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African Night

Африканская ночь

Midnight descends, darkness everywhere,
Only the river glitters from the moon
Beyond the river an unknown tribe somewhere
Is lighting fires and making angry sounds.

We’ll meet tomorrow and determine then
Who is the master over all this land,
They’re aided by the wearing of black stones,
We — by crucifixes on our bare skin.

Here even the trees refuse to grow
As I survey the low hills and dry gullies,
In this desolate land of Sidamo**
Where here we’ll store our baggage, there the mules.

I am pleased to think that if we win, —
Many times we’ve won before today, —
From hill to hill to the far horizon
The yellow road will lead us on our way.

If tomorrow the waves of the River Webbe***
Swallow my groans of anguish in their roar
In the colorless heavens I will see
The black god’s fierce fight with the god of fire.
___
* McKane points out that “although the poem had generally been taken as an example of Gumilyov’s [sic] aggressive imperialism, a different reading might emphasize the impartiality of his continuing fascination with competing spiritual traditions” (Gumilev Pillar, 227).
** Sidamo was a province in southern Ethiopia with its capital at Irgalem. It was named for the dominant ethnic group in the region, the Sidamo or Sidama people, who had established the ancient Kingdom of Kaffa (c.1390–1897). It is a major coffee producing region. Kaffa was Christianized in the 16th century; its last King was captured and sent to Addis Abbaba in 1897 as the kingdom eventually was incorporated into the territories ruled by Menelik II, emperor of Ethiopia.
*** The Webbe Shebeli River (pronounced “way-bee shay-bee-lee with accents on the 2nd syllables) flows SE from central Ethiopia 700 miles to merge with the Juba River in Somalia.

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