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Hundreds Of Cockroaches Drowned Today: Musa Okwonga's Poem Reflects On The Migrant Drownings

Musa Okwonga reflects on the migrant drownings in his poem, 'Hundreds Of Cockroaches Drowned Today.'


Photo: Amnesty International

Earlier this week UK-based poet, journalist, musician Musa Okwonga shared a poem entitled Hundreds of cockroaches drowned today.

Hundreds of cockroaches drowned today.

It was just as well they died at sea – no-one holds funerals for beetles,

this way there’ll be less of a mess.

In the old days, we used to buy the cockroaches,

Bring them over the oceans in slightly safer ships,

And we’d have them work in our fields,

Snipping cotton for us as the sun seared their shells.

Here’s a secret; the cockroaches have never swum too well.

Back then, we’d throw the sick ones over the side

but now money drowns them,

And we smirk as their brown lungs fill with salt and silt,

We sing as they sink.

The piece is a somber reflection on the hundreds of people who died last week attempting to flee their home countries for Europe as well as the thousands who have drowned before them in the Mediterranean. According to Kenan Malik, it is estimated that some 20,000 migrants have died trying to cross Europe’s southern borders since 1993-- though the true figure is likely much higher due to many deaths going unreported. According to Amnesty International, 50 times as many people have died since the beginning of 2015, compared to the same period last year.

In the poem Okwonga takes on the perspective of Katie Hopkins, an editor at The Sun, the UK's most read newspaper, who penned an article comparing migrants to "cockroaches" last week after the sinking of a migrant vessel in which 400 people drowned. Now, a petition with more than 200,000 signatures is calling for Hopkins to be removed as a columnist. Below, Okwonga explains his full inspiration for the piece.

"I was inspired to write this poem upon seeing that yet another boat had capsized in the Mediterranean, leading to the deaths of hundreds of people, and then asking myself 'I wonder what The Sun would think about this'. The Sun, Britain's most widely-read newspaper, had published a column just a few days before this tragedy which had horrified many readers. The column's author, Katie Hopkins, had suggested that people fleeing the conflicts in Africa by boat should be turned back by gunships, because, 'like cockroaches', they were resilient enough to deal with such rejection. That phrase, 'like cockroaches', struck me as the kind of language that Nazis might have used to describe Jews - like vermin, an infestation to be done away with. And so I wrote this poem from the perspective of The Sun, its editors and Katie Hopkins; but also from the perspective of those who, throughout history, have treated Africans and other people of colour as something far less than human. I often write poetry when listening to music, and a Twitter user - @doriangrayskull - had sent me a track that same day which was both stirringly beautiful and heartbreakingly appropriate. (The track, 'Lampedusa', was written and performed by Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté.) I bought a copy of it online, put in my headphones and began to write, trying to capture as much of its emotion as I could. And that's how the poem ended up: a collaboration between the glee of The Sun, the mournfulness of this instrumental, and my own fury."

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This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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