Juliane Okot Bitek: 100 Days of hell’s anomie
by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
History matters. There are many ways to commemorate, to memorialize communal horror. All over the world, memorials and museums stand sentry to history, to various times when the darkness within seemed to overwhelm humanity and throw up the unmentionable like the holocaust, Biafra, Bosnia, and now Rwanda. Yes, over twenty years ago, in 1994, beginning in April, within a span of 100 horrible, blood-drenched days, the Hutu took machetes and other crude implements of savagery and hatred and hacked down approximately one million Tutsis (and moderate Hutus). Those who are strangely not familiar with this sordid aspect of world history should read this primer by the BBC on the genocide. The thinker Wandia Njoya (@wmnjoya on Twitter) also has an incisive piece that situates the genocide in its proper context and assigns appropriate responsibility to all the players in this horror of horrors.
History matters. There are many ways to remember the past. In addition to physical artifacts of remembrance, writers, thinkers and artists have memorialized trauma in prose and theatre. Read Elie Wiesel’s Night and be numbed by his stark and searing narrative on the concentration camps of the holocaust. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is an epic ode to the horror that was Biafra and the Nigerian civil war. In Rwanda, as in previous crimes against humanity, the world chose to look away. America under the leadership of President Bill Clinton knew of an impending genocide and chose to do nothing. There is not a shortage of immortal words commemorating man’s inhumanity to man.
So the other day, this book came in the mail; Juliane Okot Bitek’s 100 Days, a book of poetry about Rwanda, genocide, pain, living, dying, loving, about connections and dislocations in a time of madness. One hundred days to be precise. It sat staring at me, willing me to read of a time when it seemed that the world went mad and looked away as Rwanda boiled in a cauldron of whirling machetes and hate. And the text came: ‘My dad’s health has declined since last night. They say he doesn’t have much longer if you would like to come see him.” And as I do when I am under stress I grabbed the book and took it with me to the hospice to go say goodbye to a part of me. And as I read Bitek’s poems to the living dying in that room, I was overcome by the power of her words and the comforting healing of the poems from someone so far away. The poems spoke to both of us in our grief. What are words if they cannot lift you and carry you past the valley of darkness?
Major kudos to the University of Alberta Press (@UAlbertaPress on Twitter), publishers of 100 Days; it is a gorgeous book, well edited, you should read it. It is poetry and it is not poetry, the fluidity of the verse defies definition, in a good way. The reader is forced to ask the question: What is poetry and does it matter if you don’t call it poetry? It is simply enough for one to say, 100 Days is a compilation that came straight out from deep within Bitek’s rich soul and made this reader’s cells dance in celebration of a life ebbing away into the next pantheon. Bitek’s ability to connect with the beauty and pain of human suffering seems supernatural, this ability to give voice to those who seem to have no voices. Bitek wrote this book with her blood and it shows.
You should read 100 Days, there are connections, physical, emotional and spiritual in every page of this fascinating collection of connections. Each day is a poem. Each day reveals a new dawn, a new theme, or many themes. Bitek is a gifted seer, she sees tomorrow with a sweet but earthy, guttural voice, voice of the masquerade. And betrayal is a constant theme, the voice reminds the earth.
but it was the earth that betrayed us first
in those one hundred days that would never end
100 Days is a long lament in the tradition of the ancients, long running, punishing the conscience, no question marks, no commas, no periods, a long harrowing lament that grabs you by the head and forces you to listen to the victim, and be drenched in the sweaty rage of the not-so helpless.
Words leapt into our eyes
& burned this new knowledge that was never new
but it was the earth that betrayed us first
in those one hundred days that would never end
what is it to come from a land that swallows its own people
how can we exist outside of betrayal
by time & land
100 Days is about Rwanda. But then it is not only about Rwanda. It is about everywhere really as Bitek reminds us in her note to the reader:
“How and where do the experiences of survivors of genocide in Rwanda match those of survivors from Bosnia and northern Uganda? All three places were steeped in war and violence at the same time. What is it to be from a place where bloodshed of your kin darkens the soil, makes the river run red and that that’s not newsworthy?”
In these powerful pages one is confronted with a starkness, with a painful loss of innocence, the poems are almost one song, it as if I am listening to the poets of the sixties, the poets of Vietnam, of Biafra, Simon and Garfunkel wailing the sad, beautiful song, The Boxer. This is what Bitek does; she takes the reader to places in the heart that the writer never intended or imagined. That is powerful, how she makes 100 Days a deeply personal journey for each reader.
We walked when our legs could carry us
childhood rhythms carried us along
songs from days of innocence
like holding hands
like soft embraces
And so, a hundred days becomes a frightening character in a book of horrors, this vehicle that swallowed so many innocents whole in the blood of a mean land.
What do crickets know about innocence
were they not there
did they not see more than we did
By staying closer to the ground than we ever were
innocence is power without experience
innocence is a knowing untempered
Imagine a world in which evil is a numbing cliché. It is our world.
a machete hangs like a mockery of time
like a semblance of that reality
in which another machete
& other machetes hanged
for what seemed like a long time
but eventually they come down
again & again & again & again & again
even time measured in machete strokes
can never be accurate
100 Days grabs you, not letting go, telling you of the truths you won’t look at it in the face. And you feel the heavy emptiness, the disempowering weight of grief as helplessness is measured in the relentless cycle of unending time.
After all this
nothing as nothing just as it was
Bitek reminds us with the force and clarity of her verses that poems can serve as cameras into the soul of a troubled world. The remembering is painful but necessary, this holocaust museum in the soul. This is horror neatly catalogued like the surviving finger with the ring, missing her nine companions. Words are powerful here, describing the powerlessness of being. And the whole notion of reconciliation as avoidance is birthed. And organized religion is an enabler.
The beauty of 100 Days is that it asks all the right questions about what did not happen in Rwanda. As an aside it is interesting that a mere twenty years after that genocide, the word reconciliation has been bandied about until it is chic for photographers like Pieter Hugo to take staged portraits of victims and perpetrators in ways that they would not dare of the holocaust. As in South Africa and Rwanda, the powerless reach for the placebo of reconciliation, while with the holocaust, the talk to this day is of justice and punishment. That is how it should be.
100 Days is also a conversation about the power of the Internet and social media to make connections among artists and allow for productive collaboration. As Bitek explains it, these poems started out as a collaboration of sorts with the Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu (@Wangechimutu on Twitter) who in April 2014 started posting a series of photographs tagged #kwibuka20#100Days on social media. Indeed, on Bitek’s blog there is an online version of the book in which each day, Mutu’s photographs are juxtaposed side by side with Bitek’s poems for each day. I think the collaboration should have been extended to the book, the pictures would have helped the stories. It is not a huge loss, the poems are powerful portraits by themselves. By the way, the foreword by the Canadian poet Cecily Nicholson (@_c_n_ on Twitter) alone is worth the price of the book, it is a scintillating show of pretty prose-poetry housing profound thoughts about our humanity.
There is another reason why I celebrate and adore Bitek. She is a powerful poet in her own right, which is no mean feat, because she has had to shake herself off the shadows of her father, Okot p’Bitek one of Africa’s most important poets, most famous for Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, epic works of fiction in long-running verse. It is interesting, over five decades after the publication of those volumes, the same themes of alienation, dislocation, and belonging continue to haunt Africa as seen in Bitek’s 100 Days. Her poetry only confirms that she comes from a land of people who revere the spoken word and make it say important truths in beautiful ways. In interview after interview, the questions never fail to come out about her father, but Bitek is ever so gracious in not letting it be about her father, while educating the world about a man’s legacy she is infinitely proud of:
“My dad was not an autocrat in the house and he was not sexist. All the housework was shared fairly between our brother and sisters. He taught us how to cook some dishes that I still make occasionally. He showed us, for example, how to cook rice and beef on a single charcoal stove by placing the charcoal stove on top of the rice pot and then cooking the beef on top. He made an excellent dish of fried matooke which he cooked with lots of ghee and pepper. He was a great lover of Acholi food which we all now appreciate. My dad woke up early every day – my mother tells me he was up between four and five every morning to write. I have memories of my dad waking me up to watch the sunrise from the back verandah of our house in Kololo.”
And of course, you would not be a Ugandan poet if you did not pay homage to matooke, that meal of the gods. Matooke? Google it. That’s what Google is for. And oh, Juliane Okot Bitek is on Twitter as @jobitek. Follow her. Thank me later.