A Thousand Voices Rising: An Anthology of contemporary African poetry-A review


The BN Poetry Foundation has made leaps since its inception. It has transformed from awarding prizes to only female poets in Uganda for their creative skills, to spreading its wings to other countries on the African continent in 2014, and awarding both male and female poets. This year’s winner was a male poet.

The foundation also published its first anthology in 2014 titled, A Thousand Voices Rising: an Anthology of contemporary African poetry. It is a collection of 121 poems from over eighty poets, spread on 171 pages, by poets from Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Ghana, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi, Algeria, and Democratic Republic of Congo. The book serves as a converging point of different of the different poets as depicted with the foot marks on the front page.

The collection features all the winning poems of this award since its inception, apart from those of 2014. It chronicles the awards’s journey since its inception.

The book opens with Clifton Gatchagua, winner of the 2013 Sillerman Book Award, with his poem, Crash. He is one of the several poets and authors of repute in the anthology. Others include Nii Parkes, Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva, Beatrice Lamwaka, Mildred Kiconco Barya, Dr. Susan Kiguli, Jack Mapanje, and Justice James Ogoola among others. I’m also privileged to have my work featured in this collection.

The anthology puts to test the talk that the meaning of poetry is lost in translation. A number of poems written in the native languages of the poets have translations in English, and versa. Nakisanze Segawa’s “Zibogola!” a poem in Luganda, comes off as a powerful poem with wonderful imagery in both the Luganda and English versions.

N’ga ekisikirize kibutikidde ensi nyaffe
Nga ekifananyi okuva mungero ensonge,
Sekiwugulu akungula eri ebbanga
Eributikiddwa obuttwa……,

The English version bears the title, ‘They speak!’ The same section reads:

When a shadow clouds mother earth
Like a figure out of a folktale
An owl howls at a poisoned sky….

This is one of the numerous poems that have translations. This means that the poetry will also be consumed by people who might not understand the English language.

This anthology is diverse in the themes tackled, from music, love, politics, heart breaks, sex….the list is endless. The book has powerful poetry like Paul Kasami’s ‘Africa in the news’. A few lines from it appear below. It deals with the issue of photographers that capture images of devastation in different parts of the world, for the western media.
A faceless child lays in a
Lake of blood,
Its toothless mother tries
To bite into a tree trunk
Just to get the last sap
A colourless camera man incessantly clicks
For his modern world to see.

Michaella Rugwizangonga’s poem ‘Night of Sorrow’ uses nature to depict the gravity of the 1994 genocide:
I knocked at the moon’s door,
She did not open for me
I knocked on the stars’ door,
And they told me ….
Do you not see what is happening?

I try again, I knock harder, Nothing,
For in the sky of April 1994
Even the stars were mourning.

In Beverley Nambozo’s “Sseebo gwe wange ” we encounter a woman’s praise of her partner’s sexual prowess.

You pound me like engalabi .
I slap the walls to your rhythm.
Sharp: Unforgettable; you are lightning
Subdued; I moan like thunder.

Lovers of poetry will move from one poem to the next, one country to the next, because this is not just a collection of poems, it is a gathering of minds. Those who love short poems are cattered for. The lovers of long poetry are also not forgotten. The anthology is a testament that humble beginnings eventually bear large fruits.

Mulumba Ivan Matthias

The dip

The emptiness in his heart almost killed him. Frozen, he sat, unable to cry or speak. The loneliness that had engulfed him had refused to go. He studied his breakfast. The tea had grown cold. The rolex, a costly egg sandwiched in a thin chapatti, sat on a plastic plate, cold too. He was still summoning courage to eat. Dust was the tablecloth in this restaurant.

Mutagubya looked at the other people in the restaurant and felt sad. Their conversations were choking with vulgarities. There was a table on which four men dressed in oil-covered overalls, sat. They kept talking on top of their voices about the sexual conquests of the previous evening. They spoke each word, though heavy to the ears, with so much ease, to the delight of the waitresses and the other individuals who were in the room.

If only I had ear phones, Mutagubya wished. He looked at his phone, a small Chinese phone that barely released a sound, and clenched his jaws. It didn’t have a radio. Ear phones wouldn’t even save him. He got the courage and reached for the rolex. He tried not to think about where he had bought it or the chances of falling sick.

When he had eaten the last of it, he got up and left the restaurant. The walk to the old taxi park was long, but what choice did he have? Much as it left his shoes and trousers dusty, it helped him save money. He kept what he would have paid as a taxi fare.

He was the last passenger to enter the taxi. The driver started the engine and within minutes they were on Jinja road. There was mild traffic on the road. Apart from the brief stop at the Jinja road traffic lights, and at road junctions, the taxi just breezed through.

Mutagubya exited the taxi at Banda, and made his way to the room he was renting. He wished no one in his school days was seeing him. The neighbourhood was slummy. To get to the room, one had to pass behind people’s bathrooms and toilets, jump over clogged tranches and squeeze through a narrow corridor. Sounds of screaming and teary children welcomed him home.

There was little in his room. All he had, was a two-inch mattress with no bed to rest it on. There were two plastic cups, four plates and a saucepan. He hated the place. During day, electricity was switched off. There was no water. He had to fetch it at the well near the washing bay, over three hundred meters away, and fight with the entire neighbourhood.

He pushed the door to shut and walked in.

How did it get to this? He wondered. Two years after graduation and still no job. He had got a first class degree for God’s sake and had finished on top of his class. But everyone else had got a job.

He had been to countless offices but everywhere he had got the same response. There was no vacancy. He had put all his effort in books while in school. This is not the harvest he had expected.

His parents were no longer talking to him. The last time they had talked, his father had told him to do his part. He had done his by seeing him through school. Mutagubya had wanted a small loan from him to start a business of selling second-hand clothes. This had angered his father.

‘You got a first class degree,’ his father had said angrily. ‘At least go back to the university and teach. Leave such work to those who made the choice earlier.’

Mutagubya had gone to the university. He had found out that to become a lecturer, the head of department, a man he was not at good terms with, had to recommend you. If not, you had to bribe one of the people on the selection board. Mutagubya did not have money and had not got the job.

He had tried to get in touch with some of his former classmates. Few had answered his calls. Word of his troubles had spread. Because he was a know-it-all in school, everyone thought it served him right.

He stepped out of his shoes and sat on his bed.

What next now? He wondered. Another day in the glaring sun and still no job. He reached for a notebook from his bag and started perusing through the countless business plans he had written. Maybe the time had come to create his own job, no matter what the rest of the world thought of it. Maybe that was his destiny. He closed the book and started pondering about it, hoping to find a solution this time. He closed his eyes and silently prayed. He wished this time, that God would answer his prayer and improve his life. A new month was close. He had to get a source of income before the land lord threw him out. If he got thrown out of the room, there would be no other choice but to return to his parent’s home. That is the last thing he wanted. The whole world would laugh at him.

© Mulumba Ivan Matthias

I want

I want to cry
as I did once,
snuggle to my mother’s bosom,
report the land lord
that bangs on my door before dawn
demanding rent,
the terrible boss
always screaming orders at me,
the impatient creditors…
I want to yell,
release to the world my agony.
I want to be soothed with kisses,
to be told all will be well.
But what man will that make me?

© Mulumba Ivan Matthias

The plague

‘I told you to stay off those motorcycles,’ the old woman told the girl who was lying on the bed.

‘You never listen to me, do you?’ She wiped the tears that were flowing down her cheeks with the folds of her gomesi . She looked around the ward. There were close to one hundred people. Some were lying in beds, others on the floor. Some had lost limbs, others had badly fractured bones. Her daughter was lucky to still be alive. She was even luckier to have only one broken bone.

‘I told the man to stop,’ her daughter had said tearfully. ‘The truck was coming straight at us, but he couldn’t stop. He just rode right into it. If the truck driver hadn’t swerved, I can’t imagine what could have happened.’

She was now silent, probably recovering from the shock of seeing all the accident victims who were in the ward.

‘What happened to all these people?’ she had asked the nurse.

‘Boda bodas,’ the nurse had replied. ‘They’ve either been knocked down by boda-bodas or have fallen off them.’

‘Oh my God,’ she had said and hadn’t said a thing since.

* *

A few miles from Mulago hospital, a group of law makers were engaged in a heated discussion. One arm of the group was backing the proposal to ban boda-boda motorcycles from the city. The other half could not imagine Kampala without them.

‘What will the riders do?’ one of them asked. ‘Won’t they become axe wilding thugs that will attack us in the night, at home or on the way to our homes?’

‘What will their families do?’ asked another. ‘If the bread winner is jobless, then the family will undoubtedly suffer. That means that the country will have more uneducated children. It also means that there will be mothers who will be entrenched in poverty.’

‘By the way don’t we tax these people?’ the former asked.

The proponents of the debate looked at the opponents with disbelief.

‘Go to Mulago hospital, or any other health centre,’ one of them said, ‘there are wards dedicated to victims of accidents involving boda-bodas.’

‘The same can be said of cars,’ one of the opponents interjected, ‘and yet you are not thinking of banning them.’

‘Have you travelled on the roads lately? The sight of boda bodas is like that of an invasion of locusts. They are everywhere, in every space, even where they cannot fit!’

‘No wonder the accidents are too many,’ said another proponent.

‘They are worsening the disorder in the city. We should outlaw them. Such chaos is not there in cities like London or New York.’

‘But this is Kampala,’ one of the opponents said, ‘not London or New York.’

* *

In Mulago, the mother dried her daughter’s tears. She still hadn’t said a word. She was just crying silently.

‘Can I get you something to eat?’ She asked in hope of getting her to talk. But there was no answer.

‘A drink perhaps?’ she pressed on, attempting a smile.

‘No,’ the daughter finally spoke, faintly. ‘I don’t want anything.’ It’s then that the mother noticed the missing teeth.

‘You shouldn’t frown about missing teeth,’ she said. ‘I have lost several myself but I’m still alive. You should be thankful that you’re alive.’

‘I’m thankful,’ the daughter replied angrily. ‘Very thankful actually. But who is going to marry me when I look like this? Who? Who will want to see me smile or laugh?’

The mother was silent for a while. She wiped another tear before she spoke.

‘Look around you?’ she said, calmly. ‘There are people here who will never walk again. Some have lost limbs. Others have been hurt so badly, they wish they were dead. There are those who weren’t lucky to make it to the ward. They just died on the spot. But you made it here. You will walk out of here. And you are worried about missing teeth?’

The girl did not answer. She inhaled loudly to stem the flow of mucous.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said after a while. But the frown on her face became more intense. Her mother patted her on the forehead, before gently stoking her hair.

‘I thought I had lost you,’ she said with a tinge of sadness in her face. ‘You are all I have. Let’s be thankful that you are alive. The doctors said you will be out of here in a couple of days. If you are optimistic, you could get out of here in one day. Don’t let the accident cloud the bright future you have. ’

The daughter remained silent.

* *

In the meeting, the two opposing parties were still going on with their arguments.

‘Can’t we get a solution that can regulate boda-bodas in the city, without throwing them out?’ one of the opponents asked.

‘I don’t think so,’ one of the proponents said. ‘They have turned the entire city into a slum. The riders are not trained well and are ignorant about traffic rules. 95% of all the accidents in the city are caused by them.’

‘Then we should address that,’ another opponent said. ‘Let’s ensure that they get trained in safe riding of motorcycles and that they get riding permits. We should also teach them to follow traffic rules. The blame could even be on the passengers. Why are they always in a hurry? Some of them are too lazy, even distance they can cover on foot, they want to cover it on the boda-boda. Shouldn’t they be telling the boda-boda riders to slow down or to ride well?’

‘That is because the society has been dragged in the disorderly world of boda-bodas,’ one of the proponents said. ‘We can barely tell right from wrong.’

‘Gentlemen,’ the mediator came in. ‘If we continue to blame everyone we will not get a solution. I’m afraid one meeting might not produce a solution. I think we should meet again, with other parties, including those who use these means of transport, including the boda-boda riders. We need to hear their side of the story. May be then, we will get a lasting solution.’

‘Once again you invite rats to the table,’ one of the proponents said. ‘They will eat us.’

‘You should not forget,’ the moderator replied. ‘You were a rat not so long ago.’

© Mulumba Ivan Matthias

Haunted love

Like a corpse:
feared …

Like an isle:
alone …

Like a stone:
unfeeling …

I am,
since you’re gone.

© Mulumba Ivan Matthias

Under the weight of tyres

You could think the cars have been glued on the road. None of them is moving. The passengers stare in defeat as time passes by, leaving them behind. Boda-boda motorcycles are the new kings of the road. They manoeuvre through the traffic, at times riding on pavements, if not squeezing between cars.

We, sitting in twos or threes on the boda-bodas, hold on tightly lest life slipped away. The road is small for all of us; the cars, motorcycles, pedestrians. Everything else around it seems to grow. But the road is not. It is breaking under the weight of our feet, the weight of tyres. Even the sewers that for years oversaw the safe flow of sewage, spit it out in frustration. The sewage flows on the road like rain water.

There is a clash of machines. Two motorcycles have collided. The five passengers get off and walk away without paying. The boda-boda riders throw at each other mouthfuls of insults. Onlookers just laugh. Even the traffic officers laugh before resuming their coversation.

Traffic lights change. Only a few cars move forward. The road is choking with vehicles. We are trapped on this road, in this big city.

The boda-boda manoeuvres through the traffic, to get us to work. The traffic lights are red. But we push forward. They are not meant for us. A taxi misses us by a whisker. We no longer bothered. It happens all the time.

© Mulumba Ivan Matthias

Tears of a tree

‘A woman has to be strong,’ she said to herself as her work-day come to a close. She watched the men rush away, still holding the metallic mugs she had given them. They were washing down the maize and the chapattis with the tea. Only a couple of them had paid her. The rest had promised to pay her after they’d had breakfast. But the interruption had come before they were through with it.

She looked at the Kampala Capital City Authority law enforcement officers. They were putting her saucepans and the rest of the edibles on the double cabin. She wanted to walk to them and plead, and tell them about her sick son at home. She wanted to tell them about her unpaid rent and the loan she had got to start her business. She wanted to see the ‘human’ in them, not the beasts that frowned at everyone who crossed their path. But she held back. She knew that if she came close to them, they would put her on the double cabin and take her to city hall. It was rumoured that once someone was there, no amount of money could save them. She did not wish to go through the night mare.

A couple of her friends in the same trade had managed to escape. They had seen the double cabin approach. But she was too busy attending to her customers. She looked for them among the crowd but could not spot them. But she wasn’t surprised. She knew that they were watching from a distance, waiting for the law enforcement officers to leave. Then, they would return and resume their work.

She looked at the taxis that were teeming with people going to work, then at the majestic Mapeera house, and the green, of city square where no soul stepped. She felt alone. No one seemed to be paying any attention to her. Even the officers who had confiscated her property did not seem to notice that she was still around!

She wanted to cry. But the well of tears was dry. A hundred thousand shillings, that’s what she had lost. They would have taken the chapattis, the bread and the maize, and spared her saucepans, flasks and kettle. Those were the heart of her business. Without them, she did not have a business. She wanted to protest. But then she remembered the brute force with which the protesters were handled. Several people had been dragged to Luzira maximum prison after protesting. They were fined half a million shillings. Where would she get such money?

She walked to the spot where the men she had sold tea had been standing. They had dumped the mugs there and taken off. She looked at the people who were hurrying past her, to see whether the men were among them. But they weren’t. She looked at the double cabin on which the law enforcement officers were sitting. They were like rebels ready to pounce on innocents. They no longer arrested the people selling things from the street, alone. They also arrested the customers. This was driving away most of the customers. How would her business grow then?

They made it clear that they did not want her to work from the city streets. Where was she going to work from? The village where there was barely a customer? The trade licences were too expensive for her. There was no way her business would survive if she paid them. She felt a pull from her last job but tried to shake it off. This was the second time in a month that her business had been confiscated. She had sworn never to sell her body again. But at this rate of loss, such a promise seemed harder to keep, with every day that passed.

© Mulumba Ivan Matthias