Our cultural heritage and first languages are slowly becoming extinct as people grow up and interact with others through foreign education or even through intermarriage. Also, every fortnight an elder dies and carries with them into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue and the last of their traditions if not preserved by the current generation. The Girl of Red Beauty by Alfred Nyagaka Nyamwange is a collection of poems that seeks to tell its readers of the rich traditions, cultural practices, beliefs, and philosophy of the Gusii people that others may believe to be archaic and of no importance.
Alfred captures very detailed information about the almost forgotten practices in his book The Girl of Red Beauty by taking readers through the thirteen chapters of his book bringing out the rich diverse traditions of the Abagusii people. He captures this by making use of direct translation and local dialect. Alfred uses the rich Gusii language Ekegusii to place the poems in the Gusii land context. He alludes praises to The Girl of Red Beauty and through her, he takes us through the various Gusii traditions such as birth, childhood, circumcision, marriage, old age, death, ancestors, God, love, and much more.
Alfred uses vivid imagery as a writing style to bring the poems to life. For instance, in chapter five titled, Isn’t this Our Land?, he vividly describes the richness of the land – “…Our land bears the red beauty fertility…clothed in lush green and plenitude….” He masterfully weaves together themes of nature and human emotion, creating a powerful sense of connection between the two as humans and nature coexist together. His use of metaphors and symbolism is effective in adding meaning and depth to the poems. Chapter Six, The Panic at Night, is written symbolically trying to explain the different races or rather skin colours of different people.
Some of the strengths of this poetry are how the author explores the different traditions and cultures within the Omogusii community. He covers the different dynamics of life from birth, circumcision, the courting period, marriage, and even how the Gusii people react to different happenings such as death, the birth of a new baby, and even to when a cow is stolen. Alfred does a good job of capturing the complexity of human relationships with everyday lives and sensitivity.
The structure of the whole collection is well-crafted with each chapter building upon the themes explored in the previous chapter. The poems are arranged in a way that creates a sense of progression and growth up to the last chapter of the book. The chapters revolve around culture and tradition for instance in chapter one The Girl of Red Beauty – “…my father’s drinking straw cannot be given to anybody …” Here, the author shows the traditions of the Gusii people.
One of my favourite poems from the collection is Chapter Seven titled The Burner of Its Own House (omosamba mwaye) contradicting as the title may sound, the poem captures the whole birth to the weaning process of a newborn baby – “…for nine months she is in a daze when with her overgrown tummy…” It also covers the self-care of the mother by highlighting the foods she must eat and the herbs too. The author details how a mother goes into labour with the husband passing up and down patiently waiting to hear the newborn’s cries as they make their way to the earth. He explains how, after a baby has stopped breastfeeding, he/she is sent with food to take to the father. This was an indication to the father that the baby has stopped breastfeeding and now he could rejoin the wife. The poem beautifully captures the beauty and joys of motherhood and the hope that comes with the birth of a newborn as they will continue the lineage.
I highly recommend The Girl of Red Beauty to anyone who loves poetry and would love to explore diverse rich African cultures, traditions, and philosophy. Alfred’s way of writing is deeply insightful and this collection is sure to leave a lasting impression on its readers.
Sylvia Okweba is a student of Eglish and Literature at Chuka University, Kenya.
Copies of The Girl of Red Beauty are available in major bookshops in Kenya and online via nuriakenya.com or amazon.com; you can also reach the publisher at firstname.lastname@example.org or via WhatsApp at +254 101 915 260.