São Tomé and Príncipe is the smallest country in Africa. It consists of two islands off the coast of Gabon, with an area of 371 square miles and a total population of about 150,000.
Like Cape Verde, São Tomé had no permanent inhabitants before it was colonized by the Portuguese. And as in Cape Verde, Portugal made little effort to promote literacy or culture. Originally exploited for sugarcane, São Tomé later became a way station for the Atlantic slave trade. Later still, coffee and cocoa were grown there. The country gained its independence in 1975.
With such a history, it is not surprising that São Tomé has produced little literature. But in The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry (1995), editors Stella and Frank Chipasula show that what little is available is worth seeking out. (Frank Chipasula, a Malawian poet, is also the editor of Bending the Bow and founder of Brown Turtle Press).
The Chipasulas draw particular attention to Alda do Espirito Santo, whose verses “were once considered subversive and dangerous by the Portuguese colonial authorities” and who was imprisoned and tortured after protesting a massacre in 1953. Though her work is included in other anthologies, her life is so little known that she appears in three of them with a misspelled name (Aldo rather than Alda) that transforms her into a man.
Maria Manuela Margarido, the other São Tomé poet whom they include, shares Espirito Santo’s militant spirit in poems like “You Who Occupy our Land,” addressed to the “barely empty ghosts of men” who have brought a smell of “guando fruit and death” to her country. In that poem and the one below, she conveys dramatic scenes with memorable and unexpected imagery.
by Maria Manuela Margarido
Translated from the Portuguese by Julia Kirst
Nightfall … grass on the back
of the gleaming black man
on his way to the yard.
explode in the palm trees’ comb
and cross each other in my childhood dream,
in the blue porcelain of oysters.
High dream, high
like the coconut tree along the ocean
with its golden and firm fruits
like obstructed stones
oscillating in a tornado’s womb
ploughing the sky with its mad
In the sky the severe anguish
of revolt passes by
with its claws its anxieties its uncertainties.
And an image of rustic lines
takes over the time and the word.