Stanley Meets Mutesa Such a time of it they had; The heat of the day The chill of the night And the mosquitoes that followed. Such was the time and They bound for a kingdom. The thin weary line of carries With tattered dirty rags to cover their backs; The battered bulky chests That kept on falling off their shaven heads. Their tempers high and hot The sun fierce and scorching With it rose their spirits With its fall their hopes As each day sweated their bodies dry and Flies clung in clumps on their sweat scented backs. Such was the march And the hot season just breaking. Each day a weary pony dropped Left for the vultures on the plains; Each afternoon a human skeleton collapsed, But the march trudged on Its Khaki leader in front He the spirit that inspired He the light of hope. Then came the afternoon of a hungry march, A hot and hungry march it was; The Nile and the Nyanza Lay like two twins Azure across the green country side. The march leapt on chanting Like young gazelles to a water hole. Heart beat faster Loads felt lighter As the cool water lapt their sore feet. No more the dread of hungry hyenas But only tales of valour when At Mutesa’s court fires are lit. No more the burning heat of the day But song, laughter and dance. The village looks on behind banana groves, Children peer behind reed fences. Such was the welcome No singing women to chant a welcome Or drums to greet the white ambassador; Only a few silent nods from aged faces And one rumbling drum roll To summon Mutesa’s court to parley For the country was not sure. The gate of needs is flung open, There is silence But only a moment’s silence — A silence of assessment. The tall black king steps forward, He towers over the thin bearded white man, Then grabbing his lean white hand Manages to whisper “Mtu Mweupe Karibu” white man you are welcome. The gate of polished reed closes behind them And the West is let in. — David Rubadiri
Born on 19 July, 1930, in Liuli Tanzania and educated at Makerere University, Uganda and King’s College, Cambridge, David Rubadiri died on 15 September in Mzuzu, Malawi. He was a Malawian diplomat as well as an academic. He taught at Universities of Makerere, Nairobi, Botswana and Ife.
His poem, “Stanley Meets Mutesa” narrates the journey of Henry Stanley (born John Rowlands), one of the British explorers who worked for the colonization of some African countries and their annexation to the British Empire, to the land of King Mutesa of Buganda. He wrote Through the Dark Continent: Or, the Sources of the Nile Around the Great Lakes of Equatorial Africa and Down the Livingstone River to the Atlantic and In Darkest Africa or the Quest Rescue and Retreat of Emin, Governor of Equatoria. Emin was a German explorer.
It not only echoes in part “The Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot but also resembles it in terms of plot design.
It is structurally divided into three parts. The first part narrates the difficulties encountered on the journey with the African carriers, the hot weather that the White explorer finds unfriendly, the hunger, physical exhaustion, pain and suffering that lead to death of some of the carriers, and the tormenting mosquitoes and flies that kill some horses.
The second part, which begins with the word “Then” on line 27, shifts the poet’s focus from the challenges confronting the band of travelers to the land, the object of the explorer’s quest.
The transition replaces weariness with hope and shortly thereafter the party arrives in Mutesa’s court.
The third part, the final stanza, concentrates on the kind of reception that is accorded “the white ambassador” by ordinary folk, villagers who are afraid and suspicious of his motive, chiefs who give their consent to whatever propositions the stranger brings up at the parley in Mutesa’s court, and finally the king’s symbolic acceptance of Stanley by “grabbing his lean white hands.
In the first stanza “The heat of the day, / The chill of the night / And the mosquitoes that followed” are images that communicate the idea of discomfort and torture that accompanies the colonial enterprise. It is a difficult business for both the colonizers and the colonized. A Yoruba proverb captures it well: “A bird perches on a rope and neither the rope nor the bird is at ease.”
The second and third lines, “The heat of the day, / The chill of the night, run parallel to each other and enhance the rhythm of the lyric.
“The thin weary line of carriers,” their “tattered dirty rags,” and “shaven heads” are metaphors for hunger, poverty and mistreatment of the carriers. Their miserable condition is that of prisoners. The “bulky chests” constantly fall off the heads of the carriers because they are hungry and tired, which explains why their tempers are “high and hot.” The fierceness of the sun intensifies their hot temper. There is good use of contrast and parallelism in “With it [the sun] rose their spirits / With its fall their hopes.”
Deployment of paradox is discernible in “each day sweated their bodies dry.” The same heat of the sun that causes them to sweat profusely also dries it. Both hotness and dryness come from the sky, giving a hint that the energy that courses through nature is dual in orientation.
A daily occurrence, death is cheap and pervasive, as indicated in the first line of the third stanza “Each day a weary pony dropped,” providing food for vultures, and the third line “Each afternoon a human skeleton collapsed.” Africans and animals that participate in the expedition share the same fate, an uncanny unity that is also conveyed through the parallel syntactical construction of the two lines that encapsulate the idea.
Stanley does not pay attention to the death and destruction witnessed on his mission, especially the death of Africans whose lives are treated no better than those of beasts. Rather, his attention is sharply focused on the hope of material gain at the end of the expedition.
The explorer’s lack of compassion is obliquely communicated. The metaphor of “a hungry march” reveals his bourn: a quest for illegal gain, expropriation of material resources of Buganda for the development of the economy of his own country. Notice the repetition of “hungry march” in the first two lines of the third stanza, which proceeds to mention the natural resources on which the “hungry” explorer has his eyes.
The resources include “The Nile and the Nyanza” (water resources and means of transport) and “the green countryside (land and subterranean resources, especially agricultural produce and solid minerals). It is pertinent to mention that the destruction of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is traceable to no other factor than its mineral wealth.
Stanley infects his band with his high spirits in the second part of the poem because of bright prospects of a big haul of agricultural and mineral harvests and they start singing, proof of their abysmal ignorance of his ulterior motive and devilish plot. The effect of their joyous singing is that “Hearts beat faster” and “Loads felt lighter.” Running parallel to each other, the two lines have the same syntactic structure and produce rhythmic effect.
The simile on line 36 “As the cool water lapped their sore soft feet” is ironic. The change of the mood of the Africans from bitterness and anger to dubious excitement and joy is actually a devious ploy by Stanley who is manipulating and working on their feelings. They are not going to partake of the economic gain of the mission.
Comparable to an anodyne or an opiate, “the cool water” cannot be a cure to their sore feet. Recall “the paternoster” that drowns the howling of the plantations in David Diop’s “The Vultures.” The irony runs through the remaining lines of the fourth stanza. The party is deluded that the prospect of the leader of the expedition is also theirs. The belief that there is “No more the dread of hungry hyenas” is false. Stanley is in their midst, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the representative of “hungry hyenas” whom David Diop refers to as vultures. The band of Africans on the journey thinks of predatory animals in the wild, but the poet uses a suggestive style that points in the direction of human hyenas.
Their “tales of valour” are also ironic in the sense that they demonstrate their active participation, though unconsciously, in the conquest of their own land.
The “fires” lit at Mutesa’s court and kept burning while the narration of their tales goes on are symbolic of the success of Stanley’s mission.
Mutesa’s grabbing of Stanley’s “lean white hand” is the climax of the comic run of ironies in the poem and a symbol of self- destruct.
Similarly, the “song, laughter and dance,” an oral performance by the band of travelers to celebrate their arrival, are all tinged with irony.
Stanley’s appearance takes the villagers who look on behind banana groves by surprise. They and their children who peer behind reed fences are apprehensive and simultaneously at a loss with regard to its implications for their existence. As stated on line 50, “the country was not sure.” Today, we know that it did not augur well for the people and brought them untold suffering, the loss of their sovereignty and humiliation.
The corporeal difference between the “tall black king” Mutesa and “the thin bearded white man Stanley” is ironic and significant. The thin outwits and overruns the tall. The tallness of the king could be an indirect metaphor for the wealth of the land, while the thinness of the white man is expressive of his hunger and lust for the latter’s wealth.
The last line “And the west is let in” is laden with irony. The questions posed by the impetuous and tempestuous child in David Diop’s “The Vultures” are germane. They highlight contributions made by Africans to their own decimation and the despoliation of their land, as amply demonstrated in “Stanley Meets Mutesa”.
Disclaimer: This analysis is sourced from Professor Segun Adekoya's lectures on African Poetry. Literature PADI lays no proprietary claim to it.