London Grip Poetry Review – Isabella Mead



Poetry review – DEAR RWANDA: Alwyn Marriage admires how well Isabella Mead’s poems have captured her experience of living in another country


Dear Rwanda 
Isabella Mead
Live Canon Pamphlets, 2023
ISBN 978-1-909703-20-9
36 pages    £7

I had not encountered the poetry of Isabella Mead before I was asked to review this pamphlet, but I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to acquaint myself with her work now. Mead spent two years in Rwanda on Voluntary Service Overseas between 2010 and 2012, and the result of that life-changing experience is presented in this short collection of 36 pages.

Although Mead’s two years in Rwanda occurred eighteen years after the genocide, that terrible period of history inevitably cast its shadow over the subsequent, more peaceful years – often unspoken, but never forgotten. One of the poems describes an old man who had stopped speaking twenty years earlier, presumably in the face of dreadful atrocities, and had not spoken since:

		Twenty years ago

he chose to stop speaking. That's the day
no one remembers; eyes will glaze over,
turn to the hills and gaze at the sun.

One of the most astonishing aspects of life in Rwanda that Mead discovered was the capacity of the people to forgive, because ‘peace is more important than justice’. After unimaginable horrors, in which people who had lived and worked and prayed together found themselves slaughtering each other, many of them appeared to put the past, with all its revenge and mistrust, behind them. One of the most moving and graphic poems in the pamphlet is “Kerosene”:

In the same breath he told me of his father.
Papa wanjye –  khrr –  jenoside! – he said,
flicking a finger across his throat
with a guttural choking noise for effect –
I'm sorry, I said – what else – and he laughed, 
exclaimed, No problem! and touched my arm,
It's OK, he said, because I forgive them,
and with that he slipped into the next conversation.

But despite the forgiveness, the scars of those years were bound to remain, so that, for example,

The faces of teachers are threaded with scars.
Joyeuse has only wrinkles. Red dust, though,
can gather in both. the past is close ..  

These extracts might run the risk of making the collection sound dark, but this is definitely not the case. While anyone writing about Rwanda cannot ignore the history of the genocide, Mead’s experience of living as a volunteer in the country in 2012 to 2014 is very positive.

The pages of the pamphlet are embroidered with personal stories, again reflecting some of the unforgettable events of the 1990s, such as the little girl who was saved because ‘she hid in the papyrus in the Nyabarongo River’ (“Papyrus”); the man who, fortuitously was out leading the cows to pasture when the atrocity in the church took place (“Whitewash”); the girl whose development was arrested at thirteen and whose periods continued to bring traumatic reactions each month (“Christine”). In happier vein, we read of the children who

highlight the evening hours
with yellow jerry-cans, then balance back home, 
accustomed bare feet on the dusted roads.
					(“Bar Games”).

We read about some of the games the people play, using bottle tops and counters. And in one of the later poems in the pamphlet there is a rather ghoulish description of aid workers from various NGOs dressing up for a Hallowe’en party, some with rather tactless and inappropriate disguises (“Shakespeare Season, April 1994”).

Mead clearly entered fully into the experience of living in Rwanda. Throughout her poems she exhibits great respect for the people she met, and she incorporates, where appropriate, several Kinyarwanda words. She is acutely aware of the fecundity and vibrant colours of Africa:

the red dust road opens out to a schoolhouse
where banana trees spread purple flowers
unfurling sunshine, ready to fruit.
					(“Shakespeare Season”)

There is also a vivid description of an African nightfall, before the advent of electricity pylons (“African Night”); this is followed by a deliciously enigmatic understatement in a whole short poem following their arrival:

My village Has a New Electricity Pylon

and there was a general satisfaction
when it stopped working.

In other poems we are treated to the sounds, as well as the sights, of the country:

That night he roasts little pieces of corn

while sounds of the evening crowd the hut:
incessant crickets, the fidgets of wagtails,
the murmurs of cows, the cries of crows,
mosquitoes crooning the candlelight.

Mead recognises that time moves differently in Rwanda and tends to be measured in relation to the rainy seasons rather than a calendar. There is also an understanding that our human time can be flexible and is subservient to people rather than the other way round:

meetings start when everyone's arrived
and the bus leaves when it's full ...

... as hills flow into one another, and mist
cancels their demarcations again
and children count out bottle caps
in a land of tea and rain.
					(“Maths Lesson”).

The forms of the poems do not contain any great surprises, but are competent and appropriate to the content; and sometimes the poet uses repetition to good effect, as in the repetition of ‘Meanwhile’ in “Change” and ‘akin’ in “Kerosene”.

To spend two years living life at a local level in such a grief-torn but vibrant country could not fail to leave an indelible mark on the poet, even after she has returned to the comfort and safety of home:

And sometimes when I lean back with the last sips of cocktail,
I can hear the noises, even in England:

the beating of jerry cans, urgent footsteps,
a long, low cry for slow stars. 
					 (“Slow Stars”).

I am so pleased to have discovered this book. Having spent a considerable proportion of my own working life in so-called ‘developing countries’, I know how important and yet elusive it is to give an honest picture of such different lives in the medium of poetry. Isabella Mead has, in my opinion, succeeded in this endeavour with skill, charm and without a whiff of sentimentality.