By Hilary Akuburunwa
Modern African poetry, since its inception, has continued to play a socially engaging role. It serves as an antidote for societal ailments. Stephen Kekeghe is a creative and revolutionary poet who believes in the redemptive power of poetry. In ‘Rumbling sky,’ his poetry collection, he interrogates issues that plague the Nigerian society and humanity in general. In this collection, he conveys his discomfort about societal malaise by attacking individuals who have brought on needless pains at all levels. The poems are decorated with beautiful imageries to enhance appreciation and easy understanding of the messages.
Kekeghe has never hidden his anger for the pretence portrayed by Nigerian leaders. He has been vocal about how they torment the common man, depriving him of his rights as a citizen. In “Hovering horrors”, he shares his awareness of the evil manifestations of the Nigerian politicians when he says, “A colony of bats/of hovering predators/that prey on insects/in search for survival/on crooked trunks”. In this poem, Kekeghe summons a precise image to unmask the feigned personalities/insincerity of politicians when he refers to them as “chameleon”. The poet uses the chameleon’s colour changeling to symbolize the crooked ways of politicians.
Kekeghe again berates Nigerians for the gullibility that characterises their dealings with the rapacious politicians. It is in “Our future” that the sledge of his fury hammers on the followers, and he gives prominence to the expected regret which trails this mental weakness: “Now, we stare vacantly/at the dark crude/in our draining Delta/bearing a hazy hope/for our wrinkling world”.
In “Their pandemic”, “Parades of madness”, “The absolutists”, “Face of prejudice”, “The ballots”, “IDPs’ opportunists”, “Rumbling sky”, “Trump trumpets”, “This dance of python”, and “These youths are lazy”, Kekeghe further gives his attention to the evil of Nigerian leaders, whose actions or inactions feul religious rots and killings which have been ruinous to national growth and the comfort of many. “Their pandemic”, for instance, rehashes memories of when the Federal Government instructed Nigerians to remain indoors during the outbreak of coronavirus. Kekeghe travels into the mind of the Federal Government and returns with the implication of their decision to enforce a lockdown. He says that the Federal Government wished that the citizens died of hunger which he figuratively calls a common national disease: “Avoid the indignifying death of a virus,/stay at home and die of hunger./It is decent to die of a common national disease”. Kekeghe criticizes the leaders for the oppressive tendencies that they manifest. He invites very apt images to represent the relationship which exists between the leaders and the helpless citizens. In “Obsolutists” he refers to the cruel, insensitive rulers as a “haughty husband” and the masses, a “weak wife”. He deploys these marital terms to underscore the oppression that the helpless citizens suffer at the hands of the leaders, as a helpless wife suffers at the hands of a haughty husband. He continues the roasting of politicians in “An errand”, a poem in which he alludes to the biblical event of Lazarus and the rich man. He chooses this allusion to undress the greed and indifference of Nigerian politicians whom he accuses of making promises during electoral campaigns only to forget the masses as soon as their (the politicians’) plans come to fruition: “If you graze around their gathering’s gate/tell them to recall the podiums of promises/if you Lazarus around their sumptuous dining,/counsel them to be human and humane”.
“Rumbling sky” is a poem that carries Kekeghe’s disappointment about how Nigerians scapegoat one another, and even Satan, for the anguish, crafted by their leaders. He stories narratives of killings and suicides and the ridiculous reasons which the perpetrators attach to their actions. The poet is sad that Nigerians do not channel the blames to their leaders even when it is obvious that they, the leaders, are the authors of the nation’s tragedy. Kekeghe strips his disappointment when he says, “Nobody blames the ASO ROCK god/that sucks the conscience of society”. The poem is a balanced meal of poetry, as it also savages ritual killings, perpetrated by youths and religious heads who are bedazzled by the seductive voice of wealth.
Kekeghe later evinces optimism despite the nation’s social infection which appears to be incurable. This happens in “Twilight of dreams”. The tone, observed in the poem, is redemptive. Kekeghe envisages a future in which the oppressed will no longer be cowed to stand up against the politicians. He uses striking symbols to represent this hope and also to expose the personalities of the leaders: “In a dream,/a new wind blows, wiping away/brown leaves that hide the viper’s head/in a grim landscape of chameleons and bats”.
“The colour and continent” treats social issues, but this time, South Africa is the setting. The poet condemns xenophobia and other events which unfolded in South Africa. The lingering security challenges inform the writing of “The herders”. These issues also influence the choice of words in “Sordid silence” and “Streams of sorrow”. In “The herders”, Kekeghe implies that the herdsmen privilege their cows over human lives: “Your decaying carcass/ enriches your sterile soil/to bloom more healthy green/for our cows,…”.
This collection confirms Kekeghe’s status as a socially committed poet, who decries the destruction of humanity and the ecology. The themes explored in this collection bestride the domains of politics environmentalism. This is evident in “This boom”, “Black bloods”, “When can we be sane?”, “An Island of green and stream”, “Rain”, “Tarrying tears”, and “Darkening clouds”. In some of the poems, he portrays his proclivity for nature while in others, he conveys his angst about the abjection of the Niger Delta people despite the region being blessed with nature’s wealth. In “Black bloods”, the poet bemoans the fact that while the region enriches other parts of the country, it continues to reek of poverty and continues to suffer denigration. It saddens the poet that the resources of the Niger Delta also swell individual pockets: “As the dark blood of our earth/blooms wealth in private pockets/of Abuja gods”.
Kekeghe is not only confrontational. He is also emotional. The lines of “Burden of being I”, “Burden of being II”, “Our world withers”, “Good bye”, “Street-side elegy”, “Toiling till sunset”, and “Ritual magnates” are flooded with pity and other emotional reactions. He wove “Our world withers” to show the emotional torture which must have compelled Chukwuemeka Akachi, a budding poet, to commit suicide. This tragedy happened in May, 2019. The poet says he understands that the deceased fought so many emotional battles before succumbing to the dictates of pressure. Kekeghe feels sad that the late Chukwuemeka will be labeled a “coward” for walking into the “dark cloud”. By using “elegy” in the title, “Street-side elegy”, Kekeghe tries to crystalize the horrid conditions and dead hopes that are glaring on the streets of the country. The poet thinks that as it is at funerals, these situations should induce pity and mourning. He clearly depicts the situation when he says, “If you walk through this street/in a foggy day,/you will see broken spirits existing and ghosting”. Kekeghe feels nostalgic and resurrects memories. He steers his thoughts to his days at Delta State University, Abraka, and imports some of the events into his poetry. He loans some of the scenes to foreground the resilience that brought him thus far. In some of the poems, he also addresses institutional depravities which are obvious in the efforts of some lecturers to discourage students. Kekeghe examines these issues by combing out his days as a student in “Abraka of broken memories”, “Chants of memories”, and “No defeat”. The poet, however, encourages students in “No defeat” not to give up despite being rewarded with depressive scores after writing a very long essay. In the first line, he confronts the lecturers: “Though, you placed him on a trapped train…/reaching his destination with no defeat in his eyes”. In “I became a name” and “One day, they will hear my voice”, he also recalls the betrayals and mistreatments he suffered at the hands of friends and superiors.
Kekeghe’s ‘Rumbling Sky’ is a creative masterpiece. The collection investigates history, contemporary issues, and the future. The poet showcases his dexterity in the arresting figurative devices which he deploys to convey his views. His coining of “haramers” from “Haram” and his use of “Lazarus” as a verb (which are morphological processes) establish his all-around knowledge of English and literature. The poems offer therapeutic and informative benefits to an ill nation which houses oppressors and hopeless souls.
* Akuburunwa is a 400L student of English, Delta State University, Abraka