In my high school, I read a poem written by Henry Barlow that keeps popping in my head when I see the direction the world is headed. In the world today, it is either you are rich or poor. There is nothing like middle class. This to me is a concocted terminology by politicians in election years to get votes.
Titled "BUILDING THE NATION, the poem is a reflection of our society. As you read it, you are free to fill your mind with the politician the poem makes sense of! You are free to name them at the end.
"Today I did my share in building the nation.
I drove a Permanent Secretary to an important, urgent function
In fact, to a luncheon at the Vic.
The menu reflected its importance
Cold bell beer with small talk,
Then fried chicken with niceties
Wine to fill the hollowness of the laughs
Ice-cream to cover the stereotype jokes
Coffee to keep the PS awake on the return journey.
I drove the Permanent Secretary back.
He yawned many times in back of the car
Then to keep awake, he suddenly asked,
Did you have any lunch friend?
I replied looking straight ahead
And secretly smiling at his belated concern
That I had not, but was slimming!
Upon which he said with a seriousness
That amused more than annoyed me,
Mwananchi, I too had none!
I attended to matters of state.
Highly delicate diplomatic duties you know,
And friend, it goes against my grain,
Causes me stomach ulcers and wind.
Ah, he continued, yawning again,
The pains we suffer in building the nation! So the PS had ulcers too!
My ulcers I think are equally painful
Only they are caused by hunger,
Not sumptuous lunches!
So two nation builders
Arrived home this evening
With terrible stomach pains
The result of building the nation-in different ways!"
You see, The man of power in this case is the Permanent Secretary ( a high ranking government officer) who is attending an official function, which in fact is a mere luncheon, where he goes to eat and just return without performing any serious business that is relevant to nation building.
In the second stanza, the poet talks about the Permanent Secretary’s meeting at the Vic ( A hotel): “The menu reflected its importance/Cold Bell Beer with small talk, then fried chicken with niceties/Wine to fill the hollowness of the laughs/Ice Cream to cover the stereotype jokes/Coffee to keep the PS awake on return journey.”
The poet uses an ironic tone, and his choice of words clearly reflects his bitterness and anger about the pretence by leaders like the PS, who attempt to hide their greediness and selfishness behind hollow official meetings.
The poem is a pointer to how people in government live large at the expense of the mwananchi (Ordinary person), and they seem not to care a bit what their subordinates go through.
While the Permanent secretary enjoyed his meal at the Vic, laughing and chatting, his own driver was waiting with an empty stomach. It was only after he had eaten and was full when he thought of his driver: “I drove the Permanent Secretary back/He yawned many times in the back of the car/Then to keep awake, he suddenly asked/Did you have any lunch friend?”
Even so, when he asked, it was not because he cared – it was to keep himself awake through engaging in a conversation to pass time. He even dares to lie that he also had no lunch, claiming that he was attending to matters of state all along. Yet the poet was there, seeing the PS laughing and eating.
What we have are two types of nation builders – the people (like the driver) who are sweating and working hard on empty stomachs and the politicians like the PS, whose job is to squander public funds in hollow meetings. Ironically, both become sick due to their roles: One from lack of food and the other from having eaten too much.
More so, the poet shows classes in the African society. The two nation builders he refers to in his poem are in fact two classes of people who live on the national cake. There are the exploiter – selfish and powerful people who constitute the upper class – and the poor, starving lower class.
According to the poet, people in the upper class are hypocrites. Their role is to build the nation but they are like pests, who exist only to abuse national resources. They are not building the nation but their own stomachs, the poet says. There is no equality. The poor suffer from lack while the rich and politicians suffer from overfeeding.
The good news is that there is a high level of awareness among the poor. The bitter and angry tone, irony and choice of words by the persona shows that those who are oppressed know that those who are on top are destroying the nation. This is important as the first step towards emancipation and development.