Beyond Writing, Poetry Also Speaks

By Nureni Ibrahim 


  • Title: With Pens that Shout and Mouths that Shut
  • Editor: Rhymers Club, Nabisunsa Girls School
  • Publisher: Bonacraft
  • Number of pages: 105
  • Year of publication: 2018
  • Category: Poetry

With Pens that Shout and Mouths that Shut is an anthology that celebrates the rich vein of literary expression to be found amongst the young student-poets of Rhymers Club, a literary club in Nabisunsa Girls School, Uganda. The fifty-two poems in the book are divided into the following sections: ‘Prologue’, ‘School Life’, ‘Culture and Lifestyle’, ‘Politics’, and ‘Love’. The sixth section, ‘Epilogue’, has no poem under it. The poems are well-written in simple and straightforward English, though there are indigenous words in some poems which venerate the hybridisation of language in African poetry. The anthology touches most of the major thematic issues in African poetry: language, embracing African culture, the political maladies of the state and the astounding feelings of love.

In the ‘Prologue’, the poems, ‘The_Raging_Dash_Sing’ and ‘I Was Here’ are breathtaking. Both poems unfurl how poetry is both song and legacy. In ‘The_Raging_Dash_Sing’, we are reminded of the role of art and artists in the society. Embellished with real life happenings, it sings a song of delight in spring, summer and autumn. The poet-persona uncovers how every season has its own communicative symbol when she intones, ‘In autumn when the leaves are brown / Take a pen and write it down’ (p xv). The closing stanza reads: ‘In time you’ll get to know / what I mean when I sing / TheRagingDashSing’, implying that readers will understand her song by reading through the entire anthology.

‘I Was Here’, on the other hand, demonstrates that the entire anthology has been masterfully crafted to leave ‘behind an unforgettable legacy’ for all secondary school poetry clubs in Uganda and other African countries at large. The word ‘legacy’ is both a fact and metaphor: a fact due to the existence of the anthology, which has the literary footprints of young poets in Nabisunsa Girls School; a metaphor because the poet – as well as other poets in the anthology – has set the pace for others to follow.

The section titled ‘School Life’ has thirteen poems, each dwelling on the experiences of students in the school. The poem, ‘I Call it Science’, reaffirms the prestige accorded to science students in Uganda and elsewhere. To the poet-persona, the non-science students have a phobia for discipline, or loathe it basically because of its boring nature. The speaker in the poem finds love in the chemical symbols and elements in Chemistry, thus:

The catenation of carbon
That forms the benzene ring
The complex ions formed with their charges
The excitation of electrons
From one energy level to another
That sometimes I call…
Chemistry! (p 2)

The poet further refers to some mathematical calculations she derives joy from:

The lub-dub yeah! And the heart-pulse
Think of the way 1Χ1,000,000 to the power 7
Is the way I find ‘x’ and yet I don’t know ‘y’
The way I know the integral of ‘sin’, ‘cos’, ‘tan’ and ‘cot’
When I square the root of 9 and get 9
And you think that’s boring? (p 2)

‘Listen Papa’, another poem in the same section, kicks against corporal punishment both in school and at home. It tells of a young boy who cheats in his examination and receives punishment from his father and teacher. Subsequently, he falls ill and is rushed to the hospital where he finds peace and harmony in the children’s ward as no one punishes him there. He says:

And now my whole bum aches

I’m in the children’s ward
The children are very friendly
They like me, really
The nurses are very nice
They smile and play with us
Nobody beats me here (p 15).

In the ‘Culture and Lifestyle’ section, the poem ‘Let Me Tell You a Story’ is a poetic enchantment that embraces the traditional culture of the Ugandan people. It uses the aesthetic nature of storytelling to unveil the lifestyle of the society in the pre-colonial epoch. The refrain ‘Let me tell you’ keeps echoing to signify the sustainability of the idea of storytelling in Africa. The first stanza focuses on the power of folktales. The poet-persona is prepared to tell a story of ‘how the hyena came to hate the hare / And how the mouse became boss of the elephant’ (p 26). The second stanza is backed up with a vivid description of tales by moonlight. It reads:

Let me tell you a story!
The elders talk in whispers at night
Why you mustn’t call another loudly at night
Why the village girls dance with arms shaped
Like cow-horns
Why you must take your son to the elders
To have his fore-skin cut off (p 26).

Towards the concluding part of the poem, we are reminded that all the tales in the poem relate the history of the Ugandan people:

Let me tell you a story
Of my history and ancestry
Let me tell you of my culture
Let me tell you, of Uganda! (p 27)

Another poem in the section that is similar in conception is ‘All in the Name of Culture’. There is an inter-textual affinity between the poem and Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino; the interface foregrounds poetry as being interdependent on, or being the reworking of, other poetic productions. The upliftment of cultural nuances and its aesthetics – which is given a loud voice in the poem – is spun around the cultural expression of grief as in the Song of Lawino. The poet-persona encourages Africans to embrace their culture and see the goodness in it, saying, ‘Dear Bagisu, our culture is not bad / But the way we do it is hard’ (p 34).

Also in ‘Culture and Lifestyle’, the poem, ‘Hijab’, rejects the negative image attached to the hijabi women in the modern world. The poet writes:

People look at me with sarcastic eyes
Wondering what I’m composed of
And calling me names like Al-Shabab
But still I stay happy’ (p 40).

The Al-Shabab mentioned in this poem is a symbol of all so-called Islamic sects that kill and destroy in the name of God. To the poet-persona, however, a hijab is a source of happiness. There is, therefore, no amount of taunts that will make the poet-persona to denounce her religious belief.

The poem following ‘Hijab’ is one that shows a connection between the hijab and the religion accorded with it. The poem, ‘Islam’, introduces Islam as a religion of peace. Its doctrine is well-delineated. Muslims are instructed to be kind and to pray to Allah five times daily. The poet condemns those who attempt to or kill in the name of religion, thus:

So beware of my extreme benevolence to all mankind
Yes, there are those who kill and bomb and in my name
But if I don’t approve then why am I to be blamed?
In every religion you find those who abuse it thinking
They have a permit to do wrong
A religion may be perfect but the followers may not be
So if mine commit mistakes, don’t blame it on me
I got what I got and what I got is good so…
If they do otherwise, they misunderstood (p 43).

The poem furthers this teaching by asserting that Islam professes Politics, Economics, and Sociology. To the poet-persona, the poem is not to convert people but to remove misconceptions about the religion.

‘Let’s Go Back’ is a nostalgic poem in which the poet longs for the past of African culture. Written in prose-like form, the young poet sees the goodness in African culture and tradition; she praises Africans for living in harmony prior to the arrival of colonial masters. This poem also criticises the preference of individualism to communalism in modern African society:

Let’s go back to the times we were all one
Bound together by the love of our culture
But this is not part of us anymore because now it’s all about me
And this is not us anymore, we even live
In fear of each other
What now is this? (p 50)

According to the New Historicists, literature, generally, and poetry, specifically, are offshoots of the author’s socio-political environment. The section titled ‘Politics’ reflects the political atmosphere of Uganda, and Africa at large. The poem, ‘Wamma My Dictator’, lampoons the corrupt politicians in Africa. It describes politics as a dirty game played by the political officials. To the poet, the political officials are corrupt and self-centred in all their political endeavours. In the concluding part, however, the poet goes in a sarcastic direction by praising Wamma, a politician, and accepting him as his God-given leader, saying:

Wamma my dear dictator
Let people’s words not put you down
All they do is talk, talk and talk
They never walk their walk [sic]
What God has put together
No man shall put asunder
Only death can separate you and power (pp 56-57).

‘Wake up Uganda’ calls on every citizen of the country, young and old, to wake up from their sluggishness in the political developments of the country. It lambasts the decay in the Ugandan system of government, evidenced by dictatorship, poverty, injustice and genocide. The first stanza challenges the rationale behind the sleeping of the Ugandan people in the matters that affect their beloved country:

Wake Uganda!
My beloved country!
Is it conventional
To soundly snore
When you are wide awake’ (p 62)?

The other stanzas are a sad commentary on the social and political system of the Ugandan society. In the end, the poet advocates for change and the quest to create undiluted awareness about the social and political issues in his country.

Compared to the political poems in the anthology, ‘Welcome to Uganda’ affords the reader a better opportunity to understand the country’s issues. It is not difficult to discover the thematic thrust of the poem, for the poet conveys an underlying passion to be free from the nauseating state of the country. Throughout the poem, the theme of ethical decay is sustained; we are confronted by the ugly face of the country. Using a humorous tone, ‘Welcome to Uganda’ lampoons the social, political and educational aspects of the country with the repetitive word ‘where’. The last four lines succinctly pillory all forms of inhumanity in Uganda, and in Africa at large:

Here is a country that best describes the phrase
“Two sides of a coin”
This is my country. Welcome to Uganda. I hope you enjoy your stay’ (p 72).

The title poem of the anthology, ‘With Pens that Shout and Mouths that Shut’, focuses on women and their social and political identities. The poem uses some Biblical allusions:

Women of today are more than Jezebels
Girls of today are more than mythical goddesses
You won’t need GPS, Google or Wikipedia to know them’ (p 73).

To the poet, women of today are brave to the extent that, ‘The guns will not frighten Malala Yousafzai / The tension will never scare Rebecca Kadaga’ (p 73). We are also reminded of the new generation that provides women with bravery, freedom and the right to be the ‘pens that shout and the mouths that shut’.

The anthology’s emotional trove is encapsulated in the section titled ‘Love’. The poem, ‘He Said (One in a Million)’, is a dramatic enactment of the poet-persona’s deeply felt emotions. Dotted with rhymes and rhythmic tone, the poet’s lyricism unveils the poet-persona’s passionate feelings to the girl who showers him with love. The rhymes in the last stanza make the poem sound more passionate; it also makes the lover more admirable among other girls:

I will buy her a stallion
And give her my medallion,
Oh my little dandelion!
For you I could give up a zillion,
For you are one in a million (p 84)

‘_In 16 Years_’ is a romantic, avant-garde poem that deploys emojis, smileys and other non-alphabetic symbols to tell ‘stories of how being 16 was’. 16 is the fascinating age when love is fun and enthralling, with video calls, texts and audio notes coming and going daily on the cellphones of both lovers. It is as a result of this that the poet-persona says:

I want a teenage romance
I’m willing to give heartaches a single chance
I’m willing to put down my whole defence
And start living in past tense
_Because in 16 years…_
I want to tell stories of 1 boy 16 times (p 85).

The final poem in the ‘Love’ section, ‘Sweet Dodo’, is a register of the romantic names that African couples call one another. It condemns the Western romantic affair of names:

She said, ‘Chocolate, ice-cream, honey-cake’
and many more
And still wondered if she knows, that these sweet nothings
Can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes or even obesity?!!! (p 103)

The poet-persona further shows his preference for sweet names that are traditionally, naturally inclined:

Stop calling your spouse names that will kill them
Rather call them healthy ones like my dodo, sweet Kigaji
Ripe mango, apple, pineapple dear…sweet but healthy…
Healthy word for health and a healthy Uganda…’ (p 103)

Being a poetic offering of many voices, With Pens that Shout and Mouths that Shut desires to transform oral forms into poetry; the student-poets appropriate the oral narrative styles embedded in African storytelling in their verses. The literary drive of the anthology portrays the socio-political and cultural happenings in Uganda. The anthology’s weak point would have been the simplicity and prose-like nature of the poems but one expects such from the poets due to their limited literary exposure as secondary school students. The book lifts the spirits of young minds and is a reservoir of knowledge for all aspiring poets in secondary schools across Africa.


Photograph: ‘pen’ by weifly 


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Nureni Ibrahim lives and writes from somewhere in Nigeria. As a poet and haijin, Ibrahim has published works in The Mamba Journal of the Africa Haiku Network, Kumasi, Ghana; Shamrock Haiku Journal, Dublin, Ireland; Best ‘New’ African Poets 2016 Anthology, Langaa RPCIG, Cameroon, and many more. He is a Wawa Book Review Young Literary Critics Fellow.

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