Peters, Lenrie 1932–
Lenrie Peters 1932–
Poet, author, surgeon
Lenrie Peters is considered to be one of the most original of modern African poets, as well as one of the most intellectual. He is a member of the founding generation of African poets writing in English, and is a pioneer of Gambian literature in English. He has written three critically acclaimed collections of poetry and a novel, published in the 1960s and 1970s. His subject matter is wide-ranging but centers on the past, the post-colonial present, and the precarious future of the African continent. Peters is a Pan-Africanist, concerned with the African continent as a whole, rather than with tribal or national affiliations. The imagery and metaphors in his writings draw heavily on his background in science and medicine.
Lenrie Leopold Wilfrid Peters was born on September 1, 1932, in Bathurst (now Banjul), Gambia, to parents from a privileged background. His father, Lenrie Peters, had studied Greek and Latin at the Fourah Bay College of the University of Sierra Leone. He worked as an accountant at the import-export firm of S. Madi Ltd., and edited a weekly newspaper, the Gambia Echo. Peters’s mother, Keziah Peters, had been raised in England. Both parents were Anglicans who had emigrated from Sierra Leone and met and married in Gambia. The Peters family was among the most highly respected families in the country. Peters had four sisters: Bijou became a nurse and a journalist, Florence Mahoney became a distinguished historian, Ruby retired as a United Nations administrator, and, prior to her death, his sister Alaba was prominent in business and the film industry.
The Peters family also nurtured their young son’s intellectual interests. Peters attended St. Mary’s Primary School and the Methodist Boys’ High School in Bathurst. In 1949 he entered a two-year science program at the Prince of Wales School in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he earned his higher school certificate.
Moving to England, Peters studied Latin and physics at the Cambridge Technical College. In 1953 he began studying natural sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating with honors in 1955. As an undergraduate, Peters was elected president of the African Students’ Union at Cambridge. In an interview with the Africa News Service, Peters explained why he became a doctor: “Strangely enough when I was a young man there were only two professions that were acceptable. One was Medicine, the other was Law. People used to say I would be a doctor and I sort of inherited that concept.” Peters trained at the University College Hospital in London, earning an M.D. degree in 1959. He completed an advanced course in surgery in Guildford, England, in 1967, and practiced surgery at Northampton General Hospital.
During his years in England, Peters worked as a freelance broadcaster for the African Service and the World Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Among other BBC radio broadcasts, he hosted African Forum and Calling West Africa. Peters also sang in various amateur musicals and operas, and
At a Glance…
Born Lenrie Leopold Wilfrid Peters on September 1, 1932, in Bathurst, Gambia; son of Lenrie and Kezia Peters; married Rosemary (divorced 1960s). Education: Trinity College, Cambridge, UK, BA, 1956; University College Hospital, London, MD, 1959; advanced course in surgery, Guildford, England, 1967. Politics: Pan-Africanist.
Career: Poet and author, 1950s-; BBC, African and World Services, freelance broadcaster, 1950s–1960s; Northampton General Hospital, England, surgical registrar, 1966–69; Bansang Hospital, Banjul, Gambia, surgeon, 1969–72; Westfield Clinic, Kanifing, Gambia, private-practice surgeon, 1972-; Farato Farms Export Ltd., chair and chief executive, 1981–99; National Consultation Committee, chairman, 1990s.
Memberships: Gambian Writers Club, founding editor, Ndanaan, 1971–76; Gambia College Board of Governors, chair, 1979–87; West African Examinations Council, trustee, 1985–88, chair, 1988–91; International College of Surgeons, Research and Scholarship Committee, 1995; African Region of the Commonwealth Prize for Fiction, judge, 1995; Commonwealth Writers Prize, selection committee, 1996.
Awards: Royal College of Surgeons, fellow, 1967; West African College of Surgeons, fellow; International College of Surgeons, fellow, 1992; Officer of the Republic of Gambia; Gambia News and Report, Man of the Year, 1995.
Addresses: Home —P.O. Box 142, Banjul, The Gambia. Office —Westfield Clinic, Serekunda, The Gambia.
musical rhythms became integral to his later free-form verse. He met his English wife, Rosemary, while performing in an opera for which she was the pianist. They divorced in the late 1960s after two years of marriage.
Even as an undergraduate at Cambridge, Peters was determined to become a writer as well as a physician. While still in school he wrote poetry and plays and began a novel, The Second Round, which was published in 1965. The book is a semi-autobiographical novel about a young doctor who, after years of studying and practicing medicine in England, returns to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Both he and Africa have changed and he finds himself alienated from his native culture and from African society.
Early reviews of the The Second Round were mixed, and the novel fell into neglect, at least among African readers. Unlike much African fiction of the 1960s, The Second Round was not focused on African culture and tradition, nor was it a protest against colonialism. In fact, Peters was one of the first African novelists to criticize his own country and the decline of its culture.
Critics of the book complained that it focused on individuals rather than African society, and used poetic language to convey his characters’ emotions. In particular, Peters appeared to portray male-female relationships in a westernized context, and some critics claimed that he sounded more British than African. In his book The Emergence of African Fiction, Charles R. Larsen wrote, “The problem is apparently that there is a more heightened demand being placed on black artists that their work be a frontal attack on the race situation as it involves them—depending on their culture—that is, protest, and protest in a manner which may be appreciated by the masses.” However, Larsen felt that “Peters has simply written the first African horror story, the first African Gothic novel.”
Peters’s first collection of 33 poems was published in Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1964. These were primarily poems of youthful love and melancholy, lacking the irony and anger of his later work. Nevertheless, they expressed the grief, loneliness, and hopelessness of exiled Africans who were alienated from both traditional African and modern western cultures.
Peters’s poetry, much of which deals directly with African themes, has been taken more seriously than was his novel. Satellites, published in London in 1967, included 21 poems from his first collection, as well as 34 new poems. In contrast to the post-colonial optimism of many writers from newly independent African nations, Peters’s poems expressed themes that were pessimistic and bleak.
According to Peters, colonialism, westernization, and corrupt African politicians have destroyed the African soul. In an unpublished 1976 essay, quoted by Romanus N. Egudu in New West African Literature, Peters wrote, “Africa has slept too long at the geographical centre of the world, a mere plaything eternally castrated.” One poem in Satellites opens with, “Wings my ancestors used/to fly from oppression, slavery/tincture of skin, arid birth and death/hang limp on my shoulders/with guilt of the oppressor.”
British colonial rule of Gambia ended in 1965. Peters returned to the Gambian capital of Banjul in 1969, to practice surgery as a government employee at the Bansang Hospital. In 1972 Peters and a partner, Dr. Samuel J. Palmer, opened the Westfield Clinic in Kanifing, the nation’s first private medical clinic.
Katchikali, a collection of 69 poems, appeared in 1971. The poems in the book address the modern human condition and world problems as they relate to Africa. Katchikali is the Gambian god of fertility, procreation, and protection. In the title poem, the powers of Katchikali, symbolizing the African cultural heritage, are undermined and finally destroyed by colonialism, and by the new black elite, development, and tourism. “But the new people do not understand/will not understand Katchikali/and all the institutions crumble.//As the mud hut crumbles/withers, all is base/seething self-interest and corruption/and the demon of gain/in your waters Katchikali.”
Peters’s poetry is full of medical and scientific imagery. A poem in Katchikali begins, “Love is juxtaposed to the Ego,/competes with the Ego;/stands between it and life/like a dark photographic screen, inverted;/ … nibbles at resistance with haze of spectroscopic light.” In a poem that begins, “I am thinking about time;” Peters wrote, “An infant thrusts an organ/at me for circumcision—/mother would have it deprived./The anaesthetist reads his comics,/other eye asleep./This serious business of living/makes the flesh creep.”
The publication of Selected Poetry in 1981 was considered to be a milestone in the development of African literature. The collection included 48 new poems, as well as poems from Satellites and Katchikali. In his new poems Peters attempts to integrate traditional African culture and a hopeful future into the shattered present of post-colonial Africa. Peters has remained a Pan-Africanist, addressing issues of disunity and instability within and among African nations, and focusing on the problems of underdevelopment and social injustice and the need for original, African-based solutions.
In Poem 85 of Selected Poetry Peters writes: “I shout beating my fist/against the foreign gates/of your conscience./ … as all fall to their knees/not in supplication/but in anger and despair/against injustice and oppression/outside and within their ranks;/against the schism where union is blessed/fanatics of tribe, cast, religion;/against blank indolence, incompetence.”
In Poem 76 Peters writes of his search for his African identity, with reference to Alex Haley, the American author of Roots: “The first Africa/the early dawn/of ancestral Gods/and naming ceremonies/of ritual sacrifice/and burial rites/are lost even to me for good/irrecoverable!//My two faces/move sideways/groping for identity/or re-identity/with group or tribe/from tribe to tribe/nation to nation/continent to continent/world among worlds.//How much more so/for you Mr. Haley/with wall-street/hammering in your brain/moon-flights in your dreams.” The Gambian poet and writer Tijan M. Sallah, in his essay “The Dreams of Katchikali,” quoted a speech by Peters given at the Berlin Horizon Conference on World Cultures: “My family has been detribalized for several generations. I am like Alex Haley. I am searching for my roots.” Other references to America in Selected Poetry include the vitality of New Orleans jazz, the crassness and obscenity of Las Vegas, the Ku Klux Klan, and the destruction of native American cultures.
Over the years Peters has contributed to numerous anthologies, periodicals, and professional journals. His work has appeared in the African Literature Association Magazine, Afro-Asian Magazine, Black Orpheus, Presence Africaine, Prism, and the Transatlantic Review, among other publications. He has encouraged and inspired young Gambian writers and was the founding editor of Ndanaan, a literary magazine published by the Gambian Writers Club between 1971 and 1976. Peters’s satiric monologue, “The Local Party Secretary,” was performed in 2001.
From 1981 until 1999 Lenrie served as chair and chief executive of Farato Farms Export Ltd. This company grew Irish potatoes for the local market and exported vegetables and mangoes to the United Kingdom. In 1994 Yahya Jammeh took power in Gambia in a military coup. He appointed Peters as chairman of the National Consultative Committee (NCC), which Jammeh hoped would reinforce his demand for a four-year transition period to constitutional democracy. In January of 1995, less than two months after its formation, the NCC submitted its report. Contrary to Jammeh’s hopes, the NCC called for a transitional civilian government with elections to be held in two years’ time.
When asked how he would like to be remembered by society, Peters told the Africa News Service, “If they remember me at all it’s just that I try to do the best things to help the people of The Gambia and to leave the world a better place than I found it.”
The Second Round, Heinemann, 1965.
Poems, Mbari Press, 1964.
Satellites, Heinemann, 1967.
Katchikali, Heinemann, 1971.
Selected Poetry, Heinemann, 1981.
“Qua Vadis Africa: No More Executive Presidents in Africa” (article), Africa News, May 7, 2001.
Contemporary Poets, 7th ed., St. James, 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 117: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, First Series, Gale, 1992, pp. 252–257.
Egudu, Romanus N., in New West African Literature, Ogungbesan, Kolawole, ed., Heinemann, 1979, pp. 60–70.
Larson, Charles R., The Emergence of African Fiction, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 227–241.
Africa News Service, February 2, 2001.
“Dreams of Katchikali: The Challenge of a Gambian National Literature,” University of Berne (Switzerland) Dept. English, www.cx.unibe.ch/ens/cg/africanfiction/gambia/sallah/sallah.html (December 20, 2003).
“Lenrie (Leopold Wilfred) Peters,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (November 16, 2003).
“Passionate Spaces: African Literature and the Post-Colonial Context,” Murdoch University (Perth, Australia), www.mcc.murdock.edu.au/ReadingRoom/listserv/Webb/contents.html (November 19, 2003).
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