Massai woman in Kenya. ca. 1924 - 1941 Vintage

Editor’s Note: Great women and men before us have penned poems, letters, and essays on blackness, Africaness, womanhood, motherhood…life. I want to share with you some of these writings each week in a series called Afrovotionals. Each week, I’ll post a short poem, essay, or letter that inspires Afropolitans to think, do, be…and challenges us to fix what’s broken. So each week I invite you to grab a mug of African bush tea, pull up a chair, and immerse yourself in inspirational words of wisdom, cultural pride, and profound thought.

The world is full of so many more illustrious and better-qualified women–bankers, lawyers, doctors, and presidents–who would have served as far superior role models. But I alone had the responsibility of being your mother and so, by default, your guide and mentor. I have learned something in my awkward journey through womanhood. The lessons are few, but enduring. So I hope that you will pardon this curious distillation of traditional African teaching, social commentary, and maternal concern. These are the stories that have made me what I am today. It is just that you are my very own, and it is an old woman’s privilege to impart her wisdom. It is all that I have to give to you, Zenzele.J. Nozipo Maraire

“Where Are Those Songs?”

by: Micere Githae Mugo (Kenya)


Where are those songs
my mother and yours
always sang
fitting rhythms
to the whole
vast span of life?

What was it again
they sang
harvesting maize, threshing millet, storing the grain…

What did they sing
bathing us, rocking us to sleep…
and the one they sang
stirring the pot
(swallowed in parts by choking smoke)?

What was it
the woods echoed
as in long file
my mother and yours and all the women on our ridge
beat out the rhythms
trudging gaily
as they carried
piles of wood
through those forests
miles from home

What song was it?

And the row of bending women
hoeing our fields
to what beat
did they
break the stubborn ground
as they weeded
our shambas?

What did they sing
at the ceremonies
child-birth
child-naming
second birth
initiation…?
how did they trill the ngemi
what was
the warriors’ song?
how did the wedding song go?
sing me
the funeral song
What do you remember?

Sing
I have forgotten
my mother’s song
my children
will never know.
This I remember:
Mother always said
sing child sing
make a song
and sing
beat out your own rhythms
the rhythms of your life
but make the song soulful
and make life
sing

Sing daughter sing
around you are
uncountable tunes
some sung
others unsung
sing them
to your rhythms
observe
listen
absorb
soak yourself
bathe
in the stream of life
and then sing
sing
simple songs
for the people
for all to hear
and learn
and sing
with you

(1972)

Featured in The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry.

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