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Poetry written in English in Tanzania is a relatively recent phenomenon that dates back to about three and a half decades. The pace of growth of this writing has been equally slow. This should not be surprising to people who are familiar with Tanzania's literary history. But the country has a rich Kiswahili literary tradition that dates back to over 300 years. In his efforts to mobilize workers and peasants in the process of national liberation, the country's founding father, Julius Nyerere, thought Kiswahili would be a powerful tool for mental decolonization - a vital aspect of the process of national liberation. Nyerere's effort bore fruit, for despite numerous ethnic groups - about 120 tribes in Tanzania - about 98% of the population competently communicates in Kiswahili, the national and official language.
Theme in Tanzania poetry, like in its prose and play, reflects not only the political ideas of the country but also the public preference for a particular literature for the kind of society Tanzania envisages. The poetry demonizes individuals who are concerned with meddling and tearing up social systems and replacing them with egocentric ones. Tanzania poets like poets from elsewhere in Africa engage the subject of the pre-colonial, colonial and post colonial issues in their verses. My objective is to examine how, at symbolic level, the various poets have captured aspects of nature in their verses as they engage the various issues of the three eras. I endeavour to investigate whether or not the poets are conscious about and help accelerate the magnificence of nature as a principal partner in human life. My argument is informed by the ecocritical approach that sees natural environment as the epicenter of interrelatedness of all life and hence the need to safeguard it by both poet and critic by raising consciousness.
Of Ecocriticism as the Informing Theory
A number of scholars have, for the past two to three decades, been preoccupied with the concept of nature in literary creative works. It is not by accident that literary studies should take such a dimension .Barry Commoner's first law of ecology declares thus: "Everything is connected to everything else," meaning that literature is not necessarily an abstract concept which is disconnected from the material world, rather, it has an ethical role in an absolutely complex universal system in which matter, energy and ideas relate in one way or the other. As a result, literary engagement at both the level of creation and criticism continues to fascinate with the way that nature informs and shapes human thought. Although Stephanie Sarver(1995) avers that "ecocriticism " - a term invented by William Rueckert - is less associated with theoretical apparatus as with a sensibility, Cheryll Glotfelty - in her definition of ecocriticism - raises pertinent questions that can be evaluated and relied upon to form a basis upon which ecocriticism as a theoretical framework operates. She, for example, argues that ecocritics and theorists ask questions such as: How is nature represented in this sonnet? What role does the physical setting play in this plot of this novel? How do our metaphors of the land influence the way we treat it? How can we characterize nature writing as a genre? Are the values expressed in this play consistent with ecological wisdom? How has the concept of wilderness changed over time? In addition to race, class and gender, should place become a new critical category? Do men write about nature differently from the way women do? What bearing can the science of ecology have on literary studies? How is science itself open to literary analysis? And what cross-fertilization is possible between literary studies and environmental discourse in related disciplines such as history, philosophy, psychology, art history and ethics? , among other questions.
If these really are the criteria that inform the basic tenets for ecocritics then Tanzania poetry passes for ecocritical poems. In this approach there is nothing like nature being merely used as a backdrop.The critic would rather look at the mention of natural phenomena as a special sensibility on ecology and ethics than look at them as aesthetic ether.
Despite this wide scope of inquiry, and varying levels of sophistication, all environmental critics underscore the central premise that human culture celebrates a symbiotic relationship with the physical world, influencing it and influenced by it. Cheryll further notes that ecocriticism takes as its subject the interconnections between nature and culture, especially, cultural artifacts, language and literature. As a critical theory, ecocriticism has one foot in literature and the other on the physical environment; And as theoretical discourse, it negotiates between the human and nonhuman.
The two primary texts of my analysis are Summons edited by Richard Mabala and Selected Poems edited by Tanzania Institute of Education.
Nature's Symbolic Depictions in Selected Poems
Tanzania poetry manifests the physicality of nature's presence as represented by mountains, forests, lakes, birds, fish, animals and other phenomena. These natural features that contribute to environmentally and ecologically grounded poetry offer sublime scenic ponaroma and elevate experiences for poets, critics and general readers. This type of poetry does not construct nature as a mere prop to enrich the setting or background. As Lawrence Buell (1995) observes, poetry that is environmentally conscious must make non-human environment integral not peripheral, â€¦make human accountable to the environment and make nature into what it is, more of a process than a construct or static backdrop.
One of the most moving poems on environmental consciousness found in both the anthologies is Alute S. Mghwai's "Voices from the Wilderness". The poem is a powerful and sensational indictment of man's activities on the environment. It employs personification to give both fauna and flora human quality of talking straight to the offender, the oppressor, to Prospero. The birds protest that they can no longer rest because their habitat, the forests, has been indiscriminately felled by humans. As a result, the birds are exposed to intoxications that are emitted from industries and detonating bombs.
The major irony in this stanza is that the birds are more knowledgeable than human beings in recognizing the important role of forests. The birds are portrayed as selfless considerate and intelligent. Next are the fish when they protest that their habitat has been equally ruined by man due to submarines and tankers that spew oil into the water making it difficult for them to breathe. Both the birds and the fish protest and chide man for this ecological interference that creates unnecessary and dangerous imbalance in the name of development. They question the essence of development if it comes by ruining the ecological environment in which man co-exists with other different forms of life.
The wild animals: Elephants, hippos, rhinos, great cats and zebras are also aggrieved by man's insatiable greed for ornaments and pleasure at the expense of wild life. They are upset that man has gunned them down for their tusks, skins, and claws. They dismiss man as a savagery being and question his intelligence and sophistication. They argue that man's savagery could only be explained by his having been created last as an "afterthought".
Both fauna and flora finally put man on notice by revealing that their endurance has been stretched beyond limit and they would soon stand up for their animal rights.
In the whole poem, the symbolic ideas that man has the responsibility to conserve and protect the environment are clear. The environmental ecology is represented as an equal participant in the universe. By having the birds, fish and animals talk, the poet seems to underscore the urgency and seriousness the matter deserves. It also shows that the destruction of the environment which leads to ecological imbalance is real because we are made to hear, see, feel and think with the affected parties.
This approach strikes all our senses and calls for human accountability to their environment. In this poem the environment is not a mere metaphor or a static background rather, it is a thematic issue of unprecedented concern. The language use constructs humans as hostile, insensitive, destructive and reckless in their subjective human supremacy. The symbolic message is that non-human environment is an integral not peripheral partner in the universe. Although the poem is a commentary on the impact of the so called developed world agenda on the developing world, it is an effective ecocritical verse.
Eric Sikuja Ng'maryo's poem entitled the "Fountain of Life" is a symbolic commentary on the envisaged Tanzania's political ideology at independence. The poet uses the fountain of life, that's, a spring of water, as the effective symbol of the core values of the country's socialist ideology. The centrality of water, good natural water as we find it in springs, is depicted as part and parcel of human survival. Because this natural treasure is limited, people are called upon to be mindful of other people's welfare by allowing sharing, in turns and in equal measures. At the beginning it was all fine but with time, some people resort to swindle communal water for private use. They used "cupped banana leaves" and "coconut shell"; others come with pots of all sizes and "scooped" the water for as many times as they so wished. The result is that there is an unequal distribution of this important resource because of grabbing.
In this poem water is celebrated as an exhaustible human resource that should be responsibly used to ensure it serves all people well. If some people misuse it for selfish reasons, then the rest should unite to detest, protest, and stop them. The use of coconut shells and banana leaves depicts the community's devotion in making good use of the natural environment by engaging in worthwhile activities such as planting both food and cash crops. These crops not only provide people with food but also serve the important role of both checking soil erosion and conserving water. The use of fountain of life, banana leaves and coconut shells - all drawn from the environment - effectively communicate how socialist ideas in Tanzania came to be ruined by a few individuals rushing to enrich themselves at the expense of the entire society.
The sacred Groove by Alexander Muigai is an awesome reference to nature. Natural phenomena such as trees and mountains are depicted as superior human companions. The reference to Kirinyaga, a revered mountain by people who live close to it, is an illustration of just how man is a subject of particular phenomena in his immediate environment. The poet celebrates the age-long "Holy Tree" that has been conspicuous among other trees in the "Sacred Grove". Because the tree has "seen many days", the persona asks it to narrate life's stories of joy and sorrow, of plenty and famine, of war and peace, of epidemics and health, and of solemn men offering sacrifices and prayers at its foot, facing the Kirinyaga. Apart from highlighting the important role of certain trees and mountains in the religious affairs of humanity, the poem foregrounds the need for a passionate care of immediate environment as people need the beauty of nature around them in order to perform certain religious rituals. By calling the trees the Sacred Grove, the poem indicates that it's blasphemous and sinful to destroy trees. "The Sacred Tree" and the "Sacred Grove" are turned to when man's soul needs cleansing and nourishment. Since the name of the tree(s) is not revealed, the poem seems to underscore the fact that every tree is sacred and people who cut trees down could be cutting down the sacred trees, their spiritual lives!
Related to this poem is "Doom Ahead" by Makando Mandia. The poem gratifies Mt. Kilimanjaro as a symbolic representation of traditional values and wisdom that come only with age. The persona re-lives "the beauty in those days" and regrets that the beauty is no longer there. Kibo, one of the peaks on the mountain, is used as a symbol of immortality of communal values. Those who live by good societal values live long, as long as Kibo. The peak represents the past people's socialist ideals of being mindful of other peoples' welfare. It is possible, it appears, for these ideals to live forever. But as capitalism intrudes into people's lives, the very fibres that put them together are lost and common interests and decency are over-ridden by selfish imperialist interests. Kibo's usage serves as a constant reminder to people to look back to their glorious past in order to address the problems that bedevil them in the present.
Despite the various attributes of nature depicted from the foregoing poems, nature may also be hostile and fearsome. Manga J.Kingazi's poem entitled "The Tenacity" rebukes nature because the latter threatens life.The poem navigates the theme of appearance versus reality by use of powerful images: the swamp, quick-sand and marshy field. The persona advises on use of a telescope to see them in order to understand how dangerous they are. In other words, nature harbours certain things that are camouflaged to hide the dangers that they pose. The persona admonishes nature despite her generosity. The poem is a subtle commentary on Tanzania's socialist ideals. Although the ideals seem virtuous there are serious underlying contradictions that people need to know. Failure to recognize such setbacks, the people could re-live the experience of a marshy field, a swamp and quick-sand. A marshy field is barren and hostile; a swamp is inhabitable while quick-sand is perennially unstable and therefore unreliable. All the images represent the dangers that the magnanimous nature may be coated with. "Telescope" symbolizes man's intellectual capacity to see beyond the normal by engaging in critical evaluation of issues before making decisions.
My experience in the study of the two anthologies reveals that the poets have, to an appreciable degree captured nature in their verses. The challenge remains that poets need to go a notch higher in sensitizing people about the need to engage their physical environment in a more meaningful way that fosters posterity. The critics have an equally important role to go beyond the socio-political and engage environmental metaphors using the ecocritic's lens in the verses they analyze.
The application of ecocriticism as a theoretical approach in various forms of literary work is long overdue. There is need for environmental sensibility to go in tandem with the global trend today. Indeed, the world faces environmental crises: global warming, deforestation, regionalism, pollution, which are more of a dysfunctional ethical condition than a spontaneous ecosystem falure.Getting through such problems requires a multidisciplinary understanding of peoples' impact on nature with regard to their ethical systems. It is by understanding such ethical systems that people can be sensitized about their role in environmental matters.