“Vanity” by Birago Diop: A Raditical Analysis by Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

An unconventional analysis of Birago Diop's "Vanity".

“Vanity” by Birago Diop: A Raditical Analysis by Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy


If we tell, gently, gentlyAll that we shall one day have to tell,
Who then will hear our voices without laughter,
Sad complaining voices of beggars
Who indeed will hear them without laughter?

If we cry roughly of our torments
Ever increasing from the start of things,
What eyes will watch our large mouths
Shaped by the laughter of big children
What eyes will watch our large mouths?
What heart will listen to our clamouring?
What ear to our pitiful anger
Which grows in us like a tumour
In the black depth of our plaintive throats?

When our Dead come with their Dead
When they have spoken to us with their clumsy voices;
Just as our ears were deaf
To their cries, to their wild appeals
Just as our ears were deaf
To their cries, to their wild appeals
Just as our ears were deaf
They have left on the earth their cries,
In the air, on the water, where they have traced their signs
For us, blind deaf and unworthy Sons
Who see nothing of what they have made
In the air, on the water, where they have traced their signs.

And since we did not understand our dead
Since we have never listened to their cries
If we weep, gently, gently
If we cry roughly of our torments
What heart will listen to our clamouring,
What ear to our sobbing hearts?

Meet the Poet

Birago Diop was born in Ouakam, a subhurb of Dakar in Senegal, in 1906. He showed a keen interest in literature early in life. He was not only born into a family of gifted people who did everything to promote literature, but he also himself read a great deal of European literature. Indeed his family had had a significant and formative influence on his literary output and style. His love of folklore and subtle characterisation of women he learned from his grandmother and aunts, and his partiality for genealogical poems he inherited from his brother Youssouffa. A family incident also provided the first immediate inspiration for writing poetry: the death of his brother Massyla.

While studying veterinary science in France, Diop struck up friendship with the early leading Francophone African writers in Paris, Senghor and Damas, and he collaborated with them in the founding of the literary movement that gave birth to the concept of Negritude. His consciousness of his race and culture became intensified and was to influence his subsequent works. He wrote two main types of literary works; short stories and poems. The predominant strain in his writings is the preoccupation with the theme of ancestors and historical legends.

Birago Diop’s creative works were therefore influenced by his immediate environment and experiences. He was very realistic, and did not adopt the theoretical approach of his contemporaries to literature. He did not concern himself with any search for a new medium of expression, but was inspired by an earnest desire to recreate old tales and to write poems which speak not only of the ancestral heritage of the African, but also deal with ordinary human situations. (Culled from K. E. Senanu and T. Vincent 67)

Analysis of the Poem

I do not know about you but as for me and myself alone, I still can not ferret why these poets like long stories, the man could have as well gone ahead to tell us that we should learn to consult our ancestors; as our fathers did in the days of old; so as to find solutions to our problems and there would have been an end to the whole story but no, he had to do it in a sing song manner and here we all are wondering what the poem is all about! My God, these poets could be exasperating sometimes you know?

But hey, after reading the poem over and over again, I have come to realise why it could not have been written otherwise, I enjoy it now and even laughing at the poet’s sarcastic remark! I know you will also enjoy it after we have taken the journey through this labyrinth of analysis together. We begin from the starting point, let us see who finds his way out first, ha ha!

The poem emphasises the importance of the guiding spirit of our ancestors, it wants Africans to remember their roots and not stray far from it. It is a pity that the African man has strayed far away from his culture in his bid to emulate western ways and now he is faced with series of challenges, how can he overcome them. The poem postulates that the solution to his problem lies with his ancestors, he should go back and consult them.

I am sure by now you will be saying things like “oh but I am a Christian or I am a Muslim and I can not worship ancestors!” You know I once told my friend the same thing too and the guy made me understand that there is no religion that is not into the “ancestor worship thing!” According to my friend, abeg not me o, him say Jesus na ancestor for Christians dem and they worship am and him say Muhammed too na ancestor for Muslim dem and dem dey consult am, him say even Budha na ancestor, chai! Diaris Godu o! Do not mind that guy who was advocating for the establishment of a shrine in my university jare. I do not think he is well because if he is, he would not say because we have Churches and Mosques on campus, we should also have at least one shrine for idol worshippers like himself! I am glad the VC never acceded to his demand!

However, you should know that some Africans are still into ancestor worship; the Igala people of Nigeria still consult their Ibegwu (which literarily translates to people of the masquerades–it is believed that masquerades are ancestors come back from the land of the dead to felicitate with the leaving and since they have no body or human shape, they appear in the grosteque form of a masquerade) regulary and these Ibegwu are believed to hand down verdicts for offences like stealing other people’s properties, adultery, fornication etc but enough of the here and there already, we are here to discuss “Vanity” and “Vanity” we shall discuss, let’s go!

The poem is titled “Vanity” which refers to the pursuit and mimicry of European ways at the risk of alienating ourselves from the African cultural ways, using this title, the poem points out that the European ways are useless to us, they can not solve our problems and neither can they lead us anywhere, so they are vanity. To realise our potentials in full, we must return to our roots; where the rain started flogging us, okwaya? He he he!

The first and second stanza foregrounds the fact that the solution to our problems lies with the ancestors and we cry in vain if we do not turn to them for help. The poem persona calls Africans (including himself) “beggars” begging to become; in Sly Cheney Cooker’s words; “Afrosaxons”. The complaints and cries he refers to is our cultural confusion, we have become confused beings not knowing when to be African and when to be European. We do not understand ourselves and our complexity makes us cry out for help but who would listen without laughing at us? I would laugh too you know he he he! The poem persona quieries that when we cry out about our torments, “What eyes would watch our large mouths” crying like “big children” (big children in this context denotes immaturity ha ha!). We cry like big children because we are lost to the African way of life and this shows that we are not wise enough still. The poem persona makes it clear that our situation will continue to escalate if we do not take the necessary steps or do the proper thing and that proper thing to him is: go and consult your ancestors! It is important to note the shift from the pronoun “who” to the determiner “what” from the first stanza down to the second. Who makes us first wonder which humans the poem persona is refering to but with the introduction of the deterniner “what,” we begin to realise it could not have been about just humans alone after all, it could have been a none living being after all. The identity of this “who” and “what” is to be revealed in the third stanza where the poet says “Dead”! Did I hear you say oh so that was what he was trying to do hmm, yes, the word “Dead” refers to the ancestors. Let us discuss the next stanza then.

The third stanza points out that since we have alienated ourself from consulting our ancestors, we have become “blind deaf and unworthy Sons” who can not decipher the signs left for us by our forebears in nature; earth, air and water. Please note the choice of upper case letter for the foremost letters of the word “Dead” and “Sons” foregrounding a generational gap between the forebears who are long dead and the living but lost sons. The ancestors call to us in their eerie (“clumsy”) voice but we do not listen since we have strayed too far from our roots.

The last stanza concludes that if we can not understand our ancestors (Dead) because we have never listened to their crying call, we would only continue to “weep, gently, gently” and no one would listen to us, we would continue only to clutch our vanity, the Western religion and its ways of life without really understanding ourselves. Truly, the poem bothers on cultural alienation. Maybe we should set up a shrine where all Africans can go and worship at least once in a day, what do you think? Ha ha!

The themes of the poem are:

1. The importance of ancestors in the life of the African man

2. Cultural decadence and alienation

The poem’s tone is sarcastic and the mood is pessimistic.


The poem is made up of 30 lines divided into four unequal stanzas.

Figures of Speech

Its figures of speech include the following:

Repetition: This is perhaps the dominant figure of speech of all in the poem. There are repetition of words like “gently”, “who”, and “what”. There are also repetition of whole sentences as in line 8 and 10: “What eyes will watch our large mouths?” and also line 11 and 29: “What heart will listen to our clamouring.

Rhetorical Question: Another dominant figure of speech in the poem is the rhetorical question. When a question is asked in a poem without the aim of obtaining an answer such a question is tagged rhetorical question. We find examples of this in lines 5, 10, 11, 14, and 30.

Synecdoche. This figure of speech occurs when we use a part to represent a whole or a whole to represent a part. Examples of where this figure of speech occurs include:

“What eyes” representing the whole body (line 8)

“What heart”, and “What ear” both representing the whole human body.

Metaphor: “beggar” (line 4) and “wild appeals” (18)

–Simile: “like a tumour” (line 13)

Alliteration: “D” alliterates in line 15 and “w” alliterates in line 24.

Hyperbole: “large mouths” in lines 8 and 10

  1. Paradox and Sarcasm: “big children” (line 67).

So friends, this is how far I can go for today. Now, return to the poem again and reread it and say if you still do not understand it. If there are any questions you want answered on the poem, kindly go to Contact the Editor and type them there then click send, I can assure you that answers would  be provided.  Thank you for reading through all my nonsense ha ha ha!

If you have any questions or need further clarification, feel free to leave your questions in the comment box, and I shall make out a reply to you as soon as I see them.

Work Cited

Senanu, K. E. and Vincent, Theo. A Selection of African Poetry. Essex: Longman, 1988. Print.

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2015

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