The Rwanda Genocide, twenty years later: 100 Days of photographs + poems by Wangechi Mutu and Juliane Okot Bitek: Days 43 to 1


Wangechi Mutu_Days 3_2_1_The End_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Days 3_2_1_The End_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

 . . .

Juliane Okot Bitek
100 Days: a poetic response to Wangechi Mutu’s #Kwibuka20#100 Days
Day 1
I have nothing
I stand before you with nothing
I am nothing

You stand before me with nothing

I don’t know what I know
but I know that you know nothing

Having come from nothing
To nothing & from nothing
Let my nothing meet your nothing

We may find something there.
Day 2
This will not be a litany of remembrances:

We know who the guilty are
The guilty know themselves

This is a charge against the witnesses
& those who cannot speak

This is a charge against those who speak incompletely
& incoherently

Against nature who saw everything & did nothing
against the bodies that dissolved
& the ones that refused to dissolve
those that insisted on writing the landscape with bones

This is a charge against pain
against heartbreak
against laughter
against the dead.
Day 3
We were pock-marked by these things:
a torrent of accusations
bayonet sticks

We were mocked
by faith in tiny shards
by the cross, with its pliant figure
representing grace
or representing the presence of God

What God in such a time?
What God afterwards?
What God ever?

Wangechi Mutu_Days 7_6_5_4_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Days 7_6_5_4_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 4
Acel ariyo adek angwen
Acel ariyo adek angwen
Acel ariyo adek angwen
Acel ariyo adek angwen
Acel ariyo adek angwen
Acel ariyo adek angwen
We have run out of days
Day 5
What do I remember?
Nothing but the contagion of stories
What do I want to say?
What do I want to say?
Day 6
Images from those days return like silent movies
The available light of the rest of this life and I
can’t hear anything
Just the silent movies
Day 7
Then we stumbled into the place where words go to die
& where words come from

First we bathed in it like sunbathers
then we washed ourselves in it
we rinsed our mouths out
shampooed our hair
swam in the words
& at night
we covered ourselves in words
& went to sleep

at night
the nightmares returned
but the dreams also came
Day 8
Justice woke up and went to work
but no one showed up

Justine, not justice, went to work
but no one showed up

Justice and not Justine
woke up and went to work
but no one showed up

women woke up and went to work
no one knows what Justine and/or
Justice are doing these days
Day 9
These days
circle and circle
some days soar from above like kites
others circle around and around
like hyenas waiting for the story to die
some sit
some stand on long legs
vultures wait
some stay some change seats
others come and go
some dive in
some walk, crawl, cycle
dial on the radio to listen
to stories in embers
stories aflame
stories in stories
stories stoking stories
stories stalking stories
stories in circles & circles
those stories haven’t yet killed me
Day 10
What indeed
the criminalizing function
of language in media?

Pumped full of bullets
& left to rot on the street


People murdered
Calculated and rated on a per hour basis
& sometimes exacted to ethnic & tribal

Never people you know,
Until they are.

Day 11
Savage savage savage
sa vedge sa vedge
sav edge sav edge
save edge save edge
saved saved
Day 12
What now?
That we must create our own world
That we use the right words for the world we want to live in
Like God: Let there be light
And there was light
Let us forgive our enemies
Let us be good examples for the next generation
Let us belong to one another
Let us be friends
Day 13
There was a rainbow in that sky,
the day a chain-linked fence separated us.
You probably saw the rainbow in the sky;
The chain-linked fence, you probably saw it as well.
Day 14
Now their eyes flit flit flit,
dragonflies in the afternoon,
their hands are calm as they write
but clammy in the handshake
– what can we do for you?
– what can we do for you?
Their eyes like dragonflies,
what can they do for me?

Day 15
And so I am now a slow burning woman
Creeping through time like a gecko through a tree
I’m shedding skin then eating it up
Shedding skin then eating it as I crawl along

Height like time has a hazing effect
but wonder remains
exclusive to the uninitiated


Day 16
We were the carriers of the events
Days and nights worked in tandem
to make us forget
We carried proof of place & proof of time
We recited these details over & over
We marked our steps
We marked the cadences into a rhythm & held them close to heart.
Day 17
This is the horror that did not turn you into stone.
This the poem, the mirror with which you can behold
that you did not turn into stone.
This is true: you’re still not stone.

Wangechi Mutu_Day 18_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 18_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 18
Yesterday tripped and fell into evening
As it plunged deep into the night, voices rose up
from the abyss:
Come! Come!
They called
We never slept, trying to makes sense
whose voice was whose
Yesterday tripped and fell into a long night
of calling, of voices beckoning, recalling
things done, things undone by time
Today, I’m trying to sort out the differences
whose voice was whose
which place, what time
They all sound the same now
— the dead and the unborn;
they all sound the same.
Day 19
So this is what the Greek storyteller foretold:
First, the pity-inducing event,
Those poor, poor people,
Pity in the numbers, pity in the grotesque photos that followed,
the writing and the reading that followed.
There was nothing, nothing we could have done different;
Everything was beyond us.
Then came the fear it would spread like contagion,
Uncontrolled like a forest fire.
Now it is time for catharsis.
Day 20
It has been called a harvest of death.
It was more like a net that was cast,
A fisher net
A fisher net cast by a man
A fisher of men
– Christ, was that you?

Day 21
A ring around a rosie
A ring around a posy
A ring around a peony
A ring around a buttercup
A ring around a baby’s breath
A ring around a bouquet

A pocket full of posers
A pocket full of diamonds
A pocket full of memory
A pocket full of justice
A pocket full of ideas
A pocket full of shit

Ring around a rosy
A pocket full of posies
Achoo! Achoo!
We all fall down!
Day 22
Twenty years later we’re young again
as we should be
Welcome to this country

Come and see how we live
Come and see how we get over everything
Come and see how we exhibit skulls
Come and see how we caress skeletons and tell stories about who these bones were
Come and see how easy we are with things;
Come and visit.

Our country is now open for tourism.
Day 23
Some of us fell between words
& some of us onto the sharp edges
at the end of sentences

And if we’re not impaled
we’re still falling through stories that don’t make sense

Wangechi Mutu_Day 23_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 23_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 24_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 24_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 24
& then there was just the two of us
everything in flames

There was the two of us
your arm around my shoulder
mine around your waist
we hobbled on
just the two of us

we hobbled on
just the two of us for a while
& then there was just me
Day 25
Bones lie
Bones lie
Bones lie
About their numbers and bits and parts

Bones lie in open air, in fields, under brushes, along with with others in state vaults,
in museums as if they belong there
in piles, as if they would ever do that in life.

Bones lie about being dead
pulverized, as if we who are not all bone
don’t live with nightmares

Bone have nothing to say
Nothing about who it was that loved them the most
Day 26
That day dared to set
As did the one after it and the one after that
Days became long nights
That became mornings which appeared innocent
of the activities of the day before

That day shouldn’t have set

The next day
if that other day had collapsed from exhaustion, should have held the night sky at bay
That day should have remained fixed in perpetuity
so that we would always know it to be true
Day 27
Glory be to the Father to whom all this is His will
Glory be to the Son who claims to have died for the sins of all men
Glory be to the Holy Spirit that guides the tongues of flames of the believers
As it was in the beginning
As it was in the beginning
As it has always been

As long as we need to hark back to a beginning
that only exists in the memory of the elusive Trinity who can only be accessed through Faith
Nothing will ever change
Nothing will ever change except by Faith
So nothing will change
Day 28
When I (survey) look out at the world around me
(The wondrous cross)
On which (the Prince of Glory) every one that I loved died,
(My richest gain) My richest gain? My richest gain?
I count (but) as loss
It was all loss – all of it
And so I pour contempt on all (my) the pride
That seems to think that there is anything to celebrate.

Don’t ever forbid it, Lord,
That I should (boast) dare to speak out
(Save in) on the deaths
(of) Christ, my God, everything, everything that mattered,
All the vain things that charm (me) You most – the sky scrapers, the clean streets
& the moneyed vendors
(I) You sacrifice (them) Your own morality (to His blood)

There is nothing to party about, nothing.

See from (His head, His hands, His feet) this vantage point
Just how much sorrow and love and bone and blood flow mingling down
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet? Did ever?
Where did ever such a twisted sense of wreath-making come from?
Or why would thorns compose so rich a crown?
Can you not read the land?

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were a present far too small
Love so amazing so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all

So it took my soul, my life, my all.
Day 29
Time is a curve
so long that it seems to be a straight line

I can see myself walk away
I see
& then remember my heel striking the ground first
the weight of my shoulders
the back of my head & the low hang of my neck

Circle forward
What does my face matter if my heel is still cracked?

Wangechi Mutu_Day 29_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 29_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 30_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 30_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 30
A grid
a fence
a field
some grass
some stumbling

a ditch
a broken slipper

a tear
a sheet
some fumbling
a groan

a metal plate with a faded rose in it
a rusty kettle that will never boil.
Day 31
Here: it is daytime now
We’re here
It is now twenty years after a hundred days that we did not plan on living through
We wanted to, prayed, yearned to make it

Not that those who didn’t didn’t
Day 32
In Eden
We heard birdsong and didn’t hear it
We saw the soft flutter & sail of a falling leaf, but we didn’t know how to read it
We worked the earth, lived off it, trampled it back and forth, back and forth

In Eden
We never thought about the difference between house and home
we never even thought to call it; we were it, it was us and ours
gang wa

Now as we fall unendingly
we know different
we understand belonging as transitory at best
& as elusive as the future we once imagined.
Day 33
So we mothed along towards the fire
With the full knowledge that there couldn’t be anything else beyond this
We mothed along
with bare arms, wingless

a light step here
a light step there
sometimes no step at all
& other times dreamless stops

We mothed along knowing that it was possibly death
& not fire that beckoned
Day 34
So we saw, tasted, smelled, touched, felt and heard what we knew to be true

We had to see, taste, smell, touch, feel and hear in order to know this word
How much made it valid?
Would one less death have disqualified those hundred days from being called a genocide?

And more?
Day 35
There’s no denying the flap of an angel’s wings
for someone who felt it fan her face in those days

The salve of a gentle touch
The stretch of an arm to catch you as you reached for the top of the wall
the strength of a wail
the depth of a moan
the light of unending days
the consistency of seasons
as real as angel wings

There is, however, a slope that leads
from these days of fiction
into nightmares that are real.
Day 36
Oh, I curse you.
I curse you long and hard and deep and wide
I curse you with fire from my mouth
I join everyone with fire in the mouth
Wherever we live & wherever we lay
We curse you, we curse you, we curse you.
Day 37
When Christ lost a beloved friend, he cried out:
Lazarus, come out of the tomb
Lazarus, come out of the tomb

Imagine Christ crying for the beloved on this land:
Lazarus! Lazarus! Lazarus! Lazarus!
Lazarus, come out of the tomb!

Imagine Christ with a croaking voice:
Lazarus, Lazarus, Lazarus

Christ in a whisper
Christ mumbling:
Lazarus, Lazarus

Christ spent
Christ crumbled
Oh, Lazarus

Christ either had no idea of these one hundred days
Or he must have lost his voice in the first few moments

Christ may just have not been capable
He might have noted the endless and boundless losses of the beloved on this land
He might have hung his head down, powerless in the face of this might

Christ, look to your mother
ask her to pray for your intercession.
Day 38
If there’s a breeze tonight
We might think for a moment that it is sweet

There is a breeze tonight
& it is sweet

I can’t remember if the breeze was sweet in those days
There was a breeze
There might have been

Why not?
It might have been the same sweet breeze that kept us from burning
Day 39
If we were to go back to the time before these hundred days
We couldn’t return without knowing what was to come

How could we?

If we were to swear off, that we couldn’t return to these days
I don’t know that we could; we know

We’re marked by this knowing
We know that we’re marked

& this knowledge taints us
& so we can never absorb your innocence

Your innocence will not shield you from these days
Because your innocence does not cleanse
& so your innocence cannot save you from what you must know.
Day 40
She is my country

Every time she goes
I am a leaf in the wind
Every time she goes
She takes with her
All the home that I can ever claim

What use do I have for the carrier of bones?
What anthem can I sing for the graves of children?

She holds my home in the country that she is
& every time she returns, she is my flag
& I am home again.
Day 41
If justice was in a race with time
Peace would have no medal to offer

If peace sat at the table with justice
Time wouldn’t be served

If time wanted justice, so bad, so bad,
There would be nothing that peace could offer
Either by seduction or reason
Day 42
I kneel before you

I kneel before you but this is not an act of supplication
I kneel before you because I cannot stand
I kneel before you because I cannot speak right now
My gestures are wordless articulations
& the dark in my eyes is not an indication of anything you could imagine
& there is nothing, nothing that you could ever give me

Wangechi Mutu_Day 43_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 43_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 43
After all the madness,
& it had to have been a madness,
You hear the arguments and explanations
That it was inevitable
That it was coming
That it had to happen after all those years

Knowing what we know now
What else should we have expected?

I hear that my loss was inevitable
I hear that my loss was coming
I hear that my heartbreak was written in the stars
& in historical documents & even in the oral stories
We had to have been blind & deaf & dumb to not have known
We had to have been oblivious, thinking that we could live
to a full life of family and community like others

After all, who misses the inevitability of a mass event like a genocide?
. . .

To see / read Days 100 to 44, click on the ZP link below:

. . . . .

Juliane Okot Bitek: 100 Days: a poetic response to Wangechi Mutu’s #Kwibuka20#100 Days

Wangechi Mutu_Day 100_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 100_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

The Rwanda Genocide, twenty years later: 100 Days of photographs + poems by Wangechi Mutu and Juliane Okot Bitek

Wangechi Mutu_Day 44_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 44_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

The Rwanda Genocide (April to July, 1994) was one of the 20th century’s many horrific episodes in what has come to be known by the clinical phrase of “ethnic cleansing”. The Genocide was the culminating event in a civil war involving the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa peoples, and 800,000 people were killed in a mere three months. Both perpetrators and victims have had to re-build their traumatized nation, coming face to face with each other’s capability for depravity and also with that miraculous human need to acknowledge what happened – and to forgive.

When I tell you that the photographs of Wangechi Mutu are poems I honour her visual artistry in the highest way I know how: to give it the name of that uniquely human skill – poem-making – that I value above all else. At Day 100 she commenced with a moving image of a clay-caked woman whose eyes were – mercifully – closed. Other human figures followed. Why were they all women? Was it because it is mainly men who do these mass-killings worldwide? Then came photographs of limbs – hands, feet, bodies bagged – and these are piercingly close to “documentary” photography.
But she goes further still with images completely devoid of people or their “parts”. These may be the most powerful of all. Because of the hand-drawn number cards placed somewhere within each photograph, these person-empty pictures seem to indicate that something we cannot look upon has been left out. My mind wanders toward a hacked-up body dumped at a building site or an abandoned lot; by a rusty gate or in the loneliest corner of a concrete yard.
Juliane Okot Bitek happened to see Wangechi’s first Instagram picture, Day 100, from April 6th, 2014 – that being the 20th anniversary of the beginning of those awful events of The Genocide. And she responded as only a poet might do: to commit to an epic poem-making journey for 100 numbered poems. If Wangechi’s pictures are raw or allusive, Juliane’s poems are everything that words are most suited for: questioning/wondering aloud; feeling all feelings, wherever they go / thinking all thoughts, though they be inconclusive. This is the very core of poetry, and there is no other kind of language that can handle such horror and humanly touch all the marks: to speak of the un-speakable. It is Poetry alone that best honours suffering, loss, shame, responsibility.

Wangechi Mutu and Juliane Okot Bitek are both African-born. Each has lived far away from the land of her birth for a long time now – Wangechi in Brooklyn, New York, and Juliane in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Is it possible that the geographical distance each has achieved – from Kenya and Uganda respectively – both countries having felt seismic social effects from the terror of Rwanda’s Civil War – has helped them to turn Pain into Art? For this is, surely, one of the greatest goods of artistic achievement: to do something beautiful with our pain. These two artists – one a collagist and sculptor who is experimenting with photography for the first time, the other a poet who is creating epic poetry in real time – merge empathy, an imaginative rendering of the facts, and the search for meaning to create unique works-in-progress: call them 100 Days.
We invite our readers to scroll down through ZP May 2014 to read and reflect upon Juliane’s poems and to behold Wangechi’s photographs thus far. And to click on the links below and follow their journey through June and into July – until they have reached Day 1.

Alexander Best
Editor, Zócalo Poets
May 31st, 2014

. . .


. . .

Juliane Okot Bitek
100 Days: a poetic response to Wangechi Mutu’s #Kwibuka20#100 Days


Day 44
A hundred days of shallow breathing interspersed with deep sighs
A hundred days zooming into nothing
A hundred days of years and years that morphed into decades
of life as a gift, of life as worth living
A hundred days on a hundred days-ing, we weren’t counting

It wasn’t as if after all those days
a veil would lift and it would have taken just those days, nothing more
It wasn’t as if after all those days
there was a chance that normal would morph back
as if all the seeds that had sprouted in those one hundred days
would un-sprout themselves into nothingness
Day 45
We watched as faith crumbled off the walls in dull clumps
We watched as prayers dissipated into clouds which then returned as drizzle to mock us
Although sometimes it rained
& sometimes it rained hard, as if the earth was sobbing
but it was never so – the earth remained dispassionate to our circumstances

Eventually our superstitions burst like bubbles
or floated away like motes in the light
There was nothing left to hold on to, not even time which stretched and then crunched itself wilfully
Cats and dogs roamed about, feral and hungry,
People crouched in the shadows, not all feral and all the time hungry.
At a half past all time, even decay stopped for a moment

Ours remains Eden, not even a spate of killing can change that.
Day 46
If truth is to be known in order to be acknowledged, then this is the truth that we know:
we know the numbers
we know the number of days
we know the circumstances
where the machetes came from and who wielded them
where the dotted line was signed
we know who fled
who advanced while chanting our names out loud
the names they called us
and the papers and airwaves on which these names can still be found

we know who claim to be the winners & the victims
we know where the markers are for where we buried the children
we know the cyclical nature of these things

the impossibility of knowing everything that happened
we know that the true witnesses cannot speak
and that those who have words cannot articulate the inarticulable

we know that there are those who died without telling what they knew
we know that there are those who live without telling what they know

we know that some people choose to tell and some stories choose to remain untold
Day 47
I remember how my sister used to look up when she remembered
Sometimes she would have a small laugh before she started to recall a story
Often she’d be laughing so hard at the reveries that we all started to laugh
Soon enough we were all laughing so hard because she was laughing
And then she laughed because we laughed
And the memory of that story dissolved into the laughter and became infused with it

My sister is not here anymore
I wonder if she remembers laughing
I wonder if she remembers anything

Wangechi Mutu_Day 48_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 48_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 49_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 49_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 50_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 50_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 48
So what is it to be alive today?

I no longer think about the hard beneath my feet
or the give of my body into sleep
or the way my skin used to dissolve so deliciously from touch

Is this what it is to become a haunt?
Day 49
There we were, lining up like frauds
There we were, receiving medals and commendations
like frauds
There we were, listening to speeches and reading the adorations
about us as heroes – like frauds
There we were
holding in ourselves, like frauds

All we did was stay alive
While many, many others died.
Day 50
This is the nature of our haunting:
silent witnesses & silence itself
neither revealing nor capable
of explication
of what any of that meant

What do we need nature for?
All it does is replicate its own beauty.
. . .

The Rwanda Genocide, twenty years later: 100 Days of photographs + poems by Wangechi Mutu and Juliane Okot Bitek

Juliane Okot Bitek
100 Days: a poetic response to Wangechi Mutu’s #Kwibuka20#100 Days

. . .

Wangechi Mutu_Day 51_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 51_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 51
I waited for my heart to harden after the kids were gone
I waited for the years of love to dissolve as if they never happened
I waited for the day when the remembrances of silly family laughter
would disappear with the setting sun
& I would wake up innocent,
as if I had never known anything good

It was starting to happen in small ways
I couldn’t recall the last good day

And then all the flowers poured in
In wreaths and ribbons and bouquets
Thousands and thousands and thousands of flowers
Each dead at the stalk
All dead from the moment they were cut
Every single one dead in their glorious & beautiful selves

Just like the people we lost
In those one hundred days.
Day 52
So what if we were all Christian,
Would the media brand it
Christian on Christian violence?
How do the dead declare the part of their identity they were killed for?
Day 53
There were echoes if one listened for them
This wasn’t the first time

There were echoes in Acholi
There were echoes in Armenia
There were echoes in the Americas
In Bangladesh
In Bosnia
The Congo
There were echoes in Darfur
There were echoes in England
There were echoes in Finland
In Georgia
In Germany
In Hawai’i
In Herero
In India
In Ireland
There were echoes in Orange County
There were echoes in Ovambo
In Poland
In Palestine
In Queensland
In Russia
South Africa
Southern Sudan
There were echoes in Xenophobic attacks everywhere
Yugoslavia, Zimbabwe.

Where on this planet has not been touched?
The earth palpitates with violence
as if it needs violence
as if violence is a heartbeat – if not here now it’s over there
if it’s not over there now, it’s on its way here

Ours wasn’t the first or the only one;
It was our most painful.
Day 54
It is absurd to think that a little girl will forget
how her mother’s hands felt when she used to plait her hair
some tugging, some lining the scalp with an oiled wooden comb
for clean patterns

some cool oil, some warmth when her hands gently repositioned her head like so
sometimes a last pat on the back of her head, sometimes her neck.
Okay, it’s done, you can go out and play now

Absurd that any little girl would forget that – and has.

Wangechi Mutu_Day 55_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 55_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 55
Our lives became both
endless and immediate

There were no guards at the door
There was no door
& the only tax required was a last breath out

One moment you were alive
& the next gone
One minute you were alive
& moments after that you wouldn’t die
your chest gargled endlessly
we were afraid of being heard & then we weren’t
One minute we cared & the next nothing mattered
Day 56
Before the maiden voyage
we heard that every water-faring vessel
needed sacrifice

The sacrifice had to be young
The sacrifice had to be blemish free
The sacrifice had to have no dimples, no piercing in the ear
The sacrifice could be male or female

Stay close to home, we were beseeched
Stay close to home lest the sacrifice gatherers came by
We stayed close to home, in those first days
We stayed close to home but the sacrifice gatherer didn’t seem to care for details
They came to harvest all kinds of bodies for a ship whose size has never been measured
Day 57
We were halfway to dead when we were reminded
that we were halfway to dead
Hovering, suspecting, tripping
or tiptoeing over the terrain
lest any semblance of confidence betrayed us again.

Ghosts flitted about
attentive to our progress
Chrissie knew

Chrissie could see that having never left ourselves
we were never going to arrive
Day 58
Karmic proportions may indicate
that we wanted, expected, earned what we got,
that we wanted it
that we had to go through it
that we had to overcome the trials of life

And you who hasn’t gotten it yet
were and/or are lucky

think again
think again
as long as we’re caught inside the neveragainness of things
we will remain blind to the hundreddaysness of others

Wangechi Mutu_Day 59_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 59_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 59
You want me to talk about what happened
because you say you want to understand
because when you engage with people like me, you say you can make a difference
because you say we all need to make a difference
because all of it, as you say, begins with me telling you what happened

Change the blue dice
Choose the cast
Lock up the hypnotic evil-thought-bearing others

When you engage, you say, you can relieve me of my nightmares
you say you can help me to heal, to look forward without anxiety

When you engage, you say, you will do so with understanding
because you think that at the level of articulation that I have
you say you will have understood
because you will have gotten it, you say,
because you feel me, you say,
because you’re incensed, you say, & will continue to be.

Dear God (or whatever is left)
save us from all the saviours of the world
Day 60
I’m coming to understand what seems to be so apparent in nature:
time passes
things change
some live, some die
none escapes this life without an end

I’m coming to understand that there isn’t much more else to it:
time passes
things change
some live, some die
none of us escapes a final end.
Day 61
Incredulity is a soft-paced wonder
& in the thick of days
Memory is a slippery thing

What do we remember from those one hundred days?
What happened on the tenth day or night
Might have well happened today, or yesterday
Incredulous is word from an innocent space
It is tepid, blubbery sometimes
because everything can happen and everything did.

Wangechi Mutu_Day 61_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 61_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

. . .
. . . . .

100 Days, 50 Days In: A Poet’s Journey

I am keenly aware of the paradox in thinking about the halfway point of writing and posting one hundred poems. For those who lived through or must still live through their own hundred days, there is no luxury of knowing a halfway point and yet I’m exhausted by the knowledge that this is only the halfway point.

I’ve come to appreciate the ability to count and depend on the passage of days as a reliable indicator that time passes. I’ve been watching how Wangechi Mutu’s photographs have morphed from very personal, embodied experiences of pain and death to images that radiate loss and loneliness through the passage of time and neglect. And I have looked at the poems I’ve written, thinking about what I can see – and what remains inaccesible to me.

When I wrote the first poem, Day 100, I gathered my visual cues about the landscape from Sometimes in April (directed by Raoul Peck and starring Idris Elba and Carole Karemera) – a collection of delicious greens and mist and rain. I have never been to Rwanda, but this is familiar land, it does not seem very different from places I’ve been, places that are encased with an intense and terrible beauty. I thought about how impossible it would have been to try and read the land for any sign of impending disaster. I imagined what it might have been like to be immersed in those one hundred days, and I also remembered what it was like to be “inside” those endless days of uncertainty during the years of unstable government in Uganda when I was a teenager during the eighties. I thought about the people who lived through the war in northern Uganda (1986-2007) and those who were taken by the Lord’s Resistance Army, many who never returned.

And the ridiculousness of measured time when the experience of those days plays out like a rubber band – stretching, snapping, stretching and snapping, and every time differently. I’ve also been thinking about how much these 100 Days have a way of taking Memory of those days beyond the realm of public commemoration: speeches, flowers, and eternal flames. 100 Days of poems is not an accurate depiction for anyone to depend on, but they are a way to enter into the private space not reflected by events outside. They have to be an imperfect collection; they’re barely edited and most of the time completely unchecked – emotionally. There’s been no time to craft these poems, to practice an art; this is raw expression. These are what I imagine 100 Days would sound like, if I could have a conversation with someone who has journeyed twenty years without much to celebrate. What must it mean to look forward when all that provided the impetus for your future remains deeply embedded in the past?

Mid-May: almost halfway through a hundred days and I check in with myself. I feel stretched, vulnerable, worn out. I must post a poem every day and yet I cannot write a poem every day – so I write ahead when I can. I feel vulnerable to the voices that can prevent me from sleeping and are an insistent whisper in my head during the day. I read through the poems already posted and look for cues and patterns but it’s like looking at my back in the mirror. A friend tells me that anger becomes apparent in Day 59. Do betrayal and anger occupy different spaces in these poems? I don’t know how to read these poems but I know what I carry.

Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda is twenty years after the ANC won elections in South Africa; there is mourning and celebration at the same time. And gratitude for having come through – how can there not be? But what do we do with the persistent heartbroken-ness? How do you remember the worst time of your life after twenty years? War persists. A powerful undercurrent of apathy buoys others who understand that war “over there” has nothing to do with life “over here”. Some things get done through obligation and sometimes pity, without any acknowledgement of the connectedness that binds us all. War is a contagion; none of us is immune. As long as commemorations continue to focus on the might and muscle of the winners, there may never be enough space to hold dialogue with those who are yet to heal from the wounds of war.

Juliane Okot Bitek

May 16th, 2014

.     .     .     .     .


The Rwanda Genocide, twenty years later: 100 Days of photographs + poems by Wangechi Mutu and Juliane Okot Bitek


Juliane Okot Bitek

100 Days: a poetic response to Wangechi Mutu’s #Kwibuka20#100 Days

. . .

Wangechi Mutu_Day 62_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 62_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 62
Unless you believe in the eye of the needle
This kind of poverty will never be about material
It won’t be about ragged clothing
or mud huts with broken walls
or river blindess
or murram roads
or bad humoured fields that hoard curses
There won’t be a harvest this year or next

This isn’t the poverty of sleep
or for that matter, dreams

This is my deep loss, my poverty:
He will never touch my hand again
He will never touch my hand

Day 63
Walter says life is hard
He says that there is nothing we can do about it
Walter says I have to be happy to be alive

Walter says to be alive is better than being dead
Be happy, Walter says
Be happy to be alive

If being dead is not all that it’s cracked up to be
Then what was that all that rush about?
For my happiness?

Wangechi Mutu_Day 64_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 64_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 64
There have been three so far
Three men who walk with your gait
Who turn, head first, the way you used to
Walk like you did, sauntering like a cat

Laugh with your laugh
Flick the wrist the way you used to
just before you pointed your finger to make a point

All three men wore you face for a moment
Lighted mine up

You mean to say?

And then you were gone again
and the men were just ordinary men
doing ordinary things

Three imposters
Three who acquiesced to your tricks of reminding me
that you used to be by me

Day 65
Often times I want to become words
I want to inhabit forgetting as a state of being

Other times I think that if we wore a cloak of silence
Then our invisibility would not be seen as repair
or a sign that everything was good

The problem of becoming silence is that silence doesn’t exist

It wasn’t ever completely silent
Nothing stopped to pay attention
Nature chattered on, busy with life cycling
And subsumed us into the process

Day 66
Sometimes I want to melt into the earth
I want to imagine that some time in the future
Children will run over the soil that I’ve become
Day 67
Some days
I want to stare at the sky
Perhaps I can learn something, anything
Some days I think about how important the sky has become
I think about it so much and in so doing, I make it exist
I make the sky an endless and expansive backdrop of blue

If there was a sky, how could it witness what it did
& maintain that calm hue?
Day 68
There’s no denying that these haunted days
Are not necessarily days of grey
There are flowers everywhere
Beauty is always undeniable
These hundred days are haunted days not grey ones
These hundred days are filled with ghosted moments
just like every day

Day 69
The world turns as it does
Spinning on its own axis and then around the sun.
Perhaps this galaxy is also spinning around something bigger
Perhaps all the worlds spin in order to avoid dealing with the numbers:

All of them
Six from my in-laws
and all of my siblings, parents and their children
Twenty seven
All of them
My husband and all my children – seven in all
I don’t know
I can’t count anymore
Nobody came back
I don’t know if they ran away to safety or
If they’re just all gone


Day 70
Too close for comfort when everyone around looks like you.
Too close when they speak your language
Too close when you’re from the same house
Same meal at the table
Same sofa
Same containment of the heart

We became other people
We were them, those ones
And in being slaughtered and reported as slaughtered
We lost any claim to intimacy or self
Even animals don’t commit slaughter

Wangechi Mutu_Day 70_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 70_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 71_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 71_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 71
Who says alas in the presence of betrayal?
Who dizzies away, swirling skirts & claims of nausea
Alas, alas all the hand wringing!

It shouldn’t have been this way?
It shouldn’t?

It shouldn’t have been
forms the dregs from the past

It shouldn’t have been this way
Would it have been better that this was lobbed at your head?
Would it have been better if yours was the stuff of our nightmares?

Day 72
The difference between the top screw
and the bottom screw is this: direction

We are squeezed in by the past and the present
Everything is relative, they say
God and religion and offer escape from the screw
in the name of forgiveness, reconciliation & clean heartedness

Be like Jesus, forgive
Be like Jesus, remember to pray and to pay taxes
Be like Jesus, wear robes,
Have your first cousin shout in the streets about the second coming of yourself
Be like Jesus, hang out with prostitutes – love the sinner and all that
Above all be like Jesus and demand an answer in the moment of your cross
Why, God, have you forsaken us?

Wangechi Mutu_Day 72_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 72_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 73_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 73_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 73
There are witness stones along all roads
Between Jinja and Kampala
The road to Damascus
The roads leading to Kigali or Rome
Even the road less travelled
The old majesty of Kenyatta Avenue
Khao San, Via Dolorosa
And the Sea to Sky highway
where every few steps they say
is marked by the blood
of a foreign and indentured worker

Did you ever know stones in the road to scream?
They did in those days, you know
They still do sometimes


Day 74
In thirty- nine days there will be no more hindsight for sure
Today already there’s hardly any
No foresight
No insight
No encryption

In thirty-nine days, like today
There will be the same dullness about
The same powdery taste to everything
The same floaty feeling — the eerie pull to something beyond now

Ants keep busy
They have figured out that life is for living
And death is for dying

There is no space for those of us
Who are not dead and have yet to be resurrected


Day 75
There is evidence that this was a conspiracy of silence:
the insistence of green grass
the luminosity of a full moon
the leathered skin of the dead
the smile of skulls
the roar of the rushing river
endless, endless hills
If there was a shocked response
If this was an unnatural state of being
If this was a never, ever kind of situation
Why didn’t the world turn upside down?


. . .


Days 76 – 100:



The Rwanda Genocide, twenty years later: 100 Days of photographs + poems by Wangechi Mutu and Juliane Okot Bitek

Wangechi Mutu_Day 100_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary_April 6th, 2014

Wangechi Mutu_Day 100_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary_April 6th, 2014

On April 6th, 2014, Wangechi Mutu posted a picture on social media via Facebook and Instagram. It was the photograph of a woman whose somber pose was that of an exhausted spirit. She titled the picture #100Days #Kwibuka20 – and immediately, I knew what I had to do. The photograph provided me an “in” to the conversation that I’ve wanted to be a part of for more than twenty years. I wanted to think about what it means to be a witness, however obliquely, and how to create solidarity with people who have some idea about the experiences of people I know and love. I decided to write and post “100 Days,” a poem for every day from April 6th forward, inspired by Wangechi Mutu’s work.

Twenty one years ago, I stood in front of the television with both hands on my pregnant belly and wondered what kind of world my child was going to be born into. The burning of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, was live on TV. I saw the images and listened to the commentaries that attempted to justify why the actions taken by the State were valid. It was a trick of time and distance. I understood in that moment that there wasn’t a loud enough scream from me that could stop the horror I was watching on the screen. My feet would not carry me fast enough to Waco from my living room in Vancouver. And even if I was there in Waco, I didn’t have the authority to stop the order, or the strength to stop the firing on the compound that seemed unending in that moment. It was a moment of utter anxiety. I was reminded about how the pain and suffering of others can unite us by our connections to our own pain.

My own homeland, Acholiland, had been burning, so to speak, in a horrific war that pitted the government of Uganda against the Lord’s Resistance Army. As in other landscapes of war, it was the People of the land that suffered the brunt of it as thousands were maimed, killed, and displaced over time. That engagement had been going on since 1987 when the LRA rose as the only guerrillas that the Ugandan army hadn’t been able to quell. By April 1993, I was well aware of a powerlessness that tinges every accomplishment because of that knowledge that people you know are hurting and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

By April 6th, 1994, my son was a toddler. I was a young mother, used to carrying apprehension and holding on to hope. I wasn’t writing much in those days, caught up in motherhood as I was, but I knew that the downing of the plane that carried the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was the beginning of something awful. It might have been suggested from bits and pieces of news that trickled through to us in Canada. Time would bear it out that we were right. In those same one hundred days, South Africa had just conducted successful elections and Nelson Mandela became the first president of a free South Africa. The Bosnian War had been going on for exactly two years and wasn’t going to cease until the end of 1995. Kurt Cobain’s suicide on April 8th excavated a huge loss in the Grunge community and radio listeners who loved his music everywhere.

Not everyone was dying on the news. O.J. Simpson held the TV airwaves in a live chase in his white Bronco with the LAPD in pursuit – it was important that he was caught before he killed himself, the commentators told us. All this information was coming at me from the tube and there was nothing coming out of me. It was as if the knowledge congealed inside me and stayed put. Time went on as it does. The child grew, another came, and I got older but I never engaged with that knowledge.
Eventually, the news would become headlines and some media would write about or show horrific images of the death and destruction in Rwanda. Almost a million people would die in Rwanda in those one hundred days. Afterwards, the horror would spill into the Democratic Republic of Congo and over five million would die. The war in Darfur would be called genocide but the one in northern Uganda wouldn’t. Technicalities mattered as definitions do, but our pain wasn’t any less. Twenty years later and several declarations have come and gone, “Never Again” being the most common one. The Globe and Mail recently referred to April as “Never Again” Time, challenging the idea that it is enough merely to make the claim – yet the killings in CAR and South Sudan continue unabated.


“Never Again” Time:


I wrote to Wangechi and suggested that I compose a poetic response to her photos, and she agreed. I have been posting a poem a day, thinking about what it means to engage with such knowledge today, twenty years after. What do commemorations and declarations do for people who are still deeply haunted and scarred by those events that we think of as History? What is it to be in a world that witnessed yet did nothing about your suffering? How do we hold just enough bitterness to keep us focused on what needs our attention? Above all, what does it mean for us to witness the suffering of others? It is so easy to stay hypnotized by the swirl of information that comes at us from the internet, in print and, of course, on television. How much out there does not reflect the reality of our day to day hauntedness?

If these should be a hundred days of thinking about what a genocide means in our time, I hope that we can make time to think about the impact of the intimate losses of so many of us, everyday that we forget. I’m humbled and happy to be invited to post these poems at Zócalo Poets. These poems are not meant to be a monument or even a voice for anyone who lost and was lost in the Rwanda Genocide. Rather, I hope to seek solidarity with those who continue to mourn the promise of the past and find strength to get through another day.


Juliane Okot Bitek

April 30th, 2014

. . .

100 Days: a poetic response to Wangechi Mutu’s #Kwibuka20#100 Days


Day 76
Another angle would have you believing that this is how it went down
This and specifically this.
And they will be right.
This is how it went down:

There were days upon days
Days upon days
Days upon days
Days upon days
Days that never seemed to end
Who’s to say when the first of a hundred days began?


Day 77
We tried to sing but ended up croaking
We who used to be songbirds
In time, our throats had gotten dry
This is what happens when you start counting
Days in hundreds from a date that never was

Wangechi Mutu_Day 77_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 77_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 78_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 78_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 78
Insouciance must be blue
How else could we explain a sky that witnesses
And still insists on magical hues of its self?
Insouciance has to be blue
From royalty to madness
From the marked maleness of babies
To those that stayed death
From indigo at midnight
To the peasant hue of the mother of God
Another young woman to whom a hole in the pale sky announced
That she would bear a child
That she would bear
A boy dressed in madness
How else can we explain the resonances, echoes and exceptions?
The mother of God in us mothers of sons who had to be killed
& God in the mothers whose sons had to be killed

Day 79
A piece of cloth in a breeze
A clump of mud
A memory of desire
A broken yellow pencil with black stripes
Staedler Noris HB2 Made in Germany
A small stone
A clump of grass
A day
A pinched nerve
A delicate smell
A hill
A faded sign above the shop
Reads oca Cola It’s the Real
A child runs across the way
A list of jumbled images

None of which takes me away long enough to forget
Day 80
There is something inconsequential about all of this
One foot in front of another
One foot in front of another
To what end?

A nothing in front of a nothing
Round a round
Round a round

Never again and reconciliation
Like wayward birds about my head
Round a round a round a round a round

Blindfold me or not
Here’s another spot on the map
Where people are walking
One foot over another
One foot over another hundred days


Wangechi Mutu_Day 81_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 81_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 81
Nine times
Nine times they called out
Nine times, just nine
We know this because each call caused a finger to fall
We know this because there was one finger left
The ringed one
Only the ringed one

Day 82
This is to confirm that there is something to be said
For tying the waist really tight
Tight, tight, tight, tight
Tighter than when spoiling for a fight
Tighter that when getting ready to receive a heavy burden
Tight enough for days that rolled upon days

It was the tightness in our waists that kept us going
Day 83
We failed to read the clouds
As we had been taught to do in high school
Cumulonimbus chasing cotton balls
Cumulonimbus alone
Cumulonimbus with or without rain

What did it all mean?
What did it mean that we failed to read the sky?
It wasn’t in the cowrie shell readings
It wasn’t in the tea
Perhaps Cumulonimbus was a script in the sky
A writing that was not familiar
Not then and definitely not now
Day 84
Impressionistic moments follow each other
Like Monet come to life
It’s after two in the afternoon
Now it’s evening
Now suddenly night

Food, blanket
No food, no blanket
It’s all the same

There were no hundred days
Just a jumble of impressions
Moments that sometimes piled up
On top of each other
Sometimes moments lay side by side
Holding hands
Sleeping hungry
Or without blankets
Day 85
And God said: Let there be light
And there was light from the beginning of the world
There was light on this day like all the other days
Every day there was light enough to see everything
We didn’t always need to see
We didn’t need to see everything everyday

Wangechi Mutu_Day 86_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 86_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 86
My country belongs to God.
These are our scriptures:

Happy shall he be
that taketh and dasheth
thy little children unto the rock
Psalms 137:9

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord
Romans 12:19

I will be there
where there are two or more gathered in my name
Christ proclaims in Matthew 18:20

Jesus must have a permanent presence in the church
Where the door has been propped ajar for eternity
Jesus Christ must live here
Where congregants were struck in supplication
Pleading for their lives, pleading, pleading for their lives

Where shall we find comfort?
Where can we go in this country of God?
Day 87
Reconciliation is minding my business
Reconciliation is minding my life
Reconciliation is aimed at my head
Reconciliation leaves me no choice

Don’t get me wrong

Reconciliation is a grand thing
Reconciliation photographs very well
Reconciliation makes people smile
Reconciliation feels good, dresses well
Writes well, conjures good dreams

Reconciliation wants me to wipe my tears dry
To wipe the slate clean — well at least wipe it
It wants me to forget my first born daughter
The one I could not bury
The one whose body I walked away from

Day 88
After all this, today
Another vigorous attempt to divvy up moments equally
Stillness, nothingness
A vacuous attempt to move, to sound, to connect to anyone, anyhow
Time flashes
Time drags
In another couple of months we will begin to grasp
The unending nature of these one hundred days
As nothing except what it was –
A nothingness that compounded nothing into being
Day 89
What do crickets know about innocence?
Were they not there?
Did they not see more than we did
Staying closer to the ground than we ever were?

Innocence in that ghastly cry –Why?  Why do we do this to ourselves?
Innocence in that other proclamation – Never, never, never again

Innocence is power without experience
Innocence is a knowing untempered
Crickets know that there is no innocence on hallowed ground
Day 90
How these hundred days
Should be days to think
About reconciliation and forgiveness
To consider the irrationality of ethnic cleansing
To see the phoenix rise again
& grief overcome
To witness humanity & good
& the power of God
To make miracles

That ultimately
Commemoration is a crafted affair
A beautiful thing
A symbol of power and resonance
The everlasting flame

We don’t have to remember
The empty space in our arms
That our lost children will never fill

This is not our liberty
We’re not free to forget


Wangechi Mutu_Day 91_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 91_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 91
We couldn’t have known, nine days in,
That it would ever be over
It was a time warp that had us
In flashes and then in woozy moments
That took forever

A machete hangs in a museum in Ottawa
A machete hangs perpetually in a museum in Ottawa
A machete hangs like a mockery of time
Like a semblance of that reality
In which another machete
Other machetes hang for what seemed a long time
But eventually they came down
Again and again and again and again and again
Even time marked by machete strokes
Can never be accurate
Day 92
We wish for absolution, for a clearing,
for a forgetting, a filling of the heart
& a joyousness once more

We wish for children of innocence
we wish for an instantiation of things
a rationality that resonates with our emotions

We wish for the silence of the moon
the quieting of ghosts
& a peace to rest in
Day 93
Suffice to say that there was nothing sufficient for some
Elections, and the winners won
A car chase
War ended
Another war continued
Jackal emerged
Earth rattled
Now headlines
Now pictures
Now memories
Now colour
Now movement
Now silence
Now drama
Nothing reflects the efficiency with which those days went by
We were betrayed by a month and a half that now we call commemoration
Day 94
We walked when our legs could carry us
hinky pinky ponky
hinky pinky ponky
Childhood rhythms carried us along
hinky pinky ponky
hinky pinky ponky
Songs from days of innocence
Like holding hands, like soft embraces
hinky pinky ponky
hinky pinky ponky
Father had a donkey
We needed a rhythm to walk
To move, to drag ourselves along

Who could count past four?
Acel ariyo adek angwen
Who could count past four?
hinky pinky ponky
hinky pinky ponky
Father had a donkey
Donkey die
Father cry
hinky pinky ponky
It seemed as though there was a time before tears
It seemed a dream to think that there was a time when fathers could cry

Wangechi Mutu_Day 95_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 95_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 95
Time, they taught us
Was linear and exact
Time was a series of beats, a line extending from the beginning of things
Forget the idea that illumination is an indication of knowing
Forget that
We were trapped in a hundred days, a hundred days
Of light, each following the other, each following the other
Time bore witness to our erratic heartbeats but we
remain trapped in a hundred days that have morphed into years and years
How can we exist outside of betrayal by time and land?
Day 96
What is the essence of beauty?
Why do mists swirl and rise but never completely disappear?
Why should iron gleam through soil?
Why should our dances be graceful, our cloths bright
Our memories long, our language rich and layered?
Why should beauty render us speechless?
What is it to come from a land that swallows its own people?

Wangechi Mutu_Day 97_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Wangechi Mutu_Day 97_Rwanda Genocide 20th anniversary

Day 97
The poet told us of her brother
The poet told us of her drunken brother, speaking of his dreams
He was an alcoholic, he was always drunk
The poet told us about her drunken brother who spoke of his mad, mad dream
She told us how he spoke like a mad man, about this dream
Like a prophet, insisting on an unknown truth
Like the drunken man that he was, imposing faith that no one wanted to hear
Like Jesus
Like all the holy prophets, even the ones we forgot
The poet told us about her brother who spoke of a dream
In which everybody would die
They would kill everybody
Except me, she said
Except me
Day 98
If this should be a list of betrayals where should we begin?
At last, we’re here
At last, we’re gone
What is this life beyond one hundred days?
What is this life beyond one hundred days, twenty times over?
What days are left?
We were already in medias res
We were always inside one hundred days
Day 99
It was sunrise every morning
It was the same land
The same sky
The same rivers, hills, valleys
It was the same road that led away and back home
Same sweet air that amplified the voices through whispers, gossip, airwaves
Words leapt into our eyes and burned this new knowledge that was never new
But it was the earth that betrayed us first
In those one hundred days that would never end
Day 100
It was the earth that betrayed us first.
It was the earth that held on to its beauty, compelling us to return.
It was the breezes that were there, and then they were not there.
It was the sun that rose and fell, rose and fell, as if there was nothing different: as if nothing changed.

.     .     .

Wangechi Mutu was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1972.  A collage artist and sculptor, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Juliane Okot Bitek is a poet and a scholar who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Her ancestral homeland is Acholiland in northern Uganda.

To read a previous Guest Editor feature by Juliane click the following link:

.     .     .     .     .

Remembrance Day Reflections: Juliane Okot Bitek

November 11th 2013_Falllen Autumn Leaves in Toronto

ZP Guest Editor Juliane Okot Bitek

Forgetting and Remembrance Day


I used to think that Remembrance Day was restricted to soldiers lost in the wars that Canada was involved in. I used to wish that I could remember my brother on Remembrance Day, in a public way, as one of a family who had lost one of its brightest and as one of a community which had lost hundreds and thousands of men and women in the various wars that were fought in my homeland of Uganda. I wanted desperately to claim Remembrance Day for us, because we too had lost a great love and a great life. But I thought it was an imposition, so I wore red poppies like everyone else and reflected on the Canadian dead and listened to speeches about how the veterans had fought for our freedom and how we owe them the comforts of our lives.

I heard my brother call out to me on a sunny morning, just after a high school assembly as me and my friends made our way to class. I looked about. I didn’t see. My brother called out again. It was an urgent call, loud. I turned around, asked one of my friends if she’d heard my name being called. No, she said. She didn’t hear anything. A couple of days later, I was picked up from school and taken home. My brother had been shot.

My brother, Keny, was an officer in the Uganda National Liberation Army, the post-Idi Amin government army. Story was that he was in Fort Portal, a town in western Uganda, and that officers did not usually fight on the frontline. Story was that my brother and other officers were on the frontline, fighting the guerrillas that would eventually make up the current government of Yoweri Museveni. Story was that my brother was shot in that battle, and that he wasn’t the only one. The weekend of Keny’s funeral, there were eight other funerals for eight others killed from the same region – the Acholi region of northern Uganda.  It was a sunny day, no evidence of rain for days to come;  it was hot.  The kind of day that evoked memories of my brother walking with his wife and toddler to his hut during the funeral rites of my father, scant months before. There was a gun salute, I think, with the solemnity befitting an officer. And it wasn’t a grey day, it wasn’t November. The ache from losing my brother would remain just under my skin for years.

I wanted to be a soldier once. When the Canadian military would set up a booth seeking to attract students from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I’d pick up a brochure, take the fridge magnet or the pen they offered, the type that came with sticky notes at the other side. I wanted the chance to join the army and make it as high up as my brother might have done.

Remembrance Day in Canada is usually celebrated with wreaths and the marching of proud veterans who are often shuffling along with age and carried along with pride. Black and white film clips from the First and Second World Wars, Korea; video clips from Afghanistan. News channels often focus on the celebration of our soldiers’ efforts at the local cenotaph where a solemn declaration, carved in stone, is ignored for most of the year. Often it’s raining – a grey day, a grey month, a grey time for families who think of November 11th as a national marker for those they loved and lost, and for those who never returned whole.

Sometime after my brother Keny‘s funeral, I returned to school and tried to melt back into normal. The deaths of my brother and father in such quick succession would’ve been hard to ignore but Ugandans have weathered loss for so long and we know how to pick up, keep moving, keep smiling, keep going. Our English teacher gave us a composition exercise in which we were to write a story that ended with lines from the title of Kenyan poet, Jared Angira’s poem, “No Coffin, No Grave”. We had to write a story that was true, from our own experience, no less. What came pouring out of me was the story of losing my brother. I wrote about my sister-in-law who had gone to identify his body, and I could hear her wracked in pain as she narrated her experience. I wrote about how she identified my brother by a bracelet that she had given him. How it was that he had to be buried quickly, how it had to be a closed coffin affair. And how it was that we never had the chance to say goodbye – not really.

Keny had come to visit me in school the term before. He had come in full military regalia. He stood up when he saw me – and saluted. I saluted back – and giggled. He wanted to know how I was, if there was anyone bothering me. And if there was, I was to promise that he’d take care of it. You know how big brothers are – bragging, seemingly full of themselves. He told me not to worry about anything, that I’d be alright. Perhaps Keny had come to say goodbye, and I didn’t know – I did not know that.

There are families for whom Remembrance Day is Every Day or most days. National gratitude doesn’t and cannot match personal grief and it’s hard to argue with a public show of support and the recognition of soldiers. Often we hear phrases about how our soldiers fought for our freedom. That gives me pause: from whom do Canadian soldiers wrest our freedom? How do they do that? What do we do, for example, with the images we’ve seen from Elsipogtog just last month?

When Canada joined the war effort in Afghanistan in 2002, a professor in the English department at the University of British Columbia started to keep count of the losses. Canadians would never let fifty soldiers die over there. But fifty came and went. The faces and names on the professor’s door grew. If it got to a hundred, surely Canadians would be up in arms. A hundred soldiers died, and more; Remembrance Day was commemorated like all the other ones. A hundred and fifty eight Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan and there was no uproar here, just another solemn Remembrance Day on November 11th.

Soldiers die, their families hurt. Soldiers live with terribly injured bodies, their families hurt. Soldiers get so badly scarred psychically that it should give us pause to think about what it means to maintain an army, to have young people sign up for duty. And then we think about them once a year – with so much solemnity and pomp. But some soldiers go it alone…

Months, years later, I would think about my brother Keny and how useless his advice had been. I worried – and he wasn’t there. I hurt, and people hurt me – and he wasn’t there. He wasn’t there to take care of the nastiness that we had to go through. He wasn’t there when my grade-school teacher returned with our marked composition papers on the “No Coffin, No Grave” theme and insisted that there was one paper that she wanted to read out – and it was mine. She held it up as an example of what not to write. After she’d read it to the class, she turned to me and asked me how it was I could lie like that, to make up such a story. And that I should be ashamed of myself, she admonished me. She told me to leave the classroom and, as I walked out in shame, the tears that threatened to choke me, I willed them to stay back; I was not going to cry.

Keny wasn’t there when I turned thirty three, his age when he died.

I think about the loss of lives of young men and women who sign up for military duty to defend their country, to fight for the rights of others, to invade other nations or to assist in reclaiming Life after disasters like Typhoon Haiyan in The Philippines – which struck land on November 7th and 8th. This is hard and dangerous work, and sometimes it’s awfulwork that returns with evidence of our armed men and women engaging in shameful acts such as the 1993 hazing of Shidane Arone in Somalia. And look at the evidence provided by the recent deconstruction of the Black Blouse Girl photo which shows that there was rape before the Massacre at My Lai. How can we continue to maintain an institution that drives our men and women to such depths, then we commemorate the wars that led them to their deaths? How then can we forget so fast, so completely?

Last summer, I had the privilege of visiting with my nephew, Keny’s son. I was going to be seeing him for the very first time since I left home in 1988. I took the train from Vancouver to Eugene, Oregon, and had dinner with him and his fiancée. My nephew grew up without his father and has no idea whose spectre walks beside him. He feels like Keny, sounds like him. He even called me waya – auntbutthere was no urgency in his voice, not like the one I’d heard almost three decades ago one morning after assembly. We talked about all kinds of things, but nothing about the gaping absence between us. Time had collapsed to have us meet and know each other, but not enough to have my brother back.

Remembrance Day is packed full of history and valour – Canada has lost many brave women and men to the nastiness that is war. This country, and other countries which have lost brave men and women, can step up to count themselves as courageous and freedom- loving, but when are we going to be inspired by the enormity of loss to seek a future in which there are no more wars and no more losses to war? The list of dead Canadian soldiers no longer hangs on that professor’s door – but we remember what hurts, some of us do.

November 2013_Fallen Leaves_Toronto, CanadaAddendum:   In fact, that list of soldiers names on the door of the professor in the English Department is still there. I have visited his office several times since I graduated in 2009, but I stopped seeing. By his own admittance, the list needs to be updated but still, it says something to me that forgetting is an active process and possibly it begins by stopping seeing what’s in front of us. I’m grateful to Professor Zeitlin for reminding me that peace is a worthwhile pursuit and it begins with the intention to see, to remember and to question what it is we must never forget.

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“That poem which lay in my heart like a secret”: Juliane Okot Bitek reflects upon Okot p’Bitek’s “Return the Bridewealth” and the role of the poet

Our warmest thanks to Juliane Okot Bitek for the following Guest Editor post at Zócalo Poets:


Okot p’Bitek (1931 – 1982)

Return the Bridewealth (1971)




I go to my father

He is sitting in the shade at the foot of the simsim granary,

His eyes are fixed on the three graves of his grandchildren

He is silent.

Father, I say to him,

Father, gather the bridewealth so that I may marry the

Girl of my bosom!

My old father rests his bony chin in the broken cups of his

withered hands,

His long black fingernails vainly digging into the tough

dry skin of his cheeks

He keeps staring at the graves of his grandchildren,

Some labikka weeds and obiya grasses are growing on the mounds.

My old father does not answer me, only two large clotting

tears crawl down his wrinkled cheeks,

And a faint smile alights on his lips, causing them to

quiver and part slightly.

He reaches out for his walking staff, oily with age and

smooth like the long teeth of an old elephant.

One hand on his broken hip, he heaves himself up on

three stilts,

His every joint crackling and the bones breaking.

Hm! he sighs and staggers towards the graves of his


And with the bone-dry staff he strikes the mounds: One!

Two! Three!

He bends to pluck the labikka weeds and obiya grasses,

But he cannot reach the ground, his stone-stiff back cracks

like dry firewood.

Hm! he sighs again, he turns around and walks past me.

He does not speak to me.

There are more clotting tears on his glassy eyes,

The faint smile on his broken lips has grown bigger.




My old mother is returning from the well,

The water-pot sits on her grey wet head.

One hand fondles the belly of the water pot, the other

strangles the walking staff.

She pauses briefly by the graves of her grandchildren and

studies the labikka weeds and the obiya grasses waving

Like feathers atop the mounds.

Hm! she sighs

She walks past me;

She does not greet me.

Her face is wet, perhaps with sweat, perhaps with water

from the water-pot,

Perhaps some tears mingle with the water and the sweat.

The thing on her face is not a smile,

Her lips are tightly locked.

She stops before the door of the hut,

She throws down the wet walking staff, klenky, klenky!

A little girl in a green frock runs to her assistance;

Slowly, slowly, steadily she kneels down;

Together slowly, slowly, gently they lift the water-pot and

put it down.

My old mother says, Thank you!

Some water splashes onto the earth, and wets the little

girl’s school books.

She bursts into tears, and rolls on the earth, soiling her

beautiful green frock.

A little boys giggles.

He says, All women are the same, aren’t they?

Another little boy consoles his sister.




I go to the Town,

I see a man and a woman,

He wears heavy boots, his buttocks are like sacks of cotton,

His chest resembles the simsim granary,

His head is hidden under a broad-brimmed hat.

In one hand he holds a loaded machine-gun, his fingers at

the trigger,

His other hand coils round the waist of the woman, like a

starving python.

They part after a noisy kiss.

Hm! he sighs.

Hm! she sighs.

He marches past me, stamping the earth in anger, like an

elephant with a bullet in his bony head.

He does not look at me,

He does not touch me; only the butt of his weapon

touches my knee lightly,

He walks away, the sacks of cotton on his behind rising and

falling alternately

Like a bull hippo returning to the river after grazing in

the fresh grasses.

Hm! I sigh.

I go to the woman,

She does not look up to me,

She writes things in the sand.

She says, How are my children?

I say, Three are dead, and some labikka weeds and obiya

grasses grow on their graves.

She is silent.

I say, your daughter is now in Primary Six, and your little

boys ask after you!

The woman says, My mother is dead.

I am silent.

The agoga bird flies overhead,

He cries his sorrowful message:

She is dead! She is dead!

The guinea-fowl croaks in the tree near by:

Sorrow is part of me,

Sorrow is part of me. How can I escape

The baldness of my head?

She is silent.

Hm! I sigh.

She says, I want to see my children.

I tell the woman I cannot trace her father.

I say to her I want back the bridewealth that my father

paid when we wedded some years ago,

When she was full of charm, a sweet innocent

little hospital ward-maid.

She is silent.

I tell the woman I will marry the girl of my bosom,

I tell her the orphans she left behind will be mothered, and

the labikka weeds and obiya grasses

that grow on the graves of her children

will be weeded,

And the ground around the mounds will be kept tidy.

Hm! she sighs.

She is silent.

I am silent.

The woman reaches out for her handbag.

It is not the one I gave her as a gift last Christmas.

She opens it

She takes out a new purse

She takes out a cheque.

She looks up to me, our eyes meet again after many


There are two deep valleys on her cheeks that were not

there before,

There is some water in the valleys.

The skin on her neck is rotting away,

They say the doctor has cut her open and

removed the bag of her eggs

So that she may remain a young woman forever.

I am silent

A broad witch-smile darkens her wet face,

She screams,

Here, take it! Go and marry your bloody woman!

I unfold the cheque.

It reads:

Shillings One thousand four hundred only!


.     .     .

Juliane Okot Bitek

A Poet May Lie Down Beside You


She might even let you run your palm over her hip

Round and round and round

So you remember what it’s like to lie down beside a woman

A poet may lie down beside you and listen to you sigh

Turn around, turn around

She may even take in your stories of days gone by

Turn around, turn around

Spit roasting like pigs

It’s been bloody weeks

It’s been long, stone years

Since you lay down beside a woman, anyone

A poet may lie down beside you

Let you bring the covers over her shoulders and

Lift the hair off her face

She will take you back to the lean months, lean years, two

Or has it been three?

She will take you all the way back to a time without kisses

Without touch

Forever since anyone touched you

A poet will take you back

And return with the clingy scent of yesterday

For several moments

Before this, before this

A poet might even let you kiss her

She might open up ovens and ovens of pent up heat inside you

A poet will let you think

That this is what it means

To lie down beside a woman

Rolling, rolling, drowning, searching

A poet may lie down beside you

And sing, or not sing, speak, or not speak

This is your time

A poet will not let a moment like this go wasted

So she lies down beside you and lets you touch her

So you know what it’s like

To lie down beside a woman.

.     .     .

I first encountered “Return the Bridewealth” in Poems from East Africa, a 1971 anthology edited by David Rubadiri and David Cook. It was a text that we used at Gayaza High School in Kampala, Uganda. It was a text from which our teachers found creative ways of engaging us with poetry. One teacher had us write a short story that incorporated the title of Jared Angira’s “No Coffin, No Grave” as the last words. Another teacher had us think about ways that we could have ‘built the nation,’ a lesson on citizenship based on Henry Barlow’s “Building the Nation”. And the fact that Barlow’s daughter was on the teaching faculty was not lost on us, even though she wasn’t the literature teacher for that class. I prayed that we would not study “Return the Bridewealth” or “They Sowed and Watered” – both poems were in the same anthology – and both had been written by my father Okot p’Bitek.

I used to imagine that the teacher might put the burden on me to explain what the poet’s intention was as they did in the old days, as if anyone would know. I couldn’t have known what his intentions were in writing poetry and yet I was aware, even then, that my father’s poetry read like the truth. But I wasn’t mature enough to discern whether he wrote factually about everything. I was embarrassed to think that it might have dissolved into a class discussion in which my father would’ve had to beg his father and an ex-wife for money to get married. Perhaps the teachers knew not to assign those poems for our class, but that poem that read like a story (“Return the Bridewealth”) stayed with me over the years. I read my father’s other works and, after grad school, I was finally confident enough to discuss my father as a poet, an essayist, a novelist and a philosopher. But I never talked about that poem which lay in my heart like a secret, even though it remains a public document.

“Return the Bridewealth” reads true. It reads true because the poet, my dad, had an eye and an ear for the environment around a story. It wasn’t just the plot with main characters whose lives spanned time before and after the poem begins and ends. We hear the old woman’s stick: klenky, klenky! We see the old man’s fingers digging into his bony cheeks; we understand the insistence of weeds and the infuriation of the old couple who cannot maintain the graves of their grandchildren. This couple, who has endured the divorce of their son and his wife, are struggling to take care of their grandchildren, both dead and alive. And their son has the gall to return and ask for financial support to remarry.

It is a modern story, immediate and accessible. The poetry is in the language, the lines and the delivery of what might have been a short story by another writer and perhaps a novel by another’s hand. My dad boiled this story down to its bare bones and it still resists the notion that it could be a poem that celebrates its use of language and calls for attention to its lyricism.

For a man who founded the song school of poetry, Okot p’Bitek’s “Return the Bridewealth” is not a song, even though it is punctuated by the refrained sighs of all the main characters: Hm! the mother sighs; Hmm! The father sighs; Hm! the woman sighs. Hm!, the soldier sighs; Hm! I, the narrator sighs. The sigh may be a long and breathy sigh but as any Ugandan knows, hm is short and decisive. It means everything and sometimes it means nothing. But the boy giggles and the girl cries. The boy also says within earshot of his father: All women are the same, aren’t they? before he turns to console his sister.

Each conversation in “Return the Bridewealth” allows the reader to be a voyeur of the most intimate conversations. A grown man asks his elderly father for money. A boy shares a moment with his father, deriding all women and girls. A man confronts his ex-wife in an exercise that is fraught with pain and shame – neither parent is taking care of the kids and the money that will change hands is probably from the woman’s current lover in order that the man may marry his current lover – an extremely uncomfortable situation for which the title of the poem is wholly inadequate.

Okello Oculi, another poet from the same anthology, and a contemporary of Okot p’Bitek, includes this poem as one of many works that espouse shame as a trope for post colonial narratives on the fallout from having been colonized by foreigners. Sure, but we also see that there has to be shame from the behaviour of the children’s parents because we know those parents; we are those parents. We screw up, and sometimes, as parents, we don’t get our priorities right.

The poem is broken up into representations of the past, present and future. In the first section, the first person narrator introduces his father, an old man in the twilight of his life, a man whose bony fingers seem to be in the business of hastening his own death by clawing at his face. We’re brought into a home in which there are three buried children who lie in unkempt graves. It is a sorry homestead with a lovesick son who has returned for financial support from his father. His father doesn’t answer the request for money but a smile plays about the old man’s face, perhaps in hope for better circumstances still to come. The second section is a portrayal of the current state of affairs. The grandmother is still involved in the heavy domestic work, even at her advanced age, but her granddaughter is sensitive enough to go and help offload the precious cargo of water. The grade six girl’s and her grandmother’s struggle is symbolized by the water spilling onto the girl’s school textbook. The old woman does not acknowledge her son’s presence. She does not greet him and she doesn’t smile as her husband does. Her anger is evident from the way she “strangles” her walking stick and the “thing on her face” that is not a smile, but she reserves her thanks for her granddaughter who helps her with the heavy water pot on her head. The current state of affairs doesn’t belie the reality of the graves in the homestead from which the weeds are an affront; things are not as they should be.

In the third section, the narrator confronts his ex-wife who has just met up with her lover, a soldier whose well-fed form is represented by the way he fills out the bottom of his pants (“his buttocks are like sacks of cotton”). The woman wants to know about her children, but in the classic tension-filled relationship of exes, the man won’t give her the information she needs. Power plays and replays itself. The woman reveals that her mother is dead. No empathy from her ex. I can’t find your father to get my money back, the man says in response. And the woman, infuriated, writes a cheque which she retrieves from a handbag that the man realizes is not the one he bought for her last Christmas. She’s moved on. This is the present reality for many of us. We know about memory and the power of “stuff”. And this is the future because we witness a man accepting financial support from his ex-wife in order to marry the woman he’s in love with. Power reveals itself in a cash transaction.

Beyond the direct effects of colonialism which colour the poem, the culture of the Acholi people from which my father drew much inspiration, is in flux. Bridewealth, which was the purview of the man’s family, is now dependent on whoever has the money to pay for it – in this case, the man’s ex-wife and, presumably, her lover. The narrator unfolds the cheque to make sure of the amount – One Thousand Four Hundred only. In this modern cash economy, money can and does replace the former symbol of wealth – cattle. Much of the cattle of Acholi was lost in the war that lasted over two decades (1986-2007) and there are barely any Acholi cows with which to show prosperity. The narrator, emasculated by his ex-wife’s cheque, is the modern man, and there’s no shame – or is there? Who or what makes an Acholi man or woman marriageable?

My father’s only novel, a slim book titled White Teeth (first published in 1963 in the Acholi language as Lak Tar) is about a young man from an impoverished family who makes the journey to the capital, Kampala, to see if he can earn the money to pay the bride price for Cecilia Laliya, the woman he loves. Set in colonial times, just before Independence, the main character, Okeca Ladwong, is alienated by the skyscrapers, tarmac roads, traffic, a multi-ethnic society and the fast, fast pace of urban life. But he is buoyed by his love for Cecilia, and so he perseveres until he makes enough money to return to his hometown, Gulu. Okot p’Bitek, who argued against the willful discarding of Acholi culture for a modern and souless life, wouldn’t and couldn’t let Okeca return to Gulu and marry Cecilia with his newly-earned cash. That’s not the way it was done traditionally.

In Song of Lawino, it’s clear that Lawino, the spurned wife of a modern man, Ocol, can see the danger of rejecting one’s culture wholesale. Do not uproot the pumpkin, she keeps saying. Do not uproot the pumpkin. There’s no need to reject the wisdom of Acholi culture for modern ways. In “Return the Bridewealth,” the old man sighs, as does the old woman, the narrator, his ex-wife and her lover. All the adults know and express that something is terribly wrong. Hm! as they still say in Uganda. Hm!

Return the Bridewealth” is certainly set in a time of flux for the narrator, his parents, children and ex-wife. Published in 1971, it was a time of instability in Uganda as well. 1971 was the year that Idi Amin overthrew the government of the man who had exiled my father – Apolo Milton Obote. Being the man that he was, Idi Amin did not want my father in the country either, so Okot p’Bitek remained in exile and brought us up in neighbouring Kenya, where I was born. Before Idi Amin was overthrown by organized exiles and with the support of the Tanzanian government in 1979, my father told of visiting Obote in Arusha, Tanzania, where the former president lived, and how they’d had a toast together to the life of an exile. My family returned from exile in 1980. Uganda experienced a series coup d’etats and a general election in 1980 that was heavily contested and led to the creation of a guerrilla movement that sought to overthrow the government of Milton Obote. That government was known as Obote II, given the fact that it was the second time in Obote’s career that he claimed presidency of the country.

In 1982, during the second term of my first year of high school, my father died. It was a surreal time. Dad had driven me to the bus stop at the beginning of that term where I’d caught the bus to Gayaza. I recall nothing about the drive there, not even if we talked, or what we might have talked about. I remember that he said bye very brightly and waved for a long time as he drove away. Maybe I remember a bright goodbye and a long wave because I need to.

I am a graduate student working on a PhD in interdisciplinary studies at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada, but I’ve dabbled in creative writing for much of my life. My Bachelor’s Degree was in Fine Art with a focus on Creative Writing, so the question of the role of the poet isn’t incidental to me. I’ve thought about it. When my father wrote his Horn of My Love, a collection of Acholi songs, he declared in that book that poets were loved and feared in Acholi society. In Vancouver, love and fear are not what I associate with poets and poetry. There are small and passionate groups of poets, generally divided into the textual kind and the spoken-word kind, but they exist in a parallel universe for most of the general population. Sometimes, a local poet breaks through the barrier and everybody can see themselves in a poet’s work. Shane Koyzcan, a Vancouver poet, was one of the featured presenters at the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics which was held in Vancouver. Recently, Koyzcan presented a poem on bullying, “To This Day”, at the TED talks, to much critical and popular acclaim. Like Okot p’Bitek, Koyczan’s poetry sounds like life. Nine million viewers have viewed “To This Day on YouTube, generating thousands of responses from people who could relate to the poem. What is it about poems and poets and poetry?

I write poems, sometimes. I had my first poem published when I was a girl; I wrote it in response to the factions that were struggling for power in Uganda after the liberation war in April 1979 that saw the overthrow of Idi Amin. One afternoon, my father took me to The NationNewspaper offices in Nairobi and I was interviewed and photographed. That Sunday, my poem was published in the children’s section of that national newspaper.

In 1998, my Words in Black Cinnamon was published by Delina Press. In that book, I wrote about spurned love, dislocation and home, but nothing about what it means to be a poet. I considered poetry as one of the arts, one of the practices that human beings use to connect and reflect, but I never saw myself “connected” until Ali Farzat, the Syrian cartoonist, was tortured for his work. I wrote “A Poem for Ali Farzat after several weeks of having heard about the torture of Farzat. I realized that I cannot afford the luxury of writing as an independent artist, making beauty for beauty’s sake. Art has a political function. It can drive change. It can make people think about what’s important to them. And for those of us who seek to work in solidarity with others, it can strengthen our resolve for change in the face of so much power against those that dare to present a dissenting voice. Today, it’s the protests in Turkey, the war in Syria, the dissenting young man who’s holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong while thousands of bones lie unburied in northern Uganda and South Sudan. How else can we deal with all this and more if we don’t immerse ourselves in art in order to understand the way we are?

The most direct poem I’ve ever written about the role of a poet comes from the very private experience of a “narrator poet” who sees her work as that of providing solace. The poet speaks of what she must do to alleviate the loneliness of a person she knows. The poet is a woman, a friend and lover. The poem remains a space in which fiction and fact trade spaces, feeling right and intimate, or distantly rational and strange. Recently, I wore a wide smile when I got a cheque for a small scholarship from my university. It was enough to pay some bills, do groceries and buy some school supplies. It read:  One Thousand Four Hundred and Seventy Eight Dollars and Seventy One cents.

.     .     .     .     .