No Coffin, No Grave – Jared Angira

Posted: April 13, 2011 in KENYAN POETRY
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Kenyan flag

Kenyan flag

The Kenyan poet Jared Angira was born in 1947 and studied commerce at the University of Nairobi where he was also the editor of the journal Busara. He has spent much of his working life in the Kenyan civil service, and published seven volumes of poetry, which include Juices (1970), Silent Voices (1972), Soft Corals (1973), Cascades (1979), The Years Go By (1980), and Tides of Time: Selected Poems (1996).

He was once hailed by Wole Soyinka and lauded by Ezenwa-Ohaeto as “one of the most exciting poets in Africa.” As with many of his contemporary African poets, he has not received the critical acclaim many think he deserves. Deeply meditative, Angira’s work is deceptively simple and his choice of words may occasionally seem at odds with the gravity of his subject. As a Marxist poet—he once proclaimed: “Karl Marx is my teacher; Pablo Neruda my class prefect (when I am in the classroom) and my captain (when I am on the battlefield)”—his poetry evinces a critical concern with social injustice in post-independence society. Like his fellow Kenyan, Ngugi wa Thiongo, he is very critical of political and social developments in Kenya.


He was buried without a coffin
without a grave
the scavengers performed the post-mortem
in the open mortuary
without sterilized knives
in front of the night club

stuttering rifles put up
the gun salute of the day
that was a state burial anyway
the car knelt
the red plate wept, wrapped itself in blood its master’s

the diary revealed to the sea
the rain anchored there at last
isn’t our flag red, black, and white?
so he wrapped himself well

who could signal yellow
when we had to leave politics to the experts
and brood on books
brood on hunger
and schoolgirls
grumble under the black pot
sleep under torn mosquito net
and let lice lick our intestines
the lord of the bar, money speaks madam
woman magnet, money speaks madam
we only cover the stinking darkness
of the cave of our mouths
and ask our father who is in hell to judge him
the quick and the good

Well, his dairy, submarine of the Third World War
showed he wished
to be buried in a gold-laden coffin
like a VIP
under the jacaranda tree beside his palace
a shelter for his grave
and much beer for the funeral party

anyway one noisy pupil suggested we bring
tractors and plough the land.


This is a scornfully sarcastic poem by Angira and many reviewers claim that it also mirrors his style. The poem is a chronicle of events that marked the death of a traitor-ruler who was “buried without a coffin” (line 1) and whose post-mortem was carried out by scavengers, vultures in the open, outside a place where people go to celebrate and have fun. A night club! (line 6). This gives a sense that his death may have been wished and when it came, it was a necessary party for his people.

Angira goes on to say that “stuttering rifles” (line 7) gave the salute when he died. The same two quoted word are used in Wilfred Owen’s poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” where he discusses the scene before a war, intimating that the soldiers on the field are doomed to death by the shots from their own stuttering rifles. As is signal of state burials, prominent people are given a uniform salute by a regimental gunshot of a section of the army. But our politician only received a stuttering rifle’s salute, to give us a hint that his gun salute was probably the bullets that killed him; ununiformed. And confirmation reaches us, when we read that his car knelt – came to its knees, literally – in a defeatist action and wrapped itself in its master’s blood (lines 10-11). He died in his car and the car came to a grinding halt.

Angira quotes the colours of the Kenyan flag (red, black and white- line 14) as testament to the true nature of the politician whose deeds alone were correct. So since there wasn’t any yellow, he asks “Who could signal yellow” or contradict the politicians? After all, politics was for the “experts” while the common man was cursed to brood on books, think about schoolgirls and hunger, sleeping under torn mosquito nets (lines 15-22). And if our politician should step into a bar, he is the lord (line 24) and woman magnet (line 25) who speaks the language of money; the people’s money. And what can the cursed common man say? He can only cover the darkness of his mouth and tell his prayers to the devil for all the politician cares.

The succeeding verse tells of how our politician’s diary reveals that he wanted a stately VIP burial, with a gold-laden coffin at his palace and with so much beer. Angira earlier in line 12 says that the diary revealed itself to the sea, to say that it was found there in the sea. And now, in line 30, he calls the diary a submarine of the Third World War. This is interesting analogy. It could mean that the diary was found in the sea as a submarine, it is content was a destructive weapon as a submarine that brought the poverty and hunger of the people, or that it had enough power in its recommendation to dump the world into a Third World War. This is beautiful use of language.

So, it has come to pass that Angira’s politician has passed away, with much celebration from his people. And with little dignity too, having been denied all the pleasantries that he wished to be accorded his death. The people care less and in the last line, one boy Angira calls noisy, even suggests that they bring tractors and plough the land, ostensibly to purge it of the desecration that this our politician’s blood may have caused it. And why is the boy even called noisy unless it means that other people have already said the same thing?

This is a beautiful protest poem and I can see a lot of African leaders past and present fit Angira’s politician well, in deed.

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  1. DhobleO'Jay says:

    It was just yesterday that I bought an edition of Cascade which was published 1979. A quick scan of the co”ection reveals the pen of a writer who hides subtlity behind simple words. I believe I see in him, a poet that truly had a cascade of thought flooding the bank of his mentations. I saw a writer that grope to sew his ideas into a fabric that can be worn over time. A gleamer of deep thoughts that evade immediate understanding glitters through some of those poems. No Coffin No Grave is a sardonic piece, and sends its piercing edges even beyond the frontiers of Kenya but all Africa country.

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    • Dela says:

      I haven’t read Angira enough to know his style but I think you have a fair idea how he writes. That is wonderful. Keep reading.

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  2. Car Hire says:

    Thank you for the work you have done into this article, this helps clear away some questions I had.

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  3. godwin clement says:

    pablo neruda to me, is a rear talent n one of africa’s greatest. I love his work frm d depths of my soul.

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  4. Nora phillips says:

    this is a great article on Angira’s poem as it potrays the use of his style nd symbolism potrayed in d poetry……i had question but my doubts had bein cleared……way to go….

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  6. K. Azaglo says:

    Hello, there is a wonderful poet, Padmore Agbemabiese, a mentee of Kofi Anyidoho and I will like you to read some of his poems. We use his poems in college.

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  7. ginasmom says:

    Another one of my favourites ….reading this takes me back to the days, i can still remember this one and trying to figure out what it was all about years ago. Can’t wait to check out the other poems featured here. Great stuff!

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  8. Nyampong Amo Alfred says:

    It is indeed a very nice poem

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  9. aduse-poku yaw says:

    aduse- poku, i like the poem. i wish ican see the writer with my eyes

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  10. Amusa says:

    My favorite poem ever! Certainly, a masterpiece.

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  11. abdul-dahim says:

    I like your page and am really very happy about the way you have collected the African poems.

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  13. i think this poem is good for african leaders and africa as a whole.

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  14. nice poem for African students

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  15. Toku Hagar says:

    This poem is great,i just luv it.Thank you JARED.I am very grateful
    unto you.

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  16. Abdu says:

    ……………….Actually what Angira says via his poem is the life itself about the real situation in Africa especially now days,Most of the Politicians are not there for their people instead for benefits of themselves.

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  17. please, i want you to post me the main idea of your poem. please i need it now cuz its an assignment given to me to submit it of Wednesday.

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  18. Fortunate sisu says:

    Yes please, am also supporting OWUSU ANSAH RAYMOND because we are all Student’s and its an Assignment given to us to submit and we have tried our best to understand and to be able to figure out the Subject matter and the Theme but,i wanst able to do that,as you know we now starting on Literary works,so please can you please send me the the Subject matter and the Theme of your poem?

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  19. This is interestingly thumbed write-up. That has open-up the intricacies of Africa’s a politicains in the dispensation.

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  20. AGYEI ISAAC says:


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  21. Jared Angira’s poem is a Good poem that give room for life continuation

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  22. Lawal Suraj says:

    Pls.What is all about the poem “if” it interpretation,commentries and it potreyals?

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  23. he had de talent in writing poems,

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  24. ayim daniel says:

    I like the poem very much. it mirrors social injustice and also enlightens mankind the need to be vigilant and circumspect

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  25. ayim daniel says:

    the poet is very inspirational

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  26. evans says:

    this poet is truly African poem , i am writing examination on some selected poems from Africa and this is the kind of poem that i really enjoyed my self with when ever am reading

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  27. sewor says:

    thanks for this poem…. this really goes to our leaders of today… properly a forum should be organized for we the youth to voice our concern to them to know our feelings…..they only sit in their mansions and know not what is going on down there… thankzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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  28. Mavis says:

    Please,can u state the theme,tone and mood of the poem?

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  29. serem says:

    This is a replica of African political satire where villains r lauded while Heroes r shamefully executed or compromised at the whim of greedy decrees

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  30. raph says:

    The poem is ironical and it ridiculs unjust political leaders…..
    Dorminated with the theme of discrimination, injustice and inequality.

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  31. maggy ngigi says:

    Thanks for the poem.It’s very relevant in Kenya especially now that our greedy MPs are hell bent on a salary increment…I have always celebrated and admired Jared Angira,mainly his expertise in language use.CONGRATULATIONS Jared

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  32. Edith says:

    well i dont think any one that is rational will think of living such a life

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  33. apam godsway michael says:

    it helps us the students of presec one class.

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  34. jerome quansah says:

    Jared, Africa is proud of you. No coffin no grave reminds me of all the africa leaders who have suffered in cold blood for love of our dear continent. Am glad the selfish ones may not always fulfill what they have in their diaries.

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  35. very good poem,i will like to encourage the auther to keep it up

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  36. Dwayne Bentil says:

    Really lovely poem

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  37. Eric says:


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  38. prah justice says:

    But for the touching cardinal themes selectively picked in our own African political climate, the poet has ironically hidden behind the ambit of poetic license to give full- fledged support to sadism. Dictions such as ‘blood’/scavengers” and its similarly-plaited words are proves in themselves to critically appreciate the poet as such. How ever, the most resonative thought that lends its definitive idea to Aristotelean concept of poetry is that imititative focus on the theme such as a leader’s betrayal of citizens’ aspiration and hope; one of the most relevant issues within our immediate African cosmos. Indisputably, much is known about the crude betrayal of our post-independence politicians; messiahs who are predisposed to mismanagement of state management shortly after the reign of governance fell on them after colonization. Contemporarily, I would preferably say the Arab Spring; a wind of turmoil that ousted Gaddaffi-led government is an emperical example fitting all parts into Angiraism. The work is, by all description, a preview of the military cum civilian political epoch in Africa; a period of military takeovers that eventually gave commanding height of power to kleptomaniac leaders, whose promises we took for an article of faith. May be Ayi Kwei Armah might be intellectually right that ‘ the beautiful ones are not yet born”

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  39. Ndifreke umoyoh says:

    I love this poem, its really helpful for my protest paper.

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