Nsemia Inc. Publishers

BOOK REVIEW

The matatu belches along. Jolting and jerking

And you can tell the engine is overworking

Listen to the gasping and a roar of despair

You don’t seem to notice or you don’t seem to care

 

Slow down pilot, and don’t drive very fast

You may not reach the next station first

But you can be sure to have a day safely spent

And be certain to earn your day’s cent.’

These are the first two stanzas of the poem ‘Advice to a Matatu Driver’. The poem is in the collection The Gong by Christopher Okemwa (Nsemia Inc., 2009). For a good reason, the poem was chosen to be performed by all primary schools in this year’s music festivals. To say that the rate of road accidents on our roads is alarming would be an understatement. According to the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), the number of people killed and injured in road crashes in Kenya shot up by 45 percent between January and March 2016. The subsequent months have not been any better. Every day, there are reports of people perishing on our roads.

A family of five perished in a road accident. A truck plunged into a saloon car, killing 10. Eight youthful souls perished in a tragic accident in Kisii. These are the depressing stories that make one want to dial that remote if only to shun such news and pretend it never happened. The saddest part is that some of these accidents can be prevented. Who is to blame? Is it our poor road network or are drivers becoming more reckless? This seems to be Okemwa’s concern in the above-stated poem. The persona advices the matatu driver to slow down, relax and avoid drunk driving.

The poems in The Gong range from Okemwa’s childhood, tormented by poverty (as in The Gong itself) throughout adulthood. A life fulfilled to the life beyond death. He seeks a fulfilled life with satisfaction for the little things that life has to offer because in the life beyond, ‘You will take nothing with you, not a jewel, not a penny.’

The poem ‘The Children of Baba Dogo’ is a sneak preview of what slum life is like, especially for children. ‘in tattered creased school uniforms, appearing like clowns/ swollen red eyes that strain to keep themselves open/running noses with particles of frozen mucus clogging the nostrils/their unkempt hairs standing on them like spines of hedgehog’. Ideally, this is not how a normal childhood should look like. No parent wants their children to go through such a distressing life but what can they do? Poverty hits hard. The state of the economy is gloomy. Those in power crave more and more power and money at the expense of their poor citizens. Free education but what kind of education? What are the learning conditions? ‘they turn to the left, into thick woods/above which peeps a dilapidated wind-beaten building/ that contains the classrooms in which they are taught/ that the earth is oval like an egg—not flat like a table/ and that one plus one makes eleven, for how can it be eleven, teacher?’

The most interesting part in the poem though is that despite the pitiful, poverty-stricken life the children lead, ‘they walk on and are happy and laugh and chat.’  The author shows that hope is what they can cling to and that not everything is lost. Perhaps their going to school is a hope for a better tomorrow.

The poem ‘To Be a Man’ is almost an answer to Njeri Wangari’s poem ‘What is to be a man’ in the collection, ‘Mines and Mind Fields.’  The poet seems to point out that to be a man takes much more than singing bass, wearing a beard, muscles or physical strength. It goes beyond being a good listener, expressing love and being faithful. This is so good a reminder to our men folk. As a society, we would do with a little more ‘gentlemanly’ gestures; it is so disheartening to see a well-built, able-bodied man seated in a matatu with an old ‘mama’ standing.

Mortal soul’, cautions against too much love or dependence on human material possessions since in death, ‘you will take nothing with you, not a jewel, not a penny.’ It reminds us not to attach ourselves too much to worldly possessions since the grave does not recognize that. It is a reminder that while we are here, we can and should share with the less fortunate.  That power, when bestowed upon an individual is not a chance for one to amass more but to serve.

Similarly, the poems ‘What Will I Do’ and ‘If We Don’t Turn Up’ look at the fragility of life. ‘Suppose today is my last day on earth, what will I do? ‘If we don’t turn up’ is a tribute to the late Dr. Opiyo Muma of The University of Nairobi. ‘life is delicate, ephemeral like a rose/ today sweet and pretty and blossoming/ tomorrow when birds sing and the sun rises/ it droops, going ash-grey, withering.’ Victims of road accidents board a vehicle but are not guaranteed to reach their destination.

In the poem ‘God’, the persona challenges us to appreciate the deity; to appreciate His existence in our lives; ‘God exists somewhere in the blues and lives in little things’. The same is highlighted in the poem ‘Someone in Control’.’The night has a way of making you think there is no life/ at all existing anywhere in the world, no God living/ nothing beyond the black sheet of darkness/ and we all might as well be dead. There surely has to be someone in control.

In ‘The Razor’, the persona questions the practice of Female Genital Mutilation that is still rife in some communities. The persona, a young girl, narrates her ordeal at the hands of a circumciser. ‘The blade that had slain/ made congeal my brain/ my heartfelt intense pain/ the grass underneath was cold like the rain.’ Told by the victim, the ordeal screams of horror. The persona reveals that FGM does not only cause physical injury and pain but the scars are also deep in the heart. ‘I shivered and shook like a leaf/ as the thought of what I could give/ so as to be a woman, to be a wife/ intense was the agony and the grief.’ You can only be left asking yourself if it is all worth it. It is sad that in this era, there are still people/ communities who regard FGM as the only ticket to womanhood. The practice is not only outdated but crude; it lowers the victim’s self-esteem. Our girls should not be made to go through such a brutal act and less in the name of tradition.

The poet does not forget to pen down the all-time theme of love, in a number of poems. They lighten up the mood. They give a break from the gloom and hopelessness. Love makes the world a better place.

Through skillful use of imagery and symbolism, Okemwa presents a collection that paints real life as we know it right from childhood to adulthood. Though most of them are personal, the poems question a wider scope of our very existence. The life of an individual from the moment they’re born to their very last minute on earth and the question that lingers is, is the life we lead worthwhile? Can we take our last breath in repose and in our lifelessness smile at a life well lived? Today we are here, tomorrow we are gone.  The young people who perished in the year 2016 on July 2nd and August 12th (Nyamagwa Girls’ bus accident) had dreams and goals to achieve.  They didn’t know that life could be sapped out of them in a flash.  Yet again, the cruel hands of death robbed us of young, energetic lives.

Chris Okemwa’s interpretation of life is real, honest and a reflection of what our society is. The themes in the poems are fresh and contemporary but also those that cannot be outdated over time. The poems are laced with humour but still manage to put important issues across. Okemwa does more than just stick words together.

And please, let’s be safe on our roads.

 

Reviewed By:

Vera Omwocha

Nsemia Inc. Publishers

Nsemia Inc. Publishers

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