First Day After the War Mazisi Kunene

"But how wonderful when the tale is told,And the message that is meant for us opens like the scents of a mountain flower!"- Mazisi Kunene

The man, the poet, the activist

Masizi Kunene remains one of South Africa's great writers and poets. He was born in Durban in 1930, and from an early age began writing. His early works were published at the tender age of eleven.

He was vehemently opposed to apartheid. More than a writer and academic, he was deeply involved in anti- apartheid politics. This led to his exile in 1968. He remained in Britain from 1968 to 1978, during which he spoke for the ANC and the anti- apartheid movement in both Europe and the United States.

In 1972, he was appointed the director of finance for the ANC, after which he took a position as Professor of African Literature at the University of California and Los Angeles. He returned to South Africa in 1992, where he lectured at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal until his retirement.

He was awarded the honour of Africa's poet Laureate in 1993, later becoming South Africa's Poet Laureate in 2005.

Mazisi Kunene passed away in 2006 in Durban after losing a bravely fought battle against cancer.

The Kunene foundation was established in his honour. Click on the link below to find out more.

What is this stunning poem about?

Simply put, it is an expression of joy. Kunene uses simple yet beautiful imagery to convey the feelings of relief, celebration and freedom felt by South Africans at the fall of apartheid.



First Day After the War

Mazisi Kunene

We heard the songs of a wedding party.

We saw a soft light

Coiling round the young blades of grass

At first we hesitated, then we saw her footprints,

Her face emerged, then her eyes of freedom!

She woke us up with a smile saying,

'What day is this that comes so suddenly?'

We said, 'It is the first day after the war.'

Then without waiting we ran to the open space

Ululating to the mountains and the pathways

Calling people from all the circles of the earth.

We shook up the old man demanding a festival.

We asked for all the first fruits of the season

We held hands with a stranger

We shouted across the waterfalls

People came from all lands

It was the first day of peace.

We saw our Ancestors traveling tall on the horizon.

Imagery & tone

The poem is packed to the brim with powerful imagery.

What is imagery?

Imagery is the name given to the elements in a poem that spark off the senses. Despite "image" being a synonym for "picture", images need not be only visual; any of the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell) can respond to what a poet writes. Examples of non-visual imagery can be found in Ken Smith's 'In Praise of Vodka', where he describes the drink as having "the taste of air, of wind on fields, / the wind through the long wet forest", and James Berry's 'Seashell', which puts the "ocean sighs" right in a listener's ear.

A poet could simply state, say, "I see a tree", but it is possible to conjure up much more specific images using techniques such as simile ("a tree like a spiky rocket"), metaphor ("a green cloud riding a pole") or synechdoche ("bare, black branches") - each of these suggests a different kind of tree. Techniques, such as these, that can be used to create powerful images are called figurative language, and can also include onomatopoeia, metonymy and personification.

What is tone?

A poem's tone is the attitude that its style implies. Brian Patten's 'A Blade of Grass' has a tone of sad acceptance toward the loss of childlike wonder that could have accepted the blade of grass, for example; 'The Happy Grass', by Brendan Kennelly, has instead a hopeful tone toward the prospect of peace that the grass represents, tempered by an awareness that there will be graves on which the grass will grow.

Tone can shift through a poem: 'A Barred Owl', by Richard Wilbur, has a first stanza with a comforting, domestic tone, and a second that insists this kind of comfort plays a vicious world false. The shift in tone is part of what is enjoyable about the poem.

U. A. Fanthorpe's 'The Master of the Cast Shadow' begins in a tone of admiration for the painter's skill, but moves into a tone of unease toward the way that skill hides the history behind the images.


More at poetry archive .org


Click on the link below.


1.We heard the songs of a wedding party.
Music, celebration, love, new beginning
  • The poet appeals to the reader's sense of hearing and vision. "Songs"and "wedding party" suggest unity, joy and celebration.
  • A wedding also suggests a new beginning: a new future bringing people together.
2.We saw a soft light
Imagery: Soft light, leading us from the darkness into a new day. Tone: soft, peaceful, calm, warmth, gentle.
  • The words evoke images of a soft light, gently breaking the dawn. Think of a crisp, clear dawn and the promises of a beautiful new day. The light is soft, comforting. Harsh light blinds us: perhaps a subtle reference to police search lights and dawn raids during the Apartheid era. The tone here is gentle, soft, comforting and warm.
3. Coiling around the young blades of grass
Freedom is new. The sunlight embraces, protects.
  • Tender, new grass is growing. Perhaps the grass the collective speakers (note the repetition of the pronoun 'we') They are young, hesitant. Vulnerable young people at the beginning of their lives. The light offers protection.
  • The light is materializing, taking shape and form.
  • Coiling: Embracing, protecting.
4.At first we hesitated, then we saw her footprints,
Footprints: Lead us, show us the way
  • Footprints are providing evidence that 'she' is taking shape, but has not yet fully revealed herself.
  • 'Her'- the pronoun is repeated several times. The emphasis here is a nurturing, motherly figure.
  • Who is she? The short answer: whoever you want her to be. A mother, God. Who is to say God is necessarily a man?
  • Women represent nurture, care and protection.
5.Her face emerged, then her eyes of freedom!
  • Emerged: Not completely clear, becoming clearer. A face gives the enigma human form.
  • FREEDOM! The exclamation mark suggests that 'she' has revealed suddenly herself. Freedom from oppression, freedom from apartheid! The speaker can look into her eyes and trust that freedom is here.
6.She woke us up with a smile saying,
Reassurance. Warmth. Comfort.
  • She: Personification. Freedom is given a human form. A mother would wake a child gently. She would express her love and affection for that child with a gentle smile. She would reassure her child with that same smile.
  • 'Woke us up'. From what did she wake us? Despair, darkness, the past. A mother wakes a child from a nightmare, and is there to provide love and support.
  • A mother's smile: Positive, Warm, Encouraging.
7.'What day is this that comes so suddenly
Suddenly: Sooner than expected; unexpected.
  • Freedom has arrived sooner than anyone had expected.
  • It is true that apartheid did not end suddenly, but the final transition appeared sudden.
8.We said, 'It is the first day after the war.‘
Tone: Peace, contentment.
  • We have been at war. We have been oppressed, made to suffer. It is the first day after the war. We can be at peace. We can be content.
9.Then without waiting we ran to the open space
Space, Not afraid, excited, freedom
  • Ran: Excited, no longer afraid or apprehensive about the future. One would not run towards something to be feared.
  • Open space: Free, unrestrained, no longer oppressed.
10.Ululating to the mountains and the pathways
"we are free!"

Ululating: An expression of joy, freedom.

11.Calling people from all the circles of the earth.
Unity, reunion

Calling the exiles back. Kunene himself returned from exile once apartheid had been dismantled.

Calling the world to join in celebrating freedom.

12.We shook up the old man demanding a festival.

The youth are embracing freedom, the old generations are more cautious. We need to 'shake things up'. We need to lead the older generations in embracing freedom.

13.We asked for all the first fruits of the season
Harvest, new, plenty, festive, celebratory
  • Taste freedom, take advantage of all that freedom has to offer.
  • Feast, festival.
14.We held hands with a stranger
  • Unity, peace, working together. No longer restrained by our differences.
15.We shouted across the waterfalls
Shout, express joy
  • Spread the message, joy, love, freedom across what were previously barriers.
  • Tears of Joy?
16.People came from all lands
  • People of all races, cultures can come together in celebration and unity
17.It was the first day of peace.
Victory, peace, calm
  • A new day, a new future. Peaceful. Content.
18.We saw our Ancestors traveling tall on the horizon.
  • Those who had suffered, fought for freedom.
  • 'Stand Tall': All they have fought for and suffered through has not been in vain.
  • A dream realized. We can all walk tall, those who have gone before together with those embarking on a new journey.
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Created By
Brett Nelson

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