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Of violation, tears and bleak hope: A review of Kehinde Badiru’s I know Why Your Mother Cries

Foremost postcolonial Nigerian poet, Niyi Osundare, opines that “in the intricate dialectics of human living, looking back is looking forward” (The Eye of the Earth, xii). In a similar vein, leading Nigerian playwright and Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, argues of human daily choices and decisions in his essay The Credo of Being and Nothingness that “destiny is self-destination” (2). In other words, humankind is constantly suffused in making decisions regarding its future which is highly determined by its past and present circumstances.

It is in this retrospective struggle that Kehinde Badiru carves, with biting words and naked honesty, I know Why Your Mother Cries (Parresia Publishers, 2020). Divided into three parts – Of Thick and Things, Placards for Memory, and Just Where We are Now – this anthology resonates the African tradition of the potency and divination of the triadic for emphasis and clarity. Otherwise stated, three “words” is enough for the foolish.

The first part of the Anthology – Of Thick and Things – consists of twelve poems that rummages around different curves on being human; especially as a Nigerian. The first poem, “The Naija Chorus” is the reality of the present day, “woke” young Nigerian. The poet persona describes every Nigerian as “a mass choir” (l. 2); with their struggle and hopeful songs as “a long, moody, singular and painful chorus” (ls 4-5). The persona notes that his grandfather and father are part of this choir. He has also been a part of it, hopeful that “one day e go better” (l. 12). However, unlike his predecessors, he has decided to pull himself out of this struggle; as he makes the staunch decision that his children would never be part of it.

In “I Wear My Mother’s Lips”, the persona links his multifarious personalities to the different shades of lipsticks his mother wears. The poet persona warns those who believe they know him not to be too sure, as his dispositions can only be determined by what his environment brings to him; “I don’t know what colors/ I’ll wear tomorrow” (l. 16), he cautions. Away from the bleak tones in the first two poems, “When a New Rain Begins” is more hopeful, livelier. It speaks of life, of greenery, of sensuality, freedom and new beginnings. “On a Sunday Morning” explores the sanctimonious attitude that comes with that day of the week, when it seems as though the evils of the preceding days had not happened. “Sunday is a cover for the flaws of/ of the week’s claws,” (ls. 13-14), the persona muses in sarcasm.

The poet persona’s sarcasm continues in “Our Homeland” where he cites the corrupt acts that subdue humanity, especially amongst politicians who dish out the most unrealistic of promises just to get voted. “All in Different Worlds” lays bare the different traits that make us complementary as humans. “The Three Poems” as the name suggests has a subset of three poems – “Beautiful, Beautifully” is of the little things we ought to be grateful for. “All good things Elsewhere” is of the oxymoronic effects of love; its power to bring both happiness and pains. “Good deeds, did” is of a once good individual, whose good acts have earned him more of scorn than appreciation.

“The Conductor-Marriage” speaks of the reality of most Lagosians who board the notable danfo buses with their divergent bus conductors who oftentimes join people to share a certain amount of money to get their requested balance after paying their fare. Badiru joins J.P. Clark to reminisce on the beauty and peculiarity of the populous city, “Ibadan”, in a septet. “When People Say I Miss You” captures how people could miss the same things or people for different reasons. The hard work and sacrifices that comes with being a first child in a family is expressed in “The Assistant Parent”, while “In My Lagos” delineates all that one could learn and become in the most populous city in Nigeria; where everyone comes in search of prosperity.

The second part of the anthology – Placards for Memory – opens with “Strangers, Sleep and Silence”, which resonates the temporality of life. “When Your Brother Came Home” makes a subtle but strong note on gender disparity; the importance attached to a male child. “An African Dream” is of hope; of the good things that might still come from the struggles. “Life is a Banner” emphasizes the dissimilarity in humanity and leads us to the eponymous poem “I Know Why Your Mother Cries”. This poem speaks largely of the strength of the woman; of a mother in a disparaging society that gives no thought to her feelings. “Even if a woman’s fear wears her like a turban, she gives strength to her partner, drops of love to her children,” (st. 4) the persona says firmly of the sacrificial nature of the woman.

“Footprints” is of a lover who recollects past exploits with his lover. “The Tale of the Broken Bird” is like the metaphoric Angelou’s “caged bird” that symbolizes “tale…brokenness, mental fullness, trembling jarringness…” but who the persona prompts to aim for freedom still. ‘Their Blood Will Speak” is a memorial of over fifty students killed in a Boko Haram bombing in 2015 in Adamawa. The poet persona is utterly convinced that evil perpetrators shall not escape karma. The austere atmosphere continues in “They Raped Mommy” an image of a nation bemoaned for its losses. “Let’s Arise” is a call to the ethnic groups in Nigeria, a need for collective action for both physical and psychological emancipation. “Life is a Road” emphasizes the temporality of life. “A Woman’s Face” alludes to the femme fatale nature of a woman. “The Prayers of a Slay Daughter-in-Law” is of retribution, while “Black Boy, Dreaming” expresses the optimisms of a young boy, who does not desire his present state. “Our Sweet Tie” speaks of the beauty of friendship, “The Art of Listening” is of love and heartbreak and ‘I Saw Your Lookalike Yesterday” is of a brokenhearted persona who has not moved on from his ex-lover. “Twisting” exhibits our confused states as humans, especially in moments of pains. The last poem in this part, “We are all Women”, resonates the state of being a woman.

The final part of the poem – Just Where We Are Now – speaks of the present realities with twenty-two poems. “Na Naija We Dey” satirizes the challenges that come with living in Nigeria. “Freedom Be a Clue” condemns politicians and their corrupt acts. The condemnation continues in “Shey Na Life Be This?”, as the persona bemoans the wretchedness the country suffers as a result of exploitations from different ends. “Poor-verty” and “The D-i-a-r-y of the Poor” bemoan the unfavorable state of living further. “In the Eclipse of Our Fear” shows the dehumanizing acts meted out to those who choose to challenge the system. “A Mirror on the Wall” is of façade; hopes and promises that are unreal. “Corrutptuary”, of course, bemoans the acts of corruption and how it is passed from one generation to another. “If We Must” is more of a chant of accountability, of integrity and the need to be the change. “Forever” serves as a relief from the earlier agitations, it is of bliss hoped for. “Silence” and “Songs of a Dying Nation” express pain, guilt and confusion. “You Can Have It All” is an elaborated version of the superfluous and absurd promises made by politicians to get into offices.

In “Body-Shamer”, the poet-persona condemns the act of body-shaming. “Night” is a serenade of the rest and realizations that comes with that time of the day. “Change” returns us to the distressing realities of Nigeria; of failed promises and lies. The poet persona lampoons public officials and their corrupt acts in “We Can’t All Be Apostles” and “All This We Ask”. “Home” speaks of hope at the face of loss. In “Born Without a Silver Spoon”, the poet persona reminisces on his birth with another, a female; one who has been a partner in nothingness. “I Have a Dream” brings to mind the popular Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech of the same title and as the latter, the poem speaks of hope against all odds. Finally, in “If”, the poet persona admits that he would gladly go to jail, if he is condemned for speaking the truth; all the truths spoken so far in the anthology.

These poems, in many ways, lament the political system and wrong governance in Nigeria. While there are a few poems on soul searching, memories, romance and personalization, the crux of the central theme of tears, as the title suggests, is one of a nation that has failed its people, especially its youth, a class where the author belongs. The “mother” that “cries” is a multifaceted symbol. The “mother”, in the collection, is the Nigerian youth struggling to stay afloat in a choking, dehumanizing system. The “mother” is the subdued female in a patriarchal society. The “mother” is a jilted, broken hearted individual. The “mother” is one who seems to live in oblivion; unsure of what turn to take next in a world that demands so much but gives too little.

The poet, who believes his steadfast truth could land him in jail, is resolutely in touch with the reality. This realness is portrayed in his unvarnished words. One could hardly notice any attempt to attain any sort of aesthetics, such as rhyming and ambiguity, that would undermine his message. The language is simple, with the incessant use of run-on lines, that makes it almost prosaic, for clarity.

The setting of the poems is easily given away by the names of places in Nigeria, Lagos and Ibadan for example. In addition, the use of Nigerian pidgin and urban colloquialism popularly used by Nigerians is another premise. “One day, e go better” is an expression that has been used to weariness amongst Nigerians; who are continuously hopeful of a better tomorrow. There is also a reference to the Nigerian currency in “The Conductor-Marriage” – “Take this #200, you give am #100, you take #100” (ls. 8-9). The mood and tone are inclined to mainly austerity, dilemma and hope.

As a young poet, Badiru has given a voice to the realities of many young Nigerians. He speaks of their losses, of being betrayed, their errors, their emotional complications, their hope, their revolts. “If”, indeed, he would be “incarcerate[d]” and dragged to “jail” for these “truth[s]”, he should be assured that he would not be the only one in that “new home” where more “empire of words” would be built till genuine “change” is attained.

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