Let’s begin with a summary of the subject matter of the poem, The Dining Table, by the Sierra Leonean poet, Gbanabom Hallowell.
We shall thereafter consider the themes and poetic devices in The Dining Table.
Gbanabom Hallowell: The Dining Table
The Dining Table is a short narrative poem that recollects the turbulent events of the Sierra Leonean civil war in the 1990s.
The setting is the West African country, Sierra Leone represented by the dining table.
The dinner, the prime bone of contention in this ruthless war, is the country’s mineral wealth – diamonds.
The time setting is obviously in the night, a period of darkness.
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The persona vividly recounts what it was like to live through this time of brutal conflict marked by vicious atrocities.
• There is widespread lawlessness as rebel soldiers – guerrillas – move around freely committing unspeakable atrocities against innocent civilians.
• Militias sympathetic to the government – crocodiles – are equally guilty of many war crimes.
• Everywhere there is blood and mayhem – maiming, killing, and destruction of property.
• Children and other vulnerable segments of the Sierra Leonean society are caught up in the conflict. They have no choice but to become either perpetrators or victims of the evils of war.
• The state of insecurity and disorder is so pervasive that it is impossible for the state to prevent or control diseases such as cholera. As a result, many perish unnecessarily.
• It is a time that death stares everyone in the face – even if you are lucky to survive the bullet, diseases such as cholera may not spare you.
who needs roadblocks? When the hour
to drink from the cup of life ticks,
Despite the persona’s resolve to rise from the ashes of war and become an agent of social change – a revolutionary – he is so weighed down by the traumatic effects of the conflict and rendered helpless by the reality of social dysfunction that he can hardly do much.
… I promise
to be a revolutionary, but my Nile, even
without tributaries comes lazy
upon its own Nile. On this
night reserved for lovers of fire, I’m
full with the catch of gun wounds, and my boots
have suddenly become too reluctant to walk me.
The themes in The Dining Table
• The horrors of social conflict and their devastating effect on the people as a whole
The Dining Table is meant to warn Africans of the traumatic experiences that await them if they allow their countries to descend into civil strife.
• Patriotism or concern for one’s nation even in difficult times
The poet’s serious tone and his repetitive use of the first person singular pronoun – I, me, my – in the last stanza depict his love and loyalty to his native land. He pledges to work to bring his troubled motherland back to normal in spite of the daunting challenges that clearly lie ahead.
Also, the poet may as well be calling on his compatriots to rise up to the challenge to rebuild their broken nation.
• The resource curse that has bedevilled many African countries
It is paradoxical that while Africa is blessed with vast amounts of mineral wealth such as gold, copper and diamond, these have rather become the source of underdevelopment across the continent.
The people of the continent of Africa continue to suffer disease, famine and hunger mainly due to brutal conflicts, like the Sierra Leonean civil war, brought by the struggle among greedy leaders to have control over these resources.
Poetic techniques or literary devices used in The Dining Table
1.Diction and imagery
Images of war
The poet is able to present to us images of war and the horrifying effects of war through an appropriate choice of words.
The following are some examples of diction that create visual images of war and conflict in The Dining Table.
• gun wounds
• empty palms
• cracked lips
• playground is emptied of children’s toys
Images of gloom and doom
The poet uses repetition to evoke the kind of gloomy atmosphere that characterizes a period of chaos in any society. This is a time of violence and darkness.
It is clear that the persona is terribly concerned about the dangers vulnerable groups like children are exposed to when civil conflict breaks out.
• gun wounds
Dietary imagery/Food imagery: This is evoked in the following words.
Here are other literary devices the poet employs in The Dining Table to convey his themes to the reader.
• The Dining Table
• Dinner tonight comes with
• The table
that gathers us is an island where guerrillas
walk the land while crocodiles
From the title of the poem, the reader initially gets the impression that they are about to be treated to a sumptuous meal of poetry. This hope is quickly dashed in the ironic twist of the very first line:
Dinner tonight comes with
The reader is shocked to learn that on this dining table, the only delicacies are blood diamonds – vegetables and pepper tainted by the horrific atrocities of war. And the guests? Blood-thirsty crocodiles and war-hungry guerrillas!
• silence in their voices
• switchblades in their eyes,
silence in their voices.
• dinner: “Dinner” is used to stand for the mineral wealth of Sierra Leone, specifically diamonds.
• table: “Table” in the poem stands for the country, Sierra Leone.
• the table that gathers us is an island
• the oceans of bowls
• where crocodiles surf: This evokes a frightening image of lawless government militias visiting acts of barbarism on the defenceless civilian population they are supposed to protect. The situational irony here cannot be lost on the reader.
• … the spilt
milk of the moon:
“spilt milk” shows the poet’s realization that the country is in a state of near hopelessness.
However, the reference to the “moon” in this period of darkness suggests the changing mood of the poet.
The feeling of despair that characterizes the previous stanzas is giving way to one of hope. This is clearly in spite of the overwhelming state of despondency into which the country has fallen.
The poet appears to believe that all hope is not lost. There is a glimmer of hope. This is why the poet declares his readiness to become a revolutionary – to defy the odds in order to begin a process towards change.
Likely examination questions on The Dining Table
• Comment on the poet’s attitude to his country in Gbanabom Hallowell’s poem, The Dining Table.
• Discuss the poet’s use of diction and imagery in The Dining Table.
• What aspects of war are depicted in the poem, The Dining Table?
• Comment on the use of three literary devices in The Dining Table.
• Examine the use of repetition in The Dining Table by Gbanabom Hallowell.
• Consider the appropriateness of the title of the poem, The Dining Table.
• To what extent does the diction portray the horrors of war in The Dining Table?
• Discuss the theme of patriotism in Gbanabom Hallowell’s The Dining Table.
• Examine the consequences of civil strife in the poem, The Dining Table.
• What obstacles lie in the way of social progress in the poem, The Dining Table?
• Would you consider The Dining Table as a poem of doom and gloom?
• Discuss the theme of war in The Dining Table.
• What instances of irony are present in Gbanabom Hallowell’s poem, The Dining Table?
• Comment on the poet’s use of the element of shock in The Dining Table.
• Discuss the persona’s view of government soldiers in The Dining Table.
• Comment on the changing mood of the poet in The Dining Table.
• Examine the importance of setting in the poem, The Dining Table.