St. Lucian Nobel laureate Derek Walcott’s poem “A Far Cry from Africa” is a postcolonial vision of Africa and its colonial encounter, focusing specifically on the Mau Mau rebellion of Kenya against British colonial rule from 1952-60. Published in Walcott’s “The Green Night” anthology in 1962, the poem uses highly visual and evocative imagery, vividly fleshing out the violence of colonial encounters that manifests both physically and psychologically. This is a poem on colonialism, violence, identity, and dualism.
A Far Cry from Africa | Summary and Analysis
The poem is written in three stanzas, the first two describing the bloody realities of colonialism, the last portraying the poet’s struggle with the internal conflict surrounding his hybrid identity, owing to his mixed racial heritage.
A Far Cry from Africa | Analysis, Line 1
“A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
The above line, reflects the poet’s brilliant use of imagery and symbolism to describe Africa and its colonial experience. The use of the words ‘tawny pelt’ parallels Africa with its emblematic animal, the lion. The word ‘tawny’ meaning brownish-yellow or amber, and ‘pelt’ meaning the skin of an animal, reflects the poet’s use of the metaphor of a lion to describe the land of Africa. The ‘ruffling’ wind also contributes vividly to the construction of this image, instantly bringing to mind aerial views captured of wind ruffling the African grasslands, or veldt. The dominant literary devices used here are imagery and metaphor.
A Far Cry from Africa | Analysis, Lines 2-4
“Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.”
The Kikuyu tribe forms the largest ethnic group in Kenya, who played a central role in the Mau Mau rebellion against the British colonial regime, and the above lines refer to the violent consequences of the rebellion explicitly. Taken together with the first line, these four lines are composed in the rhyme scheme abab. Animalistic parallels are drawn again as Kikuyu soldiers are compared to flies, quick, innumerable, and dispensable, their corpses ‘scattered’ across the landscape. The fourth line uses irony to describe the bloody reality of colonial Africa, strewn with corpses. The once pristine continent is a paradise no more. Metaphor and Irony are the literary devices used in these lines.
A Far Cry from Africa | Analysis, Lines 5-10
“Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
“Waste no compassion on these separate dead!”
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?”
The next five lines are composed in the following rhyme scheme abccbd. The poet uses anthropomorphism here, lending the worm the human quality of speech. The image of violent and wasteful death on the battlefield foregrounds lines five and six, while the words ‘colonel of carrion’ also brings in military metaphors, strengthening the battlefield imagery. Ironically, once dead, no difference remains between the British, the loyalists and the rebels, sparing no room for separate compassion or treatment, all of them destined to be worm-food.
Lines seven and eight bring to light the colonialist hypocrisy of the media, the bureaucracy, and the intelligentsia that attempt to justify the inherent biases of colonial policy and governance.
Forming the elite, university-educated sections of bourgeois society, these sections often benefit from colonial rule through trade and mediation and are therefore the first to defend the necessity and goodwill of colonialism. Their words are however of no comfort to the ‘white child hacked in bed’, to ‘savages, expendable as Jews’. The former is a reference to the horrifying murder of a European family by the rebels, which included the murder of a six-year-old boy. The reference to Jews brings out Holocaust parallels and the worldwide brutality that Europeans have inflicted upon others. These lines reflect that the violence that arises from colonial encounters is not always one-sided, and is often perpetrated by the colonized as well, as argued by Frantz Fanon in “The Wretched of the Earth”. However, that does not take away the colonized’s position as a victim in the colonial power dynamic. The major literary devices Walcott uses in the above lines are metaphor, symbolism, anthropomorphism, and alliteration.
A Far Cry from Africa | Analysis, Lines 11-14
“Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilization’s dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.”
These lines describe the centuries-old hunting traditions in Africa where hunters would beat on the grass while walking through grasslands, and birds hiding inside would fly out in fear, making them easy targets for shooting. The tone of violence and cruelty here is unmistakable, but this tradition forms an integral part of native African life and is described here in all its visual spectacle. The dominant literary device used is imagery.
A Far Cry from Africa | Analysis, Lines 15-21
“The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.”
In a thematic continuation of the previous four lines, Walcott extends the themes of hunting and brutality and throws light on the inherently hypocritical nature of human justification of violence. While violence amongst animals is considered to be a part of ‘natural law’ or the food chain, it is accepted with disgust and condescension by the ‘upright’, civilised, and morally superior man, who claims to be above the laws of nature. The pain and torture that humans inflict on their fellow beings, however, are written off as a divine venture, a civilising mission, or a necessary evil, although these actions, in their brutality and bloodiness, appear to as ‘delirious’ as those of beasts. In the last two lines, Walcott points out that historically, the white flag of peace planted by white soldiers on foreign lands has always been a result of the death, destruction and dread that they have inflicted on the natives, and have not been reached through any form of peaceful, mutual understanding or compromise. The colonizing mission has always been one of oppression, dominance, exploitation, coercion and brute force, and never one of peaceful, ‘civilised’ discussion or agreement. The lines follow the rhyme scheme abbcdaa, and the prominent literary devices used here are irony and alliteration.
A Far Cry from Africa | Analysis, Lines 22-25
“Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.”
The last stanza of the poem is arguably the most potent in terms of the message that it seeks to deliver. Composed in the rhyme scheme abbb, Walcott again draws our attention to the inherent violence of the colonizing mission, and the hypocritical justifications of it. The words ‘brutish necessity’ reflects the attempts made by Europe to defend the empire and its colonial policies as ‘harsh but necessary’. The action of wiping hands ‘Upon the napkin of a dirty cause’ is intended to portray Europe ‘wiping off’ or denying all responsibility for the crimes committed within the colonized nation, in a napkin that is dirtied by gore and blood – a metaphor for the violence that has been perpetrated against the colonized. In the twenty-fourth line, the poet appears to be condemning the attitude adopted by the European of not displaying compassion for the dead Africans, drawing parallels with the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) in which leaders of France and Britain, intent on avoiding another war that encompasses all of Europe, introduced a non-intervention pact signed by twenty-seven nations, allowing the killings and brutality to continue uninterrupted.
The ‘gorilla’ and the ‘superman’ function as extremely powerful symbols of the popular white perception of Africa and Europe – the ‘gorilla’ symbolising the native who is animalistic, inferior, incapable, and violent, needing to be ‘civilised’ and governed by the European ‘superman’, a rescuer intent on ‘saving and civilising’ the backward native. The dominant literary devices in these lines are symbolism and metaphor.
A Far Cry from Africa | Analysis, Lines 26-33
“I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?”
The last few lines trace the poet’s internal conflict owing to his mixed racial and cultural heritage, owing to his English, Dutch, and African descent. His identity is hybrid and divided, resulting in his culturally marginalised position in society. This mixed-race heritage places him on both sides of the colonial conundrum, or more accurately, on the dividing line itself. ‘Divided to the vein’ he is unable to relinquish his associations with either side completely, a fate that befalls all diasporic populations across the globe.
On one hand lies his sympathies with Africa, the land that he identifies and sympathises with more than any other, on the other lies his love for the English language – the language that he chooses to write in, knowing full well that it has been instrumental in exercising colonial dominance and oppression in Africa, as well as in other colonized nations. The last line echoes the poet’s moral dilemma – his knowledge that his position, geographically, ideologically, and culturally, and historically, is indeed ‘a far cry from Africa’ – the land and its laments. But his inability to turn his back to the land of his origin fixes him on the border between Africa and Europe, and the Coloniser and the Colonized forever.