The Poets

June 01, 2009

A Far Cry from Africa

A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa. Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
"Waste no compassion on these separate dead!"
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?

Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilization's dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

Of the Poem:

Behind this poem lies the tragedy of both external and internal conflict. The historical backdrop of the poem is the civil uprising of the Mau Mau against British colonialists in Kenya. In the late 1800s British colonies began to settle throughout a territory that native Kikuyu called home. As British colonies began to spread so did the injustices: natives were thrown off of their own land and impoverished by poor work and poor wages.

The subjugation and mistreatment of the Kikuyu only got brutally worse as time progressed. Finally enough was enough. In the 1950s he Muingi (also called Mau Mau) could no longer hold on to empty promises of reparation and economic equality, nor could they tolerate anymore passive complaints- they rebelled violently. As a result, British military forces rapidly expanded and, along with African loyalists, pursued and eventually put to death 11,000 of the rebel force.

Although it served as the catalysis for the independence of the Kikuyu and greater Kenya, the conflicts of the Mau Mau Uprising were savage, bloody, and cruel (both ways). Bitter memories and no doubt latent hostilities followed the bloodshed.

Which leads us to our poet.

Derek Walcott was of mixed heritage: both of (white) English and African decent. He was openly against the colonial subjugation of the people of Kenya (with whom he felt a deep connection). At the same time, and as a result of his direct connection to his English heritage, it grieved him to see them being killed during the Mau Mau Uprising. Thus an internal conflict of loyalty emerged within the poet. His poem ask a solitary question: “With whom do I side?”

The poem is essentially divided (in thought, anyhow) between a poetic narrative of the conflict (lines 1 through 21) and the conflict as it exists with the poet internally.

As one of mixed heritage, and as one knowing personally the challenges of 'ethinic loyalties", the poem really struck a cord with me. I understand it.


Doug P. Baker said...

That is a truly intense poem! What is he refering to with "as with Spain"?

John W. May said...

The words: “as with Spain / The gorilla wrestles with the superman”, indicate (to my knowledge) the disproportional use of force that occurred during the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. Walcott uses the tactic of historical allusions to press the point of the poem and the brutality behind it.

He does the same thing in line 10, where he refers to the Holocaust. His point there being the brutal killing off of innocence: “What is that to the white child hacked in bed? / To savages, expendable as Jews?”
Here he seems to show the guilt of both sides in the conflict- namely, the terroristic acts committed by the Mau Mau (who apparently killed children), and the genocidal attitude held by the British.

Nancy said...

Wow! Powerful & moving. I got chills from the last 8 lines. Thank you so much for the historical backdrop to help understand the content. I think we all struggle at times with internal conflict over our personal issues, though perhaps not so intensely as this poem depicts. I find it interesting that he struggles with which side to pick (which is impossible) but feels "poisoned with the blood of both." Why poisoned? Why desire loyalty to that which you feel poisoned you? Is the poison the guilt which you referred to in your further comment? Is it like a battered child who still loves its parent?

As of April 9th, 2010