It is not the leaking roof
Nor the singing mosquitoes
In the damp, wretched cell
It is not the clank of the key
As the warden locks you in
It is not the measly rations
Unfit for beast or man
Nor yet the emptiness of day
Dipping into the blankness of night
It is not
It is not
It is not
It is the lies that have been drummed
Into your ears for a generation
It is the security agent running amok
Executing callous calamitous orders
In exchange for a wretched meal a day
The magistrate writing into her book
A punishment she knows is undeserved
The moral decrepitude
The mental ineptitude
The meat of dictators
Cowardice masking as obedience
Lurking in our denigrated souls
It is fear damping trousers
That we dare not wash
It is this
It is this
It is this
Dear friend, turns our free world
Into a dreary prison
“Yes—to be great you must stand in such a place that you can dispense pain and death to others without anyone asking questions. Like a headmaster, a judge, a Governor.”
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, set in the days leading up to Kenya’s independence, depicts a cast of characters whose lives are unavoidably impacted by the struggle for independence.
As A Grain of Wheat was first published only four years after the independence, it is important to acknowledge how contemporary this book is to that history. Furthermore, wa Thiong’o himself, who had a brother in the Mau Mau, experienced the path to independence in ways similar to some of his characters. The book is powerful in and of itself but knowing these facts makes us understand how close the author was to what he writes about and how significant and relevant this novel is.
Wa Thiong’o uses a large cast of characters, weaving together their intricate stories which all show some form of courage and weakness. As their experiences are revealed, it becomes apparent that even the people thought to be the most virtuous, executed some form of betrayal. The beauty of the book however, is that as the story progresses, we begin to be less critical of the characters for these betrayals, and start to understand them.
wa Thiong’o reveals the flaws of those we most want to believe are fully righteous, and the humanity of those we most want to revile.
He blurs the line between “good” and “bad” and allows us comprehend the mistakes and unlikable decisions the characters make for their sakes and for the sake of their cause.
“The coward lived to see his mother while the brave was left dead on the battlefield. And to ward off a blow is not cowardice.” (168)
Through these characters we ultimately learn that independence was not just the violent, turbulent time we read in history books, but was a human fight, as internal as it was external. The characters grapple so fiercely with themselves because they have been severely tainted by their circumstance, and have internalized it such that there is no real separation between their personal and political lives.
“It is not politics…it is life. Is he a man who lets another take away his land and freedom? Has a slave life?” (112).
In A Grain of Wheat, wa Thiong’o ultimately breathes life into the path to Uhuru, a path that is real and complex and reflective of innate humanity. When we see the personalities and pasts of the characters, we see the struggle and the triumph, and the struggle within the triumph during this pivotal time.
Liyou Mesfin Libsekal is an Ethiopian poet born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She spent the majority of her childhood in different parts of East Africa. She earned a BA in Anthropology from the George Washington University in 2012; she now lives in her home country. She’s the winner of the 2014 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Find more of her work here and on Facebook.
The African Book Review met with finalists for The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Nick Makoha, a poet from Uganda, whose powerful poem “Beatitude,” dwells on the pain of refugees forced to leave their country.
ABR: What inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?
MAKOHA: Writing for me has never really been a hobby. It is something that I have done since I was a child. Initially I was inspired by the ability to play with words, to use language as a puzzle. It became my playground, something I did without thinking just for the joy of it. But as I moved from country to country leaving my homeland of Uganda, language became something else: it became a refuge. It also became a place where I could reap the harvest of my emotions….
In my ignorance I assumed everyone wrote poetry. I wrote my first public poem for a math teacher that died of a heart attack at my boarding school in Kenya. I remember crying under a tree and thinking there must be a better way to remember him. He had been a pillar of support and writing a poem was the only way I could find in my 14 year old self to honour him. The poem was published in our yearbook and it was the first time I was called upon by my community to be a poet of the people.
So to answer your question, I would say what inspires me to write is a strong conviction or the welling up of emotion. The skill is to identify these convictions when camouflaged by ego, stereotypes and day-to-day living. My collection The Second Republic was inspired by my need to return emotionally to Uganda. I am describing a metic experience, a foreigner living in a land that is not his own. A person in exile is a person between two worlds, where language becomes the conduit through which emotion is expressed.
ABR: Your poem “Beatitude,” which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry prize, touches on an everyday (almost casual) violence as the backdrop to a country that is unstable. The lines “Run past sleep, past darkness visible./ Stop when you find a country where they do not know your name,” are especially powerful. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for this poem and what it’s representative of?
MAKOHA: “Beatitude” is a perfect example of the metic experience. This poem came as one stream of consciousness. I really had to stop myself from writing it. It is a capstone in my poetry collection in that it holds a hidden pain which I really discuss about leaving my country. It also sets up the cinematic landscape of the world I want my reader to inhabit; a world that does not belong to the European consciousness.
It is a world that runs parallel to the world we live in right now.
In today’s culture there is a cynical view of the refugee or the asylum seeker but I wanted to give a clear understanding of what many people around the world suffer in a matter of fact way.
Beatitudes are the blessings that Jesus gave in the bible. I wanted to communicate that for many leaving their beloved it homeland and running to freedom is a blessing at the cost of losing all.
ABR: As a Ugandan poet, how has Uganda influenced your works, and what do you think the future of poetry in Uganda is? What ideally would you like it to be?
MAKOHA: Most of my life has been spent out of Uganda. So my Ugandan influences are indirect or subliminal. The writing of these poems has brought me closer to my culture as I have investigated my heritage through literature. Early on I read Okot p’Bitek and Okello Oculi. Most useful was leading the politics of many African writers from all genres. People like Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o… their insights are like finding gold in a river. As for the future of Ugandan Poetry, I hope it is at the beginning of a great journey. A journey that brings great writers to the international stage. I hope I can play my part in doing that.
ABR: Do you have any favorite African books? Any that have particularly influenced you or that you just love for some reason?
MAKOHA: If by favourite African books you mean books that I come to again and again there are many; Of Chameleons and Gods, any play by Athol Fugard as his works hold up to any generation. This week I am reading Jack Mapange’s Beasts of Nalunga.
ABR: Can you talk about your future projects and things you are currently working on?
MAKOHA: There are few projects that I’m working on currently. My show, My Father and other Superheroes will be touring later on in the year. And my first poetry collection The Second Republic will be out soon. There has been interest in making parts of this poetry collection into a film. I have also been commissioned to be part of a special basketball project on which I can say no more at this point
ABR: Thanks and congratulations on being a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize.
MAKOHA: Thank you. It is a great honour of being picked as one of the finalists I feel privileged to be among their number.
Born in Uganda, Nick Makoha fled the country with his mother during the Idi Amin’s regime. His debut pamphlet series, The Lost Collection of an Invisible Man was published in 2005 and he is currently working on his first full poetry collection. Nick represented Uganda in the Cultural Olympiad Poetry Parnassus at London’s Royal Festival Hall. His one-man show My Father & Other Superheroes debuted to sold-out performances in London, and a national tour begins at the end of 2014.
Born in 1924 in Salisbury to South African parents, Brutus is best known for his protest poetry which challenged the South African apartheid while celebrating freedoms all men ought to have. He was instrumental in the exclusion of South Africa and Rhodesia from the 1964 Olympics on the grounds of racism. His activism led to his being banned from all political and social activity and in 1973 he was arrested but escaped while on bail. He was later re-arrested and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. He spent those months on Robben Island, in a cell next to Nelson Mandela. Described as “A fearless campaigner for justice, a relentless organizer, an incorrigible romantic, and a great humanist and teacher,” Brutus died on 26 December 2009, at his home in Cape Town, South Africa.
A Simple Lust is a beautiful collection of Brutus’ poems during his time as a political prisoner and exile traveling the world unable to return to South Africa. Brutus captures the alternating awareness of limitations and challenges such restrictions in his poems about the land of South Africa, “A troubadour I traverse all my land… and I have laughed, disdaining those who banned/ inquiry and movement…choosing, like an unarmed thumb, simply to stand…” (2)
And stand he does, in his resistance to the forces of oppression and his insistence on delimiting the land as his, he captures the emotional gamut of black and colored South Africans, from the desire to fight for freedom, “Sharpevilled to spearpoints for revenging…” (9) to a simple resolute appreciation for just surviving, “Somehow we survive,/ and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither” (4).
Little can match the well of understanding and emotion Brutus deftly disperses throughout A Simple Lust, yet his writing style and keen sense of observation elevate the reader’s experience even more. Brutus does to words what Achebe did to African Literature, he expands our appreciation of them. With words such as ‘air-live,’ ‘harsh-joy,’ ‘lovelaughter,’ he pushes their limitations past meaning into feeling.
A Simple Lust takes the reader from the darting eyes of a prisoner in his cell describing the effects of confinement on the psyche, to desolate beaches in Algiers, through the sorrowed longings of a wife separated from her husband, presenting cold reflections on ‘Amerika…the home of the brave’ (144), and on. Brutus welcomes the reader into a lush, experienced, understanding of oppression and resistance. More importantly, it offers a profound sense of what it means to carry joy as hope and to, as Brutus, reject desolation as the only reality.
“Peace will come./ We have the power/ the hope/ the resolution./ Men will go home.” (96)