33 pages 1 hour read

Derek Walcott

A Far Cry From Africa

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1962

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Derek Walcott’s poem “A Far Cry from Africa” (1962) is set during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, when native Kenyans fought for independence from British colonial rule. The uprising was very violent on both sides of the conflict. The poem addresses the internal dilemma within the speaker, who is confronting his own experience with colonization and identity. Although Walcott originates from the West Indies and much of his work queries the impacts of colonialism, the speaker of this poem is not explicitly Walcott himself. However, much like Walcott, the speaker’s immense love for the English language and his deep respect for Africa’s many cultures combine with the speaker’s moral opposition to violence to create the poem’s central tension. The speaker feels torn between understanding the plight of the native Kenyans, known as the Kikuyu, and the exceedingly violent acts of warfare they inflict upon the British settlers. On the flip side, the speaker’s love of the English language and literature creates an increasingly complicated dynamic with his disgust toward the British colonizers and their own violent and oppressive regime. The poem’s ending is essentially a stalemate, leaving the speaker’s confusion over his allegiances unresolved.

Poet Biography

Derek Walcott was born in 1930 on the island of St. Lucia in the West Indies to a family of English, Dutch, and African ancestry. His father, a talented painter, passed away when he was only a year old. Walcott was raised by his mother along with his brother and sister. His family was Methodist and his mother taught at a Methodist school on a majority Catholic island. Walcott and his family were often marginalized for their religious affiliation. Despite the difficulty, Walcott took an interest in the arts from a very early age, publishing his first poem at 14 years old in his local newspaper, and later self-publishing his first collection of poems at 19. Walcott also expressed a love of art and theater, admiring painters like Cezanne and Giorgione.

After his graduation from the University of West Indies, Walcott divided his time between the United States and St. Lucia. His work demonstrates a keen and expansive knowledge of the English literature canon, yet it also reflects the deep influence of his island home and culture. His language at times shifts between Caribbean Patois and standard English, often directly addressing his own diverse background as English and Afro-Caribbean. He went on to produce his renowned play Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970), which draws upon many genres of English literature, and won an Obie award for his work. In 1990, Walcott published what is believed by many to be his greatest work, Omeros, an epic poem based on the Iliad, reimagined as a Caribbean fisherman’s fight. Most of Walcott’s writing questions the complexities and traumas that arise under colonialism, specifically the consequences of the French and British colonization of the Caribbean.

Poem Text

Walcott, Derek. “A Far Cry from Africa.” 1962. Poets.org.

Summary

The poem opens as a gentle wind blows the tall grasses on the savannah in Africa. The speaker likens the grasses to an animal pelt or some kind of fur. The Kikuyu, the native Kenyans engaged in a conflict with British settlers, move through the landscape swiftly, like “flies” (Line 2). There are corpses scattered around, despite the speaker comparing the land to paradise. A worm cries out to ignore the dead because they are irrelevant. Meanwhile, scholars and well-to-do white people study statistics and create policies from their comfortable homes far away. The speaker ends the first stanza with rhetorical questions: What do the facts just mentioned matter to the people on the ground, living in this violent reality, like the white child of a settler family that was murdered in his sleep? And what does it matter to the native Kenyans that are treated as worthless and subhuman, much like the Jewish people were treated by the Nazis during WWII?

Stanza 2 shifts to farmers. The farmers thresh a crop, and the long stalks of grass snap in half and ibises fly into the air like dust. The call of the ibises is something older than civilization itself, heard from the rivers to the great plains, where animals graze and roam. It is interesting that the violence of animals feeding and hunting is viewed as the law of nature, yet men try to get closer to God by committing the same kind of violence and inflicting pain on others. In truth, these men are just like animals, and their wars are a gory dance to the beat of drums made of corpses. The native Kenyans say they are courageous, but really it is just the fear that the white colonizers will kill them all and call it peace.

In the final stanza, the speaker remarks that, once again, a brutal inhuman need for war wipes its hands on an already filthy napkin. This napkin represents the dirty causes everyone is fighting for. And it’s a waste to care, just as with the atrocities that occurred during the Spanish civil war. Referencing racist stereotypes, the situation with the Kenyans and the colonizers is much like an ape wrestling with a superhero. But the speaker acknowledges that he is both of English and African descent, therefore he carries the blood of both parties in his veins. He wonders which side he should take and who he should support; but making that decision would be like carving himself into pieces. The speaker has no love for the British officers who enforced the colonial occupation, and compares them to sloppy drunkards. The speaker ends the stanza with a series of questions. How is he supposed to choose between his deep connection to Africa and his love for the English language? Should he betray both parts of himself or should he become exactly what they have all become? How can he be okay with what the British colonizers or the Kenyan fighters are doing? How can he turn his back on Africa and keep living?

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