Vanity by Birago Diop

Vanity is a poem written by an African poet Birago Diop from Senegal, who lived between 1906 and 1989. Diop was one of the venerable and praiseworthy mortals of the Negritude literary movement in Senegal. He was a Senegalese poet and storyteller whose work restored general interest in African folktales and promoted him to one of the most outstanding African francophone writers.

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Summary And Analysis

The writer of the poem is bittered with the way Africans subtly neglect their roots and abandons the conventions and teachings of their ancestors.

In addition, there is a preoccupation with the need to look inward in the efforts to solve the challenges faced by the continent.

The poet advises that turning ears or eyes in other directions will not help the situation on the ground. Therefore, he warns that this trend is ameliorated, lest Africans stand the risk of becoming objects of derision.

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Lines 1 – 5:
In this stanza of the poem, the poet expresses that Africans are reluctant to address an issue of serious concern. He comments that we are not making use of a protesting tone to tackle the situation. However, it is a situation that should not only be addressed openly but loudly too. As a result, any delay will make us object to derision. The poet stresses further that we should not make any complaints as a result of our current situation as this will not make us any better than ‘sad complaining voices of beggars. The poet uses this expression, ‘sad complaining voices of beggars, which is a paradox to mock our situation as beggars are not expected to complain.

Lines 6 – 10
In this stanza, the poet expresses that it is pointless to start complaining while we abandon the proper course of action. The stanza expresses how the poet continues to wonder who will listen to us, who will give us their attention if we complain about our pains, which did not come yesterday but have been there for ages. So this stanza is still emphasizing the fact that we have not addressed our challenges the right way.

Lines 11 – 14 
In this stanza, the poet stylishly reiterates the first two stanzas of the poem. The poet uses the language of rhetorical questions to ask that if we begin to complain and get angry, that who will listen to us. He calls such anger a growing tumour. Note that a tumour is usually a self-inflicted structure. Therefore, in this stanza of the poem, the poet points out that we should not complain about the present situation as it is unjustifiable because we are suffering from self-nurture pain.

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Lines 15 – 24 
This stanza is the longest in the poem. In this stanza, we have the full detail of why the poet asks if there is anyone who will hearken to our cry, or why we should not be mocked. The writer makes us understand that our ancestors come like spirits to give us advice and plead with us on a certain course of action but we turn deaf ears. Therefore, the writer describes us as “blind, deaf and unworthy sons”.

Lines 25 – 30 
This stanza of the poem tries to take us back to all that has been said in the previous stanzas. The poet opines firmly that we are not being given attention if we now complain or murmur as we have also turned deaf ears to the advice of elders.


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
5 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
10 What eyes will watch our large mouths?

What heart will listen to our clamouring?
What ear to our pitiful anger
Which grows like a tumour
14 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 ear 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
24 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,
30 What ear to our sobbing hearts?