187. Cut off My Tongue by Sitawa Namwalie

Cut off My Tongue (StoryMoja, 2009; 80) is a bold collection of poems by Kenyan author who writes under the name Sitawa Namwalie. My first encounter with Namwalie's poems was when I saw her perform this entire set of poems at the Museum in Kampala, Uganda. That performance will live with me for a very long time. I describe Sitawa's poems as bold because of its subject matter. She is not afraid to call a thing by its name. Yet, in been blunt she didn't sacrifice the musicality and artistic requirement of poetry. All these ingredients are present in this excellent anthology.

Whether she is writing about the deeply tribalistic nature of her Kenyan compatriots, an issue that isn't peculiar to that country alone and which has been capitalised by politicians to achieve their personal goals, or she is talking about her identity as a Kenyan and an African, Sitawa minces no words and does so brilliantly. Though her writing covers wide subject matters, the common thread weaving the parts together - that ensured a flawless performance and seamless transitions between poems - is identity: identity of the self, of the tribe, of Africa and of Africans. She writes candidly about the post-electoral tribal violence that engulfed Kenya; here one sees the tribe-based chasms at display. The funny thing is that we all came from somewhere and nowhere. We cannot claim absolute ownership of no piece of land for in our migration we came to meet it. This issue of tribe is the subject matter of Language of Tribe. In this opening poem, the author '...wanted to know/ What is this thing/ That has us all by the neck:/ What does it look like?/ How does it feel?/ How do we live with it?' In this search for meaning and reason Sitawa questions why someone who has friends across all tribes will suddenly be '...glaring at each other/Across a wide abyss, a yawning space/Unbridgeable by the smiles of my former friends.' But did she find out the reason? Did she discover the secret?

But all these issues and problems with Tribe is linked to the issues and problems with lands. In Land of Guiltless Natives, Sitawa explores what land means to the Kenyan and whence that obsession came from. In this, Sitawa sarcastically blamed the colonists for imbuing into us their passion for the land. She writes: 'But let's not blame all the British./ The set that came to Kenya/ Is guilty of this particular mania./ Lords and Ladies of the real/ From a tiny island of 60 million souls/ On only 244,820 square km/ And those lordly few still managed to own large chunks of that!' And truly this is what was replicated when Africa was colonised. Lands in Africa became the gifts for those British soldiers who had been deemed to have served well in Wars. 'They carved out chunks of that empty land,/ 100,000 hectares for this Lord,/ 200,000 hectares for that Lord...'

Cut off My Tongue is a line in the poem I come from everywhere. In this poem, Sitawa shows that we are all from everywhere and nowhere for we have journeyed across rivers and mountains and have settled here; that characteristics that we associate to a given tribe suddenly becomes the characteristics of another tribe in a far off place. The metaphor 'Cut off My Tongue' shows how much rooted she is to everywhere. She writes: 'There is no purity in my people;/ We're a blend from everywhere./ So what should I do with your call to hate?/ Must I cut off my tongue,/ All silky smooth and full of words so sweet?' Science has shows us that we are a product of several gene-combinations and crossings and it is this combinations of different genes that ensures our survival; in fact, it is the very reason why incest is a taboo in every culture. Thus, if you want to be pure, why not marry your sister and allow your children to marry themselves. Since we cannot and don't do these, since we marry across streams and rivers and mountains, we are the product of many. 'There is no purity in my people/ I come from everywhere./ /You now tell me I must hate and kill?/ Must I cut off my tongue?/ Then tell me this,/ How do I mutilate my soul?' 

In all her writings, Sitawa Namwalie's audience is everyone, more especially the politicians who have capitalised on these divisions. But she also talks to the proletariat who is always deceived to carry out the butchering and the burning. This insanity associated with tribal conflict is what is addressed in Would You? and The Carcass of the House. In the former Sitawa wants to know if you 'Would seek a loving wife/ Give her one hour to leave her home,/ Depart from all she knows and those she love?/ And you call that an act of charity,/ When she pleads with you to kill her then,/ To wield a blunt blade...'. Similar sentiments are expressed in the latter, where 'Walls stand brooding alone/ The carcass of a house still stands...'. 

This entire anthology seeks to address the unity of humanity. That humanity has nothing to do with the tribe you come from. What is the colour of a tribe's blood? Interspersing the poems are essays addressing each set of issues. These essays do not deviate from the poems but expand ones understanding and appreciation of them. The themes covered in them matches what the author covers in this book. 

My favourite poem is Say My Name where the author questions the delocalisation of names. It is from this piece that she gets her name 'Sitawa Namwalie'. Nameless is another poem on the same issue. This book - made up of twenty-five poems and four essays - is a must read. It has the power to challenge your thinking and make you look at life with a different eye. It is my ardent hope that those who need this second-look will actually get to read this book or to listen to it performed to them. Alternatively, if possible this book should be translated into every Kenyan (or African) Language and be taught in schools. It is that good and germane to the development of a tolerant society. How do we address the issue of tribe? Is it by teaching your child English at home or by living among non-tribe folks? Sitawa Namwalie addresses all these. 


  1. A brilliant and indepth review, Nana. This should be on my TBR. Thanks for sharing

    1. This is an excellent book. I guarantee that.

  2. It's always lovely to review a book of poems that the reader had the opportunity to witness it being performed. I should look out for this.


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