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Poetry is alive! Just you listen to the well cleaner

Long-ignored Naka P comes to mind as we mark World Poetry Day

In Summary

• Performances of rural folks still define oral poetry traditions across Kenya

Book cover
Book cover
Image: RAFINKI

This is the week the world forgets daily pains and chooses to celebrate poetry. This art, based on creativity of the mind, the six senses and beautiful words spoken, hummed, written or chanted, is one of the oldest forms of human heritage.

Monday March the 21st marked the 23rd edition of the global celebration of World Poetry Day. This day was inaugurated by Unesco in 1999 with the express intention to support celebrations of languages of the world, especially those of endangered status, through poetical arts.

Reading, teaching and writing poetry in all its dimensions are the agenda of this day, which is marked in many a ways globally each 21st of each third month of the year.

Today, I remember with nostalgia how I became acquainted with poetry inside and outside the school structures. Like most Kenyans, poetry was introduced to me through lessons in English in primary and high school classrooms taught by neat and grammarly teachers of English.

In my teens, I was introduced to a lot of foreign poems. I remember, for instance, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” was a must-read in an English textbook in Bungoma High School of old.

Pursuing literary studies at the university later, I discovered that Shelley was the husband of Mary Wollstonecroft. She is the author of the famous Gothic novel called Frankenstein.

This same Mary helped launch feminism in Europe with a treatise on women rights called A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). It is considered a foundational text in the history of feminism.

But it’s in the interregnum year between high school and college admission that I got to encounter poetry in its performance form deep in rural Bungoma. Our father had retired in Eldoret and we relocated to his farm in Bungoma North.

Shifting from urban to rural lifestyles opened doors of exploration of our native culture and heritage. This is where I met a performance poet par excellence to whom I dedicate this week. Tanston Nakapwondi.

Tanston Nakapwondi was the village well cleaner. He cleaned wells for a living but spontaneously burst into poetry performances often done whenever and wherever.

Many ignored him in this part of Kenya. Nakapwondi suffered from this acute and weird illness of being ignored by all and sundry, just like Kenyans ignore poetry. For instance, did you know that Kenyans have never had a national award for poetry, the way we have the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for novelists?

Nakapwondi always told all who cared to listen of this disease of being ignored. Clinical officers, both here and far, became tired of curing his eternal complaints about being ignored. Most ignored him. Even evangelists stoned him with epic prayers, then ignored him.

This is the reason Naka P, as Nakapwondi also called himself, lived for strangers. Everyone in life ignored him.

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Each sunrise to sunset, Nakapwondi plied the paths between shambas. He zigzagged and spiralled the village left, right and centre. He would then hobble either on both legs or simply hop on two toes to any given direction. His search for strangers here lasted the full daylight. He was known to talk to shadows of anything if his quests yielded nil. 

One noon, he abruptly encountered a crowd of hired criers at a funeral of a great thief. The one-eyed gangster had died of drowning after being beaten half to death with sugarcanes after being caught. He had red-handedly plucked a barrow of the stuff in the middle of a new shamba.

The owner, who had gone in his bush of mature sugarcanes to have an illicit twilight tryst with a chang'aa peddler, caught him pants down. Alarm raised, the 40th day of the unfortunate sugarcane thief had dawned.

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After endless mob justice, the mangled thief crawled to River Nzoia to quench his tongue, slid in. Drowned. Now in these parts, drowned bodies get no formal burials. The body is buried at night by strangers hired for the purpose. Most come from the other community near the border.

After establishing from their accent that the hired criers were foreign here, Nakapwondi approached them with a grin. His only tooth danced with the wind as he tiptoed to them.

These foreign criers had paused a mile from the ill-fated homestead of the slain thief to arrange their tears nicely. He greeted them in Kiswahili broken by marijuana, vernacular and mischief. They responded cheerfully. 

Suddenly, without further ado, old Nakapwondi broke into a spontaneous oral poem in a cricket-like voice. 

Naka P is the tendril that clings to slidey walls/ He is the cleaner of wells/ May his flatulence defeat sugarcane in sweetness khandi!

The 60 criers guffawed at this pigmy-sized clown of sorts dressed in an oversized green Harvard T-shirt and pink bikers.

He urged them to say: Kutalang'i! Each time he chanted. Enigma. They agreed. Nakapwondi continued.

Nakapwondi Mukwamalalu is the rock of Bungoma/ He is the rock, black like bums of a ritual ram/ He suckle tits of bats, the better to stick on well walls well!

His audience, I included, shouted. Kutalang'i!

Fellow Kenyans, this spectacular amusement went on for an hour. Truth be told, such call-and-response performances of rural folks still define oral poetry traditions across Kenya. Poetry to us here is real. It is alive. It is an inextricable part of our everyday.