4.1 East African Poetry & Drama: Can you provide an anthological classification of poems? Do you know the various poetic devices?

Chapter 4

East African written Poetry: A Stylo-thematic

 Analysis of Selected Short Poems. (Part I)


4.1      Categorize poems in any anthology


This lesson and the subsequent one are specifically designed to look at some of the written short poems in East Africa as a way of helping you appreciate poetry from this region. There are so many written short poems from East Africa that we cannot exhaust them in one lesson or even one course. Therefore I have chosen to narrow down to only written and published poems. Again there are so many written and published poems and most of them appear in anthologies. Some of the anthologies from East Africa that you are likely to come across include:

  1. Poems from East Africa by David Cook and David Rubadiri
  2. An Anthology of East African poetry by A.D. Kisa Amateshe
  3. Boundless Voices: Poems from Kenya edited by Arthur Luvai
  4. My Mother’s Song and other Poems by Micere Githae Mugo
  5. Tides of Time: Selected poems by jared Angira
  6. A Chequered Serenede to Mother Africa by Mutu wa Gethoi
  7. Words the melt a Mountain by Taban Lo Liyong
  8. Make it Sing and other poems by Marjorie O. Macgoye
  9. Echoes Across the valley edited by Arthur Luvai and Makokha Kwamchetsi
  10. Song for the Sun in Us by Okello Oculi
  11. The Lianja Epic by Mubima Maneniang’


Once more I am forced to narrow down to one anthology. For purposes of this course, I have picked on A.D. Kisa Amateshe’s, An Anthology of East African Poetry. I have specifically chosen this anthology for the following reasons:

  1. It has a number of poems from each of the three East African countries,
  2. It is one of the best known anthologies, after Poems from East Africa,
  3. It has poems with a variety of themes and style,
  4. It is readily available on the market and even in rural areas.




Stylo-thematic analysis  involves looking at the features of content i.e. themes, mood, tone, attitude and even feelings and the way they have been brought out in a poem using the varied and different features of style in order to make and/or give meaning.



An Anthology of East African Poetry edited by A.D. Kisa Amateshe has ninety poems mostly from East Africa but some are by writers from as far as Malawi. Amateshe puts these ninety poems in a logical progression of three parts. The first part is made up of simpler poems (or so does he say). The second is made of less easy poems and part three has difficult ones. I shall not use this partitioning in my analysis for the simple reason that I believe no poem is difficult or easy. It all depends on a reader’s exposure to criticisms of poetry and his/her own understanding of the poem in question. What may be seen as difficult to one reader may not be seen as difficult to another reader.

Of the ninety poems in the anthology, I have selected a sample of ten poems from East Africa. I have classified them under three categories. These are social poems, poems on economy, and lastly poems on politics. In this lesson, we shall look at social poems while in the subsequent lesson; we shall look at poems on economy and politics.


There are other poems in this anthology that may not fall in these classes. Therefore do not take this classification as the final word. You are free to challenge this way of looking at them and then suggesting your own criteria of classification.


These are poems that deal with issues like birth-day celebrations, growth, achievements, failures, love, marriage, weddings, tragedies, death and other rites of passage. They mostly inform us on the interactions of humans as social beings.

In the anthology most of the poems fall under this category but for purposes of analysis, we shall use the following;

  1. Wedding eve by Everett Standa
  2. The Death of my Father by Henry Indangasi
  3. The ways of the World by Richard Mabala
  4. A Leopard lives in a Muu Tree by Jonathan Kariara

Other poems in the anthology that may fall in this category include I Met a Thief, When I see the beauty of my beloved, Destiny, I will cling to your Garment, Despair, Extensions, Betrothed, Come My mothers son, Witness, At your feet, Death at Mulago, By the Seaside and Armanda.

4.1.1.      Locate features of style and their functions in the following  poems:

  • Wedding eve by Everett Standa
  • The Death of my Father by Henry Indangasi
  • The ways of the World by Richard Mabala
  • A Leopard lives in a Muu Tree by Jonathan Kariara

4.1.2     Discuss tone, mood and attitude as integral elements of a poem.

  • Wedding eve by Everett Standa
  • The Death of my Father by Henry Indangasi
  • The ways of the World by Richard Mabala
  • A Leopard lives in a Muu Tree by Jonathan Kariara

Wedding eve by Everett Standa

Wedding eve is a poem in which the persona who is a bridegroom-to-be is self- examining his conscience concerning his relationship to the bride to be. He is asking his conscience important questions wondering whether the bride to be will live upto his expectations or she will simply desert him when his fortunes start dwindling. He wonders whether the lady loves him truly and genuinely or she loves what he can provide (the future she saw in me. Line11). These doubts nag his conscience until he is divided between going ahead with the wedding arrangements or cancelling it all together. At last, he decides to go on with it but on a condition; that like a chess player, he will be careful on how he lives with his woman. He will wait for the lady to make a move before he makes his. What he will be doing in life will depend on what she does. She will make a move  and then based on that move, he will make his move. That way, they can ensnare each other in an everlasting bound of marriage. Look at the last line;

Hoping to win against each other.

This line indicates that  the persona knows that life with this lady may not be a bed of roses because he knows little about her and she knows little about him (secret dreams) yet they all have expectations from each other. Therefore as they live together, they will pursue their expectations each hoping that his or her expectations will be the ones to be meet or realized. Therefore ‘hoping to win against each other’ means that each one of them will be fighting to have his/her hopes and expectations realized in that marriage just like chess players hope to win at the end of the match.


Key word


A persona is the character who tells the story in a poem. He is the one who we hear his/her voice in a poem. He is sometimes called the speaker. For example the persona in the poem Wedding eve is a bridegroom who is probably just about to tie the nuptial knot.





1.      Imagine you are the bride whose bride groom is having these doubts; Write a poem in response to his doubts.

2.      Imagine you are a psychiatrist listening to this bridegroom; write a poem counseling and advising him



The themes that emerge strongly from the poem are faith in love and fear for the unknown. The bridegroom doubts his faith in the love that the bride will shower unto him. He knows he is risking by agreeing to share his life with a woman he knows little about.  He feels like running away but reason tells him not to because he has come too far to abandon.




Do you find this poem relevant in today’s world?


This poem is very apt and of social relevance in today’s East African society where we are having a lot of failed marriages. Time and again we hear news of how a couples wedding has been disrupted because the bride or the groom has been found to have withheld certain vital information about him/herself.

Poetic devices in the poem.

Standa uses a kind of conversational tone between the persona and his conscience. The persona asks his conscience leading questions about this woman who he is about to marry yet he is not so sure of.  The persona exposes his fears to his conscience in the first lines of the poem and in the last five lines, he gives a conclusion. By making the persona give a conclusion, the poet metes poetic justice in the poem such that the reader is not left in suspense wondering whether the persona cancelled the wedding or not. The last five lines assure the reader that the persona eventually married the woman. I find this stylistic aspect a very new and novel idea because although people are ever conversing with themselves, rarely do you find poets making a character hold such a fruitful conversation with their consciences. In this case, the conscience is seen as a bosom friend to the persona such that the persona is so free with it that he can confide in it his fears. He can pose rhetoric questions which he does not expect answers. These questions give the reader an opportunity to reflect upon the issues of lack of faith in love and the fear of the unknown.




Rhetoric questions: These are questions that carry information yet they do not require answers or immediate responses. They are meant to help the reader ponder on issues under examination.


The persona asks:

What magic can I use?

To see what lies beneath

Her angel face and well knit hair?

To see her hopes and dreams

Before I take the oath

To love forever?

The above questions do not require responses yet they are manifestations of the fear the persona has; that the hopes and dreams of the bride may be too much for him to handle or fulfil. If only he knew them, he would know how to make himself ready for them.


Standa writes the poem in such a way that vivid images of the possible betrayal of the persona by the bride can be pictured in the readers mind. This is what is called imagery.



Imagery is a stylistic aspect in which a poet uses words that tend to create vivid pictures in the mind of the reader. Under imagery we have techniques like metaphors, personifications, similes, vivid descriptions, metonyms among others.


The persona uses imagery as he wonders if the bride will desert him when he is most vulnerable; ‘leaving the naked me To love without hope’ (line 13, 14)

The word ‘naked’ is used metaphorically to mean that the bride may leave him exposed without material wealth and investments (future).

The word ‘face’ in line 15 is personified in such a way that it is given a human attribute of wearing a smile; ‘will that face she wears…’

The whole of stanza 4 (lines 19-23) is rich in imagery. The lady is likened to a clever passenger in a faulty plane who wears her life saving jacket and jumps out (walks out of marriage) leaving the pilot to crash. The faulty plane in this case may represent the life the two will be leading together while the pilot who crashes into the unknown is the bridegroom. Additionally, walking out of the marriage is likened to jumping out of  a faulty plane. These similes enhance our understanding of the fears of the bridegroom on the wedding eve.




Do you now find the poem understandable? Read through it again and attempt to find the meaning of the following stanza;

Will she continue to love me?

When the future she saw in me?

Crumbles and fades into nothing?



The Death of my Father by Henry Indangasi

This poem is a philosophical explanation and justification the persona is giving for not doing his custom –bound duty of mourning his father. African customs demand that the bereaved should mourn their dead especially if the dead is such a close kin as the father. That is why we have funerary ceremonies like ‘tero buru’ among the Luo tribes and Okhukoma among the Luhya clans of Kenya.  So there is no way the persona who seemingly is an East African cannot mourn his father without a proper explanation.




Demonstrate your understanding of the term funerary ceremonies. Give examples from your own community.


The persona starts by describing his late father and the picture the reader gets is that of a man who lived a hard and difficult life. He then goes on to extol the tools of trade of the deceased and the products of that trade.  Next he draws the interconnectivity between his life, that of his father and that of his son. Lastly he gives reasons as to why he cannot shed tears for his father because the fact that he is alive attests to the continuation of the life of his father in the present day. Again the fact that his (persona’s) son is alive assures of the continuity of the fathers life. The father lives in his son and grand son. To the persona, life is transmitted and preserved in our progenies and thus, there is no need to mourn a dead parent as if his life is lost.

The persona adopts a solemn mood as he reasons out with the reader. This solemn mood helps him lay bare the facts to back his philosophical argument of there being no reason to mourn a dead parent. At times, he changes his mood into a sarcastic one especially when he tells of the life of his father who made dining tables, chairs, wardrobes and other wood wares yet he died in a mud house on a bed full of bed bugs. This is a man who worked so hard to build mansions for the colonial masters yet he could only afford a mud house and could only dream of freedom and happiness. His son took over this dream of happiness and freedom and pursued it (made it his song and his love). Therefore the persona suggests that his fathers dream of happiness and freedom will be realized in him

Another way of looking at this text is that the persona seems to be saying he shall not mourn the death of colonialism era in which he was born. He says so because the post colonial society has characteristics of the colonial society hence he doesn’t see the need to say that colonialism is dead. Colonialism shall forever live but disguised and regenerating itself in those who took over in what can be referred to as neo colonialism




The speaker does not want to mourn his father because according to him, his father is him and him his son (line 28). Therefore mourning his father would be like mourning his own death and that of his son. It will mean that he is dead and his son is also dead.


The poetic techniques that come to mind as you read the poem are vivid description, imagery, sarcasm as well as philosophical reflections. The father is described as having been a hardy man who had sunken cheeks, unkempt grey hair, hard; course sand-paper like hands e.t.c. These descriptions leave a reader with a mind picture of a man who had endured a life of difficulties yet he was a man with a skill in carpentry. There is again a suggestion of colonial exploitation here. People could work for colonial masters yet the pay was not enough to even build a descent house and buy a descent bed.




Looking at the preceding discussions on this poem, identify and write down how the poet has used techniques of sarcasm and philosophical reflections.



Compare this poem to Christine Vakhoya by Loice Abukutsa in boundless Voices, We shall not mourn the dead by Helder Neto in When Bullets begin to Flower, Son of my mother by Okot P’Bitek in Poems from East Africa and Nyalgunga by Amateshe in An anthology of East African poetry. Do you think that these poems fall under one classification which we can call funerary poetry?


The Ways of the World by Richard Mabala

In the previous poem, we have seen the poetic persona, a son, who is proud to carry on his father’s dream in pursuit of freedom and happiness; a son who sees his life as a continuation of his dead father’s life hence sees no reason to mourn his father’s death. By contrast, the son in Richard Mabala’s poem, The Ways of the World is ashamed of his father and what he is doing to young girls. The poem starts by the speaker spotting a youthful well-shaped lass at the bus stop. He describes her as a sexy beautiful youngster who he deliberately decides not to stalk because she is but a secondary school student. But when he goes to a bar the same evening, he is shocked to find the same school girl, but now in a casual outfit (which again exposes her sexy shape so provocatively). What is more shocking is that she is getting cosy with the speakers own father. There is an irony here. The speaker had deliberately refused to seduce the girl out of his respect to her status as a school girl. This essentially means that the speaker perceived the girl as an under age. However his own father who is much older, elderly and probably married is making advances at this school girl. The speaker storms out of the bar in silent revolt to this social injustice.

What follows in stanza three is even shocking but to be expected. The speaker meets this girl once more at the bus stop. The young lady, who probably is not mature enough to know how to protect herself against unsafe sex, is now heavy with an unwanted and illegitimate pregnancy. Her beauty is all gone and her once inviting shape is now disgusting.


The poet structures this poem into three stanzas, each stanza representing an incident in which the speaker sees the schoolgirl. There is a logical progression of events. In stanza one, the girl is looking attractive and ripe, stanza two a shameless man takes advantage of this ripe and gorgeous figure and the last stanza is the product of the  advantage the man took of the girl in the second stanza. The whole poem is a cry of the moral rot and decadence witnessed in the society where fathers are sexually abusing their daughters.  The persona is a man who is enchanted by the physical features of the girl but is forced not to pursue her because she is in a school uniform. However when he sees the same girl in casual wear and with another man, he feels jealous until when he sees who that man is. The covetous feeling turns into sorrow because his own father has beaten him in the quest for the girl. When he meets the girl again, she is a pitiable sight having lost all her sensual and provocative demeanour. He feels disgusted and utters a holier-than-thou sentence;

Oh! What are we doing to our daughters?


To me this sentence fits not just his father but also him (the persona) because had he been the first to meet the girl in the bar before his father did, chances are that he would have done exactly what the father did i.e. woo the girl and probably make her pregnant. So, line 47 in my opinion is a self-reproach to all elderly men, who lure young girls into bed for sexual adventure. The persona and his father are representatives of such men. This is bad not just because it introduces the young girl to premarital sex but it is risky at this age of incurable sexually transmitted diseases and infections.

You will therefore realize that the feelings of the persona change in each stanza according to the conditions of the instances in that stanza.




1.      Does the language the persona uses to describe the school girl, tell you that he is interested in her? Select specific words or phrases and explain them.

2.      Analyse the use of imagery and how it helps you understand the theme of teenage pregnancy in the poem.





Compare the main theme in this poem and the main theme in Everett Standa’s poem, The Pregnant School Girl? Do you think these two poems fall in the same category which we call, social tragic poems?



A leopard Leaves in a Muu Tree by Jonathan Kariara

In the previous poem, we have seen how elderly men behave badly and sin before God and against school girls. In this poem, we see how elderly men mess with their fellow elderly men’s wives. This is one poem that carries heavy euphemism since it touches on taboo areas and is a frank admission of failure in sexual matters. You will agree with me that not so many people will admit having failed to sexually satisfy their spouses. However the speaker is bold enough to admit that his ‘upright post at the gate has fallen’ (his manhood cannot rise to the occasion)




Euphemism: A word that is used in the place of another word that may cause discomfort or embarrassment to a reader. Euphemism is used in order to make a harsh, gross, vulgar, taboo, crass or sensous word more palatable to a reader.



The Muu tree in this poem is seen as an agent of evil for it harbours the offending man (leopard) who has undesirable characteristics. The leopard is portrayed as opportunistic for it takes advantage of another man’s sickness (sword rusting in the scabbard) to sexually exploit his wives. This exploitation leads to the wives giving birth to speckled and mottled lambs (not pure breed). It is even made worse when the leopard turns on these lambs and eats them. It means that the offending elder brother (line 18) to the persona, sleeps with the persona’s wives and turns around and also sleeps with the children born out of this union. This is pure incest that cannot be condoned. Thus we can understand why the speaker wants to cut down the Muu tree (the dwelling place of his brother) and scare away the leopard, the incestuous man who sleeps with his own children. He is a social outcast and I think the persona is right in wishing to send him away.




The poetic devices employed in this poem are symbolism, imagery, euphemism and repetition.




What does the repetition of the phrase, ‘I am besieged’ mean to you? Of what significance does it have in telling you the situation and fears of the persona?



When a man cannot rise to the occasion and has several wives, what should the wives do? Respond referring to the poem and giving or drawing examples from the society you live in.



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