Harriet Anena is not as loud as many of my poet friends. At face value, she is a normal Ugandan beauty with the air that acutely contrasts her view of the world around her. But when you sit down with her, she begins to confound you with wit, depth and wisdom.
She paints a collage of life’s beauty and her hideousness in ‘A Nation In Labour.’ She speaks as if her words must pass through filters. Her sentences are short but rich with adroit humour and laden – sometimes – with sarcasm. The last time we sat down together, she struck me as woman in labour.
After writing for so long, she wanted to birth a collection of her own work. The Harriet I saw was a ‘Anena in labour’. That’s why when I finally saw the cover of her new poetry collection, ‘A Nation in Labour’, I smiled.
I failed, and I regret it, to ask her view of life. But after reading her collection, it’s not too hard to tell. In one of my favourite pieces, Skeletons of Laughter, Anena writes;
We search mass graves in our hearts for
skeletons of laughter that lie cold and broken
Harriet pokes fun at life and lifestyles and sympathises with it. Kampala, just like Nairobi or Dar es Salaam, is a city of chaos. Matatus blare and motorcycles shriek. And if you are a village boy like me or Gulu-born like Harriet, you want to run away from the city as she asserts in the poem, ‘Let’s Leave’.
Take me away from this city
to a place green and clean
where smiles are real and
laughter holds no pity
Isn’t it true that life has become too hypocritical? This is the world where scores of African presidents congregated at Qunu, South Africa, hailing Mandela for his liberation wars while the same presidents excite their own citizens, throws them in jail and trample on the freedom of voters.
Harriet asks why the world yearns for next the Mandela “When our life’s Mandela is still on Robben Island?” Why do we worry about who will fit in his shoes “when our own laces remain untied?”
Don’t we need brave leaders, those that don’t hide behind the numerical tyranny of their tribesmen? Don’t we need leaders like Mandela who “ate truth with all its bitterness, grabbed freedom by its horns…Dared his tormentors with bare hands and melted his jail doors with grace?”
Her style of writing is soft and poignant, sometimes fierce and abrasive, and that is how an artist fights boredom. She is controversial. I have always wondered why men have to pay cows, goats, chicken in order to marry, which is a controversial question.
It’s refreshing to see a woman retrospectively speak of them same in her poem ‘When I became A Cow’.
I was baptised a cow.
I was named a goat, chicken, and millet.
I was saved from being a woman the day he gave my people cows, goats, and chickens.
Harriet Anena is the kind of poet who fights her poetic wars wittily, not in a femi-nazi style, with grandeur, and shadow -punching. She’s a fine handler of the pen. But she also likes to throw up her hands in embracing the status quo. In today’s rogue world, “we stop looking”. Instead, we “give way for our ears to obey unsaid commands. We stop speaking, allow our words to die at birth,” she says, in the poem “Stuck”.
In defiance to people – especially the man – who she calls ‘Hemline Cop’, sarcastically pokes fun at the hypocrisy of such men. “You swallow hard when you see me. Malaya! your eyes scream as they strip me nude. You pelt my breasts, my butt with obscenities,” she says.
We all must not entertain such people. Harriet screams at them: “Listen to me, Mister! I’ll peck at your skin until you uncage me.”
Harriet Anena Paints A Collage Of Life’s Beauty And Her Hideousness In ‘A Nation In Labour’
If I saw a woman by her husband’s graveside, it’s easier to imagine the pain and the loss. But to see her in a black veil, look through her, by painting a picture of their lives together before his demise speaks well about death. “On this black dress are footsteps of eyes that looked at her face. On this black dress is a memory of the brightness that animated her face when he held her shoulders, looked into her eyes and she’d frozen in his warmth.”
And when she writes about love, her words are strokes of fire. You almost see the embers fly from the bed where her characters make love or make out. In ’Say it’, she transforms herself into a love-scene painter. Listen; “I’ll let your breath stroke my neck. I’ll let your arms go around my waist, and let your whisper flow into my ears.”
In the poem, ‘We Are On Heat’, she says:
…we love violently.
Cry and kiss at the same time as our chests
Heave with longing and hesitation
We feel extravagantly, run to heaven and hell at the same time…
Still she tackles different kinds of relationships such as pond-distance relationship, abuse, exploitation, and roles played by different genders.
The title of the book may have been born in 2012 as Uganda marked fifty years of independence per the author’s interview with Acholi Times, but the collection, unbeknownst to her, speaks about the Kenyan situation after 50 years of independence. It speaks about the deplorable South African situation over 20 years after Mandela strode out of Robben Island with a fist. Even after 15 years of civil war and international isolation and the final agreement of 1980, Zimbabwe largely remains in a state of labor.
If there is a weakness in this collection, it cannot be in the strength of her poems. The weakness of book is purely aesthetic; we still refuse to print on better material. And we should not be cheated that it’s the budget. Off white paper is available. White photocopy paper hurts the eye.
But that’s not a big deal.
The deal is this:
The sun rises and sheds its rays upon the earth
The wind blows through hills and valleys
Bringing hope for us all
But not so for the Acholi child
Born in the bush,
Lives in ‘protected’ camps
Year in year out – twenty and over
© Oduor Jagero