Njeri Wangari

Njeri Wangari- Wanjohi (KenyanPoet)

Njeri Wangari is a multi talented Kenyan poet and performer, IT specialist and arts blogger whose collection of poetry was recently published under the title ‘Mines & Mind Fields; My Spoken Words’ .

She is one of the most respected female poets in Nairobi today”. The Sunday Nation writer Joseph Ngunjiri says of Njeri, “Njeri Wangari has a powerful voice, and she knows how to put it to good use. Whenever she takes to the podium to recite a poem, she has her enthusiastic audience applauding all the way.” –Sunday Nation 8 February 2009

By Margaretta wa Gacheru

It’s said that getting a book full of poetry published is difficult to do, but I’m not at all surprised Njeri Wangari had no problem getting her collection, Mines & Mind Fields: An Urban Blues Collection grabbed by Nsemia, Inc. Publishers, a group of enterprising Kenyans based in Canadian who understand our local literary talents deserve global exposure which they want to provide.

For one thing, Njeri is riding the crest of a ‘new wave’ of keen interest among Kenyans in ‘spoken word’ performance. Some of that interest derives from young Kenyans’ fascination with African American hip hop and rap. Some of it was born with the publication of Kwani!, the local literary phenomenon that’s sparked a veritable cacophony of creative young Kenyan writers who not only can get published in the journal launched by Binyavanga Wainaina several years back. They’ve also had the chance at Kwani’s regular ‘open mic’ series to stand up and share their ideas—especially their poetry– before a live audience.

Njeri is one of those who boldly took the open mic as a challenge and opportunity to test her literary metal at such public forums and found her audience receptive to her ‘spoken words’. Those evenings served as a creative catalyst for the poetess who’s been performing solo verse in public ever since primary school. And as a former Kenyan Daily Nation theatre critic who wrote for years about the creative richness and theatrical potential afforded young people through their involvement in both the Kenya Schools Drama Festival and the Kenya Music Festival, I was not surprised to hear that Njeri got her start performing poetry on stage—both choral and solo verses during both of those festivals.

It’s important to know that Njeri performed poetry long before she began to write her own verses. It’s also useful to understand that her main mentors and sources of inspiration were African literary giants like Okot p’Bitek and David Rubadiri, both of whom were prolific poetry writers. Njeri can be said to be picking the button from Rubadiri’s “Stanley meets Mutesa” and going on to explore what happened when the West was let into Africa.

In this regard, her poetry holds brief in the manner of protest not against social order rather it highlights an emerging social disorder caused by disenchantment with the rigours of a somewhat colonially imposed urban life with its extolled virtues and attendant vices. Njeri juxtaposes both the disillusionments of the locals who cross over to the other side, reaching out to attain the assurances of modernity and the dilemmas of those who remain behind, as it were, stuck in the native way of life.

Knowing all this can help one appreciate poems like “My Mother’s Tongue”, “Be Natural,” and even “Typical Woman” all of which echo issues and themes associated with African dignity, resistance to foreign ideals and self- respect.

Urban blues explores people struggles in an urban context in which one finds a shift in the boundaries that hitherto defined male-female roles and relationships. The voice of Njeri identifies with the urban woman who seeks to escape from the claws of a traditionally male dominant culture while at the same time bringing out the struggles and doubts of the urban male trying to find his place in a seemingly new world order.

In dealing with the question of identity, she does not intend to walk a strict suburban terrain in its interpretation but rather reminds us that the inhabitants did have an identity before the “Re-scrambling” of Africa and as such, the infusion of Westernized cultural norms has only served to dilute if not to degrade the original idea of identity.

In ascribing for the need to reawaken native consciousness, she takes after other leading lights such as Maya Angelou who have greatly inspired her form of resistance poetry. Indeed one does find similar patterns in the identity nuances expressed in Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” and Njeri’s “I Look at You”

Knowing that Njeri has been performing poetry on stage since she was ten may also help one appreciate the way her poems veritably leap off the page and come alive with a vibrancy of a powerful and impassioned woman’s voice.

Combining her writing with her performance ever since then, one can easily imagine that Njeri now writes with the idea of one day sharing her eloquent thoughts in ‘spoken words’ in a performance mode.

But the appeal of Njeri’s poetry is not just that it pulsates with life and passion and possibility. It is also because it isn’t just self-revelatory. It’s very personal all right: all poetry is. But Njeri has a unique way of relating her personal experience to larger issues, ideas and African concerns. She also has an extraordinary capacity to literally climbing into the skin and mind of other human beings and articulate their worldviews and their woes. Be it the trials of the street hawker, the complaints of an estranged circumcised wife or the keen insights of a Lawino-like rural woman, Njeri is almost chameleon-like in her style of sensitively speaking for the voiceless, those who are often ignored, neglected or otherwise rendered invisible by the wider society.

Call it empathy, call it sensitivity, call it sixth or seventh sense, her skill of seeing through another man’s or woman’s or child’s eyes and speaking on their behalf is a rare gift. It means the reader –or the listener– will consistently find her verses surprisingly fresh, innovative and original.

Fortunately, Njeri’s verses are classified thematically so that one will find personal as well as political poems addressing issues of all sorts. She covers everything from issues of identity, gender and culture as well as those of linguistics, faith and everyday urban Kenyan life.

There is little doubt that Njeri’s writing is stunning and strong, just as her live performances are arresting and attractive to both local and international audiences. Our good fortune is the fact that she has the self assurance to put her poetry out in public—not only at open mics but in the blogosphere—thus opening herself up to the possibility of personal criticism as well as praise. But she is fearless about receiving feedback.

Njeri actually thrives in the presence of public discourse, dialogue and debate; indeed, one feels her poetry is meant to be interactive, meant to elicit your response, be you a reader or a listener. Her style of writing as well as performing is one that embodies the  transparency and truth-telling that Kenyans have been calling for over the past few decades.

In fact, years ago, the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwa Armah wrote the now classic novel, The Beautiful Ones are not yet born. At the time that he wrote, Njeri indeed was “not yet born.” But for me, her first published collection of spoken words, “Mines & Mind Fields” proves that in her we can see that at last one of the ‘beautiful ones” has finally been born, and she is Njeri Wangari.

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About the Author

Showcasing the best in the Kenyan Visual and Performance Arts. Run by Njeri Wangari a Published performance Poet, Blogger and Tech Enthusiast.