Kenya's 'Queen of Poetry'
Caroline Nderitu Plays Her Own Drum

By Katy Salmon
Courtesy of Inter Press Service (IPS)

NAIROBI, Jan 18 - For Kenya's 'Queen of Poetry', Caroline Nderitu, the introduction of free primary education could not have come at a better time - just as she is launching her second collection of poems, 'Play Your Drum'.

Poet Caroline Nderitu chats with 14-year-old Charles Irungu, who is HIV positive, during the World Aids Day at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi, last December. The day was marked worldwide.

    Nderitu believes the new government's policy will help to eliminate the two main stumbling blocks currently limiting public appreciation of poetry - illiteracy and poverty.
    ''So many kids will now be able to read. Plus that means there'll be some extra cash to buy other books,'' she enthuses.
    Until last year, parents had to buy textbooks and pay school fees for their primary school children - something which was beyond the budgets of many families.
    Six million children attend primary school in Kenya, but millions more are expected to enroll now that school fees have been abolished, following the Dec . 27 elections.
    This is good news for Nderitu, 26, who is on a one-woman mission to popularize poetry in the East African country, starting with its children.
    She is already a nationally-recognized name and face in Kenya, performing at all sorts of high-profile events, ranging from World AIDS Day in December to Miss Tourism, dramatically dressed in typical East African 'khangas' and heavy silver jewelry.
    Her popularity had spread beyond Kenya's borders - flying to countries as diverse as Norway, Switzerland, India, South Africa and Sudan to perform.
    Whether she is promoting environmentalism, women's rights or even beauty products, Nderitu believes poetry is the most effective vehicle for her message. ''Poetry leaves a lasting impression on whatever issues it has raised. The same way songs keep playing in your mind,'' she says.
    Nderitu's fans appreciate her strong sense of pride in Kenya, and Africa in general, which is reflected in her poems. ''I look at her as a young breed of Africans who are growing up organic,'' says Gabriel Katana, registrar of Kenyatta University, where Nderitu's poetic skills first came into the limelight during the university's cultural week.
    Nderitu's 'Poetry Lab' sessions with Kenyan schoolchildren will hopefully bring out the talents of other budding young poets. ''People have the wrong attitude to poetry, that it's going to be boring. They strike a nice position, ready to sleep,'' she laughs.
    When Nderitu arrives in class, she rapidly shakes up these preconceptions. She gets the children out of their chairs to perform rhymes with her -- like the comical 'Moose Song' about a ''moose who drank some juice''.
    ''Children are creative and they like to try out new things and they like to do funny things with words. It's really exciting for them to turn words around and associate one thing with another,'' she says. For Nderitu, it is not just about developing an appreciation of poetry. It is also about building self-esteem. ''It does something to their morale,'' she says.
    Most of her poems are positive and uplifting - something that has led others to criticize her for not being serious enough. ''We all write in different ways. This is my angle, that things are going to turn out well,'' she shrugs.
    This sunny disposition is important, given the harsh economic realities she is struggling against. Although there is a strong poetic tradition among many Kenyan ethnic groups, this art form has more or less died out. Most of the books published in Kenya today are textbooks.
    ''We don't even look at poetry. 'It doesn't sell.' That's the stock reply of publishers in this country. Most publishers in Kenya are textbook publishers because that is where the money is,'' says Gacheche Waruingi, managing director of Phoenix Publishers.
    ''I don't think there are many adults who read poetry and enjoy it, though children's rhymes sell a bit. I would like to publish more, but the economics of it dictates otherwise,'' he says.
    Nderitu's first book, Caroline Verses, was self-published. She had to raise 55,000 shillings (714 U.S. dollars) to produce it but the effort paid off when the book sold out within six months.
    Waruingi was so impressed that he agreed to publish Nderitu's second collection, 'Play Your Drum', just released with a glamorous launch at Nairobi's Ramoma art gallery recently. ''This one was an odd one out,'' he cautions.
    Like Nderitu, he believes the introduction of universal primary education could help to turn this sorry situation around. ''We need a more literate society, an overall rise in literacy levels and literary appreciation for our book industry to thrive, especially in areas like poetry,'' he says.
    ''I want to believe that this country will be a lot more cultural that it has been in the past. We hope that more people would want to be involved in poetry recitals, enjoying moments of poetic intensity,'' says Waruingi, who admits to having a ''very soft spot'' for poetry himself.
    ''I want to encourage those who have poetry to bring them out, even if they are not published. In time, we will create a market, something that will develop our country,'' he urges.

    Nderitu's success might just encourage a few to do just that.

Related article:
A poem  by Caroline Nderitu