towards a strong literary presence

This month (July,2018) started with jubilation and lots of promise to literary lovers and enthusiasts. Makena Onjerika’s ‘Fanta Blackcurrant’ won the 2018 Caine Prize short story competition and three Kenyans, Daniel Many Owiti, Janet Kali and Wafula p’Khisa, were longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe Poetry Prize. The poetry prize is organized and funded yearly by the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation in Uganda. It is awarded to the winning African poet at the Babishai literary festival in early August. These are not mere achievements; if they cannot move your heart, I wonder what will.

However, as much as we celebrate these achievements, there is need to ask ourselves tough questions regarding our literary investment, production and future in relation to other countries. On the 2018 Babishai Poetry Prize longlist for instance, over 20 out of the 35 poets are Nigerians. The rest are from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia and South Sudan. This makes us to imagine that the prize this year is a Nigerians’ affair! But it’s not the first time to feel Nigeria’s literary dominance. A few months ago, Tendai Rhinos Mwanaka (Zimbabwean poet, publisher and editor) noted that he received a large number of submissions from Nigeria for the Best ‘New’ African Poets 2017 anthology. Moreover, Gloria Mwaniga often asked: “Why are Nigerians winning all the prizes?” to every Nigerian writer that she interviewed in her column: “By the Book.” Whether this is attributed to Nigeria’s rich literary heritage or unmatched creative imagination and energy is a story for another day.

What is the matter with our literary performance then? Why don’t we have as many poets and writers as Nigerians fighting for space in the literary world? Is it our literary heritage, inadequate artistic exposure and mentorship, government’s failure to support and recognize artists or weak creative imagination that is to blame? Everyone claims to be a writer or rather to know how good writing should be. But they aren’t writing at all. They aren’t reading or researching either. Facebook is awash with hastily drafted texts masquerading as poetry and short stories. Very few writers have blogs or websites for readers to access their work. They have very little knowledge of other writers and the ever-changing literary landscape. This denies us ability to compete, thus reducing us to mere literary flower girls in a contest where our counterparts take all the glory with ease.

I think young poets and writers in Kenya are just lazy. They hardly participate in literary contests, workshops and submit their work for publication– there are many online literary journals and magazines for this. A quick overview of what they write reveals that some of their work are mere rants and gossip. Such, if submitted for publication or contests, die prematurely in the critical hands of editors and judges who are intolerant to mediocrity. That’s probably why most of them don’t live beyond the social media pages.

This should change. Let’s encourage young writers, promote their work and challenge them to do better. Writers should write more and publish on any available platform as many times as possible. Nobody will take you seriously as a writer if you have no publication history. Furthermore, we should seize every opportunity to participate in all literary activities like contests, workshops and discussions. That way, we will not only be telling our story to the world but we shall also be safeguarding our literary future.
(c)Wafula p’Khisa

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A Suicide Petition

…for winnie

a tall, bronze man — in a golden leather jacket
awaited, laughing his teeth out, in a distant future
to crown you, weaver of fragments of his tattered heart
then proceed to chase wind, in the London marathon, for more medals
to build a nest of gold or silver– home for your colourful dreams.

a kid, trapped in web of mystic times, like a dying fly
cried for birth; warmly embraced & dressed in shades of white
falling off the palm tree, we watered in the garden of your memory
and sing your name across ages with pride.

but, you leapt ahead of time
and changed destiny, with a mere thread
that swallowed your tender life;
leaving the bronze man wifeless, the kid motherless & donors of your genes childless
how do you want them wipe tears easily, and rise after this blow?
a society that buries an infant is dead!

…and us? stuck between cold seas & reigning storms
bear the pinch of incompleteness. But why, daughter of the hills?
Was the sea rough & sickening? or the smell of daylight awful?
Was the moon missing in the universe of your dreams? or love died in your hands before dawn?
Oh girl, some roads are better not taken!

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a requiem for subdued gods

the history of our fathers died in our hands at birth
when the midwife cut the umbilical cord that bound us to ancestral womb
we scrapped off our pretty selves tribal tattoos
and burned the shrines of ancient gods with vengeance
then embraced a new deity, to sail us through the rising tides.

we murdered our gods, and buried them in unmarked graves–
somewhere in the backyard of memory;
never to rise and set eyes upon our travails
then we sold our soul to foreign deities; we kill & gossip & rob
for untold favours falling off their plate of benevolence!

so when a messiah, with a thick overflowing beard, was born in our village one morning
a bunch of christian faithfuls gathered at the market place, burned his effigy & sang hallelujahs
for heavenly fire to torch him into bits of ash
They raided our shrine, stripped naked our lord, and dragged him to jail
scattering us all over, like subdued dreams of winter!

But, when they marched down the streets, carrying placards and beating their chests
to be granted political freedom & democracy– wrapped in hard skin of African ideals & indigenous philosophies
Who despised them? Aren’t they farting now for eating too much grapes of power?
Why then, do they despise our gods and submit to alien spirits
but claim to honour our heritage?
No man abandons his mother to praise another
across the ridge, however refined she is!
© wafula p’khisa

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Canaan; a dream deferred?!


our ship had already anchored ashore
awaiting orders from the captain
to sail across the great sea, into gentle hands
of angels, gladly waiting at heavensgate.

but, pharaoh’s generals swung fast, wielding tools of death
clipped our lead stars, and plunged us into darkness
captain desperately cried, like a stranded whale– left in the cold
by his crew; fleeing the roaring waves

the sand under our feet ran; our knees sagged & kissed the weeping ground:
afraid of extreme heat of another futile struggle
they had disabled chebukati’s organs & amputated the most feared watchdogs
to howl like hungry wolves, in tandem with despotic tunes
crushing dissent voices, thirsting for sunlight!

we’re pulled from the fertile breast of dreams, and squeezed into jubilee’s bruising yoke
to carry the swelling national debt & nurse ugly wounds
of marginalization, impunity & theoretical progress
for seasons of reigning thunder, fire & blood.
©wafula p’khisa

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broken ring

They hurried from the altar
for a million-dollar honeymoon in Los Angeles
as the priest screamed blessings after them
Then limped back, a moment later; clutching divorce papers
under hairy armpits
©wafula p’khisa

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Letters to Martha


I won’t stop loving you, even if time comes off its hinges
and brothers confront, with tools of death; settling ancient tribal scores
To my heart I’ll hold, and shield you from raging fire
until the storm’s over, thus rebuild shattered dreams with renewed energy!

When time grows wings and flies away, like a bird across the sea
Leaving us stranded ashore, waiting to sail across
I won’t let the ground riot under your feet, fearing to break my bones
I’ll bear your massive weight, from the north pole
through the equator, to the south pole–
Where dreams blossom, in fertile gold fields of the Savannah.

When the moon’s down, and your youthful vitality gone
With the firmness & fullness of your breasts
that earned me sleepless nights before
electing you to govern my heart
Beside you I’ll stand, like a committed soldier
dying for a cause he sacredly believes in!

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bite of tribalism

tribal markings shouting
names beyond homesteads today
deny us fortune

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