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A Study of Derek Walcott’s poem 'A Far Cry from Africa'


Derek Walcott’s “A Far Cry from Africa,” published in 1962, is a painful and jarring depiction of ethnic conflict and divided loyalties. The opening images of the poem are drawn from accounts of the Mau Mau Uprising, an extended and bloody battle during the 1950s between European settlers and the native Kikuyu tribe in what is now the republic of Kenya. In the early twentieth century, the first white settlers arrived in the region, forcing the Kikuyu people off of their tribal lands. Europeans took control of farmland and the government, relegating the Kikuyu to a subservient position. One faction of the Kikuyu people formed Mau Mau, a terrorist organization intent on purging all European influence from the country, but less strident Kikuyus attempted to either remain neutral or help the British defeat Mau Mau.

The ongoings in Kenya magnified an internal strife within the poet concerning his own mixed heritage. Walcott has both African and European roots; his grandmothers were both black, and both grandfathers were white. In addition, at the time the poem was written, the poet’s country of birth, the island of St. Lucia, was still a colony of Great Britain. While Walcott opposes colonialism and would therefore seem to be sympathetic to a revolution with an anticolonial cause, he has passionate reservations about Mau Mau: they are, or are reported to be, extremely violent — to animals, whites, and Kikuyu perceived as traitors to the Mau Mau cause.

As Walcott is divided in two, so too is the poem. The first two stanzas refer to the Kenyan conflict, while the second two address the war within the poet-as-outsider/insider, between his roles as blood insider but geographical outsider to the Mau Mau Uprising. The Mau Mau Uprising, which began in 1952, was put down — some say in 1953, 1956, or 1960 — without a treaty, yet the British did leave Kenya in 1963. Just as the uprising was never cleanly resolved, Walcott, at least within the poem, never resolves his conflict about whose side to take.

Text
A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa. Kikuyu, quick as flies
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise. Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries: 5
‘Waste no compassion on these separate dead!’
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy,
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews? 10
Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilization’s dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read 15
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread 20
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.
Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkins of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman. 25
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love? 30
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

Poem Summary

Lines 1-3

The first three lines depict the poem’s setting on the African plain, or veldt. The nation itself is compared to an animal (perhaps a lion) with a “tawny pelt.” Tawny is a color described as light brown to brownish orange that is common color in the African landscape. The word “Kikuyu” serves as the name of a native tribe in Kenya. What seems an idyllic portrayal of the African plain quickly shifts; the Kikuyu are compared to flies (buzzing around the “animal” of Africa) who are feeding on blood, which is present in large enough amounts to create streams.

Lines 4-6

Walcott shatters the image of a paradise that many associate with Africa by describing a landscape littered with corpses. He adds a sickening detail by referring to a worm, or maggot, that reigns in this setting of decaying human flesh. The worm’s admonishment to “Waste no compassion on these separate dead!” is puzzling in that it implies that the victims somehow got what they deserved.

Lines 7-10

The mention of the words “justify” and “colonial policy,” when taken in context with the preceding six lines, finally clarifies the exact event that Walcott is describing — the Mau Mau Uprising against British colonists in Kenya during the 1950s. Where earlier the speaker seemed to blame the victims, he now blames those who forced the colonial system onto Kenya and polarized the population. They cannot justify their actions, because their reasons will never matter to the “white child” who has been murdered — merely because of his color — in retaliation by Mau Mau fighters or to the “savages,” who — in as racist an attitude as was taken by Nazis against Jews — are deemed worthless, or expendable. (“Savages” is a controversial term that derives from the French word sauvage meaning wild, and is now wholly derogatory in English. Walcott’s use of “savage” functions to present a British colonialist’s racist point of view.)

Lines 11-14

Walcott shifts gears in these lines and returns to images of Africa’s wildlife, in a reminder that the ibises (long-billed wading birds) and other beasts ruled this land long before African or European civilization existed. The poet also describes a centuries-old hunting custom of natives walking in a line through the long grass and beating it to flush out prey. Such killing for sustenance is set against the senseless and random death that native Africans and European settlers perpetrate upon each other.

Lines 15-21

These lines are simultaneously pro-nature and anticulture. Animals kill merely for food and survival, but humans, having perfected the skill of hunting for food, extend that violent act to other areas, using force to exert control — and prove superiority over — other people; they seek divinity by deciding who lives and who dies. Ironically, wars between people are described as following the beat of a drum — an instrument made of an animal hide stretched over a cylinder. Walcott also points out that for whites, historically, peace has not been the result a compromise with an opponent, but a situation arrived at because the opposition has been crushed and cannot resist anymore.

Lines 22-25

These lines are difficult to interpret, but they appear to be aimed at those judging the Mau Mau uprising from a distance — observers who could somehow accept brutality as necessary and who are aware of a dire situation but wipe their hands, or refuse to become involved, in it. The poet appears to condemn such an attitude by comparing the Mau Mau Uprising to the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Leaders of France and Great Britain wanted to avoid another war that would engulf all of Europe, so they introduced a nonintervention pact that was signed by twenty-seven nations. Nonetheless, the Insurgents, or Nationalists, (under the leadership of General Francisco Franco) were aided by and received military aid from Germany and Italy. The Loyalists, or Republicans, had no such backing; they fought valiantly but were outmanned, lost territory, and were eventually defeated in March of 1939. Line 25 presents a cynical view of the Mau Mau Uprising as just another colonial conflict where gorillas — negatively animalized Africans — fight with superman — a negative characterization of Europe.

Lines 26-33

This stanza is a change of scene from primarily that of Africa, to that of the poet. Walcott, being a product of both African and English heritage, is torn, because he does not know how to feel about the Mau Mau struggle. He certainly is not satisfied with the stock response of those from the outside. Walcott is sickened by the behavior of Mau Mau just as he has been disgusted by the British. By the end, the poet’s dilemma is not reconciled, but one gets the sense that Walcott will abandon neither Africa nor Britain.

Historical Context

Most of the area of contemporary Kenya was made a suzerain by the Imperial British East African
Company in 1888. The British government then took over administration in 1895, calling the area a “protectorate.” White settlers started moving in, cutting down trees, and amassing estates (some of the largest were over 100,000 acres). The migration of both whites and Indians continued, unabated. The settler built roads and a railroad, and, over time, dispossessed a great many Kenyans — mostly Kikuyus — of their land. Once dispossessed, Kikuyus were forced, through tax, work, and identity-paper schemes — and by outright force — into employment, primarily as servants on white estates. To gain back self-government and their land, the Kikuyu Central Association sent representative Jomo Kenyatta to England in 1929. During the next sixteen years, Kenyatta tried unsuccessfully to convince England to alter its method of government in Kenya; he returned to his home country in September of 1946.

In 1947, Kenyatta became president of the Kenya African Union (KAU), a nationalist party demanding an end to the numerous injustices of white rule. These demands were met with British resistance or excuses. While Kikuyus at large were becoming increasingly angry at white rule, a militaristic wing emerged, The Kenya Land Freedom Army, from which the organization Mau Mau grew (origins of this term are unknown but most agree it began as a derogatory label of settlers). On August 4, 1950, Mau Mau was declared illegal, even though the government knew little about it except that militant Kikuyus were winning over, coercing, or forcing other Kikuyus to take an oath against foreign rule. Then, on October 20, 1952, after Mau Mau killings of European cattle and the execution of a Kikuyu chief loyal to the British, a state of emergency was declared and an order sent out for the arrest of 183 people. Kenyatta was one of those arrested and, after a trial, was incarcerated for masterminding Mau Mau. Though this charge was never confirmed, he was imprisoned for seven years.

While fearful whites collected guns to protect their lives and property, the first Kikuyu murder of a white settler occurred a week after the emergency: the settler was hacked to death with a machete-like tool, a panga. Some thirteen thousand people and untold animals were to be killed in the Mau Mau anticolonial struggle, most of them Kikuyus. By 1953, the guerilla fighting force of Mau Mau had largely been defeated, and by 1956, the fighting had mostly stopped; the unequal political, economic, and social conditions leading to Mau Mau’s rise, however, were still in place. While the state of emergency continued, governmental reforms between 1953 and 1960 did attempt to appease further threats from Mau Mau. The state of emergency finally ended end in 1960, likely well after Walcott finished writing “A Far Cry from Africa.” Kenyatta was released from prison in 1961, Kenya gained its independence in 1963, and Kenyatta assumed the presidency in 1964, the same year Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Walcott was most likely in the English-speaking Caribbean when he wrote “A Far Cry from Africa,” an area, like Kenya, under the domination of the British. It was not until the 1930s, at a time of Caribbean social unrest, that even political parties were allowed and universal suffrage introduced. The growth of nationalism and the effects of World War II led to increasing pressure from West Indians for Britain to loosen its grip. So, in 1958, a federation including most of the English-speaking Caribbean islands was formed to prepare for eventual independence. Increasing friction between the archipelago and Britain led to Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Jamaica, withdrawing from the federation and becoming independent in 1962. Walcott’s home island, St. Lucia, would not gain its independence until 1979, sixteen years after Kenya attained hers. During the period of greatest Mau Mau activity, Walcott was attending university in Jamaica. Until 1960, he spent most of his time teaching in West Indian schools and working in theater with his brother. It is likely that Walcott’s West Indian origins, linked back to part of his family’s original homeland in Africa, and the domination of both his country and Kenya by Britain spurred him to take special note of events in Kenya — events that at the time could have been a specter of a similar future for England’s Caribbean colonies.

Themes

Violence and Cruelty

The wind “ruffling the tawny pelt of Africa” refers to the Mau Mau Uprising that occurred in what is now independent Kenya, roughly from October 20, 1952, to January of 1960. During this span, the white government called an emergency against a secret Kikuyu society that came to be known as Mau Mau and was dedicated to overthrowing the white regime. Against the backdrop of a cruel, long-lasting British colonialism erupted the more short-term cruelty of Mau Mau insurrection. While some versions have it that Mau Mau was put down by 1953 and others by 1956, the government kept the state of emergency in place until the beginning of 1960. It is the violence of Mau Mau that most disturbs Walcott, apparently because it makes Africans look even worse than their British oppressors. 

There were many stories of Mau Mau violence directed at whites, the animals owned by whites, and at other Kikuyus who refused to join Mau Mau. The violence was especially grisly since many of the Kikuyus used a machete-like agricultural implement, the panga, to kill or mutilate victims after killing them. One such murder — one that Walcott could be describing in “A Far Cry from Africa” — was reported of a four-and-a-half-year-old white child. And on March 26, 1953, in the Lari Massacre, Mau Maus killed ninety-seven Kikuyu men, women, and children, apparently for collaborating with the British. But it was not only the violence of insurrection that terrorized animals, whites, and Kikuyus, but also the reportedly gruesome Mau Mau oathing ceremonies in which initiates pledged allegiance to the Mau Mau cause. 

A Kikuyu schoolmaster gave this account of a ceremony initiating seven members: “We were ... bound together by goats’ small intestines on our shoulders and feet.... Then Githinji pricked our right hand middle finger with a needle until it bled. He then brought the chest of a billy goat and its heart still attached to the lungs and smeared them with our blood. He then took a Kikuyu gourd containing blood and with it made a cross on our foreheads and on all important joints saying, ‘May this blood mark the faithful and brave members of the Gikuyu and Mumbi [analogues of Adam and Eve] Unity; may this same blood warn you that if you betray secrets or violate the oath, our members will come and cut you into pieces at the joints marked by this blood.’” Before Mau Mau, one gets the impression that Walcott was not so torn between Africa and Britain; he may have viewed British colonialism as arrogant, ignorant, and cruel, and Africa as victimized. But then, when Africans themselves turned violent, Walcott was torn and could not so easily side with Africans against the British.

Culture Clash

There are many clashes in this poem. The first image signalling conflict is the hint of a storm brewing in the opening lines where Kikuyu flies feed upon the land and maggots upon dead Mau Mau. Here is the first of several culture clashes: pro-Mau Mau pitted against anti-Mau Mau Kikuyu. And within this, a subconflict also exists between those Kikuyu believing that the rights of the individual (“these separate dead”) do not necessarily violate those of the group and those convinced that individual rights do violate group rights (the Mau Mau philosophy). In lines six through ten, there is also the clash between the culture of those outside the uprising and those killed by it, outsiders (“scholars”) with the luxury of judging the conflict, and insiders (victims) for whom no explanation is sufficient. There are also the outsiders of stanza three, surmising that the conflict is not worth their compassion or involvement, a position against which victims would vehemently argue.

Within the poet, all of these exterior clashes also rage. Walcott is pro-African and pro-Kikuyu but anti-Mau Mau, is pro-English (as in culture and language) but anti-British (as in colonialism), an outsider to the conflict, but an insider in the sense that within his body exist both English and African blood. These conflicts yield up the main confrontation of the poem, that between Mau Mau and the British, and the conflict within the poet about which side to take. Walcott is, then, completely conflicted: while both an outsider and insider he is ultimately unable to be either. While both British and African, he is unable to sympathize with either. While both pro-revolutionary and anti-violent, he cannot defend the uprising or completely condemn it. Still, he feels he must face these clashes, rather than wish or rationalize them away. From the cultural clash on the continent of Africa, the poem moves to the battlefield within the poet — a place less violent but more complex, since Walcott is, at the same time, on both sides and neither side.

Criticism

A Credo in Isolation

Even the title itself of Derek Walcott’s lovely poem “A Far Cry from Africa” suggests that the author is writing about an African subject and doing so from a distance. It’s an apt title, to be sure; Walcott is of African descent but was born and raised in what we might call the southeast corner of the American sphere without in any way encroaching on West Indies’ independence. Writing from the beautiful island of St. Lucia, Walcott feels, as a well-educated and totally independent black West Indian, that he is indeed at some distance from Africa and the brutal atrocities of whites against blacks and blacks against whites that he has been reading about in Kenya, a large African state famous for its Veldt and for its extraordinary wildlife — giraffes, antelope, even rhinoceros.

The title “A Far Cry from Africa” may have a second meaning in addition to the obvious geographic and personal sense the author feels. The title also seems to say, “well, look, this is a far cry from the Africa that I have been reading about in descriptions of gorgeous fauna and flora and interesting village customs.” And a third level of meaning to the title (without pressing this point too much) is the idea of Walcott hearing the poem as a far cry coming all the way across thousands of miles of ocean — the same routes, perhaps, as the Dutch ships of the late seventeenth century — to land in his accepting ear on the island of St. Lucia. He hears the cry coming to him on the wind. He writes, in the first line of his poem, “A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt / Of Africa.” He has seen photographs of Kenya. He knows that light brown and yellow, of various shades, are two of the most prominent colors of this large African state; they are veldt colors, and there are lions out on the veldt.

“Kikuyu,” in the second line, is the only African word in the poem. The Kikuyu were a Kenya tribe who became Mau Mau fighters in a grass-roots effort to oust the British colonial administration of Kenya. Walcott, as if mesmerized, describes the Mau Mau fighters as moving with extraordinary speed — they know the geography of their country and they “Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.” The use of the word batten is interesting; it generally means to fasten or secure a hatch on a ship. The upsurge of violence is justified in some ways perhaps, but what rivets Walcott’s attention, because he’s a well-educated man and a humanist, is given very simply in the following image, still from the powerful opening stanza: “Corpses are scattered through a paradise.” Walcott, born on St. Lucia, a lovely island with a fairly low economy, would like to believe that Africa is just as paradisial and peaceful as the West Indies.

Most of Walcott’s poems since the early 1960s have been written in very open but quite controlled language. “A Far Cry from Africa” is such a compressed and tightly structured poem that the author tends to cover the ground he wants to talk about point by point and sometimes with what we might call caricatures, or images verging on caricature. “Only the worm, colonel of carrion cries: / Waste no compassion on these separate dead!” He follows this surprising image with two very sharp lines about the foolishness of statistics and alleged political scholars who want to discuss fine points. And then he ends his powerful opening stanza by saying, “What is that to the white child hacked in bed?” Or to Kenyans, he says, who are being treated as if they were “expendable.” What appears to horrify Walcott partly in the case of Kenya is that the conflict and savagery taking place are happening on the basis of color; his reaction is almost Biblical in its unusually compressed and angry personal credo. At no time in this poem does he waste his time referring to any particular historical agreement. He sees the tragedy as essentially human tragedy, and the violence on both sides as essentially inhuman.

Walcott’s dilemma seems to be very much in synch with some of the participants in this poem. “Threshed out by beaters,” he says at the beginning of the second stanza. The poet has dealt with his initial horror at these events in Kenya and has outlined his initial focus on the general area of comment. He seems to see in this second stanza what he regards as the acceptable violence of nature or “natural law” as having been turned into a nightmare of unacceptable human violence based on color. “Beaters” on big game safaris in Africa are the men who beat the brush, sometimes singing or chanting as they do so, and flush out birds and animals for the hunt. Of course, in a lot of cases, beaters will flush out a variety of animals they hadn’t expected.
“A Far Cry from Africa” continues this meditation on the landscape of the Kenyan veldt by saying, “the long rushes break / In a white dust of ibises whose cries / Have wheeled since civilization’s dawn / From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.” Walcott’s image of Africa may strike some readers as a bit innocent, but it doesn’t seem to be in any way affected or insincere as he expresses himself in this personal credo. Quite the contrary; it seems idealistic and uplifting, although it does leave the reader — and perhaps Walcott as well — in the position of saying, “How can we prevent these outbreaks of violence?” Or, perhaps more specifically, “How can we be fair?” Should the United Nations have intervened on behalf of the Kenyans? This is a very intense and bitter poem — a lashing out at injustice and an attempt to formulate both some distance for the writer as well as a sense of his own eventual or fundamental juxtaposition to the uncomfortable and agonizing subject.

Anthropologists, both American and European, have published an enormous amount of material in the twentieth century on different questions of social personality, physicality, and to what degree many of our fundamental social responses — for example, defensiveness, lust, comfort, and pride — seem to have an animal basis. Walcott lashes out at both sides of the Kenyan situation from a position in which he strongly and intensely believes that human and animal are not only different but should be regarded at least as absolute opposites. He seems to know and be aware of the fact that they are not truly absolute opposites. But a large portion of the middle of this poem is Walcott’s expression of his coming to terms with human nature and the mixed good and bad, up and down, nature of history.

“A Far Cry from Africa” is such an agonizing and didactic personal poem, and such a tightly structured poem in which Walcott never relaxes and explains to the reader in casual asides that he himself is of African descent, that some readers may at first feel that the poem is more a comment on news of the day than it is a personal response, and a credo, and to some extent a partial deconstruction of his own credo. There is a weighing of different examples from the Kenyan upsurge in this poem, and the writer obviously wants to come out on top of his own material; he wants to see the argument in a perspective that makes some kind of sense, and he doesn’t want to get swallowed by his own feelings of anger and outrage at these events.
And so we have the “Kikuyu” and violence in Kenya, violence in a “paradise,” and we have “Statistics” that don’t mean anything and “scholars” who tend to throw their weight behind colonial policy. Walcott’s outrage is very just and even, perhaps by the standards of the late 1960s, restrained. And his sense of amazement and awe, and his desire to love the Africa he describes, surges at one point when he notes what is probably a fairly salient and typical detail of Kenya, how “the long rushes break / In a white dust of ibises whose cries / Have wheeled since civilization’s dawn ....”

Of course the African continent is nothing if not enormous. The range of geography and of fauna and flora seem to be extraordinary. Different cultures are in different kinds of motion in various parts of the continent. The north of Africa contains some of the old Arabic civilizations of the eastern half of our world, including Libya, which is across the Mediterranean from Italy, and Egypt, where historical records show at least one or more black African Pharaohs before the period of time described in the Bible’s New Testament. Walcott may or may not be interested in these ideas; he may or may not have visited Africa at some time. We have to concentrate on the poem and on what happens in the poem. How does he develop his sense of weighing these different negative facts of violence in a paradise of ibises and different cultures?

Walcott could be a little more informative in this poem. For example, he could allude to some of the newspaper reports that he’s been reading; he could mention a particular town in Kenya, or a local hero. Even though he identifies Kenya and the
“What appears to horrify Walcott partly in the case of Kenya is that the conflict and savagery taking place are happening on the basis of color; his reaction is almost Biblical in its unusually compressed and angry personal credo.”
great veldt and begins with a powerful opening line that sets the tone and motion for the whole poem (“A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt / Of Africa”), he still wants this poem to be timeless and to apply to other situations in different parts of the world. Near the end of the poem, however, having accomplished his first objective, the charting of the Kenya upsurge and his own humanistic denunciation of brutality, Walcott does come into “A Far Cry from Africa” — and he does so very dramatically.

Perhaps the most brutal and categorical movement in the whole poem occurs after that lovely image of the “ibises” wheeling in historical patterns since “civilization’s dawn.” Frustrated with every aspect of this brutal color war in Kenya, Walcott comes up with an image that more or less generalizes the history of English, European, and African wars: “his wars / Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum, / While he calls courage still that native dread / Of the white peace contracted by the dead.” In this powerful image, coming to the penultimate point of the poem, Walcott says basically that everybody dances, everybody gets emotionally intoxicated with the egoism of taking sides, everybody in that kind of situation is listening to a drumbeat of some kind or another. “Brutish necessity,” he calls it, comparing the Kenyan fighters to the revolutionaries in Spain: “A waste of our compassion, as with Spain / The gorilla wrestles with the superman.” At this point, Walcott seems to have spoken out on the issue, identified the problem, and to some degree disposed of the whole subject.

But there is more to “A Far Cry from Africa” than what we have read so far. There is, as a matter of fact, the very fulcrum of his being so involved and so intense about the subject in the first place: not just humanistic anger, but also a very personal outrage. “I who am poisoned with the blood of both, / Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” he says as a beginning to the last stanza. Born and raised in St. Lucia, educated in the British system, and an omnivorous reader by the time he was in high school, Walcott is very much a citizen of the world. Quite a well-known poet by the time he was in his twenties, Walcott had, by the time he wrote “A Far Cry from Africa,” spent considerable time in Trinidad, working on different theater projects, and he had also been exhibited as a talented painter.

One of the most moving aspects of this poem, once the reader accepts the very terse, basic, logical arguments regarding the struggle in Kenya, is the general image of the poet/author at the end of the poem. He has no choice but to watch both sides rather sadly continue their violence against each other. But he ends this powerful polemic with six devastating lines: “I who have cursed / The drunken officer of British rule, how choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I love? / Betray them both, or give back what they give? / How can I face such slaughter and be cool? / How can I turn from Africa and live?” And of course, Walcott has never turned from Africa or gone to live there. He has continued writing and publishing and has, since the 1980s, become famous all over again for an enormous book-long Homeric poem about the islands, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the coming together of a multiple of cultural convergences.

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