Diane Pacitti argues that we need to decentre our view of the world, drawing on an anthology in which five of her poems written for St James’s appear alongside works by African writers.
Recently Greta Thunberg announced that she would not be attending the COP 27 Climate Change conference because people from ‘the more affected areas’ will be present and their voice is most important. Some of these voices were heard in an Eco church meeting after COP 26, when Alice Codner played us videos of representatives from smaller countries, passionate well-informed speakers who were ignored by the world media. Vanessa Nakate for example, speaking about the devastating floods in Uganda, pointed out that historically Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions, yet is suffering some of the worst impacts fuelled by climate change.
Greta Thunberg’s withdrawal points to the need to decentre ourselves from the world-view of the powerful industrialised nations, and in particular from their definition of progress.
Recently I was invited to contribute to Fixing Earth: Africa, UK and Ireland Writers Anthology. Available here , this publication was compiled by Tendai Rinos Mwanaka, a Zimbabwean writer, mentor, thinker, visual artist and musical artist. He invited a variety of approaches in prose and poetry, asking us to consider ‘how we as individuals can create, innovate and change our interactions with earth and the other living beings.’ I am delighted that five poems I wrote for projects at St. James’s, working in collaboration with Deborah Colvin and Sara Mark, appear in this anthology, alongside works by thirteen African writers and three other UK or Irish writers.
All the African contributors show a profound connection with the earth as a sacred space, a repository of stories, gifts and divine power. Gambian writer Maria Jawo presents a vision of nature ‘all singing’ – forest, air, fish and ‘subtle waves’. Zimbabwean Oscar Gwiriri focusses on a village well which ‘Suckled the entire region’, holding drumbeats and ancient songs. In Recentring Mother Earth, Kenyan academic Andrew Nyongesa notes how for the Maori fishing grounds are protected by religious rituals, to express gratitude and prevent over-fishing, an abuse of the sea’s bounty.
Not surprisingly, the African contributors offer a searing critique of imperialism. South African poet Sithembele Isaac Zhegwana is one of the many writers who evoke wasted landscapes:
‘a great serpent
Came, from out of the North.
He whisked his red tongue,
Our village turned to ashes’
The poet still sings so that ‘we
might find again the seed,
Slave Day by South African Archie Swanson is a devastating re-writing of Genesis 1, breaking the history of the enslavement of black people into historical stages, or ‘days’. And in Strongarm African-Italian performance poet Dee Allen attacks the agro-chemical multinational Monsanto, which contaminates nature and instils dependency by breeding seeds which terminate after one use. The poet rages that the plates of the poor are filled by mutated food while the rich eat healthy organic produce.
But there is also a recognition that African countries can be caught in a conflict between the old and the new. In a deeply moving story by the Kenyan writer Nyamburu Kiarie, we witness an intergenerational struggle. The aging protagonist, Kimeti, has named his daughter Nyambura after his mother who worked the land and grounded him in the ancient lore, making him see the trees of Eden which once stood in his garden. But this glamorous daughter, who arrives on a motorbike, is studying Environmental Sciences so that she can maximise every inch of land available.
I was particularly pleased that three of my included poems were written for the Aftermath project, based on the plants designated ‘weeds’ which sprouted in St. James’s after the bombing of 1940. As the project developed, it questioned false hierarchies and marginalisation within human society. In Cain I rewrite the Biblical story, which encapsulated a turning point of human history and is disturbingly prophetic. Abel the nomadic herdsman murdered by his field-owning brother prefigures the displacement and death of so many indigenous people and the loss of their profound knowledge of the land. In my poem. the brother-murder of Abel expands into humankind’s matricide of the earth, into the death of creatures who are our evolutionary ancestors and into the kin-murder of indigenous peoples. My poem ends:
The land is crying out with Abel’s blood:
and Cain wants our approval. So he enlists
investors, marketing campaigns. He calls
each Abel a resource, turns them to things;
makes sure he is distanced from the crime, and shrugs,
‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
The anthology is also a powerful expression of hope. In Field of Dreams Janina Aza Karpinska articulates her vision of ‘that Martin Luther Kingdom/ that he once dreamed of’, of a place/ Where Eden’s plots are not divvied up to profit those who already/have/more than enough, yet want more still.’
Speaking of this ‘place as real as a post code’ where hope can grow, she says:
‘We could call it ‘Paradise on Earth, or,
just Earth, for short.
To create this place, to locate it here and now, we need to listen to the voices we have excluded or pushed to the edge of the conference table.. We need to become a Robinson Projection world map, which does not inflate the size of our country or place it in falsely central position. In other words, we need to decentre ourselves.