Mukoma Wa Ngugi

Hunting words with my father

Mukoma Wa Ngugi


(For Ngugi’s 70th)


One morning I burst into my father’s study and said

when I grow up, I too want to hunt, I want to hunt

words, and giraffes, pictures, buffalos and books


and he, holding a pen and a cup of tea said, little father,
to hunt words can be dangerous – but still, it is best to start

early. He waved his blue bic-pen and his office turned 


into Nyandarua forest.  It was morning, the mist rising

from the earth like breath as rays from the sun fell hard

on the ground like sharp nails.  Little father, do you see


him? – my father asked. No I said.  Look again – the mist

is a mirror – do you see him?  And I looked again and

there was a Maasai warrior tall as the trees spear in hand. 


Shadow him, feign his movements, shadow him until

his movements are your movements.  Running my feet

along the leaves I walked to where he was, crouched


like him so close to the earth, feet sinking deeper

into the earth as if in mud, turning and reading the wind

and fading into the mist till I became one with the forest. 


For half a day we stayed like this – tired and hungry

I was ready for home. But my father said, I did not say

this was easyyou cannot hunt words on a full stomach. 


And just as soon as he spoke there was a roar so loud

and stomping so harsh that hot underground streams broke

open like a dozen or so water pipes sending hissing, steaming


water high into the air. I turned to run but the Maasai

warrior stood his ground. As the roar and thunder

came closer, his hair braided and full of red ochre


turned into dread-locks so long that they seemed like

roots running from the earth.  When the transfiguration 

was complete, before me stood a Mau Mau fighter, spear 


in one hand, home-made-gun in the other, eyes so red 

that through the mist they looked like hot molten

cinders, the long dreadlocks a thousand thin


snakes in the wind, the leaves and grass and thorns

rushing past him.  You must help him, don’t just stand

there, help him – my father implored but just as soon


as I had closed my little hands into fists, the lion

appeared high up in the air, body stretched the whole

length as the Mau Mau fighter pulled the spear like


it was a long root from the earth.  The lion, mid-air, tried

to stop, recoiled its talons to offer peace but it was too

late and it let out another roar as its chest crushed


into the spear, breast-plate giving way until the spear

had edged its way to the heart.  Dying then dead

it continued its terrible arc and landed.  I waved


and the picture stood still. My father came up to me

and asked, why have you stopped the hunt? I said

“but we killed it – I have what we came for.”  I pointed


to where the Mau Mau warrior was pulling his spear

from the carcass but my father shook his head and said

–you have done well but look closely – how can you


carry all that in a word?  How can we carry that home?

It is too heavy.  I laughed and said – “father, you help me.”

But he pointed to the ground, to a steady flow of a bright


thin red river furiously winding down from the grooves

of the spear to the earth. I too pointed unable to speak

– the beauty larger than my imagination.  I was confused. 


I had no words.  Come, let us go home little father. 

When you are of-age you shall find the words, he said.

But always be careful – to hunt a word is to hunt a life.

A Collage of Minds, Hearts and Revolutions Dissected



One step removed from your paint brush - I watch your skirt

wet with deep thick colors hiked and matted to your thighs

-your eyes drawn tight in wonder where to cut canvass next- 

me - my heart contracting - then a release with sharp strokes

that paint labor to birth a pregnant woman marching for the death

penalty.  Who does she protect?  The unborn child? Herself when

her fruit goes bad?  Then you, your best spent on the last stroke.

I feel no father's pride.  Do you understand how small

I am to fight these things you create?



What we imagine to be a bomb but only a hare trapped

in lighting lines plunges our world into darkness - Pencil

flash light beckoning me to you - you to me - locking

me and you in its beam revealing only bits of you -  your

hand on the wall to make a rabbit - your bowed head in laughter

its shadow and hair onto your breasts - light tracing you

- always you – navel- laugh – hands – lips - then lips find lips-

I trace you with my lips till warmth locks on warmth.



It's midnight. We remain unmoved at the slight jar of the world

shifting plates to ready the next day. I am blowing smoke into

the candle to create darkness with a single breath.  You, tracing

fingers that feel like tendrils along my scars, each stroke softening

their jaggedness.   Some scars are wounds we are born with,

others healed before our birth yet cannot be erased and others

we carve ourselves.  "Why do you keep them?" 

"Do you feel them...their wounds?"  You ask after my silence. 

I am like an old painting, even blemishes belong.  Instead I say

"Not when I am here with you."  Why do I lie? Darkness.
Click here for the rest of the poem

 A Poem for Arthur Nortje

Your forehead jutting outwards swelling with the wretchedness
of inheritance, watching your trail of black dust, ashes of a cremated
past swirl and twirl, a dance with voiceless ghosts that see through
the film of your eyes. Your eyes frozen deep in the monotony
of the past holding a black and white photograph of a stillborn
baby's wail.   Your nails thrust deep into the palm of your right

hand until it explodes like a grenade reading blood will flood
the River Nile, your reflection lies face down in Thames River
I see a corpse in an Ocean sized fitting room. Consult neither
the Yoruba gods nor oracles, what you need is an internal shift
of perception, find beauty sufficient enough to thaw feeling.

Once you found beauty and said a true word, one true word spills
its truth at seams, swells beehives until the honey trickles
down to oasis. You said, lift up the cup gently to your scorched
lips and drink lest you spill. The warm sun light seductively
filters through the BaoBab branches onto my hungry skin, oval slits
of light swaying with the wind that moves the palm shaped leaves.

Is there a true word so terrible to face? That creates such
anguish? Only in its absence, the vagueness of an articulated
absence that churns ghosts, births easy theories of dualism and
memory of a childhood that dreamt what it cannot now fulfill
leaving a solitary poet staring into the abyss with nothing in front
or behind, the sole saxophonist in the middle of Oxford Square

playing long after the mourners have left. It once was beautiful.
Wearing your martyr's cap, you sat too long defenseless, the lone
aeolian harp battling a screaming wind that has upon itself the role
of redeeming the world. Thames River cannot not mummify as winter
is not here. City lights flicker industrialization onto the river's glass
your face distorted by the city's disco lights, two dark eyes peering

into the display of orgy that dances before them. Every day the world
ends with our eyes glued on the next shipment of happiness.
Nightmares of land mines, sequestered Palestinians and Zulus
who no longer believe in either the pointed tip of Shaka's assegai
nor in the poet's pen. Let it hurtle along at the pace of my mind,
Bao-Bab fiend sprout a branch, trip a thought, middle of inferno,

take a plunge into the fire next time of a mind through which the world
whistles tunes of its madness. Shoot a straight arrow into the sky, create
wavy parallels, dance opposites in its wake, I see your face actualizing
the possibility of life, the fact of death. The Police records show your
fingerprints on a beer bottle, a witness who watching the orgy of depression
asked you to dance,"I have to leave, I am almost late, but thanks", he said.
Another time then?" she asked. "Maybe, but not here." She watched your
black coat that hid your back till it was swallowed by the dancing bodies,
one slice of darkness and the you spilled onto Wordsworth Street.

Kenya – A Love Letter

Inside looking out, snow is falling and I am thinking
how happy we once were, when promises and dreams
came easy and how when we, lovers covered only

by a warm Eldoret night, you waved a prophecy
at a shooting star and said, "when the time comes
we shall name our first child, Kenya" and how I

laughed and said "yes, our child then shall be country
and human" and we held hands, rough and toughened
by shelling castor seeds.  My dear, when did our

clasped hands become heavy chains and anchors holding
us to the mines and diamond and oil fields? Our hands
calloused by love and play, these same hands – when

did they learn to grip a machete or a gun to spit hate?
And this earth that drinks our blood like a hungry child
this earth that we have scorched to cinders - when we

are done eating, how much of it will be left for Kenya?
My dear, our child is born, is dying.  Tomorrow
the child will be dead.

 UW – Madison
January 4, 2008

-       commissioned by the BBC World Service
 Letter to My Nephew

           For Ken Saro-Wiwa

The sun is locked in evening, half shadow

half light, hills spread like hunchbacks over

plains, branches bowing to birth of night.

It's an almost endless walk until the earth

opens up to a basin of water. You gasp

even the thin hairs on your forearm breathe,

flowers wild, two graves of man and wife

lying in perfect symmetry, overrun by wild

strawberries. Gently you part the reeds,

water claims the heat from the earth, you

soak your feet, then lie down hands planted

into the moist earth. You glow. Late at night

when you leave, you will fill your pockets

with wet clay. But many years from now,

you will try to find a perfect peace in many

different landscapes, drill water out of memory

to heal wounded limbs of the earth. You

will watch as machines turn your pond

inside out, spit the two graves inside out

in search of sleek wealth. Many years

later, after much blood has been lost and your

pond drained of all life you will wonder, shortly

before you become the earth's martyr, what

is this thing that kills not just life but even death?