African parables


Somalia 2009
The camps in Eastern Kenya
House a quarter of a million
Refugees. Each day hundreds
More cross the border from

With our cinnamon-dusted children,

We once followed the cattle in their swaying seasons
To horizons promised with rain.
The air was fragrant with orange blossom,
Cardamom and cloves.
But now, they have salted
The orchards and the vines.
The lowing of the cattle is taken,
With our names, upon the wind.
In our land there is no civil countenance.
No longer may we love or mourn.
We exist on rumours of water, food and hearth.
We have no currency
But the litanies of our hands
And our public eyes
In which you might recognise
The price of our humanity.
We stand at the brink of your wire,
Watching in silence
As another parable begins.

Listen — Live reading by the poet

The gate
In many parts of Africa people must pay bribes
to be able to work, sometimes several bribes.
There is always a gate-keeper.

Each day amongst the shanty lives
trading must begin anew
for earth-space, water, fire and work
[for now, at least, the brownish air is free]

At the building site
The keeper of the gate has begun to palm
The famished ounces of quiet bribes,
And to usher his chosen ones
Through the gate space,
Where they will, by further promises,
Be permitted to heft their shoulders
Into the gall and gruel of work,
So that a morsel,
Trimmed by exacted percentages,
Might fall their way.

Men who stood before the gate,
their eyes brimmed with tall expectations,
Must trail the weight of empty hands, empty pockets
Back to the shanties,
Where children are launching imagined craft
Away from the stench of earth
Into pools
That are the colour of Keen's Mustard.

Listen — Live reading by the poet

A poem for Catherine Hamlin
Catherine Hamlin, an Australian doctor, established
A hospital in Ethiopia in 1974 with her late husband
to treat women who had been damaged by the complications
of childbirth. Because of their wretched injuries these women
were commonly cut off from
their families and communities,
often permanently. So far the hospital has successfully performed
fistula repair surgery
on more than 34,000 women.

She might have traced the sweetness of her child,
Raised him up,
Felt the weight of his infancy comply to her breast,
But the thorns of Africa drive deep:
In the groaning travail of birth she was cruelled,
In the joy of yielding to life she was abandoned
And curled in an atrophy of shame,
Was soured,
Became untouchable.

And so we are haunted by our hesitations,
By our capacity to abstain from grace,
To forget the best-forgotten
By crafting a life of contained mercies
Counted out in the small currency
Of familiar denominations.

But in your fretting time you squired them home
To shelter and sheets of soft linen,
Knowing that for those who are untouchable
The moment of healing begins
With the sacrament of touch.

Listen — Live reading by the poet

Grant FraserGrant Fraser is a lawyer, poet and filmmaker. His collection of poetry Some Conclusion in the Heart was published by Black Willow Press.

Topic tags: grant fraser, new australian poems, poems about africa, Catherine Hamlin, somalia, refugees



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Existing comments

Thanks for the poem on Catherine; but nowadays everybody forgets her husband Reg. When they went to Ethiopia for a year's missionary service, Reg was a specialist gynaecologist, and Catherine was not long out of medical school. It was Reg who recognised the need for a fistula hospital, but all credit to Catherine for backing him, and for keeping the fire now he is gone.
Michael Grounds | 15 September 2009

Thank you Grant and everybody who recognises and treasures the magnificent work of Reg and Catherine Hamlin. They have been persons deserving of the title Australians of the Year many times over.
Ray O'Donoghue | 15 September 2009


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