I will write a song on the wings of a fly -
Let this song make music when the fly flies, let everyone hear it.
The poetry of rubbish will be sung
on the wounds of farmers
and on the pus they sweat.
I will write on the wings of insects
and everything that flies,
on the zebra's stripes
and the elephant's ears,
on the walls of toilets, offices and classrooms,
on the roofs of houses, the walls of the government,
and on scarves and t-shirts.
This is the song I will write:
This year's floods threaten old houses in the valley;
people have begun to leave;
electric cables have been destroyed -
where there once was light, now it's dark.
The floods this year!
And old tree has fallen down next to
our rickety houses.
We don't sleep when the fierce wind blows.
Everyday we examine its roots
the rickety walls of the house,
and the branches that must be severed from its trunk.
The floods this year are a warning...
We shall tell our grandchildren:
The floods that year
many trees were felled.
The floods this year
many of us will perish.
This is one of Kezilahabi's poems from his most recent collection, published in 2008. It's clear from the imagery and language that he's writing poetry for his people. He addresses the subject of floods from their perspective, and demonstrates his solidarity with their plight through his stated aim at the beginning of the poem to make poetry out of the lowliest and most abject of materials.
The ambiguity that exists in English when we say we're writing 'on something' - i.e. that this can mean either 'about' something, or 'on top of' - exists in Swahili, so we were able to convey the playfulness in the original that the 'poetry of rubbish will be sung / on [about or on top of] the wounds of farmers' and thereafter, throughout 'Floods'.
We translated the Swahili word 'kanga' as 'scarves', though that's strictly not correct. However, we felt that leaving 'kanga' in the poem and glossing it would lead to complications because, of course, in English, 'kanga' conjures up kangaroos - an image we wished to avoid!