A Far Cry From Africa Questions and Answers
1. Colonialism and Divided Identity
[Q. Discuss the theme of colonialism and divided entity as shown by Walcott in his poem ‘A Far Cry From Africa’.]
“A Far Cry From Africa” responds to the Mau Mau Uprising, a rebellion fought by native Kenyans against the British colonial army in the mid-20th century. The poem’s speaker has connections to both Africa and England, and feels conflicted about how to interpret the violence of this conflict. Usually identified closely with Walcott himself, the speaker is painfully divided between his connections to the English as well as to the colonized people of Africa. In fact, the poem implicitly argues that a confused identity and the anxiety it causes-is one of the painful legacies of colonialism.
To understand the speaker’s dilemma here, it’s important to understand some historical context. The Mau Mau, or Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), were rebels from the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya that waged a gruesome guerrilla war against English settlers for eight years (1952-1960). The British response to the rebellion was even more brutal.
This, then, is what the speaker is responding when asking, “How can I face such slaughter and be cool? / How can I turn from African and live?” For the speaker the word slaughter” seems to suggest the highly publicized violence of the Mau Mau, which provoked the subsequent brutal response from the British. These lines embody the speaker’s internal division between England and Africa, laying out the two sides as diametrically opposed choices.
The speaker feels that the violence of the Mau Mau Rebellion requires a passionate and decisive response. Either one must condemn the Mau Mau and side with England, or support the Mau Mau and forsake England entirely; accept the violence of the Mau Mau rebellion as necessary to Kenyan independence, or reject such violence, and in the process reject Africa and all connection to colonized people. The speaker is suspended between these two options, unable to choose.
Thus, the speaker feels alienated from each side of the conflict. At the same time, however, the speaker also feels inextricably linked to both the British and the Kenyans. It’s implied that the speaker has a colonial heritage, ancestry from both English colonists and colonized Africans. As a result, the speaker feels as if his own body is divided by this conflict.
In the third stanza, the speaker addresses this problem explicitly: “I who am poisoned with the blood of both, / Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” The word “poisoned” conveys the powerful sense of alienation the Mau Mau Uprising provokes in the speaker. Although the speaker has “the blood of both” Europeans and Africansthat is, ancestry from each place this blood feels poisonous, linking the speaker to violence no matter what.
This heritage also “poison[s]” the speaker because the speaker feels “divided to the vein.” No matter which way the speaker “turn[s],” it’s as if half the speaker’s “blood” does violence to the other half. By framing this conflict in terms of “blood” and the speaker’s own “vein[s],” the poem captures the very personal, even bodily, division the speaker feels. This isn’t a matter of abstract politics for the speaker, but a very intimate struggle that’s taking place within him-a struggle caused by the legacy of colonialism.
At the end of the poem, the speaker is no closer to choosing a side than at the beginning. Colonial history has forced the speaker into this situation, forever divided by colonizer and colonized.
2. Language as a Tool of Resistance and Self-Expression
[Q. Evaluate how Derek Walcott has used language as a tool of resistance and self-expression in ‘A Far Cry from Africa’.]
The poem explores the complex relationship between colonized peoples and the language that they’re often pushed to adopt-in this case, English. For the speaker, there are two distinct sides to the English language: one is the rich tradition of English literature, particularly poetry, and the other is England’s brutal history of colonization. While English literature has given the speaker a means of thought and self-expression, English colonists have only caused pain in the speaker’s eyes. As a result, the very act of writing in English embodies the speaker’s complex and conflicted identity. The poem, by its very existence, also illustrates how one may find a means of resistance and self-expression while using the language of an oppressor.
The speaker’s antipathy towards England is a response to the history of colonization, which, for the speaker, is directly connected to the English language. In other words, the English language is not separate from the actions of England; the poem implies that language is closely linked to identity and heritage.
The speaker states this connection and its resulting dilemma most clearly in the third stanza: “I who have cursed / The drunken officer of British rule, how choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?” In other words, the speaker hates English colonial rule and wants to support the independence of Africans. Yet the speaker feels that such support means rejecting the English language the very language the poem is written in, and which is also a part of the speaker’s identity and means of expressing himself. In fact, the speaker expresses “love” for “the English tongue.” This “love” communicates how passionately the speaker feels about English, how difficult it would be to give up writing in it.
This passion makes a lot of sense if the speaker is interpreted as someone from a British colony, as Walcott himself was (he grew up on the Caribbean island of Santa Lucia). While native peoples in English colonies did not originally speak English, they were forced to adopt it, especially those who attended school. English became a very important language for such people, even their primary mode of expression, as it was for Walcott. At the same time, though, it was a language they were coerced into adopting, the language of their oppressor.
The poem’s form conveys this nuanced relationship with English. The speaker engages with the traditional constraints of English verse while also striving for some freedom from those constraints. The poem-like the rest of Walcott’s work-is based on a traditionally English understanding of poetic form, albeit one that Walcott loosens and tweaks. In other words, the poem sounds like a freer, more modern version of traditional English poetry. For instance, the poem weaves in and out of a loose meter, sporadically using rhyme and half-rhyme in no set scheme.
By writing like this, the speaker conveys “love” for the English language and English literature. Yet by not fully conforming the forms of that past, the speaker reveals some distrust. Perhaps poetic constraints are not so different from the legal constraints imposed on natives by British colonial rule. The speaker bristles against colonial rule, even at a literary level. In adopting a more fluid attitude towards form, then, the speaker attains a degree of self-expression and self-interrogation that resists colonial authority.
As a result, the speaker occupies a kind of halfway point: not fully conforming to English expectations, but not fully free of them either. Rather than finding a resolution to this conflict, the speaker lingers in the painful contradictions of a divided identity, using eloquent English and a fluid attitude towards traditional form to address the suffering that colonization has caused.
3. Humanity and Violence
[Q. Examine the ‘A Far Cry from Africa’ as a poem elucidating humanity and violence.]
Much of the imagery in “A Far Cry From Africa” depicts violence. This imagery refers to the brutal tactics employed by British forces in Kenya, as well as the acts that the Mau Mua-of Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA)-used in their rebellion. While the speaker understands that British colonial rule is ultimately the source of this violence, the poem also laments the bloodiness of human affairs more generally. To the speaker, the violence of the Mau Mau also seems reprehensible. Violence begets violence in this poem, leaving the speaker pessimistic about ever achieving humanity’s higher ideals.
The speaker depicts both the Mau Mau and the British colonial regime as equally violent. To understand the force of this depiction, it’s important again to get a sense of the historical events it alludes to. For instance, “the white child hacked in bed” refers to one of the most notorious acts of the uprising, when a European familyincluding a six-year-old boy-were hacked to death on their farm by the Mau Mau. The Mau Mau often used tactics like this, targeting both white settlers and loyalist Kenyans (those Kenyans who supported British rule).
In response, however, the British killed vastly more people and employed brutally repressive tactics, such as the resettlement of natives and forced labor camps. These camps were compared-even by some disenchanted British officials-to the conditions of Nazi concentration camps only a decade earlier. That’s why the speaker thinks the British see Kenyans as “savages, expendable as Jews.” In this damning comparison, the British colonists are no better than Nazis.
As such, the speaker depicts both the British and Kenyans as succumbing to the same human failing of resorting to violence. Each group’s use of violence undermines their higher ideals. Referring to the British, the speaker says, “upright man / Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.” This refers to the traditional ideology of European colonists, who regarded themselves as virtuous Christians bringing “savages” closer to God. Yet these Christians enact their closeness to “divinity” by engaging in incredibly violent acts. The speaker implies that these Christian colonists are hypocrites; Christianity emphasizes having sympathy for the meek, not violently oppressing them.
Similarly, the speaker refers to the Kenyans whose “wars/ Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum.” This image suggests that the actions of Mau Mau are as appalling as those of the British, undermining the ideals of their own cause. More specifically, such actions metaphorically turn traditional Kenyan drums into “tightened carcass[es].” These drums should be a symbol of Kenya’s national pride in its culture. Instead, however, the drums have been reduced to a gruesome image of death. Indeed, the speaker doesn’t see violence of the Mau Mau as “courage” but as “dread / Of the white peace.” That is, the Kenyans are acting out of fear of oppression by whites, rather than out of courage and pride.
On both sides of the conflict, then, the speaker sees people giving in to violence. While the English and Mau Mau both view themselves as upholding what they most value, the speaker sees violence as undermining those ideals. The speaker’s outlook on humanity’s use of violence, then, is pretty bleak. Violence continues to produce more violence, advancing neither the cause of human “divinity” nor of African freedom.
4. Literary Devices
[Q. What kind of metaphorical language is used in the poem? Discuss in detail.]
The speaker of “A Far Cry From Africa” uses a lot of metaphorical language, and some of this is framed explicitly through simile. Line 2, for example, introduces a striking comparison:
[…] Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
This is a bold and ambiguous comparison to use right off the bat, especially for this speaker who is sympathetic to the project of African independence. The simile suggests the Kikuyu are like parasites or scavengers. Although the speaker has African ancestry, clearly the actions of Mau Mau have left the speaker unsure how to feel about them.
At the end of the first stanza, the speaker references “savages, expendable as Jews.” Here, the speaker parrots the racist ideologies of colonists and Nazis. Colonists have often referred to colonized natives as “savages,” uncivilized people who needed to be ruled by Christian colonists; the Nazis killed millions of Jewish people in concentration camps in an effort to exterminate them. In comparing these two ideologies, the speaker suggests that colonists are no better than Nazis. If the comparison of the Kikuyu to flies has a queasy ambiguity to it, there’s no question about where the speaker stands on colonists-they are reprehensible.
In the second stanza, the speaker says that “man” is “Delirious as these worried beasts.” In other words, people who engage in acts of violence are just as crazed as predators and prey locked in a battle for survival. Although people often like to think of themselves as above animals, the speaker implies that this belief is refuted by humans’ use of violence. In their thirst for blood, according to the speaker, British forces and Kenyan rebels are no different from hunger-crazed lions.
And in the third stanza, the speaker says that the Mau Mau rebellion is “A waste of our compassion, as with Spain.” Here, the speaker compares the Mau Mau rebellion to the Spanish Civil War, fought in the 1930s between left-wing and right-wing Spanish forces. Despite vicious fighting, leftists lost that war and a totalitarian government ruled Spain for four decades. According to the speaker, the Mau Mau rebellion, like Spanish civil war, isn’t worth the sympathy of liberal people. Not only do the Mau Mau use tactics the speaker disapproves of, but they will also probably
lose to the larger and better-armed British army.
Where simile appears in the poem: Line 2: “Kikuyu, quick as flies,” Line 10: “savages, expendable as Jews” Line 18: “Delirious as these worried beasts” Line 24: “A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,”
5. The Role of the Speaker
[Q. Comment on the significance of the role of the speaker in the poem.]
The speaker is closely identified with Derek Walcott himself, yet the poem doesn’t fully license the reader to treat as Walcott. Rather, the speaker is someone who draws on the kinds of experiences Walcott had after growing up in an English colony, experiences that are crucial for understanding the poem.
Derek Walcott grew up in the (now former) English colony of Saint Lucia and later attended university in Jamaica. The speaker of this poem is likewise implied to be someone who is well-educated, who grew up in a colony and adopted English as a primary means of expression, as evidenced by the phrase “the English tongue I love.” It’s also possible to treat this line as self-reflexively referring to the poem, and to the speaker as a poet.
Going off these implications, the speaker’s personal dilemma begins to grow clear. The speaker is someone who has become immersed in English to the point of writing English poetry that places itself within the long English poetic tradition. Yet the speaker has also “cursed / The drunken officer of British rule.” In other words, the speaker vehemently hates English colonial rule. And at the same time, the speaker doesn’t trust the “slaughter” employed by Mau Mau revolutionaries.
All these things are elements of the speaker’s moral and cultural conundrum. The speaker senses that the Mau Mau Rebellion requires people to take sides, yet the speaker feels that every side requires the speaker to “betray” the other. By ending on this note, the speaker offers no solution to this problem, only further problems.
6. The Title
[Q. Justify the appropriateness of the title ‘A Far Cry from Africa’ of Walcott’s poem.]
The title “A Far Cry From Africa” adds some complex resonance to the question of the poem’s setting. This title can be interpreted in three ways: In the idiomatic sense of a far cry, meaning “very different.” In this sense, something that is “A Far Cry From Africa” is very different from Africa. This idiom can be interpreted as saying that the speaker is physically very far away from Africa. Though the speaker has African ancestry, perhaps the speaker doesn’t actually live in Africa, but lives in England, America, or a Caribbean nation.
The title can be read literally as a distant call of distress coming from Africa. This, of course, summons all the troubles caused by the Mau Mau rebellion as the speaker learns about them from abroad.
Considering these interpretations, the title suggests that the speaker is mulling over Kenyan events while living on another continent. At the same time, though, the poem summons the Kenyan landscape as if it does take place in Africa, as when the speaker describes how “the long rushes break / In a white dust of ibises.” This image makes it seem as if the speaker is in Kenya, watching these things unfold.
Kenya becomes flesh and blood in the poem, whose physicality brings speaker and reader face-to-face with the complexities of a colonial revolution.
7. Historical Context
[Q. Describe the historical context of the poem.]
The Mau Mau Uprising lasted eight years, from 1952-1960. The Mau Mau, or Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) as they called themselves, were a group of guerilla fighters, most of whom were from the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s ethnic majority. The Mau Mau fought in response to England’s oppressive rule over Kenya, especially their exploitative approach to land. Kenyan’s were increasingly forced off their own land and compelled to work for white farmers at poor wages.
The Mau Mau didn’t have the resources to fight the British head on, so they employed guerilla tactics, such as night attacks on unarmed civilians. While any armed revolution is bound to be violent, the Mau Mau’s use of violence was especially shocking to outside observers because of these attacks. In one notorious example, the Mau Mau killed an entire white family at their farm, including a six-year-old boy. Committed with machete-like swords, this murder was particularly gruesome.
For some intellectuals, notably the anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon, such acts were a necessary phase in a colonial revolution-an outcome sparked by the decades of violence perpetrated by colonial forces. However, for observers like Walcott, such acts were unforgivable, even if British colonialism was equally detestable.
Eventually, the uprising was brutally suppressed. The British employed forced labor camps that some felt were uncomfortably similar to Nazi concentration campswhich had existed only a decade earlier. Additionally, because the Mau Mau employed such gruesome techniques and because the British were especially adept at sowing ideological division among natives, the uprising never gained enough support to swell into a full-scale revolution.
Despite the suppression of the rebellion, however, it did force the British to grant certain concessions to Kenyans, such as political representation. And just a few years later, Kenya gained independence.
8. Depiction of Colonization – Genetic and Cultural Hybridity
[Q. What are the post-colonial elements in the poem ‘A Far Cry from Africa? Examine.]
Derek Walcott’s “A Far Cry from Africa” expresses how Walcott is torn between “Africa and the English tongue [he] love[s]”. In “A Far Cry from Africa,”Derek Walcott uses the advantages of hybridity to express unhomeliness.
Derek Walcott often described himself as a “mongrel”; both grandmothers were African and both grandfathers were European. He hated the English culture but loved the English language and empathized with the Irish for they were also the victims of colonization. In “A Far Cry from Africa, “Walcott does not express all aspects of British and African culture; instead, he focuses only on the brutal history of both. He is “poisoned with the blood of both,” and he is torn between the two horrific options of a bloodied Africa or the attacker that is England.
In order to effectively colonize another’s land, the colonizer’s culture has to become so widely spread and deeply embedded in the colonized land’s culture so that the indigenous peoples will begin to accept that they are inferior to the colonizers. Mimicry is a term used to explain the natives’ imitating the colonizing country due to their want to be “accepted by the colonizing culture” and their feeling of inferiority and shame for their own culture. In order to fully dominate a land by supporting their culture as superior, the colonizer must use one of the most powerful conveyances for the dispersion of ideologies: language. When the British colonized the West Indies, they enforced English as the official language, the main means of causing the natives to accept the British culture as their own. However, in “A Far Cry from Africa, “Walcott ironically describes how he rejects the British culture – the colonialist ideology – but accepts the British language as superior.
As colonial subject, Walcott would have been seen by the colonizers as another, and as half-European, Walcott would have been seen as different from the completely indigenous peoples. While these full-blooded natives would also have learned Standard English along with the French Creole and emulated British culture, their hybridity would not be as extreme as Walcott’s background. As a person of mixed blood and having family members that were European, Derek Walcott would have had a First World upbringing in a Second World country.
“A Far Cry from Africa” uses metaphors, such as “colonel of carrion”, and ironic statements, such as “corpses are scattered through a paradise”, to describe the death and destruction and inhumanity that has occurred in both Africa and Europe. As half-European and half-African, Walcott was privileged to bear both horrible histories. The full-blooded natives’ desire was to look and behave like the colonizers. However, they did not have to bear the burden of being genetically similar to the colonizers, and not only being torn between two cultures but “divided to the vein”. Derek Walcott uses his genetic hybridity and cultural hybridity to express the extremity of his unhomeliness.
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