A Far Cry from Africa
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:
“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?
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
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious ( exited) as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread (fear)
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.
Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
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?
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?
Author Derek Walcott
Summary & Analysis
A Far Cry from Africa focuses on the racial and cultural tensions arising from colonial occupation of that continent and the subsequent dilemma for the speaker, Walcott himself, a black poet writing in English.
Derek Walcott, teacher, playwright, poet and artist, as well as Nobel prize winner, was born on the island of St Lucia in the British West Indies.
As he grew up he became aware of his mixed racial ancestry – he had both white and black grandparents – and this theme of roots divided became a rich source of material for some of his poetry.
A Far Cry from Africa, published in 1962, explores the history of a specific uprising in Kenya, occupied by the British, in the 1950s. Certain members of the local Kikuyu tribe, known as Mau Mau fighters, fought a violent 8 year long campaign against settlers, who they saw as illegal trespassers on their land.
In the first two stanzas of the poem, the speaker expands on the thorny issue of colonial takeover and its bloody consequences before finally asking himself the awkward question – How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
He is caught between love of the English language, with which he expresses himself poetically, and the ancestral blood ties of his African family, who have been oppressed by the very people whose native language he needs, to survive as a poet.
The title is a little ambiguous. Is the author saying that because he lives on Santa Lucia, an island far away from Africa, his cry has a long distance to travel to reach African shores?
Or is he being ironic? The expression a far cry means that something is quite different from what you had expected. Had the author this ideal image of Africa and its deep culture only to be disappointed by the current reality of the situation there?
The poem A Far Cry from Africa belongs to post colonial poetry. Mainly the poem discusses the events of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the early 1950s. It was a bloody battle during the 1950 between the European settlers and the native Kikuyu tribes in Kenya. Kikuyu was the largest and most educated tribe in Kenya. As the British people invaded more and more their land they outrageously reacted. The Kenyan tribes rebelled against the British who stole the motherland of them. The rebellion was under a secret organization called Mau Mau. It is estimated a large number of Kikuyu as well as whites were slaughtered during the process.
The poem starts with the painful jarring harsh experience of the rebellion that changed the tranquil peaceful setting of the country. The nation itself compared to an animal, as it indicates it is an animal like a lion. “tawny pelt” And how Kikuyu started the bloody battle. The Kikuyu are compared to flies who are feeding on blood. Next we are informed the aftermath of the rebellion. The poet describes that the country before the conflict was a ‘paradise’ and with an ironical comment he indicates the death, inhumanity and destruction occurred in the land. There is the juxtaposition of the conflict against something divine with the image of corpses scattered through a paradise. The worms that can be seen as the ultimate emblem of stagnation and decay, cries at the worthless death. Sarcastically poet indicates how the humans are reduced to statistics. And at the same time though scholars justify the presence of white men in Africa and the process of civilizing the natives, the poet indicates the fact that it was a failure with the brutal death of the small white child and his family. People behave like animals ‘savages’ hints and remind us the persecution endured by the Jews. Jews were killed in millions due to their ethnicity during the time of Hitler. Though the time and the place is different the same kind of situations repeat in the world time to time. Next the poet creates a picture of white men in searching for natives who are hiding behind the bushes. The sound of ‘ibises’ hints a bad omen. Again the repetition is shown through the word ‘wheeled’. The civilized men thrived on conquering others. This process of violence and conquering each other indicates the law of the jungle. The violence of ‘beast on beast’ can justify according to the law of nature, the law of jungle. Yet it cannot be applied to the ‘upright man’ who are stretching out themselves to reach the ‘divinity’. Apart from the task of stretching themselves to reach ‘divinity’ they end up with ‘inflicting pain’ which is killing and which is the law of jungle; killing for prey. They call for the massacre they create by killing as war. Ironically, wars between people are described as following the beat of a drum — an instrument made of an animal hide stretched over a cylinder. Though the natives think the act of killing white men brings them ‘courage’ it ends up with fear. Moreover the poet emphasizes the fact that though the natives justify their task mentioning it as a ‘brutish necessity’ and considering it as a national cause they just clean their hands with ‘the napkin of dirty cause’. So the poet suggests the fact that the natives’ cause is dirty and ugly though they consider it as right and nationwide. He sees a comparison with the West Indians who had their share of harsh experiences with Spain. The fight is just as the gorilla wrestles with superman. The gorilla in this context is compared to natives and superman is compared to white men. The last two lines indicate the situation of the poet, as he belongs to both cultures how he feels inferiority regarding the situation. The mixed heritage of the poet makes him unable to decide to which he should be partial. The title itself too indicates the state of mind conflict of the poet, a cry from a great distance away and moreover it shows the alienation and the inferiority of the poet. The poem ends with a picture of violence and cruelty and with the idea of searching for identity.
Analysis – Stanza by Stanza
A Far Cry from Africa is a powerful poem that sets out one person’s divided viewpoint on the subject of British colonial takeover in Kenya, east Africa, and its horrifying consequences for local people and the poet himself.
The first stanza is an overview of the situation, set in the present. It starts with a highly visual, movie-like opening – the wind ruffling the pelt of Africa – a country, a continent, likened to an animal.
Perhaps these are the winds of change come to disturb a once contented country.
The Kikuyu tribe are then seen as flies battening on to the bloodstreams (to batten is to gorge, or to feed greedily at someone else’s expense) and the blood is on the veldt (grassland with trees and shrubs).
Dead bodies are scattered in this beautiful landscape, seen as a paradise, an irony not lost on the speaker. The personified worm, made military, has a cruel message for the world – What is the use of compassion for those already dead?
Officialdom backs up its policies with numbers. Academics point out the relevant facts and figures. But what do these mean when you consider the human cost? Where is the humanity in all of this?
The allusion to the Jews reflects the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis in WW2.
The opening four lines of the next stanza paint a detailed picture of a typical hunt (for big game) carried out by colonials and settlers. Beaters use sticks and shout as they scour the undergrowth (the rushes), driving out the animals into the open, where they will be shot.
The ibis is an iconic wading bird with a special call and has been a part of the African landscape since humans first used tools. Is this an ironic use of the word ‘civilisation’ (civilization in the USA)?
Lines 15 – 21 seem to reinforce this idea that, in the animal kingdom, evolution dictates who wins and loses, through a pure kind of violence.
But man uses the excuse of following a god, or becoming a god, by causing pain to other humans (and animals). There is an emphasis on the male of the species being responsible for war and pain, and war and peace.
Note the use of special language – the tightened carcass – the native dread – contracted by the dead.
The opening four lines of the last stanza juxtapose historical reference with a visual here and now, embodied in gorilla and superman.
The personification of brutish necessity, as it wipes its hands on a napkin, is an interesting narrative device. Napkins are usually white, but the cause is dirty, that of colonial settlement alongside injustice.
By repeating what the worm cries in the first stanza – a waste of our compassion – the speaker is bringing extra weight to the idea of meaningless death. Compassion cannot alter the circumstances. By using our, is the speaker implying the compassion of the world, or of those who are African or black?
And what has Spain to do with colonial Kenya? Well, it seems that violent struggle isn’t just limited to the continent of Africa. It can happen in Europe too, as with the Spanish civil war (1936-39) which was fought between democratic Republicans and Fascists.
In line 26 the speaker declares a personal involvement for the first time, acknowledging the fact he is divided because of his blood ties to both camps. The use of the word poisoned suggests to the reader that the speaker isn’t too happy with his situation, which he deems toxic.
He wants to side with the oppressed but cannot reconcile the fact that the language of the oppressor is the same one he uses to speak, write and live by. The dramatic language heightens the tension:
A series of heart-wrenching questions are not, or cannot be, answered.
The bloody conflicts, the deaths, the subjugation, the cruelty, the need for domination, all reflect the dilemma for the speaker. He feels estranged yet a part of African heritage; he feels a love for the language of the British who are the cause of such strife in the tribal lands.
Perhaps the final irony is that, by the very act of writing and publishing such a poem and ending it with a question about turning away from Africa, the speaker somehow provides his own answer.