‘We Are At War’ by Gcina Mhlope is a two stanza poem which is separated into one set of eleven lines and another set of seventeen lines. The poet has constructed this poem as a speech. The speaker addresses the entire piece towards a specific audience who needs to hear her words the most. While the poem is unified by its subject matter and intense tone, it does not contain a rhyme scheme. The lines are written in free verse, meaning that they also do not conform to a metrical pattern. They are a variety of lengths, ranging from two to eight words.
A reader should also take note of the refrain which appears at the ending of the first and second stanza. These two lines, “Forward ever / Backward never,” serve as a reminder of the theme of the speaker’s speech. Additionally, the fact that these two lines rhyme as a couplet, make them into a motivational chant. They are clear, easy to repeat, and lend themselves to a protest.
The poem begins with the narrator speaking to the women of her country. They are further defined in the second stanza, but here she makes clear to them that they are at war. They must understand this fact and not fall into despair. The war can be, and will be won.
The second section of the poem goes through a number of different African countries, asking that the women within them drink “her” tears from the river. This is done in an effort to gain strength. These women will throw off oppression and help liberate all others.
Analysis of We Are At War
In the first stanza, the speaker begins by addressing the listeners with whom she is most concerned. The poet wrote this piece with intention of sending a message to the…
Women of my country
With some additional background knowledge, a reader can interpret the specificity of the audience in two different ways at this point. First, it could be confined to one unidentified country or the country of the poet’s birth, South Africa. On the other hand, the word “country” could be understood more broadly and the poem read as a rallying call to all women over the whole world.
While providing more details in the next two lines, the speaker only broadens her intended audience. She is directing her words to the…
Young and old
Black and white
She wants them to know that “We are at war.” Here is the first repetition of the title phrase. It too is used as a refrain throughout the verses. It is a reminder of the plight women of all races and ages are in.
The next lines describe a few of the things which are “against” women at this time, and all times throughout history. She states that “The winds are blowing against” women and “Laws are ruling against us.” The force against which women work for their own empowerment seems so strong, it is as if the natural world is set against progress. On top of this almost insurmountable barrier are the rules which govern that world. They are also crafted with the intent of hindering changes in the system.
While these lines are quite depressing, the speaker says that women “do not despair.” There are many reasons to hope, plus, she states, “We are the winning type.” Women are strong enough, and determined enough, to fight back against the odds until things change for good.
The next lines contain the three phrase refrain which is repeated at the end of the poem as well. It is a motivational set of statements meant to excite any listener.
Let us fight on
In the second half of the poem, the speaker begins by narrowing her focus to women of Africa. It is revealed, if one did not already presume this to be the case, that her ideal audience is African women. She begins by speaking directly to “Women of Egypt and Libya.” The speaker wants them to know that if they
Drink tears from the River Nile
then they will “gain courage and bravery.” She asks that they show strength and determination and drink down their own sadness. It will become a part of them and encourage them on to a better life through further empowerment.
Next, the speaker turns to the “Women of Congo and Liberia.” She asks that they…
Drink her tears from River Congo
As she asked the previous set of women, she asks these Congolese and Liberian women to drink “tears.” In this case they belong to “her.” This unnamed and undefined “her” is a representation of all women who have been stepped on and disregarded within their homelands. This act will allow women to “shed inferiority” and grow stronger.
The poem continues in the same vein. Next, she speaks to the “Women of Zambia and Zimbabwe.” To them, she asks the same, that they drink “her tears from River Zambezi.” This source will imbue them with “understanding.” Wisdom is necessary to win the “war.”
The last section asks that the “Women of Namibia and South Africa” drink “tears from River Limpopo.” This action will result in “liberation” a direct reference to the South African apartheid against which the poet, Mhlope, frequently spoke and wrote.
The final five lines of the poem state that the women of “Africa” are “chained.” They need to be liberated. This will only happen if they “fight on” and never give up the ground they gain.