African Poetry: Ngwatilo Mawiyoo

Image| Jerry Riley |
Image| Jerry Riley |

Dagoretti Corner begins as “the dust that has no place” and ends with “a glimmer train / of bioluminescence.” The restless land meets the restless ocean. These images are particular and grounded—even grounding. Ngwatilo Mawiyoo writes a poetry of place. M. NourbeSe Philip explains,

I think if you write from place, the writing will be about place. . . . [S]o much of the writing, especially by people who aren’t from that place, is about the place, without engaging with and emphasizing the deep, and often dangerous, currents and contradictions that any place or person has. For me . . . writing from means that I am always trying to stand on that place when I write about it; while physical distance is often necessary to get a perspective on a place or event, emotionally there is a desire to remain rooted in my place, however I care to define that. (Kristen Mahlis, “A Poet of Place: An Interview with M. NourbeSe Philip,” Callaloo, Summer 2004).

At times, in Ngwatilo’s poetry, place is Lake Victoria or Tom Mboya Street or Westgate Mall. At other times, place is “here” and “now” and “I” and “she.”

Kenyan poets often write a placeless poetry, adopting models from school books written for English children. Kenyan geohistories are ignored and local idioms discarded as placeless nature and love poems are embraced. (How strange to imagine that some Kenyan poets write placeless nature poems.) We who read such work continue to ask for place, for the tongue-feel of the multiple Kenyas we inhabit. Some poets do this—Njeri Wangari stands out—while others are still learning to trust their ears and their tongues.

Place is generated as individuals interact. In one of my favorite poems, “Larry, at the Bus Stop,” an encounter (contact, in Samuel Delany’s terms) generates a moment of self-making. After asking for change and being turned down, “Larry” asks the woman who turned him down for her phone number:

“I’m a nice guy,” I said, loving
the way she refused me, the way rejection
can make a man feel like he’s still
in the game.

I recognize the sexual harassment at work here—give me money, give me your number, pay attention to me, smile for me—and how it makes public spaces dangerous for women. Simultaneously, when I read this poem, I hear Everett Standa and Marjorie Oludhe-Macgoye teaching Kenyan students to give faces and names and lives to those considered disposable. The creep at the bus stop becomes Larry, a guy trying to feel like a man who’s “still / in the game.” (Poetry can extend where quotidian interactions cannot—the time of poetry, the time poetry makes, offers other possibilities—at the moment, at the bus stop, one simply wants to be left alone.)

The “she” Larry addresses barely appears in the poem—there’s no description, no direct dialogue, only a sense that she has the resources to give him some money, but he only asks for 50 cents, a negligible amount in Kenya. In this poem and several others, Ngwatilo is interested in quotidian acts of self-making, how buttering bread or asking for change or washing clothes or sharing ugali is an attempt to create a self who can inhabit an often ungenerous world.

Elsewhere, “Bathing in Lake Victoria” offers another scene of making:

I learn that my body is not for sex
when I stand in that lake’s shallows,
soap in hand, beside another woman.

The presence of another woman provides a different economy through which to approach embodiment, albeit one that can never fully escape training:

She doesn’t care what I see, and I am grateful,
but not cured.
. . .
I tell myself to ignore the danger I’ve learned is
dormant on exposed skin, activated
by sunlight, by wind on loose cotton,
made nuclear when a man’s eye
rests on it.

The unnamed “she” at the bus stop returns, here, as “exposed skin.” The vulnerability to “a man’s eye” in that poem appears here, under safe(r) conditions, in the presence of another woman. What is being scrubbed from the skin? What can’t be scrubbed from memory? How is skin-feel(ing) produced through the social? Skin-feeling lingers and travels, directing how space can be occupied, how eyes search for danger, and muscles remain poised to resist: “I am grateful, / but not cured.”

Dagoretti Corner works through tongue-feel(ing) and skin-feel(ing). A series of linked poems focus on father-daughter relationships: “I Dream My Father Is A Freedom Fighter,” “The Dead,” and “Photographing Daddy” focus on a father’s vulnerability, perhaps most explicitly in this stanza from “The Dead”:

Gauze, Inadine, brine. My fingers guarding the cells of your toe.Loyalty gives me the stomach to bear the open wound, flesh ambivalent to living. Your foot X-ray, thin white line across the base of your toe testifying to its long starvation, calcification. They separate toe from foot, nerves silent and screamless. Foot forgets quickly, carries on. As your child, I mourn flesh, bone, and nail. You say it did not contain your spirit; you are still here.

The forgetting foot and the remembering child—childhood as the accumulation of memories. Childhood as skin-feel: a father’s wound. As tongue-feel: gauze, Inadine, brine, X-ray. I think of how many of my own childhood words came from medicine: Dettol, Lucozade, Panadol. That Ngwatilo’s poetry draws out my own memories speaks to its generative power: its particularity is generous, opening ways for readers to encounter and inhabit it.

These acts of self-making and being undone meet in what I’m tempted to call the obligatory Westgate Mall terrorist attack poem. I mean obligatory in the sense that one has to reckon with Westgate. The attack on Westgate took place during the Storymoja Festival, the most important literary festival in Nairobi. Storymoja gathers writers of fiction and non-fiction and poetry and creates a space where we can think and talk and dream. It is one of the few spaces in Kenya where the imagination is taken seriously, and Kofi Awoonor, who was killed during the Westgate attack, was a guest of the festival.

At that particular festival, along with Mshaï Mwangola and Renée Mboya (as co-performers) and Mueni Lundi (as director), I performed a scripted reading of “Their Justice Shall be Our Justice,” originally written by Ngwatilo, Marziya Mohammedali, and Michael Onsando, and subsequently adapted by Mshaï for performance. Although Ngwatilo was out of the country, her words were at the festival, moving through our bodies, our words, and our audience.

The Westgate attack and its aftermath felt like an attack on Kenya’s literary imagination, an attack that said it was impossible to think outside of state imaginaries, outside of security imaginaries. Beauty was deemed frivolous, the imagination dangerous, because lives were at risk. (Every day, we learn how dangerous it is to cede the creative imagination to state imaginaries.) It was difficult to find the words to write about the Westgate attack and what it meant for our creative imaginations.

Here, Ngwatilo offers some words—I quote the poem in full:

Site of Sorrow
Something has happened to me
the thing so great that I cannot weep

—Kofi Awoonor, from “Songs of Sorrow”

The mall at noon and gun bearer’s grenades. An order: Muslim or dead. Things our soldiers take from the shops, charge to your shame, perhaps so the Service, will be, finally, gainful. Many stand to scaffold the dream of Great Kenya with tea, supplications and serene stills of aerial Nairobi at that sacred height where we can assume survival, be dignified. A year on I hear a cacophony of barbs, bombs and bolts, whole tribes—corralled—cannot leave the mall’s crawl spaces. We deafen. Brutalized all, we weep in grief’s blasted cavity, our own echoes our comfort.

To offer commentary on this seems obscene. I have yet to find the words. I am grateful Ngwatilo has.

To be a poet of place, to write “while trying to stand on that place” one is writing about is difficult labor. One attempts to inhabit and describe scenes of making and unmaking, to stand while being undone. And, here, I offer the final words to Aimé Césaire, one of the greatest poets of place:

The poet is that very ancient yet new being, at once very complex and very simple, who at the limit of dream and reality, of day and night, between absence and presence, searches for and receives in the sudden triggering of inner cataclysms the password of connivance and power. (“Poetry and Knowledge”)