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Vanity by Birago Diop

By Nkem Egenuka on Fri, 31/03/2017 - 09:07


If we tell, gently, gently

All 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 mouth?


What hearts will listen to our clamoring?

What ear to our pitiful anger

Which grows in us like a tumor

In the black depth of our plaintive throats?


When our Dead comes with their Dead

 When they have spoken to us in their clumsy voices;

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 the dead

Since we have never listened to their cries

 If we weep, gently, gently

 If we cry roughly to our torments

What heart will listen to our clamoring,

What ear to our sobbing hearts?



The title “vanity” portrays the folly of the living who in spite of having been bequeathed with many legacies have arrogantly and ignorantly failed to honour their dead ancestors. He laments as follows: “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, in the water where they have traced their signs”. In the poet’s view, much of the problems bedeviling the African society stem from our disregard for African tradition and over-dependence on the Western culture. He laments further: “If we cry roughly of our torments ever increasing from the start of things”. Birago Diop argues that the solution to Africa’s many problems lie within us.

He further expresses the African belief that dead ancestors have the ability to punish erring individuals and warns that if they are not respected or honoured, they would also not help the living in time of trouble- “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 clamourings, what ear to our sobbing hearts?”

Poem Analysis

The poem introduces the poet in a melancholic and thoughtful mood about a burning issue that is devastating his society. This telling issue that is spoken in silent tones, if not given adequate attention, may backfire in the future. When this happens, “Who will hear our voices without laughter?” If it is not tamed as and when due, their agitation would just be “sad complaining voices of beggars”. By labeling them “beggars”, the poet is ridiculing the deprivation and susceptibility of francophone colonies in Africa with their overdependence on France for political and socio-economic survival. They totally rely on economic reinforcement from France, and the latter in its infinity mercies, dispenses its recycled and substandard products to its adopted citizens.

In the second stanza, the poet foretells the state of the people if they refuse to change their ways. They would “cry roughly” of an “ever increasing” pain with no pity from sympathizers and mockers. They would be scorned “by the laughter of big children” who will watch their “large mouths” with utmost jest.

In the third stanza, the poet talks about the clamour which is yet to be addressed. The poet rhetorically asks if anyone would listen to their “pitiful anger” when they have failed to attend to the challenges bedeviling their collective existence. The poet compares this challenge to “a tumour”, an abnormal growth of tissue, in their sore throat. This particular issue that has not been nipped in the bud has grown so deep and large to become an affliction in their lives.

In the fourth stanza, the poet envisages the future when the elites die (our dead) and come face to face with their ancestors (their dead) in the spirit world. They would remember their warnings and regret not ever listening to “their clumsy voices”. Their forefathers had cautioned them against abandoning their culture and heritage for western civilization. African elders are full of wisdom and have seen the future ahead of the educated young ones who have jettisoned the African ways because the imperialist branded them primitive. So, they make “wild appeals”, but the educated elites turn deaf ears to “their cries”.  The forefathers “have left on the earth their cries” even with warning signs everywhere, but the people are blind and deaf and could “see nothing” in the gradual extinction of their black heritage. Thus, they are referred to as “unworthy sons” for trading their rich cultural legacy and beliefs for western lifestyle.

The last stanza ends on a pessimistic note. Since they have refused to heed to the wise teachings and warning signs of their forefathers, they will weep and wail exceedingly about the agonizing torments they are passing through with no one to soothe their “sobbing hearts”.

This poem of lamentation, as it is, ends in hopelessness and dejection over the disobedience of the myopic African elites to the pleas of their progenitors. This last stanza is a summary of the other as it emphasizes the cloudy future awaiting the errant Africans.


Though written in stanzas and with some rhythm, the poem Vanity is a free verse poem as it does not have a consistent meter pattern. The poem is written in 30 lines with unequal stanzas. There is an elaborate use of rhetorical questions which are being repeated for emphasis sake. These rhetorical questions are mockery of the precarious situation the French Africans would face due to the rejection of their culture.

Mood and Tone

The mood is that of worry with a corresponding tone of concern, condemnation, lamentation, sarcasm and ridicule.


The poem contains powerful imagery. For instance, the title “Vanity”, “voices of beggars” , “our large mouths”, “our ears were deaf” and “our plaintive throat” are employed as a form of rebuke or ridicule.

The poet also repeats some phrases and images for emphasis. Examples- “Just as our ears were deaf”, “What eyes”, What ears” “What heart”.

Poetic Devices/Figures of Speech

  •  Synedoche: A figure of speech that entails using a part to represent a whole or a whole for a part. Example: “What hearts will listen to our clamouring?”
  •  Rhetorical Question: This runs throughout the poem. It expresses the poet’s worry and emphasises his seriousness over the subject matter of the poem. Examples: “Who then will hear our voices without laughter?” “Who then will hear us without laughter?” “What eyes will watch our large mouth?” “What heart will listen to our clamouring?” “What ear to our sobbing hearts?”.
  •  Sarcasm: This is mocking humour. Examples: sad complaining voices of beggars; large mouth; plaintive throats
  •  Personification: This figure of speech involves the attribution of human nature or character to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract notions. In Vanity, the poet gives life to dead ancestors through the use of personification. Examples: “When our Dead comes with their Dead, when they have spoken to us in their clumsy voices”.
  • Repetition: This is seen throughout the poem. Example: What eyes will watch our large mouth? is repeated in the second stanza.
  •  Simile: This is direct comparison using the words “like” or “as”. Example: “What ear to our pitiful anger which grows in us like a tumor”.


The vanity of life

Effects of colonialism

The annihilation of African heritage


Poet's Biography

Birago Diop was a Senegalese poet of African folktales and folklores who lived between 11 December 1906 and 25 November 1989. Till this day, his name has never been undermined when mentioning the pioneer figures of the Négritude literary movement.

Diop received his education in Dakar and Saint-Louis, Senegal, and then studied veterinary medicine at the University of Toulouse until 1933. This was followed by a series of tours as government veterinary surgeon in the French Sudan (now Mali), Côte d’Ivoire, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), and Mauritania. From 1961 to 1965 he served as newly independent Senegal’s ambassador to Tunisia.

He is known for his small but beautifully composed output of lyric poetry. With his compatriot Léopold Sédar Senghor, Diop was active in the Negritude movement in the 1930s, which sought a return to African cultural values. Diop explored the mystique of African life in Leurres et lueurs (“Lures and Glimmerings”), a selection of his verse written between 1925 and 1960.

Diop received literary awards in 1964 for Les Contes d’Amadou Koumba (1947; Tales of Amadou Koumba) and Les Nouveaux Contes d’Amadou Koumba (1958), both reprinted in the 1960s, and for Contes et lavanes (1963; Tales and Commentaries). These books contained tales that were first told him by his family’s griot (a storyteller whose role is to preserve the oral traditions of his tribe). Diop’s skill in rendering the nuances of dialogue and gesture furthered the popularity of his books, selections from which were reprinted in a school-text edition in 1967. Les Contes d’Awa (“Tales of Awa”) appeared in 1978.











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