The world is a decidedly unsafe place. The decision to procreate, whether people want to acknowledge it or not, is a game of Russian roulette. The extract from Warsan Shire’s poem is nuanced and undoubtedly has merit, particularly when the context is considered. But I also believe that these poetic lines, and the message conveyed therein, can be challenged.
Shire’s ability to merge the political and the personal has garnered her a great deal of success. As I mentioned in the introduction, context is key when analysing these specific lines of Shire’s poem. Shire was born in Somali and migrated with her parents to the United Kingdom at the age of one. And despite the fact she was not raised in Somali, her poetry very much suggests that she is intimately familiar with both the positive and negative aspects of the region and its culture.
Somali, like most states in Africa, has suffered from the plight of terrorism. In October 2017, a truck bombing in Mogadishu resulted in the death of almost six hundred people. One of the obvious by-products of terrorism is the increase in the number of people who decide to flee their homeland. So, in this political context, you could certainly argue that if the land that surrounds you is dominated by terrorism, death and destruction, then the water is safer than the land and is a viable means of escape.
But in a more general context, the lines essentially convey the idea that parents would never willingly put their children in a precarious situation without good cause. I don’t think that this is something that people “have to understand” because it’s something that they already understand. I think most people are cognizant of the fact that the majority of parents want only the best for their children. Shire’s phrasing, whether deliberate or not, suggests a level of ignorance on the part of the reader and society at large.
In the latter stages of the poem, Shire refers to the “fourteen men between your legs.” And, in my view, when analysing the theme of children and safety, the role of sexual politics is just as significant as the politics of terrorism.
In the past, I questioned the logic of African women continuing to bring innocent children into such turbulent and dangerous environments. In other words, why not eliminate the constant worry of keeping your children safe altogether by simply not having any? It didn’t take long, however, to realise that decisions relating to reproductive healthcare are almost never their own. The toxic combination of sexism, misogyny, rape, and a lack of access to contraception means that innocent children are, and will continue to be, born into environments characterised by violence, poverty and disease.
The poem refers to the dichotomy between land and water in terms of safety. And perhaps you could argue that there are even deeper connotations to be found here. The physical natures of land and water obviously contrast sharply. Land is fixed, stagnant and rigid. Water is fluid and forever-changing. It’s possible that Shire is indirectly referring to the fixed and rigid political ideologies that permeate the land of Africa, and that the water represents a pathway to freer, more progressive attitudes and ideologies.
As human beings, we all have subjective thoughts and perceptions about abstract concepts. The notion of safety is very much an abstract concept. What may seem safe to one person could seem completely unsafe to another. We know that the boat journeys refugees take can be extremely unsafe. We only have to recall the heartbreaking image of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach. The refugees who decide to try and escape this way could potentially drown,
run out of supplies, encounter pirates, etc. And even if they manage to reach their desired location, there is no guarantee that they will be granted asylum.
Shire has effectively managed to alloy the political and the personal. Her poem powerfully conveys the horrific reality and decisions that parents in war-torn areas must face. The extract at hand provides insight to the ramifications of terrorism. But the poem in its entirety also highlights the dangerous sexual politics that permeate society. Yes, the world is decidedly unsafe. Danger is omnipotent. Oblivion remains the safest place of them all.