Kayo Chingonyi



in a country named for its river, where the river is wide and its flow gives life to those who live on its banks, in a valley where the people and the river lived in accord for generations, woven as hair in a braid is woven, in such a place our story begins, half a lifetime ago before the Monkton Comission when people burned their chitupas in front of the offices of district commissioners, before a blood condition passed through the population as flame passes through a forest, before load shedding, hours of powercuts; the national grid sold off to the highest bidder, before the country was booming from copper and the roads were full of American cars and the salesmen plied their trade with sweet nothings, weaving through the traffic to make their entreaties: my friend you must hurry up and catch this Mustang before it gallops away. Before pot holes and roads unfinished through lack of investment, before imported knock offs, before the goods trains and trucks, before the valley was connected by the orderly topography of macadam and the valley’s foot-worn pathways, taught to the valley’s young by experience, were paved. The valley people lived in a relative peace. Livingstone was, by then, long dead and the people were free to bide after their own fashion, giving honour to the god of the river and, in return for their supplication, receiving blessings in the form of fish which were so plentiful that to a child who did not like fish a parent would say my darling, here there is fish or there is fish and the child would remember the legacy knitted in to the songs they had known all their lives of fisherfolk who swam before they could walk or talk because the river god would never let them sink


…the river god

like many gods is a vengeful god    but who would not
want vengeance       separated from   their lover
by the insistence of machinery        the promise of copper
the future        open   to those brave enough to take it
always this human mania for taking      the river god
remembers   what is forgotten   between generations
slavers raided       in the name   of this selfsame progress
and who was it     through all of this    who    provided
no man       nothing so inflexible as that       but this god
part serpent though don’t believe what they tell you
about serpents    part fish      able to swim and be one
with water    holding water        in a flowing order
no man made machine      could conjure      though the strangers
who came with their ideas   of order        their instruments
and blueprints    those strangers brought with them a plan
to build a dam      harness the river’s power to bolster
the power of man     and what did it matter to them
dishonouring a god   in whom they didn’t believe

for those who believed    the dam    was no boon
they knew    no human hand could bend the landscape
to the ends of capital          without consequence
and so they offered prayers and bade their kinfolk
agree to nothing     sign nothing refuse the handshakes
that      to these strangers     constitute contracts
and though believers feared the river god’s wrath
the dam was built       the strangers executed their plan
and what did it matter that the skies brought forth
unprecedented rain a mere trifle   and those swept away
were unlucky but what had that to do with the dam
which would bring about such prosperity in this land
believers knew      the waters raged   in the river god’s name
that in the quest for progress       we often make mistakes
make beds      in which our descendants sleep badly
in our haste to acquire to own to feed
a monster which cannot be sated for all you fill
with minerals its     waiting       capacious       mouth


‘water can crash and water can flow’

who gave them           licence          to live here
who brought them    succour   refuge
what gave them         the right
to come between       this centuries-old      love
what do they know   of love
who have not loved  outside       human time
this wall they built    in all their wisdom
can only delay            our reunion
those    who know water     know
eventually water will pass through
even    the smallest gap      in what appears
to the human eye     to be    a solid mass



it is said that after the concrete
after the rain
after the valley
shifted from its old ways
all that remained
of nyaminyami
was a small statue
marking the place

a fish-headed snake
a caption
consigning the river god
to the realm of legend
as if all this water
flowed here by some accident
as if the old ways
were only stories

but to this day pilgrims
sometimes see a momentary swell
in the course of the river
and those who recognize these eddies
know this to be nyaminyami testing
the limits of human ingenuity
calling out to a lover who is constant
as the motion of water


Kayo Chingonyi is the author of two pamphlets, Some Bright Elegance (Salt, 2012) and The Colour of James Brown’s Scream (Akashic, 2016). His first full-length collection, Kumukanda, was published in June 2017 by Chatto & Windus and won the Dylan Thomas Prize. He was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize, is a fellow of The Complete Works programme and poetry editor for The White Review. Kayo is also an emcee, producer, and DJ and regularly collaborates with musicians and composers both as a poet and a lyricist.