I said I’d dispense with a Foreword, but I just wanted to say that this is a longish poem…which means some of you may prefer to listen to it rather than read it. To facilitate that, I have put the audio recording of my recitation right above the poem. (Please try to ignore the noises in the background.)
Upon Reading of The Death of Satao (An Imagined Prelude)
I am not sure my story’s very good;
I’m afraid it may be like the wood
Chopped up by a clumsy carpenter:
Rough and splintered.
(But I will continue and tell
You of the time when evening fell
Upon the green land of Tsavo,
And I took up bow and arrow.)
I am Kibaki; son of Kiprono Moses,
(A good man, my uncle says)
Who died before his time and mine.
I lived until the age of nine
With my mother; a loving, gentle woman
Who is now dead, and in heaven.
Dear mother, it is because of you
That I know what is good and what is true.
There is a river by my home
Where many wild animals come;
I have seen the leopard bend his spotted yellow
Head and sip water from his favourite shallow,
And sat for many hours upon a crooked rock
And watched the old antelope talk
With the cheetah under the group of trees
That I once clambered up with ease.
(Mother said later: the wild beasts do not kill
Like man does. Perhaps that is God’s will.)
But now I will not care
To go back there;
Not even to chatter with the friendly swan;
Because last evening, I grew from boy to man.
Two weeks ago, my uncle brought
Home two men who taught
Me how to use a bow and arrow.
I was so eager to show
That I could shoot like Waaciira,
(Who was our tribe’s first hero),
That forgetting the antelope by the lake
(Or maybe simply for pride’s sake),
I shot a wobbling arrow at a baby deer.
And when the two men gave a loud cheer,
I laughed, without really knowing why,
(Even as the little deer looked on mutely).
And when my uncle shook his greying head
With a loud sigh and said:
“Kibaki, we must not hurt the innocent,”
I acted as if I had not meant
To; but instead just laughed at him and ran,
For I had not yet grown from boy to man.
Last week, the two men came back
With a larger bow and arrows and a sack;
“Come, Kibaki,” they said, “let us go
Hunting and we will show
You how to shoot an elephant.”
I wanted to say: “It is wrong to shoot an elephant.”
But when I saw the curve of the polished bow
And the gleam of the feathered arrow,
I simply said: “Where must we go?”
“We must go,” they said, “to Tsavo
For that is where great Satao lives
With his children and his many wives.”
That day we left for Tsavo in a van;
That day I took a step from boy to man.
When I went to the river by my home,
I loved to look down at the dome-
Head of the elephants when they bent low
Over the river’s edge; and how
With great show and splash they drunk
The water with their snaking trunks.
And when the afternoon was clear
Their white, curved tusks would glimmer
In the shallow water, and make me sigh
At their beauty.
But now all that time seems no more than
A happy hour before I grew from boy to man.
The green savannah spread from side to side
And the plains of Tsavo seemed as wide
As the sunny, cloudless sky
Above us, full-blown and happy.
But the two men and I brought a shade
That settled over the land and made
It dark and quiet; as if the sky above
Had sensed the clench of an iron glove.
Then there, beneath the crying birds
And among the many-membered herds
Of animals, began our hunt for old Satao.
Come to think of it, I am writing this afterword almost as much for myself as for the reader.
To begin, it is not untrue that this poem is just as much complete as it is incomplete.
This poem was begun some four-and-a-half years ago; and perhaps some three months after rumours first began to spread that Satao had been killed. (I believe it took the authorities some time to confirm the fact.) If memory serves correctly, I think it was a social media post that directed me to this (?) longish article in The Guardian that related the story of Satao and his death at the hands of poachers. I had never heard of Satao before, but the news of his death affected me – as the passing of a majesty such as his is likely to affect anyone who hears of it. But what struck me particularly, I seem to remember, was how he had died: killed by the bows and arrows of ivory-greedy poachers.
Saying it this way makes the death seem almost anachronistic. Crude even. Yes, it is true that this was a 21st-century killing accomplished using weaponry from the Bronze Age. But this matter of fact does not make the killing just something regular. Not at all! Instead, it only highlights Satao’s death as the poison-fruit of a cunning and rapacious cruelty, a cruelty wholly bereft of even the slightest tinge of redemptive innocence. The poachers were not playing fair (as men in the Bronze Age might have when they shot unpoisoned arrows at a charging elephant) when they shot at Satao with their arrows; they were being murderously stealthy in ways that gunshots never could be.
If I have offered all this detail, it is because I have tried to find (not only for the reader but myself too) what inspired the poem’s narrative. I mean – wherever did Kibaki come from? I do not know for certain, but I suppose he emerged as a plausible player in a narrative defined on the one hand by Satao and on the other by his poachers; poachers who, I surmised, would have had no qualms about enlisting a young boy as an accomplice in their heinous crime.
It is pretty near the truth if I say that I did not begin with anything particular in mind; not even the story that “[likely] is not very good”. Nor did I set out to write a narrative poem. However, as an outline began to emerge, I began to look for details and content to fill it with. If the poem ends where it does, it is because not only was I not sure what next to do with Kibaki but also because it seemed like a fairly felicitous place to stop: the narrative is not injured and the reader is allowed to imagine the rest of the story.
One last thing. The motif of “growing from boy to man” may appear somewhat well-worn. The predilection sports writers (and sports commentators in particular) have for harping on about “boys vs men” as also the closing line of Kipling’s “If” makes it almost inevitable that, you, the reader are familiar with the trope. I’d like, however, for you to see this from Kibaki‘s point of view; specifically, that he feels the loss of his innocence so acutely that he no longer can think of himself as the boy he very much is. His repetition of this emotion illustrates how adversely the episode has affected him.
Note: I have never been to Kenya nor have I visited the plains of Tsavo. I have tried, however, to keep things real. First off, I have a Kenyan friend, one of whose names, incidentally, is Moses. Kiprono is the name of several well-known Kenyan long-distance runners. Kibaki, I know, is a Kenyan name – because I looked it up. Lastly, Waaciira, I remember finding out, is the name of a folk hero of one of Kenya’s tribes.