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A Traditional Woman & Other Poems

Tolu Agbelusi

A Traditional Woman

In conversation with Edwige-Renée Dro on Nos Mamans D’avant

Because you only want to see me

better (you said), because I want

to make you happy, because

I don’t yet know how to choose

myself, don’t yet know this

as sole option, because, because…

I try when you tell me to be more

of a traditional woman.

Because I want to be thorough

a greater student than me doesn’t exist.

I reach into the past, where else

could I find her, them, these women

whose actions have calcified

into tradition, reference point.


I channelled the Nanas.  Bought a flat

in Paris, thought of my yet unborn children,

committed to being aspirational—

I bought a Benz. My sisters did the same.

Shipped it back to Togo. And didn’t the State

come knocking when dignitaries visited.

Of course, we loaned our cars to the State.

Of course, we made them look good. Don’t I

make you look… He pursed his lips—prelude

to a warning you’d have heard before—

pride goes before a fall. The waiter assumed

for him the power he imagined for himself,

gave him the bill, I folded the notes into his palm

under the table, kept my face intact as she

praised him for taking care of his woman.

She left and I held him momentarily

hostage with eyes that read aren’t I lucky,

lips that moved in for a kiss then whispered

pride does go before a fall.


Be humble you scoffed. The question

 in my raised brow pulling apposition

from your mouth—nurturing you said

like our mothers’ mothers for whom blood

was mere detail. Is a woman from the 20’s

ancient enough to use as template?

 I channelled Madame St Clair. Skipped

the mink (sometimes), I was trying on humility

after all. Full page ads in the paper on the regular

—told my people which chains to break, which ones

were already open like a door

unlocked when you were sleeping, which you assume

is still barricaded, like so much is for my people.

Him and her and them is the enemy I said, teaching them

how to build an armoury of knowledge. I was Elijah,

my people brought all the jars they could find

and the oil from my hands never stopped flowing.

If you find one I turned away, dare them to make it known.

I paid big. But isn’t mothering sacrifice?

What sacrifice is free? And after all this,

why are you not satisfied? why do I overhear you say

une femme qui n’est pas mariée est un être incomplète?

My attempts to be more traditional plus x equals your growing

discontent. I try to resolve the unknown

variable. Because foolishness is not my portion.

Because the audacious nerve of my foremothers

(some part of it) is becoming my own. I slowly remove

the possibility of an error on my part from consideration.

What have you demanded that I haven’t done, only

to wake to the possibility that you created a fantasy

mother and asked me to become the impossible.

Because I am not averse to being kept. Because

women in the time of our mothers’ mothers

in Cote D’Ivoire demanded les trois ‘V’ as prerequisite

from men who thought themselves worthy suitors.

I too ask for voiture, villa, virement. You try

to throw purported failure in my face but I have been

a good student. I know now, who I am. Be as specific

as you weren’t when you talked about the women of old

I tell him. I stop trying to find sense in ramblings

crafted to make me doubt my right to irreverence.

I give the kindness of a final utterance—I can be old school

if you can. But how

do you plan to be head of a home

propped on the pedestal of my money?


Precision Matters

On 4 November 2018, a Black woman in Georgia, USA, was found dead in the backyard of the home where she had been attending a slumber party with other "football moms" the night before. She was the only woman of colour in attendance.


Take the word beat

give it an entourage

Watch its meaning change


They beat me down    as in to strike

I was beat                   as in to be exhausted

They stared the body down and laughed


we’ll beat this  as in to overcome

Your husband did not like those girls

He told you they did not like you

my spirit don’t tek em You insisted

he was wrong didn’t understand

On 4 Nov 2018 when the news reports


began                                       you were bound

to become a lesson for Black girls                         

be careful who you cling to


Take diacritics in Yoruba

Not a loud friend like an English

homonym       but a presence


a shapeshifter   I write oko

as in bush or did I mean ọkọ

as in husband or ọkọ́ as in hoe


or òkò as in stone     Three of these

could kill        One would hide the corpse


What it Means (On Coups)

If you must answer 'Your Excellency', then the process through which you emerge must be excellent -  Peter Obi

Until a word is undressed

in the light of lived experience

who really knows what it means

When the President of a democratic

State addresses a spate of coups

across West Africa as “disruption

to democratic process” Says

“it undermines continental stability”

He wants you to believe this

is about military takeover

Straining your eyes

through a View-Master

he pre-loads and provides he says

see Niger see Gabon

and you do You do But do you

also see that beyond the reel

a father passed presidential

office to his son like a pair of cufflinks

56 years of this borrowed treasure

and the only interest to speak

of is the common man’s poverty

If this is not a coup what

do you call a kingmaker

who now wants to be a king

Tells you power is not going

to be served in a restaurant

You must grab it Snatch it

Fight for it Run away with it

At all costs And when the ballot

Boxes grow legs and the vote

counting machines perform Jesus

miracles after the fact

crowning him president select


is this too not a coup

or must he first wear military fatigues

In cotton agbada or khaki a thief

is a thief is a thief are we not tired

of dancing for men who make music

with our pain and call our pain freedom


Tolu Agbelusi is a Nigerian British poet, playwright, artist and lawyer. Author of Locating Strongwoman (2020), Agbelusi’s play, Ilé La Wà, opened to a sold-out audience in 2016 and toured the UK between 2018 – 2019. She has performed internationally, including at Cheltenham Lit Festival, Stanza International Poetry Festival, Lagos International Poetry Festival, Poetry Africa & Manchester Literature Festival. Her work has been published widely including in Aké Review, White Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Brittle Paper and Wildness Journal. A lecturer in Writing & Dramaturgy at London Southbank University, she teaches workshops and guest lectures regularly and has worked collaborated with academics at King’s College University London & Birkbeck University on artistic approaches to understanding academia. Films produced/directed by Agbelusi screened at Toronto Food Film Festival (2022), New York Museum of Food and Drink and Forecast International Festival (2021), and the Zebra Poetry Film Festival (2016).  



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