By Jack Mapanje (University of Leeds)
Title: Echoes Across the Valley,
poetry anthology: pp. 243 Editors: Arthur I. Luvai & Kwamchetsi Makokha
Date of publication: 2000 Publisher: East African Educational Publishers, Nairobi
UK Distributor: African Books Collective Ltd, Oxford
ISBN 9966467394 Price: £8.95
The sixties and seventies witnessed the vibrant and unprecedented growth of a literary tradition, which chastised modern East African society through song. At the helm of this largely non-elitist literary tradition was the open-minded policy of East African Literature Bureau, which, encouraged the publication of established and budding D writers mostly from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Echoes Across the Valley seems to continue, in an original and startling manner, this East African “song tradition” initiated, in part, by Okot p’Bitek in his four songs: Song of Lawino, Song of Ocol, Song of Malaya and Song of Prisoner. When the vulgar politics of Idi Amin and Daniel Arap Moi suddenly set in, however, and the East African Economic Community broke up, the tradition created principally by Okot p’Bitek, Taban Lo Liyong, Jerad Angira, Okello Oculi, Joseph Buruga and others and, in part, crowned by the Cook & Rubadiri anthology of East African poetry, disappeared. Some writers died, others were imprisoned, and yet others were forced into various exiles. Today, with the publication of Echoes Across the Valley, we can look to the future literary landscape across this African Great Rift Valley with hope. But anthologies should reflect the artistic achievement of individual poets and the spirit of their age as comprehensively as they can. The thematic arrangement of the poems provided by the editors of Echoes Across the Valley is simplistic and fails to suggest the accomplishment of individual poets. If the verse by Tejani, Luvai, Mabala, Kiguli and others scattered in each section of the anthology were grouped together under each poet, readers would appreciate the poets’ development and strengths better. And why is exile poetry, which is an integral component of the literary landscape of East Africa today, excluded without explanation? Specifically, where is Micere Mugo’s lyrical verse which reverberates throughout the poetry festivals of Europe, the US and South America? As reconciliation and the millennium have become inseparable today, it is surely not unreasonable to expect some mention of the foundations upon which some of these writers craft their symbols. These shortcomings apart, Echoes Across the Valley has brought together poets with diverse talents, dramatic voices, desperate screams and disturbing silences that reflect the sentiments of the millennium that had “Only villains to vilify/ And despots to depose” as Obote says in “Not My World”. Kiguli’s impatience with modern Africa’s incompetence and heartlessness depicted in “Crazy Peter Prattles” is particularly poignant and runs throughout the entire anthology:
What about Kasajja’s only child
who died because the man with the key
to the oxygen room was on leave?
I have seen the queues
of emaciated mothers clinging to
babies with translucent skins
faint in line
and the lioness of a nurse
“Get up or leave the line.”
Between “Teardrop” the first poem in the anthology and “Jaws” the last, both moving concrete poems, Luvai & Makokha offer their readers the poetry of love, disaster, frustration, despair, prison, identity, prayer, lavish praises for fallen heroes, orphans, street children – no subject, no image has been spared. Even ujamaa, that celebrated socialist philosophy of self-reliance, chokes like food. Uhuru (freedom) and ujamaa are “… a lump/ Of ugali/ Stuck/ In the throat/ …” for Kundi Faraja who, with tongue in cheek, continues to muse: “Tell me, Buffalo of Uhuru/ What do I do/ With my riches/ To become a devoted/ And sincere/ Mjamaa?” There is Wambali’s teasingly apt revulsion with power and the power-hungry who “Can’t separate/ Two dogs in copulation/ Without a machete/ Until the last drop is deposited…!” In Malaba’s “We, The Statistics” crafted in the spirit of Okot p’Bitek, humanity is mere statistics. And civilisation itself receives a battering in Orwenjo’s “Their Civilisation”, albeit without p’Bitek’s imaginative leap:
Theirs is uncivilised civilisation,
They have table manners –
Meals singly silently taken.
They love in church
And hate in court.
Their families, Private and Confidential –
No grandparents and extended uncles.
They love selfishly –
Polygamy is heathen; a mistress is good.
They keep their dead in cemeteries –
A dead man is dead.
A child can have a mother
But no father
That is their civilisation,
So dearly cherished.
Although it may be difficult to speculate from this anthology the direction of the Great Rift Valley’s next batch of verse as the new millennium takes root, this collection needs saluting, it is worth spending money on and dipping into.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 63 (2000), pp.80-82]