‘Kumukanda’ by Kayo Chingonyi is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, or sextets. The stanzas do not make use of a particular rhyme scheme, but there are instances of alliteration within, and at the end of lines that give the illusion of rhyme. For example, lines one and two of the third stanza, and lines four, five, and six of the third stanza.
Alliteration is especially prevalent within the last lines of ‘Kumukanda’ as the speaker repeats “father” six times. This prolonged reference to the speaker’s heritage emphasizes the complexity and depth of his lineage, as well as his complicated relationship to it. The technique is expanded in the two lines prior which end with words starting with “f” as well.
Half or slant rhyme is also present in the text. This kind of rhyme occurs with just portions of words are connected. This can be via assonance, vowel sounds, or consonance, consonant sounds. For example, in the first line of the third stanza, the “f” sound is repeated three ties with “If,” “self” and “left.” This creates a rhythm without the poet having to format the lines in a particular pattern of the meter. Half or slant rhyme can also extend between lines, such as with “make” and “speak” in the second and third lines of the third stanza.
Summary of Kumukanda
The poem begins with the speaker explaining that there is a ritual he didn’t participate in. Some people, upon learning this, would see him as someone who never threw off the bounds of childhood. He does not say if he believes it one way or another, that is, until the second stanza when he explains how he transitioned into adulthood.
It was a piecemeal transition, rather than an all at once crossing of a river. He recalls caring for his dying mother, attending her funeral, and not receiving comfort when he needed it.
Now, he considers how in an alternate life he would’ve grown up had he stayed in Zambia. The present and imagined versions of himself would likely seem strange to one another, unable to comprehend language or “literary pretensions.”
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Kumukanda
Since I haven’t danced among my fellow initiates,
in order to die and come back grown.
In the first stanza of ‘Kumukanda,’ which means “initiation,” the speaker, who is the poet himself, begins with one long sentence. It tells of something he hasn’t done, a cultural ritual that “Tata’s people” would look down on the speaker for not doing. Without saying it explicitly, this is a reference to the Luvale tribe in Zambia, where the poet Chingonyi is from. In particular, the speaker is describing a ritual in which boys walk in a “looped procession.” They follow a path from the “woods at the edge / of a village.”
Without having completed this ritual, which gets more complex by the end of the stanza, the speaker knows others would think him incomplete. It is important to note that he does not call himself “unfinished,” this is just the perception of “Tata’s people.”
He goes on to describe the ritual as one that takes a boy from childhood to manhood. Without completing it, some would say that he “never sloughed” or shed, the “childish estate” of his youth. The ritual includes a crossing of a river. It represents death, and then rebirth as a man when one crosses back over.
I was raised in a strange land, by small increments:
dad, though we both needed a hug, shook my hand.
In the second stanza of ‘Kumukanda’ the speaker turns to his own life. He was “raised in a strange land.” It is strange from the perceptive of someone from Zambia, and from, as he later states, an “alternate self.” He grew from a boy into a man in “small increments.” It was not one larger ceremony in which he was instantaneously transformed. Instead, it came as he bathed his dying mother on the “days she was too weak.”
He grew older when his aunt told him that his mother had died. The speaker picked out a yellow suit and “white shoes to dress [his] mother’s body.” These are things that no child should have to do.
There is another moment that is transformative to the speaker. It occurred when he was standing at the “grave-side” with the man who almost became a real dad to him. This person, rather than hugging the speaker, shook his hand. These poignant moments of love and loss changed his life. They are not the same as those he would’ve experienced had he stayed in Zambia, but they are important nonetheless.
If my alternate self, who never left, could see me
and my father’s father and my father’s father’s father?
In the final stanza of ‘Kumukanda’ the speaker addresses the idea of an “alternate self.” This person would not have left his home in Zambia. Instead, he would have grown up, completed the ceremonies, and led a very different life up until this point where the two metaphorically meet. The speaker imagines this second version of himself looking at his “literary pretensions” and the need to “speak in a tongue” that isn’t his. He knows that this other self would judge him, see these things are foreign, a waste of time, or something worse.
Then, the speaker turns the judgment around and considers what he’d think of the Zambian self, the one who did not move away. This man would speak in the language of his fathers, and the poem’s speaker would not understand. There is something gained and something lost on both sides, and the speaker does not say which is better. They are two different lives he had in his reach, and he chose.
The repetition at the end of the poem does suggest something about heritage though, and perhaps a regret for disconnection with that heritage. The use of the word “father” six times suggests at once an amusement with the idea, and a lack where a cultural connection should or could be.