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Shailja Patel

Drum Rider

by Shailja Patel / 09.08.2013

Kenyan poet Shailja Patel was trained as a political economist, accountant and yoga teacher. She honed her poetic skills in performances that have received standing ovations on four continents. Shailja tells it like it is, honoring the feminine earthbound and divine. A perfect poet for Women’s Day.

Drum Rider

I.

The woman planted a drum on the grass before her.
Twisted a soft worn khanga round her hips.
As if she was going to wash clothes, chop vegetables;
hike a child to her back to go to market.
None of us really paid any attention.

The woman harnessed her hips to the drum.
Chest-high, foot-in-diameter msondo drum.
Rocked it aslant between her straddled legs.
Settled into position.
Sunken chest erect.
Shoulders, neck, at the ready.
Mouth set over gaping gums.
Khanga hiked up skinny strong legs.
Feet grounded in the earth
like it was time
to do business.
Like she was going
to work.

Suddenly, we are on
Planet Kidude.
Where men scurry across the mat:
place mics, arrange wires, jostle for camera views.
Where the woman ignores them all.
Because she did this for eight decades
before there were cameras, mics.
Decades she hoisted her drum
trudged rich dirt
the length and breadth of Tanzania
to perform.
Decades she fought off
terror, insults, mockery
the soul-destroying silence
only the strongest fire survives.
Decades she t ravelled deep and deeper
to the heart of her own rhythm.

This is Bi Kidude.
Virtuoso of Taraab, Unyago.
Woman who at ninety-five,
has walked more miles
than most of us have driven.
Claimed a lineage
of music rooted
in the lives of the powerless
stories unfurled in language of street and market
poetry buried in the bodies of women.

II.

I have never seen a woman ride a drum before
like a goddess rides a tiger
like creation rides the cosmos.
I have never seen a woman ride a drum like this.
I have never seen an artist
male or female
anywhere across the globe
own their instrument like
it grew out of their belly,
like it was welded
to their thighs.

III.

Then, there were the dancers.

The dancers moved lazily.
Dropped their cellphones, shook out their khangas.
Gold at their ears, their necks, their wrists;
gold gleamed in their mouths.

The dancers slipped into movement
as a bhajia slips into hot oil
rises to the surface
starts to sizzle.

Now the dancers work their hips
with a precision of balance, control
a potency of strength, of muscle isolation
Olympic gymnasts would envy.

They shake their hips
for all of us
who have been taught, coerced
to disown our bodies. For all women
whose bodies
have been stolen from them.

They thrust their succulent buttocks out
with democratic largesse.
Tease the old woman in the black buibui.
Taunt the white-boy, dreadlocked tourist,
who feigns coolness
behind his wraparound sunglasses,
while I watch his neck turn scarlet

drip with sweat.

The dancers work their hips
for the waitresses
at Africa House Hotel. Caged

in the most godawful
ugly, cheap, confining
sweat-producing black skirts, white shirts
to serve drinks to tourists in shorts and bikinis.

Because heaven forbid those who serve
should ever feel breeze on their skins
heaven forbid those who serve
should move their hips and torsos
freely in clothes that flow
colours that hum.
We might forget they are servants.
We might
see them.

The dancers shake their hips for the women

those waitresses serve. Waxy-pale
bikini-clad tourists
at Serena’s poolside.
Women who check their bodies daily
for criminal fat
outlawed abundance of flesh.
Women of the tragic sisterhood
of liposuction, surgical alteration
silent epidemic of anorexia deaths.
Women taught that beauty
equals self-annihilation.

These dancers swivel their hips
for the six-thousand girl children who today
were held down, legs spread, hands tied,
gagged, blindfolded, tortured
beyond screaming, violated
beyond horror, circumcised
for the crime
of a clitoris.

They move their hips for every woman
infected with HIV
by a man who valued her life
less than his gratification.

These women who circle Bi Kidude
as planets orbit the sun
circle like temple snakes
sinuous panthers
the source where sound begins;
they are shaking the bounty
of women’s bodies
back into the world.

Their hips and butts are saying: YESS!!
YES
to largeness that does not apologise.
YES
to power, knowledge,
that do not disguise themselves.
YES
to pleasure,
claimed and vested
in our mortal beautiful bodies.

III

I will never fear aging again
because now I have heard Bi Kidude
belt out
at ninety-five
without a mic
tobacco-stained waves of sound
sandpapered down to coconut fibre
stronger than cables of steel.

I will never fear aging again
because now I have seen Bi Kidude –
whose face has never touched
an anti-wrinkle cream,
an age-defying glycolic acid enzyme peel,
who knocks back whisky, cigarettes
for every ounce of moisturizer I consume –
hypnotise a hundred cameras.

I have felt the power of this woman’s neck,
her shoulder muscles
surge thunder
down arm to hand to drum;
generate more electricity
than ten Madonnas
a hundred Fela Kutis with sixteen-piece bands
take us back to the center of fertile creation
where sound begins.

IV.

I believe in Bi Kidude
the way I don’t believe in god.

But if god were a ninety-five-year old, ebony black
Swahili woman,
who claims to be one hundred and twenty,
with a mouth full of broken and missing teeth
hands veined like banyan trees
a drum between her legs
a kijiti at her defiant, all-knowing lips
a shillingi-mia-kumi note flapping out of her neckline;

if god chanted wickedly satirical shairi
about the dangers of the very deathstick
she sucks on;

if god embraced irony, lust, contradiction
heartbreak, imperfection;
if god flaunted her struggles like a velvet cape,
rearranged the atoms of the world
with the rhythm of her gut

then maybe I would believe
in that god.
That god who is only a name
for the genius in all of us
that makes us our own imam and prophet
our own divinity.

I would call the faithful to prayer:
Bomba Kidude! Kidude Saafi!

And they would holler back: Saafi!
They would holler back: Saafi!
They would holler back: SAAFI!

And we would all be

god.

*For more on Shailja Patel and other Pan-African poets please visit Badilisha Poetry website, produced by the Africa Centre.

** Image © Wambui Mwangi

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