Poverty Porn – A New Prison for African Writers

A critic brings knowledge, taste, and meaningful judgement to a piece of work. The three elements imply that a critic cannot be neutral – to judge is to move away from the line of neutrality, and this is why critics are important. By consistently portraying the courage to have their judgments presented publicly, they become an authority, gatekeepers in a field. They are choosing ‘preferred literature’ to their audiences, and justifying their choice.

They are activists in a way, and done longer enough, a certain preference begins to emerge, a preference for a certain kind of book, a certain kind of literature, of art. Places that have few, major critics, the ‘superstar’ critics, risk having access to only a few approved choices. Since knowledge feeds on itself, and people tend to pursue few definable positions, a society needs many critics in order to have access to a diversity of approved choices, or the choices will become just another single story.

Recently, Ikhide Ikheloa, reviewed Fiston Mujila Mwanza’s Tram 83, a review, which though manifestly illustrative in its approach, I disagreed with. I made a series of Facebook posts clarifying my position and have decided to collect these posts, with minimal alterations and post them here on my blog for easy reference.

Pa Ikhide.s review reminded me of an old conversation – the suffocating tendency to view all African novels, of if you like, novels written by Africans, as anthropological, as ethnological documents. I also felt that his reading of Tram 83 was akin to Aesop’s fable, ‘The Dog and the Shadow’: he lost the substance by grasping at the shadow.

We seem to have this long list of instructions that a novel by an African should abide by. A few years ago, Helon Habila made an unlikely charge at ‘We Need New Names’ by NoViolet Bulawayo, that it was pushing an aesthetic of suffering – poverty porn. I couldn’t stop shaking my head. That was shocking. I read Pa’s review and I could not stop seeing the listing of what should be done, should not have been done … Pa also brings the poverty porn argument to Tram 83, calls it “rancid poverty porn. Re-fried beans as literature.” Pa’s argues that “I thought we had gone past the notion of African writing as a pejorative, the expectation that the only literature that can come out of Africa is one that reeks of misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, despair, poverty, wars and rapes, with women and children objectified as unthinking sex objects, hewers of wood and mules.”

You can actually see that Ikhide did his homework, going through the text, with a sieve, and listing thematic concerns, with regard to how they have been dealt with vis a vis his beliefs on “the role of an African writer”. He didn’t forget to remind us to read “Chinua Achebe’s insightful essay, Today, the Balance of Stories (in the book of essays, Home and Exile) to all African writers who wish to reflect on how they portray Africa.”

Why must writers from Africa always bear the burden of representing the continent? Taiye Selasi asks. I don’t have to reproduce the wealth of her argument, here, but it is now clear that “the African novelist is rarely granted the privilege of writing, as Tony Morrison famously put it, the novel she wanted to read. Instead the novelist is assumed to be writing for the west, producing ethnographic texts dolled up as literary fiction. It’s a curious allegation, one that denies both the agency and artistry of the writer while threatening to obscure, I think, the actual source of the unease.” Stop pigeonholing African writers, she says.

Would the tag “poverty porn” be applied to novels written by non-Africans, set outside Africa? I think we are creating so many prisons for ourselves, and will cry when it traps us in for another 50 years. We risk missing the next Dambudzo Marechera when he appears on the scene, repeating a mistake of the past.

This paragraph, by Ikhide, exemplifies the need for critics to expand their lenses:

After pages of this silliness, I understood the problem with the book. The “novel” must have been first conceived as a movie script, hawked around as one and when Mujila could not get a buyer, he convinced a publisher that it would work as a novel. The result is a clumsy novel clutching an essay that waxes incoherent on the looming demise of African literature and the world as Mujila knows it. In a flat one-dimensional medium of the book, Mujila tries using two-page long sentences to create scenes meant for the stage or a movie and he fails spectacularly.

Ikhide has been one of the most notable observers of transformations in artistic production in Africa, whether it is on short stories posted on Facebook or flash fiction on twitter. In an old address, Binyavanga Wainaina delivered at the African Studies Association UK 2012, on Afropolitanism, and captured by Stephanie Santana, here, these thinkers observed that we are living in a changing world, and nothing stands out like the “image of invisible digital networks of texts reaching ghost-like across continents, genre-bending “digital pulp,” a pan-African literature that moves vis twitter and sms rather than by printing press and shipping containers.” Even though Binyavanga has since clarified and expanded his position on Afropolitanism, as not inherently antagonistic to Taiye Selasi’s, this image of evolving writing and publishing systems remains. If modes of travel of stories are changing, how about forms? I quote this specific image, because I know Pa Ikhide has also talked about these changes in almost similar terms, and I was surprised at his criticism of the genre-bending nature of Tram 83’s world. In the 21st century, we should be prepared for more novels that blur boundaries. We should reimagine and reconstruct our knowledge bases on what form is, and how it is changing.

The complaint about long sentences is a peculiar one. One of the most intriguing books I have read is “The Melancholy of Resistance” by László Krasznahorkai. Sentences, in the book, can run up to 30 pages. I have not read any review complaining about length of sentences in his sentences. I know László is a little on the extreme, but James Wood’s “Madness and Civilization” on the New Yorker on the strange fictions of László Krasznahorkai is an exemplary way to dig deep into strange forms, in ways that increase our understanding of authors and their texts, as opposed to demonising it.

I moderated a conversation with the Etisalat Prize shortlistees. Fiston Mujila and Penny Busetto (The Story of Anna P as told by herself) came to Nairobi, and we had a rich evening of literariness. I also wrote an essay on “What Will People Say” by Rehana Rossouw, published by Saraba Magazine, Special Issue: Etisalat Prize. One can say that I was deeply engaged with the texts and authors. I hold the opinion that Tran 83 is elegant surrealism, beautiful madness – intelligent, strange, hypnotic, unconventional.

An interview Sofia Samatar had with Fiston Mujila lays bare, apart from jazz, the influence of surrealism, the excesses of Congo, and his languaging of experiences. He says:

“I am a music lover, not just of jazz but also Congolese rumba. I dreamed of becoming a saxophonist when I was a child. That wasn’t able to happen, since there was no music school in my hometown and I couldn’t get hold of a saxophone. When I was nineteen or twenty I realized that literature or writing could play the role of a saxophone or bass clarinet. I was reading the surrealists a lot at the time. There is a connection between automatic writing and improvisation. Since then, I compose some of my texts like scores. I also make performances, often accompanied by jazzmen.

Music allowed me to explode the story in order to conform to the characters’ whims and excessiveness. I come from a country that exists only on paper. The Congo—by its very history, its everyday life—is an extraordinary, or shall we say paradoxical, country. There is no such thing as moderation there. We are always immoderate, excessive, exuberant, etc. Everything happens as if the world was going to end in forty-eight hours and we should therefore make the most of our remaining crumbs. Everything happens as if we belonged to another planet, with our own ways of thinking, of getting drunk, of dancing the waltz, and so on. I therefore needed jazz’s (incantatory) energy to define the heartbeats of a territory ravaged by all kinds of predation but whose people remain standing.

Tram 83 is irrigated by other rhythms, including those of the freight trains and the Congo river—one of the longest rivers in the world, and the deepest, second in discharge after the Amazon. The Congo river rises in the south and wanders through the whole country, before committing suicide, or hurling itself out the window, it depends, into the Atlantic ocean.”

In the post-independent period, ‘political commitment’ in novels was the aesthetic attraction and novels that did not fall under this huge critical banner were castigated. Almost all critics misunderstood Dambudzo Marechera. He was way ahead of his time. His work was not welcomed in Zimbabwe. Critics and other writers accused his work of not contributing to “nation-building”, that it was “decadent” and “anti-African”. Nobody was ready for the vision of his poetics.

Most of the complaints about descriptions of place and people, reminds me of the “decadent” allegation heaped on Dambudzzo’s work. Poverty porn is our new prison, a lexicon borrowed from development critics. But this phrase even becomes more problematic when it is applied to a creative work, say a novel, because it automatically presumes that the work was written that way primarily to increase sales, for African novels, in a Western market, and there is a deliberate kowtowing to certain demands from the Western publishing system (editors, publishers, readers). It has become a simple way of shooting a novel down, of refusing to engage with its unpleasant contents.

I suspect that so many of such cases are happening. It would be sad if another Marechera is being washed down the drainage as we speak. Works are going to emerge that are so different from certain cemented talking points by African critics and they’ll all be labelled as not contributing to “continental building”, as not adding shine to the ‘sunny’ Africa we need to present to the West, and they’ll be demonised, when the problem maybe that critics have adopted narrow lenses.

Dambudzo was banned because how he presented the situation in Zimbabwe was unpleasant, it was not in agreement with the futures the post-independent leaders were singing about. However, it is good that in an interview, he made this choice rather clear. He said:

“I tend to see the writer as a kind of Cassandra figure with all this enormous talent to actually analyze, officialize intensively people’s destinies, only to be cursed by censorship, by persecution, by whatever, for having that talent. But precisely because you got that talent, you must continually activate it, in spite of any opposition from any quarter. If I am a committed writer, that’s what I am committed to. A vision like that transcends any political programme. This is one of the difficulties I have in writing because here in Zimbabwe people try to analyse everything from the particular contemporary political view.”

We have to be very careful not to analyze everything from a single “particular contemporary political view.”

I also keep wondering about the limits of fiction, or any other art for that matter, or why it must be read as anthropological or ethnological, especially for writings coming from Africa. I don’t understand the desire to impose our total order (in terms of how we view the world) on all creative productions. I think there is space for viewing the novel(s) as a world on its own, and when we draw parallels of similarity/difference with our world , there is space for not being to restrictive or not being prescriptive of what we would have preferred.

It also seems like the perfect novel, by an African, should be inert, should not be too much, should be balanced, because readers of African novels are always looking how the sunny-side of Africa is presented. It must be anthropological, but don’t caricature us. We are doing good. Africa is rising. It should be political and nonpolitical at the same time. The perfect novel by an African is published nowhere. If it is published on the continent, the critic will go for the ills of the continent’s publishing industry. They will mention the cover design and binding. Why is it surprisingly good for a book printed in Africa? They’ll take note of the editing, never forgetting to mention that ‘this is an improvement from what we’ve been seeing in books published by African publishers.’ If it takes three months for the book to get to them, a paragraph on poor distribution systems will suffice.

Woe to you if it is published in the West. They will start with blurbs. Who are they? Are they white people? If black, where are they living? Are they living in the continent? The irony that the critic may also be living out of the continent is often lost to them. Is poverty in there? How much crime, drugs, war, prostitution, misogyny, patriarchy, feminism, add all the identity-politics talking points here. Are you pandering to Western audience interests? Who was your agent, your publisher? White people, right? I knew. Have they influenced how you are presenting Africa to the world? Why is your imagination decadent? Your book should be banned. It is not Christian. It is spreading immorality in Africa. Poverty porn? I thought we all agreed that novels from our 54+ countries should have none of that. Why are you only talking about middle class and wealthy people sensibilities? You are not capturing the ordinary lives of Africans. Do that in your next novel. That is why your current book is not selling. Why are your stories experimental? You are not rooted in the African experience. The African novelist is a continental spokesperson. Never forget that.

The Jalada Mobile Festival: 10 days to go!

A year and a half ago, certain dreams were uttered, like all dreams sometimes are, to fill up the silence between friends, or to share inner lives, inner hopes, inner aspirations. The fabric of that dream was how different places of literary and cultural production could be linked, could be made to drink from each other, could feed each other’s health. And so the dream was thrown to the net of reason and the factory of manufacturing reality from imaginations began operating, with nothing more than raw enthusiasm and commitment.

The dream was big. And the core of the dream was the idea of a literary tour across East Africa. The dreamers were Jaladans and Jalada friends. Initially the dream covered seven countries, but it later became five – Kenya, Uganda, DRC, Rwanda, and Tanzania. Remember this was something that was too ambitious and had not been done in our part of the world, at least not to that scale.

With time the idea became bigger and clearer. Instead of just a literary tour, the dream became a hybrid between a traditional place-based literary festival and a literary bus tour. And instead of Jalada running around every town searching for venues and artists (not that we haven’t), we began seeing each town as a place of cultural production, as a place where there were organizations working with local artists to create literature, art, dreams. We began looking for ‘anchoring hosts’. These anchor hosts were to serve as places for hosting a ‘place-based festival’ and the ‘bus’ was to serve as a bridge between these places, as a connector – the river that runs between cities, as an enabler of mobility, a vehicle through which knowledge and ideas could be transported from one place to another.

Much of this is a story we’ll tell you pole pole so that you savour it well well.

But we began to fill the puzzle. We began with the idea itself, developing a concept note for the festival that covered not only the concept of a ‘hybrid festival’ but also the content of this festival – people, places, spaces & what will be produced, what will be discussed, what will be performed. In brief:

It will celebrate cultural diversity through multi-lingual performances and exhibitions, and revitalize cross-cultural interchanges between Africa and the world through writing, translations, and publishing in digital spaces. It will also interrogate the place of African languages and translation in the 21st century.

It will create living connections between artists, cultures, and places and showcase an expanded retinue of traditional literary panel discussions, multi-lingual performances, master classes, workshops, art installations, exhibitions, and historical excursions.

I take this special opportunity to welcome the peoples of East Africa and the world to the inaugural Jalada Mobile Festival.

The Festival will run from 3rd March 2017 to 31st March 2017, and will involve panel discussions, masterclasses, workshops, performances, art exhibitions and installations in towns spread across 5 countries: Kenya (Nairobi, Kisumu, Nakuru, Mombasa), Uganda (Kampala, Kabale), Democratic Republic of Congo (Goma), Rwanda (Kigali), and Tanzania (Mwanza, Arusha, Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar).

There is an expanded list of activities in each of these towns.


Who are the partnering institutions? We have partners in all the 12 towns/cities that will host #JaladaFestival events. We’ll talk about all these institutions in time, about all the people involved – everybody that has made it possible, about all the places we’ll go to, about everything we’ll do in these spaces.

Since the festival starts in Nairobi, and runs for three days in the city, let us only go through a set of what is planned for the Nairobi leg.

In Nairobi, our main partners are the Goethe-Institut Nairobi, who have been incredibly supportive since the old days of the draft festival concept, and they have crazy enough to believe in our dreams and resilient enough to stick with us up to now and into the far future. The Goethe-Institut Auditorium and the Kenya National Theatre are going to the main avenues for interactive panel discussions, masterclasses on creative & travel writing and translations, book discussions, and performances.

We’ll have two main panel discussions + a series of conversations. One on ‘Tracing Nairobi’s Benga Beats’ and the other on ‘Local Languages Broadcasters & National Unity’. We’ll have a 2-days long Masterclass on Creative Writing, Travel Writing, Translations & Publishing. We’ll send out acceptance letters in a few days to those who applied to participate.

In recognition of Saro Wiwa’s call that “literature should be taken to the street. That is where, in Africa, it must be”, we’ll have a special session of street poetry, street dance and mchongoano, and we are partnering with our brothers at the ArtEast Hub.

Jalada has also created a Jalada Night Festival Showcase, at the Kenya National Theatre, on March 4th. It is a ticketed event, at only Kshs 1000, and only 300 tickets, featuring the best of the best. The poster goes out on our pages, tomorrow. Be the first to get yours!

The purpose of this post was to say that apart from being tied to the intricacies of planning, I’ll also be blogging about the festival as the ‘tour bus’, which we will unveil soon, I can keep that a secret at least for now. I’ll be posting things here as frequently as I can and keeping you abreast of everything. I’ll also be serializing all our partners and anchor institutions as this story unfolds.

Explore the festival website too.

Did you know about this? (below?)


The Book Caravan will be part of the Jalada Mobile Literary & Arts Festival.

The Book Caravan will give enthusiastic readers an opportunity to access a variety of new literary productions across Africa. Books for sale from collaborating publishers and authors will be sold during the festival events at recommended publisher prices, while donated books and souvenirs (pens, notepads etc) to selected schools across the East African region.

Our implementing partner, TheMagunga Bookstore, will be in charge of selling all the books pooled from collaborating publishers and institutions, in all Festival events.

In Praise of Death: A Review of Smithereens of Death by Olubunmi Familoni

“Familoni’s prose is dense. It is unlike the short sentences favoured in contemporary fiction, due to the influence of creative writing pamphlets. His sentences are garnished with dark humour reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. At some point, every line is an experiment in how extreme the depiction of an event can be. Every page is a testament to the author’s daring and his willingness to sometimes risk incomprehensibility by writing circumlocutory sentences. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it does not. In ‘A Blackness Like This’ (p 103), the story begins with this paragraph:

“The abrupt gory separation of our parents, of which no finger could be laid on its origin and for which no reason was given, signalled, for me and my elder brother, the end of our milk-and-honey childhood and the commencement of miles of multiple miseries as, carted off to a ‘Home’ for abandoned little boys by our mother in an incomprehensible act of connubial vengefulness, we were thrust into an early similitude of violent manhood” [italics added].

Still, there are long sentences which enthral and reveal a character in such a way that nothing would have done better. In ‘A Master of Himself’ (p 93) we read this description:

“They drank in silence, for a while. It was during this their brief silence that I began to pay attention to their looks: the spokesman one was dressed in that near-shabby state of a person whose house was nearby and had only come to walk his friend halfway up the street in farewell; the threadbare Google t-shirt that stretched into amoebic shapelessness on him hung above elderly jeans whose blue had been washed down to white in front and a very pale sky-blue in other places, and his rubber Dunlop slippers only confirmed the proximity of residence, ….”

In Smithereens of Death, you will meet the illogical and absurd, and the mysterious and incomprehensible, all weaved into a functional mat by humour, and laughter – but it is the laughter of a mad man laughing at his own nakedness. The prose is rich, stylistic – Familoniesque, but the stories end too soon. One feels the author should have dug a little deeper, moulded a little more. Many blossoming stories, with the potential to be great are strangled and killed, and so Smithereens of Death reads like a file of vignettes and snapshots, like the incomplete lives it tries to map.


Read the entire review here

Poetry Review: ‘Homegrown’ by Christine Coates

“Homegrown is a delicate intertwining of personal memory and national history. Memory has always been regarded a high art, even a sacred one, closely akin to the arts of divination and inspiration. In Homegrown, the emotions of daily life litter the pages with acute specificity. Coates uses narrative and everyday conversational language to weave personal experiences and memory as a way of investigating universal themes. The straightforward verse style and colloquial tone and simplicity radiates nostalgia so pervasive, yet so entrancing, in its effort to hold your hand and walk you through all the spaces the poet has passed through. Indeed, the poet sings, ‘I love to go a-wandering – in the dusty town of Africa’.”


Read the full text here

The Man Who Fishes Dead Bodies

On a thin wooden plank across the river, two women exchange pleasantries, muffling laughter in the drizzle. Both carry akala sandals on their hands and walk bare foot to avoid slipping into raging waters. Min Akinyi repositions her basket, shifts her weight to pass and crosses the bridge. The bend towards the rapids is unusually quiet for a Saturday afternoon. Min Akinyi wonders where the children have gone.

She takes the narrow footpath lined with siala on either side. At a point where height of siala is no more than two feet, she catches a glimpse of the man who fishes dead bodies. He is tugging a bundle wrapped in wild banana leaves. She doesn’t walk to him and inquire what has happened. She is pregnant with a child. It is a taboo for pregnant women to see drowned bodies otherwise the spirits roaming the river would enter her womb and inhabit the unborn.

She rushes under the cover of foliage. “Who drowned this time round?” She asks. “This river eh awuoro!”

She pities the man. He does it, each waking day, when the currents are high, when the currents are low, when harvest is nigh and weaver birds swoop low to pick pearl sorghum and farmers plant scarecrows. He does it when cows moo, strutting from the milking shed to the pen. He does it when the village retires with the sunset and children circle grandmothers for yet another rendition of the days of locusts when every wheat sheaf was desecrated and fathers bowed their heads in grief between swallows of busaa.

Asingo was brought up by his father, Janam, after his mother, Nyasiro, died at childbirth. Nobody knew the wiry child, born with umbilical cord around his neck would survive. His father named him Asingo, as a kind of oath to Obong’o Nyakalaga – the giver of children. Back then, Janam was the only fisherman in the village. When a person drowned or a body was seen floating past, the chief sent for his advice and expertise. Before he knew, he had become the man who fishes dead bodies. Asingo was apprenticed by his father, a stout amiable man with an ochre beard. One day his father was called to retrieve the body of a woman. But it had rained in the hills and his efforts to untangle the body from trunks of bao branches came a little too late and he was swept away.

For days Asingo scoured the bottom of River Nyando looking for his father. On the third day, on the delta where rice canals silt, he found a body covered in moss and algae and puffed up and red like sheep struck by lightning. He buried Janam that same evening, behind kiru, where he was taught all the tactics of fishing bodies. Later he went to search for the woman, who’d dragged his father to death, but the waters were too cloudy. The night’s downpour flooded the banks, extending nearly a mile into the marsh.

He had almost given up when he found the body of a woman washed up on reeds. He turned the body so it could face up. He did not know the woman but the dress had a recognizable print. It was the same print grandmother used to wear. The same prints at Atwech Tailors. She was slender and tall with a tuft of gray hair at the top of her skull.

“A dead person you don’t leave like that,” his father used to say, “if you leave it don’t ever talk about it with anybody.” “Do you know that the dead can see? Look here, your mother Nyasiro died even before you tasted her milk but she still talks to me today. If I did not keep her well, I would not be a peaceful man today. If you find a dead body in the river, do not leave it like that. You have to remove it from the water, put it in a higher place and tell the village elder. If you leave, it will come back and haunt you.” He used to say.

The body was decomposed and falling apart. Even if he went and reported, the chief would simply shrug it off. But why did he care? Was this not the woman who had dragged his Father to death?

He went home and never talked about it.

That was years and years ago. Now he sits by the boulders, a fishing pole in hand, a bait dancing and dashing, signaling a catch at the end of the hook. If it was a fishpond, the ngege on his basket, would have been eighteen months old. He can tell from the sizes. Bigger hooks only catch mature fishes. It is best to let smaller fishes grow. A drop of rain lathers his forehead. He looks up to find a gloomy sky. Vultures circle the river.

He covers the basket with a manila bag and walks down the river towards the spot vultures have perched. A young girl lies dead on the sandy banks. He does not know what has killed her or when she was washed up here. It is a season of short rains and momentary floods are rare. Asingo picks ochok, squeezes the fruit, and applies its juice on his arms and forehead to ward off evil spirits. He rolls the body in wild bananas leaves to preserve it. Upstream, children play on rafts made from banana trunks and sisal ropes.

River Nyando begins to ripple from slight showers. Where is this body from? He has not seen such a face in this village. He walks up the river bend to collect his basket and fishing pole and head to the village to inform the chief. Nobody pays him for this. He barks a warning when Otieno swims to the deeper ends. Their parents, as one may expect, are thankless idiots. Take for example, Min Akinyi, whose fish is so delicious, that it keeps you smacking your lips long after the pots are washed and left in the sun to dry. Min Akinyi whose sianda has caused many fights at the busaa den. Min Akinyi whose rich and loud laughter hides a thankless heart. Akinyi almost died last year and had to be resuscitated and what did he get? Not even a thank you. He squeezes onyoso with his big toe. Onyosos have a big sianda like Min Akinyi’s. Grandmother said onyosos were a delicacy during the days of locusts.

Asingo gets to the children, splashing on the sandy banks and careful not to swim far from land, except Akinyi, who to show prowess, had gone farther down the river. “Akiiinyi! Akinyi!” He calls. But another call interrupts his voice. Where is the voice coming from? He wonders. “Akiiiinyiii!” the voice calls. It’s an old woman’s voice. Then he sees the caller. Wrinkles have rolled from her forehead and collected in a jowl at the base of her chin. Her head is a white tuft of gray hair.

Asingo is transfixed.

“Akiiinyi!” she calls again. With each summon the child swims faster down the river. The old woman’s hands are outstretched waiting to clasp the child’s hands. Asingo tries to call but no voice escapes him. She smiles, a thin smile on her pursed lips. When she calls again, she opens her mouth very wide to capture an exaggerated width of ‘A’ in Akinyi. “Get away from the woman!” Asingo finds his voice. “Get awaaaaaaaaay!” He screams. His voice is barely recognizable to his own ears. It is also barely audible. He doubts whether it carries that far out into the river. But still he calls. “Akinyi, come back to the shore!” When the old woman calls again, it ripples like thunder from a hollow pit. It echoes and echoes and echoes. Akinyi acquires a sudden burst of strength, cutting through the water like mumi.

“The man with the shovel thumb is coming,” says Otieno as Asingo nears the children. His thumb is wide and flat and it has earned him the name. He is the man with the shovel thumb. Children can get away with anything. They shriek and ran towards the rocks where their clothes are hidden. “Akiiiiiinyi!’ he calls again. The old woman turns and what he sees tenses him. Where had he seen that dress? As his memories latch onto the body of a tall woman washed up on reeds, the woman’s hand start growing towards Akinyi. Her other hand grows, at a much faster pace, towards him. Asingo screams but his voice is gone. He tries to run but his legs are sinking into sand. The long hand strangles and yanks him off the sand and flings him deep into the river.




The story was first published in KUT Anthology on April 26, 2015: The Man Who Fishes Dead Bodies Here


A Poem is a Machine Made Out Of Words: A Review of ‘A Nation in Labour’ by Harriet Anena


Edward Hirsch teaches us that a reader of poetry is like a pilgrim setting out, or what Wallace Williams calls ‘a scholar with one candle’. To set out is to picture oneself as a beginner. To begin is to act – it is to adopt a certain frame of mind, an attitude, and a consciousness. I’m reminded that as a beginner I must open myself to surprise – to the thrills and thralls – of reading poetry, or of reading too many poems over a short period of time. In reading, I will be using poetry as a tool for reflection and conversation, which by its nature is a narrowing of scope.

A Nation in Labour: A Poetry Collection (2015) by Harriet Anena published by Millennium Press Limited, Kampala-Uganda, is a slender book, less than 100 pages in size, with 55 poems bundled into loosely themed baskets. We Need No New Mandela. We Are on Heat. And We Will Plant Bullets. Scratching Destiny. Throughout the book, the tone oscillates from anger to apathy, sometimes it is sarcastic or even persuasive, yet there are times when it is dour and querulous and patronizing. But even then, there is a purpose in the voice, a galvanizing of support, a steely belief in the society’s ability to turn off the cliff and retrace its footsteps. Though, most times, it sounds hopeless like the instinctual bleats of a wounded antelope stuck in mud.





The first poem, Walking on Nails, opens the curtain to a society drowning in phobophobia – the fear of fear itself. We are afraid of being afraid. Even when we don’t know what we are afraid of. We fear because the real truth scorches our tongues. We know that fear is a tool for maintaining oppression, but in a society where others showcase tears of joy as others wipe off tears of pain, the lament is a call to see beyond our eyelashes. Unfortunately, fear also creates ambivalence and indecision. In Lest We Forget To Fear, the poet reminds us that despite the volcano of shamelessness we are sitting on /…/ let’s not forget to fear. And even in the pursuit of ‘change’, scripted political pretence ought to be thrown out of the window. We Need No New Madiba because the seed of Madiba inside us hasn’t germinated. The poem dismisses pundits who unable to stand his (Madiba’s) feats, bring him down / even in death, and yet they cannot even hold the hem of his cloak.

The chant-y ‘we’ in many of the poems is definitive of the collection. It reminds one of the oft-stated observations by critics that the African poet seldom indulges in poetry that mirrors his private concerns, but that of the community. In Politics and the Development of Modern African Poetry, Friday A. Okon says that “modern African poetry is a poetry of commitment, and therefore, it has utilitarian value. It is an intellectual response to the denigration of Africa and Africans by white colonizers.” Though the collection desists from dragging colonialists into Uganda’s present situation, it aligns with the belief that in Africa, the poet cannot afford to just play around with words, and must in some way tackle the realities of the society.

There are many who will disagree with this position, and deservedly so, but commitment to a utilitarian value by talking about social realities is not a bad thing per se. As Paul Cohen says a poem is a “manifestation of language and thus essentially a dialogue”, in this sense, poems too “are making towards something”. And maybe every poem holds a belief that somewhere and sometime it will seep into a conversation and bend it with a new perspective.

The hopelessness of the citizenry is exemplified in Political Poop as citizens clamour for stinking shillings from county gods and dive headlong into our life’s vomit, as their leader clutches at breasts of the Republic / Squeezing and biting it with 70-year-old teeth until the breasts are looted dry. However, Harriet Anena is not alone in calling out the irresponsibility of political leaders. In Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino – one of the greatest literary works in East Africa, concern for the masses is a recurrent theme as the poet decries the elite’s abandonment of the people’s struggle for the struggle for their selfish interests. In the Song of Ocol, Okot p’Biket remarks that: And while the pythons of sickness / swallow the children / And the buffaloes of poverty / Knock the people down / And Ignorance stands there / Like an elephant / The war leaders are tightly locked in bloody feuds / Eating each other’s liver. Sadly, when a society degenerates, even handshakes and greetings become a performance: now we lengthen the handshake to prolong the performance. The poet’s view of ‘we’ is very bleak: We search for mass graves / in our hearts / for skeletons of laughter / that lie / cold and broken.”

Still, there are poems seem culled from a different alcove of being, for love has a way of softening even the hardest of granites. In Kiwani, even though love that was sincere has become diluted and defiled, the tone is calm and confessional. In Say It, the sweetness of the persona’s entreating, glows: Today / I’ll let your breath stroke my neck /… / I’ll let your fingers wander through my hair. In We Are On Heat, the lines We love violently / Cry and kiss at the same time / As our chests heave with longing and hesitation is highly evocative and visual. I Bow For My Boobs and V-Day are some of the succulent servings.

In the Forward of A Nation in Labour, Professor Laban Erapu, says that the book is not a conventional collection of poems by a young untried poet cautiously taking her first steps into the profession, but a mature selection of by a seasoned poet. I agree, largely. Whether the poet is praising the diamond bonds of friendship, bemoaning the ways of a crowd unafraid of roasting a fellow human, fazed by the cyclical torture of January broke-ness, or desirous of the tranquillity of the countryside, or castigating the indignity of stripping women; Harriet Anena’s soul is the soul of many Ugandans, and her words – through her poetry – are purse strings to a world that refuses to unsee, a world that believes that rebirth is possible. It is this longing for rebirth that is captured in the poem, A Nation in Labour, hoping it’ll correct a future that’s gone askew. Thus:

A Nation in Labour is a multitude of voices, a collective protest against the present, and a stubborn belief in the possibility of new ways of being, in Uganda.

As William Carlos Williams once said, poems are machines made out of words. And there is nothing sentimental about a machine, in the sense that, no parts are redundant. As a machine, “its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.” On this basis, it is the perceived pointedness of the purpose of Anena’s book that encapsulates the book and saves the reader from the tediousness of reading so many versions of the same political themes and complaints in so many poems. One wishes for more inventiveness in style and themes, but these, as are the many ways of viewing the world, are fruits of time and exposures to new environments.

Alternatively, we can deliberately misapply William’s metaphor, by asking what poetry can do to us. A machine is worth what it does. So, how can poetry move us? What can poetry do in Uganda today? What can poetry do in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe? Maybe that is another conversation we need to have, especially how the power of poetry can be harvested, not only as a cup of wisdom or a barrel of love but also how it can be used as a tool for political reflection and renewal.

Perhaps the poem; Scratching Destiny, is the message the poet wishes to pass to her readers. It totes the heavy heart of A Nation in Labour, and reminds us of the resilience of the human spirit – that in this blooming buzzing confusion, we must somehow organize our individual chaos into a stable and meaningful personal world. Resilience is powerful because resilience is life. We read of an Acholi child, born in the bush only to lose parents to AIDS, and forced to live in protected camps where she/he is sexually molested by protectors.

And we ask ourselves questions: How do we survive darkness with our bodies and souls intact? And we think of those who have lived their whole lives wandering and hiding; those who have survived ghettos and concentration camps; those who have escaped through barbed wires and crawled out of burning buildings. We think of lives imprisoned by unending wars and those rendered helpless by decades of institutional dispossession. But like the Acholi child, we scratch our destiny in the hands of a curbing fate, and with belief in the power of resilience and hope, trudge on.


Richard Oduor Oduku (@RichieMaccs) is a poet and writer. He studied Biomedical Science and Technology at Egerton University. He works, as a Research Consultant, and lives in Nairobi. His work has been published in Jalada Africa, Saraba Magazine, Storymoja, San Antonio Review, among others. He also writes for #MaskaniConversations in the Star Newspaper. He is also working on a novel and a collection of poems and is a member of Jalada Africa (a pan-African writer’s collective) and Hisia Zangu (a writer’s and art society).


First published in Soo Many Stories

Late Nights on Tom Mboya Street

Tom Mboya 2

Streets dot skeletoned souls

singing loves tasted in wild places

and shadows of a leaking society

trickling from River Road to Globe

to Beba Beba, where students peruse

manuals for rebooting dead emotions

and old men stagger

like mosquitoes in excito-repellent bedrooms.


At Odeon Cinema

teenagers huddle for warmth

tortured by bruises on their inner thighs

after a tussle with bachelors.

Unhealthy mixes of Guinness and Richot

Masai, Muratina and nameless alcohols

can be raw materials for baking regrets.


Tom Mboya Street gives lectures

on what it means to violate a man’s pockets at 3AM

and the uselessness of a Certificate in Conflict Resolution

when accosted by street urchins with shit in a Kimbo tin.


Think of the nature of silence between strangers in a stalled lift

when cutting through a pack of 58’ touts at Tuskys

if you have anything left on you

change lanes and walk closer to National Archives

scan the news headlines at Ambassadeur

and see who is fucking who in the political scene

‘I am a Bedroom Bully’ blasting at Batis

will remind you of the uneasy delights of seducing a college girl

for 9 minutes between Ngara and Survey

and why men are not going home to their wives.


Tom Mboya Street teaches that reading faces

is like meaning-making on Clifton Gachagua’s poems

or mining PEV biographies from How to Euthanise a Cactus.


Some poems can rocket you to strange cosmoses

and some poems can be legitimate pleas of lust

(like Kookooing to Elani on replay)

or minefields of splendour and strife

(like quadrantid meteor showers in Chelyabinsk).

In a city of Orwellian nonpersons

(un-memoried by suppressed histories)

there is satisfaction in being somebody.


Tom Mboya Street teaches that tears are disposable memories

(like selfies and emoticons).


sometimes life is the texture of a nipple on newborn’s palate

sometimes it is scratches on elephant bones in Serengeti

and sometimes the whole story doesn’t show.

POEM: Contents & Discontents

If the seer vows to be the spear that bleed
Let it be known that I was peaceful, for I heed
What was passed down way before
He wed Understanding; munched his first desert lore,
The oracle lives and exudes untainted noesis
To guide and guard slaves from Sibyl’s lies
And enveloped are the faithful from Iblis omens.

But wherefore must I cease my relentless denial?
Surely the voice of Al-Masad hails
May the hands of Abu Lahab perish; doomed he is
His wealth and his gains shall not avail him
He shall be plunged into a flaming fire
And his wife; the carrier of firewood
Shall have a rope of palm fiber round her neck.

Terse as the words were, they were but satire
Derided, pained by counter punches from kinsmen
Their coiner was thought contemptible and deserved not
Obedience, nor acceptance of his revelations
Nor did they seek to desert Al-Uzza and Al-Alat
Nor part ways with the jinns they bathed with veneration
But for this derision, it was written that:

The brightness of Fate awaits their works
And just like the people of Al-Feel
Their treacherous plans will be shot to futility
And birds sent forth to ravage their lands
And pelt them with stones of sand and clay
Till they become like devoured dry leaves
For Punishment awaits those who harken not.


But, if the raunchy Sunday mass is the will of God
The redeemer, the silent one: then my pod
Of Knowledge is a somber farce of purity
Vaulted, protected from imminent heist
Hidden from vulgar gaze of the priest
Weeded of evil, held close in cluster;
Shield from boastful platitudes of my pastor.

Neither will I be party to chaos in the name of prayers
But solemnly under my roof, peaceably bow and revere
Neither should my voice be heard, by man’s ears
For my tears flow like blood, and my soul sears.
Not by man, intent to judge the verbosity of my pleas,
Sometimes absurd; for my vows are a union seal
Reverberating through ether to eternal ears.

But the Primal Cause; whose long shadows shower
And engrave holy intents in the hearts of the wise
Lies in sleep, awake at disintegrating nature.
Where is Moses: the umbrella, the great civilizer?
Whose laws carved on stone, were few and legible
Ten bright stars that shot lasers at graven images!
Stillness! Stillness crushes my inquiries to pulp.

And so, like a fly’s tireless wings past fumigant clouds;
I baulk and scud past vain clothes of the church
Not tire in relentless esteem for falsified holographs.
The dogma; neat scripts of spiritual strabismus
Are but clouds of deceit to piercing eyes.
Nor are they beads of peace, but droplets of anger
Fueled by voices of discord in the belly of basilica.


But, if Vishnu be made of stone, however aged in time
Let it be known that He remains invisible to me:
My inner eyes see me, and see a part of him.
All these years gone by, I never saw the whole of him
Precious as stone may be, it can never be Supreme.
To bow while my mind sees, infects my tongue
And foxes my eyes to venerate the works of man.

Myrrh cold on nostrils, whiff like incantations
Accompany bemused orations of reverence, but
Neither minarets nor domes will to oil the barren past.
Are they royal tombs, these pyramidal heights?
But like in catacombs, soundless yawls
Mask questions with bands of arrogance
Till they are obscured like saints denuded of superstition.

Mute and confused, pearls mark the sea lanes to the East
But where is this land hidden in the district of Mathurā
Where resides happiness: Goloka Vrndāvana
O Universal form! Where are the footprints of Brahman?
O Chastiser of enemies! Why are my hands chained?
Can I shed off human self and damn the entreats
Of desire: of tongue, belly, and genitals?

Now when I’ll don new garments and cast off old self
Will I scorch like miscreant souls, before Yama?
For culture bombed, neither has my tongue tasted prasāda
Nor am I freed by birth roots to marvel in these desserts.
Contumacious and wasted, my inner peace is a guest, and so
Formed of mere dust I envy the stars: marvelous diamonds
Strolling at ease protected from emissaries of darkness.


Vultures aghast at broken tablets, gather
And bathe their feet in ash; Glory is gone.
The evil prosper, delightful are their pleasures,
But trodden are the good; crushed like potters’ vessels.
Where is He who dwells in Zion:
A poet’s halcyon of peace, diamonds, and tease?
Silence is the song; the song of forbearance,
That accompanies scattered bones to shrines.
Insensible, prayers are! For the cosmos speaks not
To shreds of nature’s shroud, demented.

Where is the way for unsteady feet?
Where is honey for the doubtful tongue?
Where is rest for the hunter home from the hills?
Straight is the way of the tabernacle,
Free are the waiting seats all clad in snow
Lustrous rays virgin like the purity of swords
Are directions healing nature’s woes
And from mountains, suns, cows – his abodes:
Flow energies of renewal, till denuded they become
Of undying light; glowing in the souls of servants.

Bid me to drink from these fissures of Strength
Unknown to waking beings, walking lost.
Bid me to look to the sky for the blinking star
Whose tentacles scrawl on the forgotten scrolls.
Bid me to journey in the paths of the Pure
Though slaves we are; faithless slaves of eternity’s eye
Chained like the dead, but bid me O Master!
To row these boats of Motion, enlivened
To hang onto the wings of Time, and sojourn like stars
Haunted to forever map the emptiness of Space.

Pentateuch furled, burns amidst vile profligates
Jove’s incensed, offending humankind blind
With frailty dine: seawards are remnants of Reason.
Verily, verily! Consult that you may cognize
The potter’s skills from the weaver’s craft
The river’s length from the sea’s depth.
Cease not to worry till Peace is won;
And the crosswalk beams with eternal lights
Only then shall the feet, in Understanding
Shake off the dust of Ignorance, evermore!

Now, as the hour of Promise draws close
When the heavens will be cleft asunder
The earth shall shake off her burdens
Stars shall scatter and oceans explode
And graves shall give up their dead –
Hurled like flowers in desert storms!
A horrid vision it will be; of pale sinners deaf
To the hail of trumpets, bowing to decays of filth
On that fateful tiding, will I harvest Glory?
Or like slanderous folk cry, “would that I were dust!”

Richard Oduor (c)2010

Poem: Captured in Exile

Mark Chagall's 'Love, War, and Exile' installation at the Jewish Museum

Mark Chagall’s ‘Love, War, and Exile’ installation at the Jewish Museum

truth bearers fossilize into museum pieces
trapped in inaction
they plant seeds in strange lands
pray for rain
and build rafts to cross the wide ocean
but the day never comes
for the land of their forefathers
is inflicted with ticks and thorns
they hide their disappointments in piety
and like naughty children
take refuge under shades of hollow laughter
they mourn for the masses
whose ears are closed
they trade lofty ideals
and gulp bowlfuls of ennui
but truth has become a charade –
a game of musical chairs
fit for the blasé, unfit for the critic
these revolutionaries of yesterday
prepare new beds for a revolution
but it never comes
for they have lost touch
with the ravage that their lands have borne
their questions no longer invite answers
their answers no longer the desires of their people
with suits and flavored speeches in conferences of ‘our rights’
their peace betrays the urgency of change
they take positions in academia
and teach foreign children the beauty of our culture
while our children munch fabricated tales
of our past as savage beasts in the wild
truth bearers stare their loud writings
their views are mapped on rose colored lenses
their countries are painted in black and white
their people are stuck in time – unchanging
in wait for a savior
but they are unwilling to make haste
to recompense the cries of their people
Where then is their bravery?
they are shadows of heroes long gone
their eyelids are not masked by battlefield dust
they cannot lead their brothers to safety
nor offer them solace
for that wisp of comfort in strange lands
has killed their anger.

Copyright Richard Oduor (2010)

Where Do Old Unpublished Poems (and Stories) Go?


There are poems I wrote when I was 17 years, now I am 30 years old. Some are mediocre in the sense of style but most are not, many are heart-felt and honest I think. Most are definitive of that phase of life and radiate snapshots of a hungry learner. Viewed together, as a part of a single trajectory that is the growth and transformation of a single poet, they definitely occupy a worthy space. You don’t want to lose them because you know they mean much more than just a starter course in a long meal of betterment.

You may even begin to question the very essence of what ‘a better writer/poet’ actually means. Is it dexterity in style or honesty in voice – despite the awkwardness of the baby steps? Or is it learning how to present your thoughts, in a specific time, in a specific space, in the best way possible – with regard to your contemporaries? And when you eventually decide to publish, in the sense of sharing your works with readers other than yourself, it is with judiciousness that you select poems you think are representative of ‘the current you’ or ‘how you’d like your readers and peers to view you’ and a whole set of you in different phases is (unfortunately) consigned to oblivion. They will remain unread and unheard forever. Probably when you die and your next of kin turns over the thousands of pages of ‘what was written and never published’ to your best friend (who if you are lucky may know what to do with the ‘works’) then they may finally be consumed by people other than you. And if they are good enough, you may earn posthumous fame. But you will be dead and the dead have no practical use of fame.

Performance poets or spoken word artists are excused from this torment. They write and release it on stage to be consumed immediately with its many perfections and imperfections. The next performance provides an opportunity to better the context and delivery. They ascend to a new rung on the ladder of ‘betterment’ and the process goes on and on until 5 years later, once can logically see the steps that made the quintessential performer the person they are today. You will see that it is not an accident that they are good at what they do. You’ll appreciate the years of work that went into perfecting the art. The downside is that for a poem that is written and not performed immediately, better poems by the poet soon relegate them to a box of irrelevance or quiet ridicule, without an opportunity to be seen or heard.

“I wrote this ten years ago”, the poet will say leafing through a yellowing note book. He will recognize the person he was then, how many skins he has shed and specific verses may help him locate the specific experiences during that time. These poems, therefore, are to him chronological snapshots of artistic transformation. But there are also poems written when one is young that remain irreplaceable, whose content is mature and style borrowed from years one is yet to live.

I’m reminded of “The Coming Poet” preface that Immanuel Iduma wrote on Dami Ajayi’s chapbook “Daybreak & Other Poems”, especially his ideas that performance can be the voice of a poem. He says:

“There must be something about our post-literate world that is equally an important  consideration for the poet. Literacy as we know is prescribing a new approach; it is fraught between the demands of YouTube, Tumblr and Pinterest, today’s sites of graven images. We learnt through our ears, and then with our eyes, now it is a combination of both. This is the crux of the poet’s challenge today. He has to be seen -and-heard. Performance will have to be his voice; otherwise his poetry will remain written.  If the poet wants an ego-massage, he must seek a hybrid-form; a poem that is written that can also be spoken.”

I’m one of those poets with poems they wrote more than a decade ago, some of which are a decent start I think. I wrote this poem when I was 18 years old, more than 10 years ago:


The Poet’s Eye

The poet’s keen eye surveys the atmosphere,

Intelligence and cynicism hidden behind the round spheres,

They watch, doze, and watch again,

Their brains muzzy, but steadfast in faith.


Sleeping and waking,

Wishing in a world ‘short of paradise’,

In abstractions they drown.

The world’s good, yet dangerous to mankind,

People are good, yet selfish and self-interested.


Like sun after fall, radiance their eyes show,

Though darkened at times by a world in flee from truth,

They write and preach: closed ears their reception,

Man evades truism all the time.


Gracious Lord! Nasty howls town and across,

Sleeping countryside, awakened by the paradise quest,

Whether the end they say is true, isn’t an issue:

Every man with his torch, steadfast in own faith

Walks discreetly towards the right way that nobody knows.



I wrote this one when I was 17 years old. How years run?


Why be a Poet?


Why be a poet?

When the meanings do not mean,

When the poet’s lyrical torrent is prickly thorns,

Why? When I cannot blast the truth,

And hear a following so grand?

Why? when I cannot write,

And live by the bread from it.


I write sanguine,

Though distressed that this salve cannot heal again,

I’m tempted to bury this statue of poetry,

For its rotten trunk has started to smell.

But I’ll let it stand a while.

But, my words remain cast to you,

In adversary like a ship in gale,


I curse all for pushing poetry into dustbins,

For muffling literature so glorious.

These are the worries that beset me,

That I may not live to enjoy my forte,

That I may not recede into my sanctum,

And emit messages to calm this tempestuous era.



These are two poems of the many written more than 10 years ago when I was much younger and which have never been published anywhere in any form. It also means that there is no ‘feedback’ or response that has ever been received on these poems – simply because they have never been shared with anybody.

I’m now 30 years old now. So much has changed (on who a poet is or the power of poetry to transform living experiences), yet so much has also remained the same.

As I grow and encounter different lives and experiences of poems, the way I write and what I write has been changing. The change has been radical over the past 5 years and the anguish of shedding old skins to try new ones has been real. What do I do with shed skin? I had a manuscript, a collection of poems written up to around 2010, one that was very specific in scope and which strove to tackle specific issues in my contexts, and which after sending to various Kenyan publishers and getting the cold shoulder, began yellowing in my hard disk.

This manuscript has poems written between 2007 and 2010, a period in which my mind travelled deep into African and Kenyan politics issues, philosophy and religious discourses, especially since 2009 was the first time I read the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita and a whole set of esoteric texts. Because of procrastination and my life being tugged away by radically different pursuits, a lull ensued and the push for publication took a back seat. I have been thinking of them, maybe publishing them as Chapbook as a kind of an exorcism of that past, of that life and the poems that were produced in that era – whether they are good/bad/acceptable/serious/bla blab la.  I honestly fear that if they don’t gain legs and walk around, my ideas/thoughts/productions during that time and space may be lost forever. Whatever they are, maybe they deserve to be read and discussed. I don’t know the specific orientation my writing may take tomorrow, histories are made as lives progress, and maybe this should be the right time to open a door to that past.

Still, in your own life as a creator, where do your old unpublished poems (and stories) go? Do they acquire a life of their own and live undeterred in the darkness inside box locks or digital backups? Are they historied or they die off and reincarnate as new poems and stories?