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Nation in Labor

Review By

Harriet Anena

A Nation in Labor is a collection of social conscience Poetry by Harriet Anena is a very slim book, not more than 100 pages but contains 55 poems. 

Published by Millennium Press Limited in 2015, Nation in Labor won the 2018 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. The Compilation

paints a picture of the immersive politician, the edgy citizen, the unexperienced youth, those struggling to heal from life’s scores and the ones hunting for words to describe burining blazes of love.

The poetry in this book is a swarm of voices, a collective protest against the present, and a stubborn belief in the possibility of new ways of being, in Uganda.

Harriet Anena was born and raised in northern Uganda. She wrote her first poem, The Plight of The Acholi Child in 2003, a piece that won her a school bursary. In 2013, she joined the world of fiction with her first-ever published work, which featured in the Caine Prize for African Writing Anthology.

From the aftermath of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency in northern Uganda, to our romantic life, politics, and human destiny, Anena addresses a multitude of issues with Uganda’s politics taking a bigger share.

From the obscene hypocrisy of the politicians, to those ravaged by war and its effects, she paints a vivid picture of “a republic in labor”. Anena craftily uses simple language, but with diction that leaves the reader challenged to take action to better the situation. 

 “Gone! 9 lives that lived 9 months in the womb, 9 different wombs and 9 different mothers, they had one life, but did they live even half of that? Was the gun so hungry it had to feed on these lives? Or were hands so itchy they had to pull the trigger?”

Only a quarter way through the poem titled Heroes, does Harriet Anena sets you on a path of bitterness and rage towards war and all the innocent lives it claims mocking those that kill with no conscience.

She criticizes the burial ceremonies of the deceased heroes that are always adorned with flag-wrapped caskets, neat parades, black tears from mourners dressed in black and the 21-gun salute. Anena concludes the poem “Hero” with a resigned tone, convinced that although new lives will be born, some will inevitably be scarified. 

In the Forward of A Nation in LabourProfessor Laban Erapu, says that the book “is not a conventional collection of poems by a young untried poet cautiously taking her first steps into the profession, but a mature selection of by a seasoned poet”. 

As you flip through the pages, you engage a  poet who is flattering the diamond unions of acquaintances, lamenting on the ways of a crowd unafraid of roasting a fellow human, or castigating the indignity of stripping women.

And true, what better understatement than labour to portray that which excited the ordinary Ugandan then? Well, it might have been a 2015 project, but Harriet Anena, the poet behind this Banquet of poetry, amazed everyone with this piece!


The titles of the poems are catchy, and yes, you will stop. Deliberate or not, it works. Anena wrote this Banquet of poetry in a creative way that will keep you hooked.

The poem “Scratching Destiny”, is the message the poet wishes to pass to her readers. It hauls the heavy heart of A Nation in Labor, and reminds us of the resilience of the human spirit that in this prospering vibrant confusion, we must somehow organize our individual chaos into a stable and meaningful personal world. Resilience is powerful because resilience is life. She writes “Acholi child, born in the bush only to lose parents to AIDS, and forced to live in protectedcamps where she/he is sexually molested by protectors”.

Throughout the book, the tone fluctuates from anger to apathy, sometimes it is sarcastic, sometimes persuasive, yet there are times when it is sour and demeaning. But even then, there is a purpose in the voice, a strong belief in the society’s ability to turn off the cliff and retrace its footsteps. 

As William Carlos Williams once said, poems are machines made out of words. There is nothing sentimental about a machine, in the sense that no parts are redundant. As a machine, “its movement is fundamental, rolling and physical more than a literary character.” On this basis, it is the perceived pointedness of the purpose of Anena’s book that encapsulates the book and saves the reader from the tediousness of reading so many versions of the same political themes and complaints in so many poems. 

Her Poetry in a A Nation in Labour, is a manifestation that Anena is an experienced poet because in it, she discusses labour pains, that of her home country Uganda, which though beautiful, has been mired in conflict and political instability since it gained its independence in 1962.

Ruth Atim

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