Poet, Nick Makoha, had glimpsed more turmoil by the age of four than many people see in an entire lifetime. As a child exile of Uganda during the tyrannical reign of Idi Amin, the periphery of Makoha's formative years were shaded by chaos, detachment and loss. The emotional impact would lay dormant for years before his writing summoned it forward. "I had a notebook full of Love Jones poetry," he jokingly recalls of his earliest works before finding his authentic voice as a writer. "If I was honest with myself, I was avoiding talking about Uganda. There was this shame about having to flee my country, about losing my language," he said. "Still, there was a part of me that was longing for Uganda and yearning to understand my story. I needed to confront it." And confront it, he did.
Though challenging, his ceaseless search for his own truth produced Kingdom of Gravity, a remarkable body of work that has earned excellent reviews from critics, as well as the coveted Brunel University African Poetry Prize for his title poem.
In his debut collection, Makoha ardently chronicles the history, landscape and people of Uganda with an intimate delivery, that I would come to learn, was entirely intentional. "Whenever people talk about Uganda, they think of Idi Amin. It's like defining what it means to be German by referencing Adolf Hitler," he said. Through his poetry, Makoha seeks to broaden that perspective. "That’s not who they are. Just as Germans aren’t just the product of one man, the story of Uganda is so much deeper than Idi Amin."
In Kingdom of Gravity, Makoha brilliantly captures the complexity of the Ugandan experience, acting sometimes as an observer ("He is mastering the art of being a very persistent illusion," he wrote in the poem "MBA - MOMBASA INTERNATIONAL"), sometimes as a participant ("Nights kept me sleepless; the trick was to unblink the eyes till morning, whether open or closed," he wrote in the poem "THE BEE"), but always with a fantastical command of imagery with an occasional double-entendre that would make Jay-Z envious ("Only the equator was able to divide the land equally. Even the night took sides." he wrote in the poem "THE SECOND REPUBLIC").
Photo: Sam Burnett
At times, Makoha writes with the relentless naiveté of a young child. There is an unquenchable curiosity and persistent questioning that seeks to understand the human condition, and why we behave as we do. ("What makes a man name a city after himself, asking bricks to be bones, asking the wind to breathe like the lungs of the night," he wrote in "THE KINGDOM OF GRAVITY").
As a self certified word nerd, I found myself reading, pausing, digesting and re-reading Makoha's verse, equally mesmerized by the content of the narrative, and his striking command of language. Ironically, it was this admirable mastery of English that once invoked his shame ("Look for me in translation. In my own language you will go unanswered," he wrote in the poem "PRAYERS FOR EXILED POETS"). "When I left Uganda, my language fell away," he told me. "I couldn't speak Swahili so I filtered my thoughts uncomfortably into the English language." This longing for his native tongue, and the customs and tribes that inhabit it, translates seamlessly on the page as Makoha serves as a kind of tour guide, narrating the experiences, betrayals and love of a birthplace gone too soon.
Makoha's poetry speaks to longing and loss in a way that translates beyond the scope of one man's story. "That's the beauty of art when it's based in truth," he says. "It speaks to the universal experience."
While he has lived in London for most of his creative life, after leaving Uganda, Makoha spent much of his childhood between Saudi Arabia and Kenya. His debut poetry collection Kingdom of Gravity, released on April 11, is available for purchase on Amazon.