Blue Mothertongue

Poetry by Ngwatilo Mawiyoo Reviewed by Mutheu Mulinge Blue Mothertongue. The title was enough to make me look twice at the little book and wonder at what exactly would cause one’s mother tongue to take on a hue. I was then informed that “blue” alludes to state of mind rather than to a hue. Thus having had my blonde moment swiftly dispelled, I found Blue Mothertongue to be a delightful and uncomplicated read in as far as Kenyan poetry anthologies are concerned. A collection of urban poems about growing up in Nairobi, it is quite the study in the diversity and richness of variation that is possible with the open form of poetry. Blue mothertongue has a certain wandering in meter from poem to poem that quite frankly will cause you to read from one poem to the next almost as if it were a novel. I heartily wish this anthology was on the prescribed curriculum teaching list for English literature classes in my younger years; when we struggled to find work by local poets whose open formed prose we could simultaneously dissect for an A grade and easily prescribe to. Poetry teachers should have a look at this anthology and perhaps use it as an example of the evolution of poetry in Kenyan, especially in the urban space. Perhaps this is the reason why seasoned thespian and poet John Sibi Okumu says of the anthology, “When those of her generation have children, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo will have provided them with teachable, home grown specimens of the poet’s craft that will be a worthy testament to her times.” Each piece seems to stumble into the next almost as if it was not on designed so. Yet as you read through, you can identify many situations on living in Nairobi which we can all relate to. Her works evoke memories of the myriad experiences of growing up in Nairobi’s sub-urban estates, of living alone in a foreign land, coming back home, going up country to your parents’ rural village and feeling a stranger as you speak your mothertongue amongst your father’s people which resounds strongly through out this collection. It is almost as if she has taken the experiences of her generation and preserved them for posterity in sixty odd pages of emotionally bare and honest prose. What is most endearing about this anthology is the simple use of imagery and other literary devices that conjure up strangely vivid visuals of the situation, and emotions that carry through each individual poem. Ngwatilo’s subtle use of imagery to describe situations in a variety of settings is a testament to her skill as a poet. The humour of eavesdropped conversations about the state of the nation that for a time was common place in public transport vehicles is unmistakable in the piece ‘Heard: The traffic light monologue”. Her refreshing use of the popular slang language Sheng in a typically Nairobi-speak fashion authenticates the feeling that these are poems by a ‘Nairobian’ for ‘Niarobians’ and Kenyans at large. Reading the piece ‘Sins we Committed’ I’m transported back to my own experience in my father’s upcountry place of worship, where the loud gasps of surprise that this ‘town-bred girl’ should know how to speak her mothertongue so well we clearly audible when I was asked to stand up and greet the church. After a time in America is a poignant reminder of the danger of the loss of identify caused by the environmental changes that surrounds each of us that were raised in one country and educated in another. The collection is not without its share of loves lost and sometimes not fondly remembered, as embodied in Migrant dream and Dear E, while mourning the loss of a loved in Silver Bristle (Your voice). Ngwatilo infuses a bit of comedy with the piece Heard: African Violet Monologue and the wisdom out mothers pass on to us even when we are far away in Mothering Long Distance.

Ngwatilo’s honest representation of life and living in Nairobi in the self published Blue Mothertongue poetry anthology is definitely a time piece that we, and (I suspect) our own children, will be able to relate and refer to for a long time to come. It also does help that the collection comes in a compact booklet, perfect to slip into your handbag or your back pocket, perfect for a little light reading. (WC – 724)

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