poets, have held many different events to showcase our work, set in different times and languages, including Kanuri, English, Hausa and Arabic. The huge turnout at these events shows how passionate people are about poetry, about their past and present, about their cultures.”

Yerima encouraged all people with talent, particularly youths, to use their words to describe their culture, their feelings about their lived experiences, their perceptions of life, their hopes and dreams – “and, yes, even their fears”.

“Youths should stop seeing poetry as a weaker part of society and literature because it deals with emotions. Instead they should accept and embrace poetry as a strong tool of achievement. They should see it as a means of humanity reviving every culture and language that is important, not only to them, but to the people of their land.”

Maryam Bukar, a student in Maiduguri, said: “Poetry has had a profound effect on me. In some ways it has help to ‘cure’ me after what has happened in my life and especially in Borno State, my home, which has been the victim to so much hatred, fear, anxiety and destruction. Poetry has shown me many different perceptions and, by do so, it has given me the strength and hope to move on with my life.”

Sa’id Sa’ad, whose poem was featured by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) among those of other young Nigerians, has used the power of poetry to advocate good nutrition, saying the drum is beaten only for the best and it’s a call for parents to look into their children, not with a second eye, but with both eyes.

He said: “We are people of oral tradition and poetry has been a strong tool for our social change for a long time. The earlier we adopt it, the easier our recovery will be.”

According to the poets, technology has proved crucial to poetry, allowing people with the same goals to meet, establish relationships, share knowledge and find solutions.

Sa’id Sa’ad’s poem featured by UNICEF:

Parents, our children’s roots

‘To put in the mouth is better than to hang on the neck,’ says the lion.

It is one people that create a life.

This drum is beaten for that which is great.

Before every rain, the cloud will set.

Every firm tomorrow, is sown today.

If you see a colourful day, it began yesterday.

What is qualitative, is always sought.

This type of journey, it is children that walk them,

These type of steps, it is parents that dance them,

This type of vision, it is elders that see them.

In all the centuries our names will be chanted,

Our children’s nutrition, is the way to that.

Before a house is built the land is checked,

Before a farm is set, manure is spread.

Parents, our children’s root.

It is from our tomorrow that today will grow.

Remember the colour of your children’s dreams,

Have we made them firm before they sprout?

Or do we look far ahead before we do?

Have we manured their lives to grow?

Or do we leave them in hunger like the rest?

Parents, this call is ours.

Do not dump a child like fragments of sticks.

Their lives’ prosperity lies on our hands.

If we unite in this, the success is ours.

Their hunger and sickness is ours, too.

Our children’s malnutrition is our risk.

If you see a child with a wasting body,

Or a girl battling stunting,

Or a group of children overweight,

All these are as a result of our weaknesses.

For the wellness of our children is our immediate responsibility.


About the author

Elvis Mugisha