by Ben Okri
Who can read the riddle of life
In this portrait of mine?
I am one on whom providence
Has worked its magic reversals.
Behind me are silent stories
Like a storm. I have worn
History round my neck like chains.
Freedom is a difficult lesson to learn.
I have tasted the language of death
Till it became the water of life.
I have shaped a little my canvas of time.
I have crossed seas of fires
And seen with these African eyes
The one light which neither empires
Nor all the might of men obscure.
Man is the sickness, God the cure.
I read this poem for the first time yesterday in the National Portrait Gallery. The portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was painted in 1733 by William Hoare and is the earliest known British painting of a freed slave. Diallo was an educated man from a family of Muslim clerics in West Africa. In 1731 he was taken into slavery and sent to work on a tobacco plantation in America. By enterprise and good luck, Diallo arrived in London in 1733 where he mixed with intellectuals and high society, was introduced at Court and was bought out of slavery by public appeal. After nearly a year in England, he then happily returned to his family in Africa.