I Crossed

I have crossed continents to reach Africa
But the day never came
          when mountains were hills
          when rivers were streams
          that could be leapt over
I have not reached you my love
You are a distant star
It's as though a wall of darkness
          has risen up between us.
When I grasp you, my hands grasp nothing
but a corpse that died with no justice
          as if I cradled a stone veined with my blood
          in a house flooded by a storm
          that stands alert through the night
          and is marooned in the morning
                                                    waiting by the road.

The years have stretched between us: blood and fire
the bridges I tried to cross turned into walls
and you, you have sunk to the bottom of the sea
                                                    so I couldn't touch you.
Oysters have skinned me, slicing the veins in my arms
And I call out:
                   You, Africa
                   the love of my soul
                   friend of maggots and darkness
                   I have wandered many years searching for you
                   and my journey has never stopped
                   you who have covered yourself in death your whole life

I have crossed continents to reach Africa
but the day never came
when those bridges could be crossed.
You who sleep by my side
are like a distant star in the sky
a door bolted from inside
And I stand outside
                           I wait in the cold.

Translation notes

This was the first of three poems by Alamin Mazrui that we translated in our workshop and it was by far the most difficult and time-consuming - no doubt because it concerns the poet's troubling and painful relationship with Africa.

The poem is written in that very familiar tradition of addressing a country as though it were the beloved. And so Africa becomes personified as 'a distant star' walled up behind impenetrable darkness.

One of the most complicated lines to translate was 'as if I embraced my blood in a stone/rock', in Katriina's literal - simply because it's such a strange image. But once we came up with 'veined' as a way of desribing the blood in the stone, the line fell into place.

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