Once Upon a Time

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“Once Upon a Time” is a poem by Nigerian writer Gabriel Okara which expresses concern for the influence of the Western world on age-old African custom.

The Poem is like this:

Once upon a time, son,

they used to laugh with their hearts,

and laugh with their eyes;

but now they only laugh with their teeth,

while their ice block cold eyes

search behind our shadows.

There was a time indeed

they used to shake hands with their hearts;

but that’s gone, son.

Now they left shake hands without hearts

while their left hands search

my empty pockets.

‘Feel at home!’ ‘Come again’:

they say, and when I come

again and feel

at home, once, twice,

there will be no thrice-

for then I find doors shut on me

So I have learned many things, son.

I have learned to wear many faces

like dresses – home face,

office face, street face, host face,cocktail face,

with all their conforming smiles

like a fixed portrait smile.

And I have learned too

to laugh with only my teeth

and shake hands without my heart.

I have also learned to say, ‘Goodbye’,

when I mean ‘Good-riddance’:

to say ‘Glad to meet you’,

without being glad; and to say ‘It’s been

nice talking to you’, after being bored.

But believe me, son.

I want to be what I used to be

when I was like you. I want

to unlearn all these muting things.

Most of all, I want to relearn

how to laugh, for my laugh in the mirror

shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs!

So show me, son,

how to laugh; show me how

I used to laugh and smile

once upon a time when I was like you.

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7 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time

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