Reading A Salvo for Africa

Nina Davies

The Cover

The back cover of A Salvo for Africa promises something extraordinary from Douglas Oliver:

"Fusing political with personal and covering many African countries, his tenth book of poetry invites readers to expose, as he does himself, European viewpoints to a learning process."
Can we expect a journey of personal development and insight? Will I learn something about the way in which Africa is 'seen' or 'comprehended' or 'taken in' from the 'outside'? Is it possible to glimpse the processes by which the Other and the exotic are created in society and psyche?

The way in which I approach this book is shaped by this promise. My assumption is that every page will reflect the complex inequalities in the relationship between Africa and Europe. I also assume that Oliver's poetry will give me a different, more subtle perspective than academic or journalistic writing can achieve. My hope is that the imagination will offer an understanding of the multiple layers of experience lived in relation Africa. Perceptions are formed, through the gaze of film, media, literature, tourism, academia, the internet, museum curators, importers of music and objects, charity organisations and Live Aid/8, long before most Europeans actually set foot on the continent.

Before I open the book, Marcel Mauss whispers the reminder that my concepts of personhood are products of a particular time and space. The notion that I can 'develop' as a person through reading a book seems suddenly ludicrous. Delving into the mind to 'excavate' its concealed patterns and layers, in poor imitation of Freud, seems a symptom of a ridiculous therapy obsessed culture. My own fascination with myself is perverse, especially in relation to Africa. On one level, we are all individuals in culturally shaped boxes rubbing up against each other awkwardly, or shooting each other down across vast divides.

The Poems

It is clear from the first poem that the advantage of this form for describing complex social and political issues is that so much can be condensed and hinted at in a very small space, asking the reader to develop ideas and make connections across time and continents. In Our Family Is Full of Problems Oliver takes the reader on a walk through Coventry and Dar es Salam, explaining the play of history and market forces that has created similar areas of social deprivation in the two cities. However, Oliver is clear that there are differences of scale:

And I read a Daily Mail economist forecasting great wealth
for all free market countries. 'Of course, there will be basket cases,
such as Africa'. And I grab you by the arm.
'Did you hear that? Africa! Not a Coventry suburb, a whole continent
written off in our free trade fanaticism." As if
holding your arm I face towards Africa and write these poems
a representative of a failed British imagination.
Here Oliver defines himself as complicit in the systems of inequality that determine Africa's poverty; the poems are conscious of their limitations and inability to offer solutions to the issues they raise. Oliver's talent is to re-present the histories of colonialism and after in a way that reflects the lens backwards onto Europe, reminding us always that we are responsible.

In The Cold Hotel Oliver writes:

myself a travelling poet-representative
for a people that won't take a dip
in their incomes, no not any
possible good imaginable,
not for the benefit of the future's poor,
not even for their own grandchildren
Again, he does not separate himself from the rest of us who enjoy a lifestyle sustained by the poverty of others. This drive for luxury and convenience in denial of environmental impact is raised in Soot and the inequality of ownership maintained by the trademark laws is highlighted in Few possessions in Togo. Other poems remind us that European greed in the face of African poverty is an historical 'habit': The King's Garden describes the legal trick that enabled the British colonials to appropriate Bulawayo from King Lobengula's people; A Salvo for Malawi traces the treaties that stole Nyasaland, enslaved its people and then demanded that they fight in World War I for a cause that had nothing to do with their history.

Through the Lens

A Woman in Ethiopia and The Infibulation Ceremony are poems written through the device of a lens. The lens acts as a reminder that the western male gaze always objectifies women and in the framing of African women there is a greater removal and increased risk of constructing fantasy. A Woman in Ethiopia is a title we are all familiar with, having watched reels of film of starved women and children in aid camps over the last 25 years. Oliver's poem attempts to show the closeness of a community joined in celebration despite their hunger. He is unable to share their joy because all he can see is starvation and all he feels is shame. The poem is making us conscious of the one dimensional view that poverty and malnutrition is the whole of the Ethiopian experience. Oliver makes us aware that the complexity of social relationships, religion and culture continues even on the edge of survival, which is something that newsreels and aid organisations have little interest in representing. Although bleak images of famine victims may encourage the intervention of western governments and donations to charity organisations, something of our similarities and shared humanity is lost.

The Infibulation Ceremony is a powerful poem, not just for the subject matter, but for the questions it asks about film and who the hell the films are made for and the reasons they are made. Female circumcision is so often used by feminists as an example of the institutionalised violence that women face daily but Oliver's poem is conscious of the fact that this takes place in an environment it cannot hope to understand. However, neither does the poem shirk from the agony of the mutilation:

They dance in a hurt, stiff motion,
sick-legged as if avoiding stones
blood gleaming on brown thighs
tears in expressionless eyes.
The lens of the camera zooms in and out, making a film for western consumption. Oliver asks who it is that films and representations of this kind are intended to benefit:

We know these illiterates will never see our film;
so will the children make their children dance
that queer dance in this cinema-wilderness?
I read into this poem all my discomfort of western feminists using female genital mutilation for their own political expediency. Although Spivak argues that the symbolic and violent suppression of female desire could be the issue that unites all women, the subtlety of her argument is lost in the noise of international campaigns that constantly single out this disturbing cultural practice for condemnation. We find it much easier to turn the camera outwards on the pitiful image of a girl

with a sewn vagina, stripped of pleasure,
crossed with thorns, as if the surgeons
had sutured the mouth of a healthy baby
leaving the palette uselessly cleft.
than to consider our complicity in the misogyny of our own cultures.

Memory and Imagination

The question I formulated in reading the cover of A Salvo for Africa was whether poetry could give an alternative perspective to illustrate complexities of Europe's relationship with Africa. There are poems in this book that stretch my imagination and ask me to challenge what I know. One of these is The Borrowed Bow, which sketches an elderly colonial official with a collection of African artefacts who is living out his time in an English coastal town after World War II. A sense of time and place are built with a bakelite wireless and a pier that has been blown up to prevent German invasion. The poem communicates the narrator's boyish fascination with an African bow and the old Wireless, the two objects becoming entwined together in Oliver's memory. Both objects feed the boy's imagination, both are magical and both have the potential to shoot:

in a village of valves, which cracked like gunfire,
a tracer arc streaked across dusty connections,
as if before the snap of it, the coil of smoke,
a tiny bow had shot a brilliant arrow.
This electric shock is a moment of inspiration where time and continents are drawn back, like the bow, and we are held in the moment of the poem to reflect on war, colonialism, collecting, time, childhood, old age, memory and media. The poem reminds us that the most marked cultural differences can be between the generations, particularly the ones who have experienced war and the ones that have not. This poem is full of triggers, shots and gunfire which reflect the life experience of the old colonial, the recent history of England and the culturally sanctioned games of little boys.

The presence of the wireless is a suggestion of the world shrinking through media communication; there is a sense that the signal being picked up is from the home of the bow. I find myself wanting to know when I first heard of Africa. Was it Idi Amin on John Craven's Newsround? Was it Elephants on Blue Peter? I remember Zulu and gun fire. I remember Roots and slavery. Later it was the images of starving children culminating in Live Aid. I remember presenting Evans Pritchard's The Nuer in my first week at University in 1989. I remember my visits to the Pitt Rivers museum in the early 1990's and spending hours pulling out drawer upon drawer of artefacts collected by the early anthropologists in an attempt to 'catalogue' cultures under threat. I remember flying into Malawi in 1999 and being shocked to see only one road cutting across the country, just before my experience of Africa became more than imaginary. Now, when I mention working in Malawi, older people ask what the country used to be called. "Ah, of course, Nyasaland. Hastings Banda," is their response, immediately creating images in my mind of childhoods spent staring at maps of colonial Africa before it crumbled away into the hands of men like Banda. The experience of our different histories holds us apart.

The Borrowed Bow encourages me to both deconstruct my own memory and want to know about how other people understand their experience. It draws a link between all human experience in the forcing together of diverse lives and objects in the space of three stanzas. The title itself can be expanded into a discourse about removing objects from alien cultures and creating exotic fantasies around them which we may then mistake for reality in our construction of the Other. Other poems that work on the same level of memory and imagination are The Childhood Map, Big Game and The Mixed Marriage, which bring together HIV, tourism, Mau Mau, environmental issues, financial markets and international relations into imaginative realms of paper aeroplanes, computer games and displaced objects. For me, these poems are among the most interesting in the book because they demand the complete engagement of the reader. They remind us that Africa has never been a distant place but always present in the next news flash or documentary.

A brief nod at the prose

The poems in A Salvo for Africa are punctuated by prose. Oliver uses this space to cover historical details, introduce his poems or expand on the ideas that they contain. Towards the end of the book he explains his project as an attempt to respond to the complex layers of experience present in real life, criticising the "British poetic culture which sniffs at too much literary ambition" (p 106). A curse of the western way of life is that most of us expect to divorce ourselves from parts of our experience, to the extent that our lives become a practice in specialisation. Oliver reminds us that leaving politics to 'the specialists' is a denial of our individual responsibilities to the world that we have constructed as our Other.

Throughout the book Oliver points with admiration to the African writers who are able to avoid the condescending tone of the West. A Salvo for Africa does not intend to imitate Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Denis Brutus, Frank Chipasula or any other writer who has the experience of growing up on the continent. Oliver's purpose is to make his own culture conscious of itself and allow it to uncover what it already knows about its relationship with Africa. Oliver does not offer answers to these global issues but is constantly pointing in the direction that they could be found. This book refuses to accept that there is nothing we can do and demands that we all face our responsibilities to the present and future populations of the planet.


Mauss, M (1985) 'A category of the human mind: the notion of "person"; the notion of "self"', in du Gay, Evans and Redman (eds) Identity: a reader Chapter 26 (2000). Sage.

Spivak, G (1981) 'French Feminism in an International Frame.' In Mary Eagleton, ed., Feminist Literary Criticism, pp. 83-109. Longman Critical Readers. (1991) London & New York: Longman.

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