A Far Cry from Africa

by Derek Walcott

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Historical Context

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Literary Heritage
Derek Walcott considers himself a Caribbean writer, but he is also viewed as a cosmopolitan, cultivated poet who draws heavily on European, and particularly British, sources. Despite the fact that English was his second language, he is acknowledged to be one of the finest poets writing in English today. However, he was also nurtured by African-Caribbean folktales and slave narratives, and these inspire many of his plays. Ethnically, Walcott comes from a diverse heritage, with African, English, and Dutch ancestors; this diversity is also apparent in his writing.

Historical Context
Most of the area of contemporary Kenya was made a suzerain by the Imperial British East African Company in 1888. The British government then took over administration in 1895, calling the area a "protectorate." White settlers started moving in, cutting down trees, and amassing estates (some of the largest were over 100,000 acres). The migration of both whites and Indians continued, unabated. The settler built roads and a railroad, and, over time, dispossessed a great many Kenyans—mostly Kikuyus—of their land. Once dispossessed, Kikuyus were forced, through tax, work, and identity-paper schemes—and by outright force—into employment, primarily as servants on white estates. To gain back self-government and their land, the Kikuyu Central Association sent representative Jomo Kenyatta to England in 1929. During the next sixteen years, Kenyatta tried unsuccessfully to convince England to alter its method of government in Kenya; he returned to his home country in September of 1946.

In 1947, Kenyatta became president of the Kenya African Union (KAU), a nationalist party demanding an end to the numerous injustices of white rule. These demands were met with British resistance or excuses. While Kikuyus at large were becoming increasingly angry at white rule, a militaristic wing emerged, The Kenya Land Freedom Army, from which the organization Mau Mau grew (origins of this term are unknown but most agree it began as a derogatory label of settlers). On August 4, 1950, Mau Mau was declared illegal, even though the government knew little about it except that militant Kikuyus were winning over, coercing, or forcing other Kikuyus to take an oath against foreign rule. Then, on October 20, 1952, after Mau Mau killings of European cattle and the execution of a Kikuyu chief loyal to the British, a state of emergency was declared and an order sent out for the arrest of 183 people. Kenyatta was one of those arrested and, after a trial, was incarcerated for masterminding Mau Mau. Though this charge was never confirmed, he was imprisoned for seven years.

While fearful whites collected guns to protect their lives and property, the first Kikuyu murder of a white settler occurred a week after the emergency: the settler was hacked to death with a machete-like tool, a panga. Some thirteen thousand people and untold animals were to be killed in the Mau Mau anticolonial struggle, most of them Kikuyus. By 1953, the guerilla fighting force of Mau Mau had largely been defeated, and by 1956, the fighting had mostly stopped; the unequal political, economic, and social conditions leading to Mau Mau's rise, however, were still in place. While the state of emergency continued, governmental reforms between 1953 and 1960 did attempt to appease further threats from Mau Mau. The state of emergency finally ended end in 1960, likely well after Walcott finished writing ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa.’’ Kenyatta was released from prison in 1961, Kenya gained its independence in 1963, and Kenyatta assumed the presidency in 1964, the same year Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Walcott was most likely in the English-speaking Caribbean when he...

(This entire section contains 798 words.)

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wrote ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa,’’ an area, like Kenya, under the domination of the British. It was not until the 1930s, at a time of Caribbean social unrest, that even political parties were allowed and universal suffrage introduced. The growth of nationalism and the effects of World War II led to increasing pressure from West Indians for Britain to loosen its grip. So, in 1958, a federation including most of the English-speaking Caribbean islands was formed to prepare for eventual independence. Increasing friction between the archipelago and Britain led to Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Jamaica, withdrawing from the federation and becoming independent in 1962. Walcott's home island, St. Lucia, would not gain its independence until 1979, sixteen years after Kenya attained hers. During the period of greatest Mau Mau activity, Walcott was attending university in Jamaica. Until 1960, he spent most of his time teaching in West Indian schools and working in theater with his brother. It is likely that Walcott's West Indian origins, linked back to part of his family's original homeland in Africa, and the domination of both his country and Kenya by Britain spurred him to take special note of events in Kenya—events that at the time could have been a specter of a similar future for England's Caribbean colonies.

Literary Style

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‘‘A Far Cry from Africa’’ contains four stanzas of mostly iambic tetrameter. Actually, the poem starts off in iambic pentameter, the prevalent form of poetry written in English, but it soon veers off course metrically—a change that reflects the changing scene and perspective in the poem—with lines of varying length and number of stresses. A point of consistency is Walcott's use of masculine endings (lines ending with accented syllables) and masculine rhymes (one syllable rhymes). Rhyme is as irregular as meter. The rhyme scheme of the first stanza might be rendered ababbcdecd or ababbaccad. On the other hand, both of these schemes leave out the related sounds in "Jews," "flies," "seize," and "policy" that give this stanza two basic end sounds upon which lesser or greater variation occurs. The second stanza has its fourth and seventh lines rhyming and also lines five, ten, and eleven. In stanza three, the scheme is abba, but in stanza four there is only the rhyme of its sixth and eighth lines. In sum, then, a loose rhyme scheme for two stanzas is present, but none for the other two. Fluctuation between rhyme and non-rhyme, rhyme and near-rhyme, between iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter echoes the poet's own unresolved schism between Africa and Britain.

Compare and Contrast

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1958-64: This period of civil war in Africa's largest country, Sudan, comes to an end in the October 1964 revolution when a student is shot and killed. A general strike and protests bring down the military junta.

1999: CBS News reports that slavery is ‘‘alive and well in Sudan.’’ Islamic groups, taking only women and children of the Dinka tribe in raids, use them as sexual servants, housekeepers, and farmhands. Dinka slaves are sold for about $50, the price of a goat.

1962: The long, immensely expensive Ethiopian-Eritrean War (1962-1991) begins after Ethiopia cancels Eritrean autonomy within the Ethiopian-Eritrean federation, in effect since 1952.

1999: In January, Eritrean news reports that 243 Eritreans are rounded up, jailed, and deported from Ethiopia. To date 49,500 Eritreans have been deported from Ethiopia.

1962: Civil war begins in Rwanda (1962-63), as Tutsi military forces try to gain control of the new country after the majority Hutus had won control in free elections.

1998: In Rwanda, during the course of the year, 864 people are tried for the 1994 genocide in which between five hundred thousand and one million are slaughtered in the Hutu government's attempt to wipe out the Tutsi minority. Civil war follows the 1994 genocide, and the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front defeat the Rwandan military, which, with an estimated two million Hutus, flee Rwanda into neighboring countries.

Media Adaptations

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Bill Moyers interviewed Walcott, primarily on the subject of empire, for his A World of Ideas, released by PBS videos in 1987.

A cassette titled Derek Walcott Reads (1994) is available from Harper Collins.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Brown, Stewart, ed., The Art of Derek Walcott, Seren Books, 1991.

D'Aguiar, Fred, ''Ambiguity Without a Crisis? Twin Traditions, The Individual and Community in Derek
Walcott's Essays,’’ in The Art of Derek Walcott, edited by Stewart Brown, Seren Books, 1991, pp. 157-70.

Delf, George, Jomo Kenyatta: Towards the Light of Truth, Doubleday, 1961.

Hamner, Robert D., Derek Walcott, Twayne, 1993.

Hamner, Robert, D., ed., Critical Perspectives on Derek Walcott, Three Continents, 1993.

King, Bruce, ‘‘West Indies II: Walcott, Brathwaite, and Authenticity,’’ in The New English Literatures: Cultural Nationalism in a Changing World, St. Martin's, 1980, pp. 118-39.

Terada, Rei, Derek Walcott's Poetry, Northeastern University Press, 1992.

Further Reading
Baer, William, ed., Conversations with Derek Walcott, University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
This text contains eighteen interviews spanning the period from 1966 to 1993. Also included is a good bio-chronology of Walcott's life.

Balakian, Peter, ''The Poetry of Derek Walcott,'' in Poetry, June, 1986, pp. 169-77.
Balakian comments on Walcott's Collected Poems, 1948-1984.

Breslin, Paul, ‘‘I Met History Once, But He Ain't Recognize Me: The Poetry of Derek Walcott,'' in Tri Quarterly, Winter, 1987, pp. 168-83.
Breslin reflects on Walcott's career and work.

Dickey, James, ‘‘The Worlds of Cosmic Castaway,’’ in New York Times Book Review, February 2, 1986, p. 8.
Dickey reviews Walcott's Collected Poems, 1948-1984.

Grant, Nellie, Nellie's Story, William Morrow, 1981.
For those wanting a firsthand account of what it was like to be a white farmer in Kenya during the period of 1933 to 1977, this is a valuable text.

Hamner, Robert D., ed., Critical Perspectives on Derek Walcott, Three Continents Press, 1993.
These 52 essays, eight of which are by Walcott, present an exhaustive compendium of commentary on Walcott's life and works.

Hirsch, Edward, ‘‘An Interview,’’ in Paris Review, Winter, 1986, pp. 197-230.
Hirsch's conversation with Walcott provides fascinating insight into Walcott's background and childhood, as well as his writing.

Hirsch, Edward, ‘‘An Interview with Derek Walcott,’’ in Conversations with Derek Walcott, edited by William Baer, University Press of Mississippi, 1996, pp. 50-63.
Hirsch and Walcott converse about the author's poetry, prose, and plays, and his heritage as a West Indian.

Huxley, Elspeth, compiler, Nine Faces of Kenya, Viking, 1991.
For firsthand accounts by both blacks and whites who lived in Kenya during Mau Mau, this is an excellent source. The book is divided into themes: Exploration, Travel, Settlers, Wars, Environment, Wildlife, Hunting, Lifestyles, Legend, and Poetry.

McWatt, Mark A., ''Derek Walcott: An Island Poet and His Sea,’’ in Third World Quarterly, October, 1988, pp. 1607-15.
McWatt examines Walcott's place in Caribbean literature and Walcott's theme of artistic isolation.

Walcott, Derek, Collected Poems: 1948-1984, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.
This collection contains ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa’’ and 135 other poems, from Walcott's first major books, In a Green Night to Midsummer.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide