The Poetry Place

Speak again. Speak like Rain

The natives, who have a strong sense of rhythm, know nothing of verse, or at least did not know anything before the times of schools, where they were taught hymns. One evening out in the maize field, where we had been harvesting maize, breaking off the cobs and throwing them on to the ox carts, to amuse myself, I spoke to the farm labourers, who were mostly quite young, in Swahili verse. There was no sense in the verses, they were made for the sake of the rhyme – ‘Ngumbe na-penda chumbe, Malaya mbaya. Wakamba na-kula mamba.’ The oxen likes salt – whores are bad – the Wakamba eat snakes. It caught the interest of the boys, they formed a ring round me. They were quick to understand that meaning in poetry is of no consequence, and they did not question the thesis of the verse, but waited eagerly for the rhyme, and laughed at it when it came. I tried to make them themselves find the rhyme and finish the poem when I had begun it, they could not, or would not, do that, and turned away their heads. As they had become used to the idea of poetry, they begged, ‘Speak again. Speak like rain.’ Why they should feel verse to be like rain I do not know. It must have been , however, an expression of applause, since in Africa rain is always longed for and welcomed.


From ‘Out of Africa’ by Karen Blixen


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