Translator's notes

Waltz for the Harmattan

By Mama Seck Mbacké

Only two of Mame Seck Mbacké’s poems have been published in translation before, and yet her poetry is not only stylistically innovative but is rich with references to Senegalese history and culture, tackling issues of war, immigration, initiation rites and the African landscape, for example. Mame Seck Mbacké writes in both French and Wolof (a language of Senegal). Her work is incredibly varied – one of her poetry collections was written for the national football team, with a poem for each player. It is a far cry from the works of many first-wave Senegalese women writers who published poems not long after Senegalese independence in 1960. Many of these focused on redressing the gender balance by communicating the stories of women and creating more rounded and varied characters in literature, a necessary task. As part of the second wave of writers, Seck Mbacké has chosen a different route and the three poems here are just a small taste of a much larger body of work.

‘Prayer on the Wing of Time’ and ‘Maro’ both appear in a Francophone collection Pluie-Poésie, Les Pieds sur la mer (2000). Her poems in this collection appear as they do in the translations: one line runs into the next, the spaces indicating pauses in the poem, pauses that represent the way a tale may be performed to an audience as in oral tradition. ‘Prayer on the Wing of Time’ makes reference to Africa’s history of slavery, colonisation and drought.

The title of the second poem, ‘Maro’, alludes to both thirst and fertility. In particular the title makes reference to the mythological Greek Priest Maro(n) who, as son or grandson of Dionysus, provided the wine that subdued the Cyclops Polyphemus (son of Poseidon and God of the sea). Mar also means ‘thirst’ in Wolof, which links us to the Djollof kingdom, that sat between the Ferlo desert and the Atlantic. There are of course many other connections we could make here, for instance, the poem could also be making reference to Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro). The bovine goddess probably refers to the Egyptian goddess, Hathor (although there are others), who represents the sky, love and fertility.

Finally ‘Waltz for the Harmattan’ appears in the collection Les Alizés de la souffrance (2001). The Harmattan is a hot and dusty trade wind that blows in from the Sahara during the winter months. When it meets the cooler summer winds of the monsoon it has been known to create tornados, generating the historical, political and cultural chaos of the poem below.

Les Alizés de la Souffrance, Poèmes, Mame Seck Mbacké © Editions l’Harmattan, 2001 

Pluie-Poésie, les Pieds sur le mer, Mame Seck Mbacké © Editions l’Harmattan, 2000

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