Poetry and Poverty.

 “I want to be a poet”

You could hear a pin drop.

“Ehm… what did you just say?”

“I said I want to be a poet”

And then you could really hear the deadly silence, pregnant with shock and panic. Their daughter was not a stutterer, her voice had always been sharp and clear. Maybe if she had stuttered, they would have urged her to repeat her words again.

Their only daughter, who they had put so much investment in, and had such high hopes for, of all the professions in the world, had chosen mere poetry, to put shame and disgrace on the family? How would they tell the relatives who asked constantly whether Bisi had chosen medicine or law or accounting, as one of the esteemed professions? Even Uncle Syrus, who was the “Big lawyer” in the family, had chosen Bisi as his successor, prematurely crowning her as the one who would champion the rights of women in her country, a “brutally honest” lawyer she would make, he had stated.

But here was Bisi, standing defiantly, her narrow chin jutted forward and her tiny nose scrunched at her parents…she wanted to be a painter and a poet…you know, make beautiful paintings and write short beautiful notes to go with them.

Bisi’s mother wondered where she had placed her blood pressure tablets, she had to take them now, because this girl was on a mission to kill her. A poet, of all the things to be, in this our Africa? To waste her  life?

You could interpret it as fiction or a real life story. The reality though, is that many African creatives go through layers of challenges to achieve their dreams and live their lives as true independent artists.

The Africa rising narrative focuses a lot more on socio economic development; the rise of start-ups, economic investment by multinational companies, healthcare infrastructure, etc. In March 2013, the Economist declared that Africa was the “hottest frontier for investments” and Times Magazine dubbed Africa as the world’s “next economic powerhouse”.

There has also been an urgent call to train Africa’s brightest and best, garner talents in economics, accounting, mathematics, engineering, Information Technology and medicine, to address some of Africa’s biggest problems. And there is no doubt that these are fields that require a lot of Africa’s human resources and capital investment. According to the African Development Bank, a country like Sierra Leone’s economic growth slowed down by 6.0%, dipped as low as -2.5 % in 2015, and will only reach 2.8 % this year. A sad outlook for my country, and now more than ever, Sierra Leone needs all hands on deck to ramp and revamp our economy through proper healthcare systems, rallying for transparent and good governance and strong infrastructure. These are some of the things that Africa really needs, and this is where there is funding and training for young people to build careers in. Hard skills such as ICT, math, accounting, are valued, as they are extremely needed…but at what cost and at the expense of who?

When we think of development, we tend to think of it in economic terms-but how much do we value creative development? Mina Salami, a Finish-Nigerian Feminist and Writer, argued that we need intellectual development as much as economic development. Intellectual development covers creative development as well. African creatives often feel as though they have misplaced priorities and have not fully conformed to the standards of how they can “make an impact”, or “create sustainable change” for their continent. Therefore, most of them take up jobs in development, teaching, or other fields that are considered “much needed”, and perceive their creative talents as a “side hobby” or remain underground writers, as they wait for a big break.

Can the African creative be blamed for doing this though? In many African households, it takes a lot of nerve for a child to assert that their aspiration in life is to only become a writer, a painter, a dancer, or in Bisi’s case, a poet. To escape the cycle of poverty or climb the social ladder in many developing countries, children find out very quickly that certain professions such as law, accounting, engineering, or medicine, are the inevitable tickets to creating a comfortable life for themselves and their families.

There is fear of poverty, of not “making it”, of the unknown, if one decides to take a fulltime career in creative professions. Unless one is able to break through in a western country and present trophies to the continent, the African creative is mostly not taken as seriously. Actors seem to have more luck, their talents can visibly be seen quickly. Writing takes time, a lot of time, and patience. It also takes good publishing houses to publish your work and get them out there, so one can get some form of livelihood from writing. There are not enough publishing houses in all African countries, to encourage more writers to come out and publish. A few publishing houses such as Farafina Books (Nigeria) have created an avenue where African writers can publish here at home.

Boosting Africa’s development does not only mean creating avenues for “hard skills”. Hard skills are much needed and valued, and who can blame us? In a continent that has crippling infrastructural deficit, we need them urgently. However, we also need intellectual and creative investment. It is an unfortunate paradox that a continent that is bursting at the seams with so much rich creative material, shuns its creatives, casting them as curios to be conjured when we want to parade “the other side of Africa”. Except that the arts and literature, are not the “other side” of Africa. They have for long been intricately woven into the fabric of African societies.

A civilization cannot move forward without promoting and embracing what makes it uniquely set apart. African writers, filmmakers, poets, artists, creatives, should be considered integral and indispensable contributors to a holistic “rising” of our continent. More African creatives will be bolder to set out on their own, and contribute to a much needed creative sector, if they are encouraged and considered an important part of what we have come to know as “development” (this term itself needs a lot of unpacking).

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