Department of English Language & Literature

Commitment and Hu(Wo)man rights activism: a study of the language and message of select poems in Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo's Heart Songs

Godwin I. N. Emezue, Ph.D

Senior Lecturer

Department of English Language & Literature

Abia State University, Uturu


Department of English Language & Literature

Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences

Abia State University

PMB 2000

Uturu - Nigeria


The spate of social, political and economic woes round and about the African world has encouraged the emergence of many creative writers who use their arts as a medium for social crusading. Among these writers is Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo. Through her poetry characterized by a distinctive employment of the language at her disposal, Adimora-Ezeigbo gives expression to her brand of social crusading and human (especially, woman) rights activism. Her putsch for positive social change is stridently voiced in her award winning collection of poems, Heart Songs. The paper highlights the dialogic affinity between literature, the creative writer’s social milieu and her linguistic choices. Analysis is done using insights from systemic functional linguistics, lexico-semantics and the Marxist critical theory. My thesis is that Adimora-Ezeigbo’s poetry is informed by her sensitivity to the sociopolitical and cultural structures of the world around her as well as by her feminist ideology.

Key words: language, literature, commitment, feminism

1.0 Introduction

The African social, political and economic environment is still bedeviled with inequitable distribution of the people’s collective wealth and imbalance in the occupation of leadership positions. The average poor and the average woman are often second-rated and sentenced to perpetual servitude. Weak-kneed protests against injustice are staggered and oftentimes compromised. This explains why multi-faceted protests, with creative writers playing the lead role, have become imperative.

The spate of social and cultural injustice disequilibrium in the African society is such that many creative writers are now uncompromisingly committed to crusading for justice and equity. Writers who engage themselves in self-censorship are adjudged mere story-tellers who still bask in the lie inherent in the idealism of art for art’s sake. The committed poet appreciates the truism in the assertion by the Russian communist theorist Georgy Plekhanov that the belief in art for art’s sake “arises when artists and people keenly interested in art are hopelessly out of harmony with their social environment”(Gaither Stewart,

The need for the African writer to be involved and committed, according to Chinua Achebe, is a self-imposed responsibility foisted on the writer by the realities of her existence. In his own words:

… any African [writer] who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his house burning to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames (78).

One of the notable committed writers in Africa is Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo. She is one poet who writes not only to voice her angst against the social and cultural degradation of the woman and the impoverishment of the masses but also to project her vision of the ideal society. Adimora-Ezeigbo’s poetic style is, inevitably, shaped by her sensitivity to the social, political and cultural condition of the ordinary people of her Nigerian geopolitical environment. The word ‘ordinary’ does is not only inclusive of the emasculated poor, the half-educated or totally uneducated, it is also inclusive of the educated and the rich who, either by volition or by compulsion, are excluded from the decision-making process in matters concerning their wellbeing: comfort, health, wealth, security, etc.

Conspicuously evident in her poetry is an addictive quest to challenge and dislodge those socio-cultural and political structures that have been erected and fortified to demean, deform and denigrate the woman. Adimora-Ezeigbo’s worry over sundry manifestations of social injustice and fight for positive change is stridently voiced in the poems - ‘Ram syndrome’, ‘Chicken gizzard’ and ‘Violated ogoni women’ – I have chosen to study. This paper is, therefore, set to underscore the dialogic affinity between literature, the poet’s social milieu and her linguistic choices.

2.0 Theoretical approach

My approach is eclectic in character. Interpretation of the poems is both textual and contextual with M. A. K. Halliday’s systemic functional grammar (SFG) as one of my analytic tools. Halliday’s SFG serves my purpose because it recognizes that language shapes and is shaped by happenings in the society. SFG sees language as a social phenomenon, a tool for 'doing' or accomplishing things. According to Halliday, a grammar is functional when it is designed to account for how language is used. His main thesis is that “every text - that is, everything that is said or written - unfolds in some context of use” (xiii). The functions the grammar of any language can perform are reflected in three broad fields called metafunctions. These are the ideational, the interpersonal and the textual metafunctions.

The ideational metafunction is concerned with the clause as a carrier of message. It answers the question: ‘Who does what to whom’ or ‘What is the relationship between Who and the other description of Who?’ The ideational metafunction operates in the transitivity system which construes the world of experience into process types (Halliday 106). The main types of process in English transitivity system are the material processes, mental process and relational process.

The interpersonal function is the function of the grammar as a revealer of the writer’s personality and attitude to what she writes. According to Halliday (in Downing 4), the basic unit for the expression of interpersonal meaning is the independent clause, equivalent to the traditional simple sentence.

The textual function organizes the ideational and interpersonal components as a message or text.

But for the purposes of the interpretations made of the poems under study, only the ideational metafunction is considered. Generally, the questions that need answers are: ‘Why has the poet structured her language in the way it is and not in some other way? What context or situation constrains and informs the writer’s diction? As T. Bloor and M. Bloor explain:

since a speaker’s or writer’s choice of words is constrained by the situation of utterance, and since words and groups of words take on special significance in particular contexts, the grammar must be able to account for the way in which the language is used in social situation (4).

Definitely, SFG is quite equipped to account for the analysis done in this paper. Thematic concerns, social conditions, history and the poet’s ideology have all combined to inform not only the contents of the poems but also the forms of expression. The SFG is complemented by insights from lexico-semantics and the Marxist critical theory.

Lexico-semantics, it should be noted, is a subfield of semantics that is concerned with the study of words and their meanings. Examining the wordings of the poems is necessary because words constitute the major units of language that bear the burden of referential meaning, description of states and ascription of qualities. From a lexico-semantic perspective, therefore, the focus is on content word meaning as opposed to the meaning of grammatical words.

Marxist criticism, which is a sub-theory of the sociological theory, is appropriate because it is equipped to account for how historical, political, and social/cultural conditions inspire literary creativity and inform the writer’s thematic preoccupation. Even though some critics have questioned the reliability of Marxist criticism, arguing that its deficiency lies in its tendency to approach the analysis of literature, first, from the perspective of the critic’s knowledge of the writer before giving attention to the text when, in the view of these critics, the text should be the point of departure. But for the purposes of the analysis made in this paper, this deficiency argument is puerile because it does not really matter from where one beings one’s analysis.

Unarguably, the analyst’s knowledge of Adimora-Ezeigbo as a (human) woman right activist and crusader for social justice has exerted some influence in the interpretations made of the poems. But it must be understood that even though a poet’s person and personality, ideological leaning, etc. may be ‘present’ in her poetry, she is neither the poems nor does she represent the poetic texts. So, K. Griffith’s advice that the critic should “avoid equating the work’s contents with the author’s life” (115) is apt and worthy of adherence.

3.0 Analysis

As I have earlier noted, one of the approaches for the analysis done here is the ideational metafunction of the SFG. This metafunction sees the clause as a means of representing patterns of experience. Here, the main consideration is the “system of transitivity”, which is premised on the understanding that the interpretation of a happening is based on the understanding of the presence of a doer, a doing and a location where the doing takes place. Ideationally, therefore, the clause is interpreted as embodying any of these processes: material [the processes of ‘doing’], mental [the process of experiencing or sensing] and relational [the processes of being or becoming in which participant is characterized, or identified, or situated circumstantially] (Halliday 107-109). The main terms associated with the ideational metafunction as used in this paper are Actor, Goal, Range (for Material process); Token/Identified, Value/Identifier (Relational process) and Behaver, Range/Circumstance (for Behavioural process).

In the analysis, the participant elements of the clause are underlined and labeled in bold typeset. Single slant (/) is used to indicate line boundary and Double slants (//) are used to represent clause boundary.

Ram syndrome

(to victim of naked power)

from the Ancients

wise word:

he who consumes

the testicles of a ram

owes ibi a debt – 5

scrotum disease;

penis pilfering



ram albatross 10

early symptom:

loss of favour

and patronage

the risk is all yours

to your peril 15

a scourge.

the rhythm of

igba dance

once tasted 20


a performer from digging

Odogwu dance

dance of the basket 25

separates chaff from grain

one does not face two directions


you cannot be tortoise

as well as 30


as former Russian muscle man

Alexander Litvinenko

Bold direction

Bought him 35

One way ticket

To the land of no return

fly does not

play near spider’s web: 40

as Russian gadfly

Anna Politkoskya

grasshopper keeps

some distance 45

when it hears

the raucous music

of okpoko bird:

ask Dele Giwa

as also race victim 50

Ahmadou Diallo

antelope does not leap

into lion’s den:

ask Ken Saro-Wiwa 55

lizard does not

visit a hedge

where cat

takes a nap: 60

as Bola Ige

Who does not know that jackal does not

Forgive an affront?

Ask freedom choirmaster

Moshood Abiola 65

and his faithful consort to

martyrdom: Kudirat;

as also that colourful

politician, Chuba Okadigbo

it has not always been 70

like this

the end is different

from the beginning

the end

justifies the outcome 75

the means

justifies the beginning

when an ally acts

as accuser 80

when adviser becomes


murky murder

mounts by the minute

clouds each concern 85

promotes unaccountable


police state

in the guise of

democracy- 90



relentless attacks

on individual liberty

on genuine freedom

“Ram syndrome” discusses the assassination of men and women who, because of their outspokenness and/or opposition to the government of the day, incur the wrath of the government. But these murdered individuals are not part of the ordinary people; they are, one way or another, part the ruling class. It is when they begin to speak and write against the very government, whose patronage they have hitherto enjoyed, that they are eliminated. consider (lines 79-84) of the poem:

when an ally / acts as accuser // (Rel)

subordinator Identified process Identifier/Value


when adviser / becomes critic// (Rel)

sub- Identified/ process Identifier/Value

ordinator Token

murky murder/ mounts by the minute// (Beh)

clouds each concern// (Beh)

promotes unaccountable

uncontrollable police state in the guise of democracy-//(Beh)

Behaver process Range/Circumstance(manner)

The two dominant processes are Relational and Behavioural. Relational process is the process of being or becoming. The individual who is ‘an ally” and “adviser” is also the “accuser” and “critic”. The Identified/Token (“an ally”/“adviser”) is the entity that stands to be defined and Identifier/Value (“accuser”/”critic”) defines Token by giving it (Token) meaning, referent, function, status or role. “Murky murder” is the Behaver; that is, the conscious being that performs the action (murder) depicted. But “murder” – an inanimate and non-human entity – is placed in a nominal position and given human qualities, thereby projecting the action of murdering the actor. In other words, it is murder that has committed murder; the action (murder) propels itself to act. This is a reflection of the lethargic acceptance of the facelessness of the killers (of “Dele Giwa…Bola Ige… Chuba Okadigbo”) who are never caught.

Circumstance is defined in the expression of time, place, manner, means, cause, condition, and concession. It can, however, be inherent to the situation and is then described as functioning as the traditional grammarian’s complement. Range, according to Halliday’s postulation, is the element that specifies the scope of the process; it defines the co-ordinates of the process. Thus, in “murky murder mounts…, clouds…, promotes …”, the question is not What does “murky murder” do to “the minutes”, “each concern”, “… police in the guise of democracy-?”, but What is the scope, extent or degree of the mounting, clouding and promoting? In other words, the adjective, “murky”, which pre-modifies the noun, “murder”, is definitive of the precautions the instigators and perpetrators of the action always take to ensure that they remain unidentified and unidentifiable.

But these killings happened because the victims were perceived to have played the Judas. In accusing and criticizing the government from an insider’s vantage position, they became marked as personalities that were best celebrated in death. They had acted at variance with the time-tested (“from the Ancients/wise word”) aphorism which states that:

he who consumes

the testicles of a ram

owes ibi a debt –

scrotum disease (lines 3-6) .


He who consumes / the testicles of a ram// (Beh)

Behaver Process Range

[He] owes ibi a debt –// (Beh)