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Berbera al Somali: Poems by JKS Makokha

Berbera al Somali

The body of the ancient sea city
bathes daily in the Gulf of Aden.
Memories from the Holy Books
of the wide open wounds of Job
looms large in you as you behold
scores upon scores of pot holes
afflicting the torn and tired lanes
criss-crossing the old Somali port.

Broken minarets tower the town
with houses made of coral stones
crumbling under memories of war
holding on to each other so close
like families of frightened refugees
sometimes separated from others
by shacks of nylon on dried sticks
under which shelters some citizens
drinking sugary tea with camel milk
or smoking with their kettles on fire
or cleaning russian rifles with jeep oil.

Herds of camels crowd around town
listening in silence as the gulf sings
or following their old thoughts slowly
in tune with their cud-filled mouths.
Underneath them doze lazy hounds
that sometimes snap at buzzing flies
or stand up, shake and eat their tails
spitting ticks into the scorched sand
before trotting off to unknown places.

Yes. Berbera bends and forever bathes
on the green shores of the Gulf of Aden
where men and animal sometimes ease
weights of their refuse while some kids
swim and others fish or collect sea weed
when the ebb is low and the sun mellow.
The sound of an incoming ship or frigate
intermittently interrupts visitors’ thoughts
as one stands on a deserted army lorry
and gazes at the distant ancient tombolo
where stands the lone light house at the
very gate of the harbour like a sentinel
monitoring keenly arrivals and departures.

Dusks come like a very stealthy war ship
catching all by surprise from their siestas
bringing with it the high ebb and activity.
The languorous religious calls of muezins
seethe across and above the old harbour
asking all to saunter mosque-ward or fall
on their knees facing Mecca al Mukarama
and worship as have their own ancestors
for a millennia perhaps more on the streets
of the old city on the horn of the continent.

As Berbera wakes from its day doze at dusk,
a Kenyan expatriate moves with two shadows
towards his eating place by the restless sea.
His hired body guard – a khat-dazed ex cop
now at the service of the ruling civilian junta –
follows him behind and in their strange silence
each understands the thoughts of the other or
so their match hotel-wards in union appears.
Other flowing white or black muslin gowns and
their shadows float by or nearby under lamps
hung on the eaves of the houses by the lanes.

Midnight will approach amidst song and sound
as the darkness below becomes more feminine
and like Berbera herself speaks of her mystery
or her forbidden memory or her forgotten glory.
A tiny voice comes into you – Berbera’s voice-
recites the tales of strife, struggle, resilience,
filling you with feelings for a city and her folks
as they sleep on their thin raffia mats or even
as they sit by their transistor radio holding guns
chewing khat with sugary tea under nylon shacks,
their dark eyes alert too, ready for enemies of hope.


“They are like us”

Neighbours to our South
enjoy drinking Schweppes
7 Ups, Tarino and Mirinda.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy washing with Omo
Perfix or brown bar soap.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy wearing visco cotton
chiffon, silk, and tight jeans.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy bathing with Protex
Lifebuoy, Lux or Rexona

Neighbours to our South
enjoy driving Peugeot 404s
Mazdas and Leyland lorries.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy watching local soccer
and worshipping local stars.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy state newspapers
and trust their columnists.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy the state-owned radio
and believe in the state TV.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy watching URTNA
as they do Vitimbi series.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy wearing Sunday best
and buy new clads at Xmas.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy cutting hair in punk
and womenfolk love wigs.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy doing colour-matches
be it of their clothes or shoes.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy calling one another
kin, boss, auntie or such.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy it when their police
use persuasion as weapons.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy obeying their laws
and are keen to keep at it.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy eating chips-in-eggs
and drinking hot black coffee.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy welcoming strangers
but are ever suspicious of us.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy loving their country
their government is a sect.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy living in their land
but want us not to do so.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy pleasure as an art
excelling in it sex especially.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy closing offices at 4 pm
but start work at 9 or 10 am.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy to die for English
but can kill its local users.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy gold as jewellery
wearing it very casually.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy wearing sarongs with
proverbs as social weapons.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy their rice with fingers
and alcohol with soda straws.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy eating roast bananas
and peeling their tomatoes.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy drinking offal soups
in the morning after binges.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy eating in cafeteria
found almost everywhere.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy tricycles called bajajis
and mini vans called vipanyas.

Neighbours to our South
enjoy life in slow motions
tuned to their Swahili times.



As he sat at the edge of life
counting drops of his age
falling in a splash of days
on the arid soil of his soul
he had a small voice speak:
“Repent and set them free.”

As he sat at the edge of life
tracing his old thoughts like
a poetess traces new lines
on a white word document
birthing them into new life
he had a small voice speak:
“Repent and set them free.”

As he sat at the edge of life
guilt racing up his systems
like an ambulance of hope
ferrying his battered heart
to a place of timely healing
he had a small voice speak:
“Repent and set them free”.

As he sat at the edge of life
his head a weight in his palms
and his eyes staring inwards
into the library of conscience
up to the portrait of Mandela
he had the small voice speak:
“Repent and set them free.”



It stares without expression
at the dwellers of our nation,
lost in its own secret thoughts
this face of the First Leader
that appears on our currency
be it the new notes or old coins.

Rumors say the ruling Leader’s face
looked like the dead First Leader’s
today when he put pen on paper
moved it so slowly right and left
to sign all the executive orders
ordering our leader be released
without any condition or charges.

Most citizens now wear flat faces
identical to that of the two Leaders.
As for us, we support the currency
of this new leadership structure
but search inner and outer signs
of what all these changes mean,
while we stand between the leaders.


Waiting for Mr. Ocampo

In the land called K
where everybody but
the present president
has literacy in the low art
of making all sorts of noise,
through all available orifices
on the streets and in offices,
at work, home, sacred places,
in schools, malls or cemeteries,
noise is the language of choice.
In this lively noise they all thrive
until a time when uttering a name
brings them all close to their leader
and silence becomes their common lot.
The name is: Mr. Louis Moreno- Ocampo!

Noise, the national entertainment,
ends abruptly and silence reigns
at the mention of the foreign yet
familiar sounding name of one
Hon. Mr. Louis Moreno-Ocampo
Yes. In this famous land of noise
where silence is a shunned discipline
and men, women, kids only excel
in national noise-making as their great
hobby and hallmark, all goes silent
when you say, “Shh!” (finger on lips)
“Here comes Mr. Louis Moreno-Ocampo!”


Commissions of Inquiry

(crackling sounds,
airwaves disturbance,
prime news broadcast)

“Before being chopped off clean
and then very violently stuffed
in a transparent sack made from
his very own fresh stomach flesh,
his shrinking, skinless head was
surely full of the new city fears.”

(crackle, crackle…)

“The media had cried out about
many citizens being approached
at the very crowded parking lots
of central city commuter points
by very decently dressed citizens,
only to be found savagely killed
next to their stomach sack filled
with their own head and condoms.”

(crackle, crackle…crackle)

“A new commission of inquiry has…”

(crackling sounds,
airwaves disturbances,
Craaackliiiing sounds)



The attempt to wound my eyes
with drops of ammonium acid
so that i will witness no more
the lost hope on the faces
of my generation and pals
failed yet again this week
when the huge jail gates
opened like heaven gates
and he walked out
frail but

No longer wanting to remain
the unvoiced waitress at a
meal where our annual tax
makes the main course dish
our children the desert
and our future, salad
in a grand dinner
whose entry is
restricted to

No longer wanting to be
Citizen No. 216686xx
a silent human sheep
in a flock of Kenyans
waiting to be shipped
like slaves of yore
with number tags
to the land of
no dream
no hope

No longer wanting to remain
always breathless dodging
the long paws of laws
of our predator state
with cannibal tastes
that hunts its own:
chews on them
their children

No longer wanting to be
in daily acts of resistance
met with resistance
and force met
with force

I had opted to end my sight
that I may like a hermit
live on the fringes
of unnatural

at this moment of action
finger dipped in ammonium
and eyes raised heavenwards
fixed on the pure white peaks
of the Mountain of a silent God
breast heaving with bitter betrayal
blasphemy mixing with bitter bile within
I heard that the high priest had been set free
His voice called me back and I let my eyesight be.


(c) JKS Makokha

JKS Makokha
JKS Makokha
JKS Makokha is a Kenyan writer living in Berlin, Germany. He is the author of Reading M.G. Vassanji: A Contextual Approach to Asian African Fiction (2009) and co-editor of a new volume on African literary criticism, Negotiating Afropolitanism: Essays on Borders and Spaces in Contemporary African Literature and Folklore (2010) with Jennifer Wawrzinek. Makokha teaches courses in African and South Asian literatures at the Institut fur Englische Philologie at the Freie Universitat Berlin.


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