ART CHECK

Schools will reopen to an exciting poetry anthology

It is a timely exhibition of over 50 poets from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania

In Summary

• The anthology is a refreshing entrant to the constellation of poetry collections

Book cover
Book cover
Image: COURTESY

Barrack Wandera, Adalo Moga, Bryson Omwalo, John Midega & Kitche Magak (Eds) Millennial Voices: East African Poetry. Bungoma: InterCen Books, 2020. 170 pp.

The teaching of poetry as an area of literary studies has deep roots in East African societies. Regarded as a tough area of literary education, poetry exists in Kenyan schools both in Swahili and Anglophone traditions.

An opinion, or rather attitude, exists in Kenya that poetry is an opaque genre and a preserve only for literary gourmets. However, scholars and poets of the East African states have tried to demystify the genre both in and out of classrooms.

 
 

Books abound on the teaching of poetry, such as Ezekiel Alembi’s Understanding Poetry (1999). They often serve the purpose of countering the myths against poetry as a genre and as a subject in philological studies. 

Other poetry sages, such as Waveney Olembo, have compiled anthologies to aid in the teaching of poetry. Her twin anthologies, Words of Magic for primary schools and The Music of Poetry for high schools, came out in 1986 at the onset of the dying 8-4-4 curriculum.   

Didactic anthologies of East African poetry for teaching the genre abound. Their roots go backwards to the foundational moments of East African literary studies in the 1960s. Makerere University College back then was the only varsity here. Actually, it was a constituent college of University of London.

Makerere is the birthplace of the first black generation of teachers of English in East Africa. Prof Alan Warner and his wife founded English (and poetry) studies there in the 1950s. Pioneer Kenyan writers of note like Ngugi, Rebecca Njau including the celebrated poet Jonathan Kariara were all trained here then.

Their famous teachers included David Cook, whose name is synonymous with early African literary criticism of the 1960s. The only black teaching back then was the late Malawian poet David Rubadiri. He is the forefather of Victoria Rubadiri, the famous Kenyan newscaster.

It is Cook and Rubadiri who first edited an anthology of East African poetry. Poems from East Africa was first published by Heinemann in 1971. It showcases the poetic genius of over 50 poets from the region.

Most of the contributing poets have since become common names in secondary schools and universities, like Kariara above. This pioneer text has since been reprinted over 30 times and is one of the popular books under the Poets of Africa series of East African Educational Publishers. 

 
 

Cook and Rubadiri inspired other dons in successive decades. Some produced anthologies of sole nations in East Africa, for example, Uganda Poetry Anthology (2000) edited by Okot Benge and Alex Bangirana, both of Makerere University.

Boundless Voices: Poems from Kenya (1988), edited by now emeritus Prof Arthur Luvai of Maseno University, follows suit, as does Summons: Poems from Tanzania edited by the white Tanzanian Richard Mabala. The latter is a very rare 1980 anthology of Tanzanian verse in English.

Yet, there still exists a keen school of thought that inspires Kenyan scholars and poets to produce poetry anthology that pays homage to our region as a point of reference. They follow in the footsteps of the maestros Cook and Rubadiri.

The celebrated poet Kisa Amateshe, based at Kenyatta University for decades but trained by these maestros in 1970s Makerere, is famous for his An Anthology of East African Poetry, a glittering 1988 Longman collection used widely in schools.

This year as Covid-19 arrested activities of the academic calendar in Kenya and Uganda, a new anthology of poems was published. Teachers and students will reopen schools to its exciting presence.

It is entitled Millennial Voices: East African Poetry (2020). It is edited by Maseno University scholars – Adalo Moga, Bryson Omwalo, John Midega, Barack Wandera and their former colleague Prof Kitche Magak. Most are scions of Luvai above.

The new anthology is a refreshing entrant to the constellation of poetry collections itemised above. It is “an anthology of poems by [new and old] poets from across East Africa. Most of these are emerging voices….Established poets such as Laban Erapu [of Uganda] and Arthur Luvai [of Kenya] are featured side by side with new and upcoming poets.”

As of these emerging poets, I was elated to have five poems sail through the rigorous selection process that led to this new literary landmark.

The 170-pages text showcases a cross-section of topical themes: urban alienation, technoculture, transnationalism, environmental aesthetics, activism, as well as matters of the soul and spirit that hinge on religion, beliefs, existentialism and roots.

Penned in English, the well-structured book has verses clustered under aesthetic unities to aid the reader unlock them with ease and enjoyment. The book is a timely stylistic exhibition of over 50 poets from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

It is available from all major bookshops. Copies can be ordered directly from the publishers via [email protected]

Dr JKS Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University

Kenyan poet Kisa Amateshe
Kenyan poet Kisa Amateshe
Image: COURTESY