Across the globe, poetry has been considered to be one of the most universal and important vehicles of human expression as it encapsulates various human experiences in an understandable and well-documented manner.
Africa is rich in literature and poetry, and here’s a list of contemporary African poets that you should know:
Warsan Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali poet and writer who is based in London. She is popularly known for her poetry being adapted into Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” album. Her work explores the topics of gender, war, sex, and cultural assumptions. Her body of work includes Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, released in 2011, Her Blue Body and Our Men Do Not Belong to Us, both released in 2015.
She is passionate about character-driven poetry that tells the stories of people, especially immigrants and refugees who are often portrayed as victims or martyrs, without their human experience being captured. In 2014, she was named the first Young Poet Laureate for London and chosen as poet-in-residence for Queensland, Australia.
Nayyirah Waheed is a U.S.-based poet best known for her poetry books titled “Salt” and Nejma”. She fell in love with poetry at the age of 11 when she was given a poetry project by her teacher to be featured in a community newspaper. Her inspiration for poetry comes from her self-honesty and the desire for people who read her work to be positively affected by it.
Liyou Libsekal is an Ethiopian poet who spent a number of years in the U.S before returning home to Addis Ababa. Her chapbook, “Bearing Heavy Things”, is part of the 2015 African Poetry Book Fund’s New Generation African Poets series. Her poetry explores the themes of identity, displacement and the reality of growing up away from home.
Lebo Mashile is a South African poet who was born in U.S. and returned to South Africa after the fall of apartheid in the 1990s. She is well-known for her works “In a Ribbon of Rhythm” released in 2005 and “Flying Above the Sky”, which was released in 2008. She is also an actress and producer, having performed in a number of theatre productions, being featured in the 2004 film with Don Cheadle “Hotel Rwanda” and co-producing and hosting the documentary programme L’Attitude, which aired on the South African channel SABC 1.
Mashile regards poetry and its expressive power as the most effective tool to bring about discussion and changes in mental attitude about social issues, especially issues experienced in the socio-political realm of post-apartheid South Africa.
Koleka Putuma is a Cape Town-based performance poet who facilitates and hosts writing and dialogue workshops at schools, community projects and interfaith programs in the Cape Town area. Her poem titled “Water” earned her PEN SA Student Writing Prize. She co-founded a theatre company for up-and-coming female artists in 2014 called Velvet Spine and is a member of the theatre group The PaperCut Collective.
Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo is making waves with her debut collection of prose poems and poems titled “Questions for Ada”. The book explores themes of femininity, self-love and self-acceptance. She also explores the theme of Africans living in the diaspora and how everyday life is experienced. Critics have described her work as a bible for women.
Ketty Nivyabandi is a poet and writer from Bujumbura, Burundi who is popularly known for her significant role in political activism when the country’s president Pierre Nkurunziza sparked unrest by illegally bidding for a third term in office. She led women-only protests and demonstrations in the capital of Bujumbura, some of which were brutally suppressed, and she led a protest in the city center during the May 13th attempted coup by Major General Godefroid Niyombare. After the attempted coup, authorities targeted protestors, forcing Nivyabandi to flee to neighbouring Rwanda for safety.
Her poetry is written mostly in French, and has appeared in several anthologies. She represented Burundi in 2012 in the London Poetry Parnassus as part of the Summer Olympics. Her poetry explores social themes such as the horror of war and femininity.
Harriet Anena is a Ugandan poet, author and journalist. As a poet, Harriet wrote her first piece in 2003 titled “The plight of the Acholi child”, which won a writing competition that helped secure her a bursary for A-Level education. She has been published in the Caine Prize anthology was shortlisted in 2013 for the “Ghana Poetry prize” for her poem “We arise”. Her debut collection of poetry is titled “A Nation in Labour” which explores the reality of living through war and under the weight of political mistakes.
Safia Elhillo is a Sudanese poet who grew up in Washington D.C. She’s an NYU graduate and is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, and winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. She has appeared in several journals and anthologies including “The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop,” and her work has been translated into Arabic, Japanese, Estonian, and Greek.
She was a founding member of Slam NYU, the 2012 and 2013 national collegiate championship team, and was a three-time member and former coach of the DC Youth Slam Poetry team. She is currently a teaching artist with Split This Rock.
Yrsa Daley-Ward is a writer and poet who was born o a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father, and raised in the small town of Chorley in northern England. She published her debut book “Bone” in 2014, and is loved for her honest take on depression, self-reliance and femininity. Her first collection of stories were in the publication called “On Snakes And Other Stories”.