“Boy on a Swing”

In case you didn't read my 'typical school day' blog post, let it be known that I love my literature teacher to pieces. Ringo is a wonderful man who makes literature interesting, and genuinely cares for students as if they were his children. If every Ghanaian teacher was as amazing as Ringo, I wouldn't be having problems with high school abroad (more on that tomorrow).

Ringo's class is divided into 4 main segments:

  • European/American Plays and Novels (e.g. Old Man and the Sea, The Tempest, Arms and the Man)
  • African Plays and Novels (e.g. The Blinkards, A Woman in her Prime, In the Chest of a Woman)
  • European/American Poetry (e.g. John Donne, William Shakespeare, Robert Frost)
  • African Poetry (e.g. Kojo Kyei, Richard Ntiru, Oswald Mtshali)
Below is my favorite piece of African literature that we've read in the class.  The author of "Boy on a Swing" grew up in South Africa – a very important fact to understand the poem.

"Boy on a Swing"
By Oswald Mtshali

Slowly he moves
to and fro, to and fro,
then faster and faster
he swishes up and down.

His blue shirt
billows in the breeze
like a tattered kite.

The world whirls by:
east becomes west,
north turns to south;
the four cardinal points
meet in his head.

Where did I come from?
When will I wear long trousers?
Why was my father jailed?


Although the poem first appears to be simple, it's actually full of meaningful symbolism representing the harsh realities of life under South African apartheid. Here's a couple of notes detailing what I love about this poem:

  • Simplicity – The first two stanzas are simple in nature, leading the reader to believe that this 'light' poem will be merely talking about a boy playing on a swing-set. The 'tattered kite' symbolism was even overlooked during my first reading, as I wasn't looking hidden meaning within the poem.
  • Progression – As the poem goes on, stanzas become more and more complex. The first stanza is written simply and without much detail – as if the reader is merely gazing at the boy from afar. The second stanza is as if the reader has moved closer, and is close enough to reveal the details of his clothes.  The third and fourth stanzas move even deeper – into the boy's thoughts, detailing his confusion and asking the questions that swirl around his mind.
  • The Compass Metaphor – This extended metaphor is a great way of showing how the world has turned itself upside down in his head as a result of being exposed to the injustices of apartheid. The four cardinal directions become one as the boy's situation turns his mind hopelessly disoriented.
    On another note… this part of the poem almost sounds as if it could become lyrics to a song.
  • The Rhetorical Questions – Normally, I hate them. They always seem out-of-place and awkward. Whenever I include them in my writing, I usually rephrase them to become statements as I edit the paper. However, in this poem they 'work' because they help show the innocence of the boy. For instance – instead of asking, "When will I have to deal with the brutality of apartheid?" he says, "When will I wear long pants?" The indirectness helps the reader believe that the speaker truly is a child.
On another note… I've been writing a lot of poetry lately; which is something I thought (and hoped) I'd never do. Poetry to me is more personal than nonfiction writing; I don't think I'm ready to share any of it yet.


9 Replies to ““Boy on a Swing””

  1. I like the way the poem is being explained. For this poem is one of my favourite poems in the ‘waec’ syllabus, as the poor state of the boy reflects mine and his question of when will he wear long trousers always beats on my mind. As i have the same question of when will my poor status change. I will like to be receiving more posts. Thanks.

  2. i like the way the poem was analyzed also. it gives me a deeper insight. it is not one of my favourite poems but now i like it better.

  3. Hi. Thanks for the analysis. The part about long trousers is very contextual to Apartheid South Africa, so it can be very elusive to anyone outside of that experience. It helps to know that men wear long trousers – short trousers are for boys. Under apartheid, white men wear the long trousers and black men are restricted to short trousers (mostly figuratively, but in some cases literally). “When will I wear long trousers”? Also, labourers wear blue shirts. The world passes the oppressed labourer by who deeply contemplates the world that treats him like a boy who will never be a man. I’m not saying this interpretation is correct, but it’s my best try for now.

  4. The swing is the physical manifestation of life for the boy. First starting slowly, probably a time before the apartheid (a happy time) and when the swing moved faster and faster moving him uo and down in his mind.
    His blue tattered shirt represents how thibgs are right then. The state the natives of SA were at that point in time. Blowing in the wind,Tattered and torn.
    The current state of things confuse him as thia ia not the life he is used to. Things werent always like this. He rembers a better life.
    The qestions posed arent so rhetorical and are infact left to the readers to supply an answer. Mother where am i from? This is him questioning his nationality. Isnt he the bative of the land, so why then is he treated like a slave in his own land? Why are things the way they are? Why? When will i wear long trousers? This boy doesnt want to remain a boy any longer he wanta to grow and would probably end up where his father ended up. Why is my father in jail?

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