Juliane Okot Bitek, Uganda and Canada

Warscapes Corona Notebooks

Poet Juliane Okot Bitek commemorates the 26th anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda by reading poems from her award-winning book 100 Days.  She also reads her recent poems that are reflecting on our unfolding pandemic. She refers to these as her "anti-memory" poems and is writing them to provide us with a memory for forgetfulness.

Transcript: "Hi everyone, I'm speaking to you from inside a pandemic. Today is April 12, 2020. I'm going to talk to you a little about writing poetry in tough times or what it means to remember or make memory in such times. And I'll begin with talking about a book I wrote six years ago called 100 Days. I first saw this image on Facebook. Its a photograph of a woman holding a sign that says "100 days" and it was a photograph posted by Wangechi Mutu, an American artist. I knew immediately that she was planning to count down on the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. And I started counting down with her. So let me read you the first three poems from that book."


Day 100

It was the earth that betrayed us first

it was the earth that held on to its beauty
compelling us to return

it was the breezes that were there
& then not there

it was the sun that rose & fell
rose & fell

as if there was nothing different
as if nothing had changed 


Day 99

It was sunrise every morning
the same land
same sky
same rivers
hills & valley

it was the same road that led away & back home
the same sweet air that amplified the voices
through whispers   gossip   airwaves

words leapt into our eyes
and burned this new knowledge that was never new

but it was the earth that betrayed us first
in those one hundred days that would never end

Day 98

If this should be a list of betrayals where should we begin

at last we're here

at last we're gone

what is this life beyond one hundred days
what is this life beyond one hundred days

twenty times over
what days are left

we were already in medias res
we were already inside one hundred days


"So I think about these days in a pandemic which had a specific start date in China in November. By the time it reached me in Vancouver, Canada, it had already been going on in parts of Asia, parts of Europe. The Iranians had had a hard time with it as had the Italians and the Spanish. So when it got here it was already happening. It was a false thing to start counting days here when it was already happening to us as people elsewhere. So I also want to share with you some poetry that I've been writing everyday to do an anti-memory project. I've been writing down what we've been thinking about these days so we don't have to remember them. And I'm writing these things down also thinking about the memory of having spent some time in Uganda.

There's some photographs I want to share with you because I don't know when I'm going to see these places again. I'll share with you some photos of sunrise. This was taken in Arua. And sugarcane in Kitgum in Uganda also. Thats a lot of sugarcane.  And also a beautiful juxtaposition here of very very shiny motorcycle in front of some huts. Also in Arua in Northern Uganda. 

So let me share with you the poems I've been writing, the anti-memory poems. I'm doing these in the same style as 100 Days and calling them Another 100 Days.  Poems from this new collection are still untitled (and I truly suck at titles) but in the meantime, since I started to write them on March 14, maybe I'll call them "100 Pi Day Poems." And for now, taking the cue from Terrance Hayes who gave all his poems the same title, here are poems all called Another Pi Day."


Another Pi Day

Today an impossibly bent over tree seeks my attention
read I hear read
but first call us by name here where you walk
where others have walked
where others will walk still 

skeletal trees budding this is the season
deep yellow forsythia this is the season
bluish-grey white cherry blossoms this is the season
large pink magnolia petals like tongues against the sky
this also is the season
this is the season 

there has been a before 
& there will be an after
with or without us
on these lands

Another Pi Day

What trees are these that want to be called by name?
this one heard that her mother’s sister caught the thing she’s not expected to survive
this one lost her father last month her husband is in hospital
she’s keeping the thing company by herself at home
& that one was touch & go for a while
but she’s home now


Another Pi Day

Last night footnotes with weights on them
dragging me through sleep
footnotes as foundational 
as creep as notice board as dump conversational
traditional hefty or unkempt like hair like nature 
like like like this morning the account of the Black woman in Britain
whose husband was told that she was not a priority
& she died from this thing this morning
now him still at home with his diabetes and her body
like a footnote


Another Pi Day

Today the sky is a stupid blue
it’s garish blue a rude blue forgetting that it’s only a backdrop to budding & flowering trees 

Today the professoriate is less firm
in the importance of finishing off the term
along with administration the professors profess
about the above-neck need to assess
to judge to pass to fail
as if they remain untouched
in the meantime
the call for martyrdom
the claims of anxiety
the need to be seen to be doing everything they can
for students


Another Pi day

At the health centre buddy with a mask on
wants a letter that clears him to fly
wants to be tested
the woman tells him she cannot give him such a letter
but he’s been in isolation for two weeks & has no symptoms
yes she says but he could have since gotten infected locally
& she can’t get him tested because he has no symptoms 

she gets him a letter stating that he has no symptoms
that should work
he thanks her
folds the letter carefully
& places it in his backpack
thanks he says from inside his mask

Another Pi Day

So here we are straddling the *yet*because
after this we can’t reclaim innocence
there won’t be comfort in not knowing 

the yet is a long punctuation for those of us in the perpetual after
from which we have since been free


Another Pi Day

On the third day the battering began in earnest
first were those with crowns
    normalise they said normalise
the healers demanded that we
    flatten flatten flatten the curve 

there we were with potatoes in our hands
    we never stopped
at the grocery store
toilet paper shelves remained in the clear


"So thats it. Those are the poems I've been writing for 30 days now. I wish you well. I wish you joy. I wish you life. And if the pain should come, I wish it to be brief. Thank you."


100 Days  was published by the University of Alberta Press, 2016. Click here to buy a copy. 

Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek is an Acholi woman. Her 100 Days (University of Alberta 2016) a book of poetry that reflects on the meaning of memory two decades after the Rwanda genocide, was nominated for several writing prizes including the 2017 BC Book Prize, the Pat Lowther Award, the 2017 Alberta Book Awards and the 2017 Canadian Authors Award for Poetry. It won the 2017 IndieFab Book of the Year Award for poetry and the 2017 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry. Otoniya’s poem “Migration: Salt Stories” was shortlisted for the 2017 National Magazine Awards for Poetry in Canada. Her poem “Gauntlet” was longlisted for the 2018 CBC Poetry Prize and is the title of her most recent work, a chapbook with the same title from Nomados Press (2019). She completed her PhD at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada, where she lives.