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When a talented poet seduces your mind

A poet, like a spider, works tirelessly spinning silver yarns. He struggles, endures until finally, a pattern is made: a web of beauty; a trap for the reader.

Those are not my words; I have just paraphrased Ng’ang’a Mbugua’s poem A Poet for it beautifully captures what good poetry does to a reader. It rejuvenates the soul, runs away with your imagination and makes you want to create some poetry of your own. At least that is what it does to me.


The above quoted poem is contained in an anthology titled This Land is our Land by Mbugua. In his seminal book Things Fall Apart, the late Chinua Achebe quotes an Igbo proverb that goes something like: “When the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk”. For purposes of describing this book, I would have replaced walk with dance, for dancing is more poetic. After reading this collection even the most hopeless of writers would wish to create some poetry.

The vivid imagery in Mbugua’s poems seduces the reader’s imagination and drags you along to that secret world where only talented poets can take you. Take for example that short poem titled The Voice. The poet relives the relief of old Abraham and his son Isaac, when they laid their eyes on that ram, horns entangled in that thicket; specifically delivered to save the young man from the harsh knife wielded by his father.

From the introduction the reader mentally prepares themselves for a sermon on the all-enveloping love of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, until the poet takes an unexpected if not cheeky detour:

                                       Abraham lifted high his knife

                                       And was about to strike

                                       When out rang a voice

“What do you think you are doing?”

It was the voice

Of the owner of the lamb.

Aside from improbable Bible stories This Land or Land also captures the modern day realities and renders them in a way both entertains the reader and still retains the sting that admonishes our follies without being too preachy. A case in hand is the poem titled You should know people. Here, the poet brilliantly highlights the ever-widening rift between the haves and the have-nots.

‘You should know people’ therefore becomes the metaphor of what the poor should do in order to be ushered into the rarefied world of privilege. Sample this:

                          In a land where the many and the hungry are one and the same…

                          It pays to know people

                          If you are to be spared the pangs of want.

From the title This Land is our Land, one might think that this book is a patriotic ode to the Nation that celebrated 50 years of self-rule. The truth about the poem, however, is that it is a cynical appraisal of the nation our country has morphed into.

The poem is actually a deep-seated cry for peace, while also alive to the fact in the country we find ourselves in ‘real peace’ can never be attained. Or rather, some quarters would not allow for such peace to prevail; and that is why the poet is crying out for ‘just any peace’.

While the meaning in This Land is our Land might be somehow obscured Let’s Create Misery is an open bare-knuckled rebuke of wielders of power and who derive moronic pleasure from the suffering of the masses. Here, the ‘creators of misery’ revel in their ability to make people die; for they will create jobs in morgues, and more jobs ‘for coffin carriers and grave diggers’

And if all the workers die

                                             We’ll have bigger farms

                                             To grow coffee, tea, cotton

                                             No more food crops…

Oh, and there are also some love poems in the anthology as well including a tragic love story of Andrew and Jane who were ostracised by the church brethren, whose tongues began to wag, Casting the little couple in shady light/Preaching that they were far from right.

And who told you African names can’t rhyme? What about The merry old man from Ndumberi, who loved strawberry, and whose love was Njeri. Thus goes the tale of Wanderi.

Mbugua should be commended for investing his hard-earned funds to bring this publication to reality, at a time when mainstream publishers are giving poetry a wide berth and Kenyans think poetry is hard.

This book is selling at sh 350. You can order it through or through the author at


Gangster poetry: Otieno Amisi’s verdict

Tony Mochama’s book What If I am a Literary Gangster has kicked up such a literary storm it appears that people cannot stop talking about it. Journalist Otieno Amisi insisted that Maisha Yetu must publish his review on the book. And who are we to say no to a good literary argument. Here you go:

Gangsters invade literary scene

Writing is suddenly becoming an attractive pastime in Kenya. Politicians, religious leaders and journalists are writing poems and biographies. A few are even venturing into the craft of poetry. With dire costs.

Last year, there was Kiraitu Murungi’s Song of My Beloved (Oakland Books, 2007). Then Raila Odinga followed with An Enigma in Kenyan Politics. And Kalembe Ndile has recently come with My Squatters, My Struggles, My Dream. Now journalist Tony Mochama has joined the fray.

But Mochama is a different sort of literary gangster. A journalist with something of a reputation for experimentation, Mochama is synonymous with what has become known as teen journalism, a medium obsessed with a footloose urban lingo called sheng and local heroes or ‘celebs’ as these one line, on line musicians are called. Last month, he launched his collection of poems under the title, What if I am a Literary Gangster? at the Goethe Institute, Nairobi.

The effect of Mochama’s book has been to divide critics down in the middle. There are those who think this kind of new, underground writing should be encouraged, especially considering that publishing even a line of poetry is so difficult in our part of the world.

Then there are those who argue that the book is not serious enough that its lighthearted broaching on what should be serious international issues like global trade imbalances and freedom is intolerable.

Sympathetic reviewers like Joseph Ngunjiri have been at pains to defend Mochama. Ngunjiri identifies what he calls “the soft side of the gangster. “ But old school critics like Egara Kabaji argue that his verses are “decidedly defiant,’ and are “neither poetic nor artistic.”

These are not the conventional neatly trimmed lines, as in rich in meaning and social concern as Okot p’Bitek or Jared Angira. Because Mochama the journalist is always on the run, his scribblings and musings are no more than snippets from his fleeting encounters with the world, with a world on the run.

According to the sympathizers, Mochama’s brand of poetry is ‘from another planet.’
Lumping his apparent ‘success’ in journalism of the gossip and rumour type, they see Mochama as a rising star in Kenya’s literary scene. But pulse journalism and poetry are worlds apart.

Ngunjiri argues that Mochama’s poems are ‘refreshingly real, and could only come from someone who has been through so much.’ He goes ahead to identify what he calls the ‘softer side’ of the poet, which he claims comes out especially in a piece titled, ‘Whispers’ and which is dedicated to the late word juggler Wahome Mutahi. The poem goes:

Laughter and your stories, lingers,
Like a silver cobweb clings
On a broken wall
lit by silver moonlight

But the ‘gangster’ leaves the reader breathless not for its lack of style or bland creativity, but for the sheer absence of beautiful language. The persona rushes, in one breath, between airports and seaports and rhythms and rhymes that are at once alarmist and drunken, then rushes back again to a gasp of short lived reality.

According to the author, the title was provoked by one Egara Kabaji, a former don at Kenyatta University lecturer at Masinde Muliro University who once dismissed Mochama as a “Literary Gangster, whose godfather is Binyavanga Wainaina.” In revenge, Mochama deliberately misspells the don’s name, calling him “Egaji Kabira, a lecturer at some minor college in Western Kenya.”

Kabaji, like many grammar school graduates, has few kind words for Mochama’s writing, which is mere wordplay. Mochama simply splatters words on a page, without a major theme or driving force. He is more of a roving juggler with words than a serious poet. But perhaps he had no intentions to be a serious poet—and like his newspaper celebs, just wants to ride big on fame, with a miniature substance.
His scribblings are about nothing in particular and about everything all at once; snippets of his love life, his nightlife, his love for vodka and his travels to far away cities. His attempt to rhyme at all costs sometimes ends up like an echo of those ‘hip hop’ musicians who strangle meaning in their strings of rhyme, or poor imitations of Wole Soyinka. Who said poetry must rhyme?
Mochama’s poems are also full of strange references to Siberia, Russia, St. Petersburg, Stalin and other travel experiences. But who said poetry must be about distant journeys and privileged encounters?
Yet his skill with words sometimes emerges strongly. Sample this:
When I run out of poetic tricks
I shall commit syntax
Ferry my body in a verse
And bury me, in the symmetry
Mochama the wordsmith has a pulse that comes with a wicked, sometimes explosive, sometimes mischievous sense of humour, and, — let’s give it to him — a whiff of fresh air into the drab poetic scene.
Here’s another clip from Black Mischief a word play on Sissina, the victim of Naivasha farmer Chomondley’s gun wielding racism:

Sisina’s sin, it seems
Is that he had no idea
Where Naivasha ends,
And England begins.

Right from the cover, which shows a shattered glass window, complete with holes on the words of the title itself, what is contained between the covers of the book is quite unlike your ordinary, conventional book of poetry. It is unthinkable that such a book should find its way into the classroom; the good old chaps at the Kenya Institute of Education are unlikely to take a second look at it; but not everything must be written for the Orange book.

In ‘Trading Places’, the poet takes a mischievous shot at the social, political and economic differences between Africa and the West. He addresses the double standards employed by the West when dealing with Africa, and in typical poetic license, puts Africa at the top of the world.

When he is not tackling universal themes like freedom and love he takes a philosophical musing on life and death. But his tone is typically, even annoyingly, happy-go-lucky, full of mischief and appears fired off from a cannon loaded with irony.

Like Kabaji, Otieno Otieno, a journalist with the Nation Media group, is furious. He writes, “It is not so often that literary clowns like Mochama enjoy such unflattering reviews. But the intellectual freedom of the blogosphere propels this rebel from obscurity into a somewhat comfortable abode in the mainstream.

Another reviewer, Munene wa Mumbi, calls it ‘exhibitionist verse, which fits under the category of travelogue’ and relegates this writing to a Russian Tourism Board Newsletter, ‘if it is there.’ Mochama is merely fascinated with gangsterism. He is awestruck by overseas travel,’ Munene barks. “Clipping the lines of a short story does not render it a poem.”

By and large, the book remains a one man show, lacking the editorial edge that could have come with a bigger, local and more careful publisher.
Amisi rans a blog called Creative Ventures


Literary Gangster: Smitta’s poetry book

Saturday, November 10 was a big day for Tony Mochama. He was launching his book What if I am a Literary Gangster? – a collection of poetry – at the Goethe Institute in Nairobi.
With such a defiant title, you almost guessed what is contained between the covers of the book. Well, one thing you are assured of is that this is not going to be your ordinary goody goody conventional poetry. You also know that such a book will not find its way to a classroom, as a school text – the guys at the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) would have recurring nightmares would such a thing happen (but I am sure they would love to read it in private.)
Having said that, let us now examine the logic behind the title. Apparently, the title was inspired by Dr Egara Kabaji, who teaches at the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, in Western Kenya. Writing in the Literary Discourse section, in the Sunday Standard, Dr Kabaji dismissed Tony Mochama as a “Literary Gangster, whose godfather is Binyavanga Wainaina.”
To some extent I agree with Dr Kabaji, but without the Binyavanga rider. To me Mochama is a literary gangster of a different type. The product of his “crime” is one that really appeals to my literary buds. And for sure he shoots from the hip.
Sample this:
When I run out of poetic tricks
I shall commit syntax
Ferry my body in a verse
And bury me, in the symmetry

Witness how he effortlessly plays around with the words syntax/sin, verse/hearse and symmetry/cemetery. That verse is picked from the poem titled The Poetry Police.
Now, Tony Mochama is not your everyday writer. To me, he is the very exemplification of the title wordsmith. At the Standard, where he writes, Mochama has about four columns, the most celebrated being Scene at, in the Pulse Magazine, which comes out every Friday.
As a journalist, I will tell you that maintaining just one column is hard enough. Writing four columns week in week out is a different thing altogether. And he still spares time to write poetry, and drink some Vodka, lots of Vodka!
Speaking of Pulse, I think I will not be contradicted when I say Mochama, who writes under the name Smitta Smitten, is the very pulse of that magazine. It is not very difficult to see his wicked and wacky sense of humour, in most sections of the magazine, even without seeing his byline.
I came to know Mochama in the late nineties. Then he had a terrible afro hairstyle and still he was a poet. His fans called him The Mad Poet – what else did you expect?
Later he would be a contributor in the earlier edition of Expression Today (ET), published by the Media Institute. He later wrote the arts for Daily Nation, but it was not until his former boss at ET David Makali dragged him to Standard, that his star really shone. At the Standard, Pulse to be precise, he was given the freedom, nay latitude, to bring his latent talent to the fore, and it has shone ever since.
Pulse in itself has been a revelation in Kenyan journalism. It dispensed with the status quo kind of journalism long practiced in the country and brought out an explosive mix of bold and exciting entertainment reporting that really appeals to the targetted audience, the youth.
Simply put, it has been a breath of fresh air.
And did I mention that Mochama was once denied entry into Russia? Perhaps the first African to enjoy that rare “honour”. What crime did you commit against the Russians Smitta?
Back to gangster poetry. Well, a lot has been said about poetry being difficult, elitist and that kind of stuff, but Mochama in his book brings it down to the level that it can be enjoyed by every person.
The topics are as varying as the world is big. In the poem titled Trading Places, the poet takes a mischievous shot at the social, political and economic differences between Africa and the West. It also addresses the double standards employed by the West when dealing with Africa.
But coming from Mochama, it has to be different. In his poem, the tables have been turned. Africa rules the world and the West comes begging for aid.
And Libya invaded America to
topple George Bush
“the tyrant,” and “restore
democracy and freedom to the long-suffering people of
United States of America!”

From war to freedom and love, to the philosophical musings of life and death, Tony Mochama addresses these topics with the same happy-go-lucky manner that is the hallmark of his writing. His poetry is full of mischief and is in many instances fired off from a cannon loaded with irony.
That the gangster is also capable of being soft, reveals another side of his pen not many are aware of, partculary in the piece, Whispers.
Laughter and your stories, lingers,
Like a silver cobweb clings
On a broken wall lit by silver moonlight

The poem is dedicated to the late Wahome Mutahi, another wordsmith, of the humour variety.
I was especially intrigued by his pieces on love and heartbreak. They are refreshingly real and could only come from someone who has been through such emotions and trust the Smitta to have gone through all those.
However, careful editing of the book would have taken care of some annoying typos occasionally appearing in the book. Maybe that has to do with the fact that it was published in Russia.
Well, a literary gangster? The “celebs” who are always on the receiving end of his pen every Friday would rather use the word terrorist.
The book is Published Brown Bear Insignia
What if I am a Literary Gangster is distributed by Suba Books and Periodicals based at Hazina Towers