A Far Cry from Africa

by Derek Walcott

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1138

Background ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa’’ discusses the events of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya in the early 1950s. In the mid-twentieth century, British colonialism was a fading but still potent force in the world. In the African nation of Kenya, British colonists had settled and introduced European concepts to the local people: money, taxation, and ownership of land. When the British asked, ‘‘Who owns this land?’’ tribal people responded, ‘‘We do,’’ and the British assumed that "we" referred to the tribal government, although the land was actually owned by individual families. Because the British were replacing the tribal government with their own, they then claimed all the land in the name of the new British government. Naturally, the Kenyan people were outraged. Now, instead of owning and farming their own land, they were reduced to being laborers for the British owners. As employees, they were further insulted by being paid only a fraction of the amount a British worker received for doing the same work.

The Kikuyu tribe was the largest in Kenya, and the most educated. In 1951, some Kikuyu outbursts of violence against the British occurred, and in 1952 a secret Kikuyu society known as the Mau Mau began a war of violence against the British and any Africans who were loyal to them. By October of 1952, the situation was so serious that the British called out troops to fight the rebels, and a three-year war ensued, during which 11,000 rebel warriors were killed and 80,000 Kikuyu men, women, and children were locked up in detention camps. One hundred Europeans and 2,000 Africans loyal to them were killed. Later, the leader of the rebellion, Jomo Kenyatta, was elected prime minister of Kenya when Kenya became independent from Britain in 1963.

In the poem, Walcott presents some graphic images of the conflict and asks how he can be expected to choose one side over the other, since he is of both African and European descent. He cannot condone the colonialism of the British, or the violence of the Mau Mau, because choosing either side would mean he is turning against that part of himself.

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...

(This entire section contains 1138 words.)

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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 wordsauvage 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 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.