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A Far Cry from Africa Summary and Analysis

A Far Cry from Africa Summary and Analysis

Derek Walcott (1930-) was born on the island of St. Lucia in the West Indies, and educated at
the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. He was a precocious writer, self-publishing his
first volume of poetry by the age of 18. Moving to Trinidad in the early 50s, where he was
employed as a teacher, he became active in the theatre, and published, in 1962, his verse
collectionIn a Green Night, which gained him international attention. He has continued to
publish both poetry and plays, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.

Walcott‟s earliest poetic influences were Modernist writers such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra
Pound. His themes most often touch upon the relationship of a postcolonial West Indies with
the culture and traditions of Britain, and particularly the literary heritage of writing in English
that he has inherited. His own contributions to that heritage include plays and poetry that
adapt traditional literary forms to new contexts; a salient example is his epic
poem Omeros (1990), which reworks Homer‟s Iliad andOdyssey through an exploration of
their themes in the context of the modern West Indies.

A Far Cry from Africa” was written in 1962, one year before Kenya gained its
independence. Behind Walcott‟s poem lies a particularly bloody chapter in the colonial
history of the African nation Kenya. From 1890 to its independence in 1963, Kenya was a
British colony. An influx of European colonists to Kenya in the first half of the 20th century
meant that, by 1950, there were over 80,000 white inhabitants living in the colony.
The majority of arable land in Kenya was appropriated by the colonial administration for
these British “settlers,” dispossessing the people of the Kikuyu, who were forced to become
landless squatters, itinerant farmers, or seek work in the cities where they were exploited as
cheap labour by Western businesses. Attempts by Africans to bring political resistance to
bear began in 1944, but were hampered from an early date by divisions within the Kenya
Africa Union.

Mau Mau Suspects Held by the British

From 1952 to 1960, Kenya was the scene of a violent insurgency that has come to be known
as the “Mau-Mau Uprising.” The meaning of this term is obscure (it may even have been
made up by the British authorities), but those who were engaged in this insurgency were
primarily members of the Kikuyu who sought an immediate end to colonial rule.
But while anti-Imperialism may have been the underlying impetus for the movement, its
actions were more akin to a civil war than an independence movement: the vast majority of
its victims were Kikuyu with allegiances to more moderate anti-British political movements.
While between 50 and 100 white settlers were murdered over the course of 8 years, over
2000 Kikuyu were victims. British propaganda, however, portrayed the uprising as a
“savage” African response to British rule and white “civilization.”

The poem starts with the painful jarring harsh experience of the rebellion that changed the
tranquil peaceful setting of the country. The nation itself compared to an animal, as it
indicates it is an animal like a lion. “tawny pelt” And how Kikuyu started the bloody battle.
The Kikuyu are compared to flies who are feeding on blood. Next we are informed the
aftermath of the rebellion. The poet describes that the country before the conflict was a
„paradise‟ and with an ironical comment he indicates the death, inhumanity and destruction
occurred in the land. There is the juxtaposition of the conflict against something divine with
the image of corpses scattered through a paradise. The worms that can be seen as the ultimate
emblem of stagnation and decay, cries at the worthless death. Sarcastically poet indicates
how the humans are reduced to statistics. And at the same time though scholars justify the
presence of white men in Africa and the process of civilizing the natives, the poet indicates
the fact that it was a failure with the brutal death of the small white child and his family.

People behave like animals „savages‟ hints and remind us the persecution endured by the
Jews. Jews were killed in millions due to their ethnicity during the time of Hitler. Though the
time and the place is different the same kind of situations repeat in the world time to time.
Next the poet creates a picture of white men in searching for natives who are hiding behind
the bushes. The sound of „ibises‟ hints a bad omen. Again the repetition is shown through the
word „wheeled‟. The civilized men thrived on conquering others. This process of violence
and conquering each other indicates the law of the jungle. The violence of „beast on beast‟
can justify according to the law of nature, the law of jungle. Yet it cannot be applied to the
„upright man‟ who are stretching out themselves to reach the „divinity‟. Apart from the task
of stretching themselves to reach „divinity‟ they end up with „inflicting pain‟ which is killing
and which is the law of jungle; killing for prey. They call for the massacre they create by
killing as war.

Ironically, wars between people are described as following the beat of a drum
— an instrument made of an animal hide stretched over a cylinder. Though the natives think
the act of killing white men brings them „courage‟ it ends up with fear. Moreover the poet
emphasizes the fact that though the natives justify their task mentioning it as a „brutish
necessity‟ and considering it as a national cause they just clean their hands with „the napkin
of dirty cause‟. So the poet suggests the fact that the natives‟ cause is dirty and ugly though
they consider it as right and nationwide. He sees a comparison with the West Indians who
had their share of harsh experiences with Spain. The fight is just as the gorilla wrestles with
superman. The gorilla in this context is compared to natives and superman is compared to
white men.

The last two lines indicate the situation of the poet, as he belongs to both cultures
how he feels inferiority regarding the situation. The mixed heritage of the poet makes him
unable to decide to which he should be partial. The title itself too indicates the state of mind
conflict of the poet, a cry from a great distance away and moreover it shows the alienation
and the inferiority of the poet. The poem ends with a picture of violence and cruelty and with
the idea of searching for identity.

Conflicting Loyalties in “A Far Cry from Africa”
Heather M. Bradley, Washington and Lee University
Walcott discusses the conflict between his loyalties to Africa and to Britain in “A Far Cry
from Africa.” The title of the poem emphasizes Walcott’s cultural instability as it implies a
type of alienation from Africa, despite its concentration on African themes. Walcott
juxtaposes the Africans and the British, focusing on each group’s transgressions. The poet
maintains a negative view of his hybridism: “I who am poisoned with the blood of
both,/Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” (1246.26-7). This severely pessimistic image
illustrates a consequence of displacement–isolation. It seems that Walcott feels foreign in
both cultures due to his lack of “pure” blood. An individual’s sense of identity arises from
cultural influences which define his or her character according to a particular society’s
standards. The poet’s hybrid heritage prevents him from identifying directly with one culture
and creates a feeling of isolation. The poem provides a textual version of the poet’s mental
dissertation on the vices and virtues which differentiate each culture.

Walcott, in “A Far Cry from Africa,” depicts Africa and Britain in the standard roles of the
vanquished and the conqueror, although he portrays the cruel imperialistic exploits of the
British without creating sympathy for the African tribesmen. This objectivity allows Walcott
to contemplate the faults of each culture without reverting to the bias created by attention to
moral considerations. He characterizes the African Kikuyu in a negative light: “flies/Batten
upon the bloodstream of the veldt” (1245.2-3). The Kikuyu resemble primitive savages who
abuse the fertile resources of their native plains. In this sense, the entrance of the British
appears beneficial not only to the inhabitants, but also to the suffering land. However,
Walcott contradicts this savior image of the British through an unfavorable description in the
ensuing lines: “The worm, colonial of carrion, cries:/’Waste no compassion on these separate
dead!'” (1245.5-6). The poet casts the authoritative British figure as a worm, a creature which
exists below the fly on the evolutionary ladder. The cruelty of the invaders toward their
captives correlates with the agricultural and technological ignorance of the Africans.

Walcott’s feelings about his heritage remain ambiguous through his focus on the failings of
each culture. He portrays the futility of an empirical comparison of the two cultures: “The
gorilla wrestles with the superman” (1246.25). The Africans, associated with a primitive,
natural strength, and the British, portrayed as an artificially enhanced power, remain equal in
the contest for control over Africa and its people.

Walcott further complicates his search for a legitimate identity in the final stanza. He
questions, “How choose/between this Africa and the English tongue I love?” (1246.29-30).
These lines identify the aspects of each culture that the poet admires. He remains partial to
the African terrain and way of life, while he prefers the English language and literary
tradition. The poet grapples with his affinity for progress and technology contained within the
British culture and his nostalgia for the rich cultural heritage of Africa. The magnetism that
each culture holds for Walcott causes a tension which augments as the poem continues. The
concluding lines of the poem deny the poet resolution of his quandary: “How can I face such
slaughter and be cool?/How can I turn from Africa and live?” (1246.32-3). Walcott’s divided
loyalties engender a sense of guilt as he wants to adopt the “civilized” culture of the British,
but cannot excuse their immoral treatment of the Africans. “A Far Cry from Africa” reveals
the extent of Walcott’s consternation through the poet’s inability to resolve the paradox of his
hybrid inheritance.
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