Derek Walcott’s poem “A Far Cry from Africa” mourns the brutal English suppression of a Kenyan revolt during the 1950s. Perhaps a brief historical summary before examining the poem itself would provide context for Walcott’s poem.
The Mao Mao uprising was a guerrilla war in the British Protectorate of Kenya that lasted eight years, from 1952-1960. Members of the Kikuyu tribe, seeking independence from British rule, launched a series of small but vicious attacks against British settlers and their Kenyan collaborators. British colonial officials labeled the Mau Mau a terrorist group and declared a state of emergency in 1952. The ensuing conflict was bloody, with large-scale war crimes committed by both sides. The British granted independence to Kenya in 1960 but never conceded that the uprising was a major factor in their decision.
“A Far Cry from Africa” was published in 1962 by Derek Walcott, who shares both African and British heritage. Walcott’s poem describes his conflicted feelings toward the war, as he can sympathize with both sides. The poem is divided into three stanzas.
The first stanza describes the carnage of the war. Walcott says the “the corpses are scattered through paradise” and declares that only the worms “waste no compassion on these separate dead.” He critiques the British for justifying the war because of their view that “the white child hacked in bed” is more valuable than the hundreds of innocent Kikuyu who suffered the same fate at the hands of the English.
The second stanza explores violence in more general terms. The first four lines describe the hunting of animals as practiced by both natives and settlers and explore whether violence is an inherent part of human nature.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
By claiming that man seeks to become god by inflicting pain on other people, Walcott makes clear his pessimistic view of human nature.
The final stanza explores the poet’s personal feelings regarding the Kenyan uprising. Walcott declares, “I am poisoned with blood of both” due to his mixed African and British heritage. He emphasizes the tension he feels with a series of rhetorical questions that end the poem. The final lines of the poem are particularly powerful.
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?
Walcott shows that he will continue to wrestle with these questions of war and colonialism long after the dust of the Kenyan rebellion has settled. I hope this helps!