After The Vote : 5 Dispatches from the coalition of Concerned Kenyan Writers
The Kwanini? series reminds Dr. Tom Odhiambo here of the pocket-size economy that came years ago to East Africa - the small sachet margarine and the likes; if economies create inequalities, then industry follows by creating super-small for the common-man. Luckily, he finds the pocket-size Kwanini? raises good memories, although it tells tales that don't.
I Love this Idea of the Pocketbook but the Tales in it Break the Heart
By Dr. Tom Odhiambo
When I was in my second year of high school, inflation played around with the value of the Kenyan shilling. Suddenly the prices of once affordable items, like the 'Blue Band' margarine shot up. Then its producers came up with 'kadogo.' It was just the right size and price for the pocket of the 'common mwananchi.' Since then Kenyans have had to make do with 'small sizes' of most commodities. This is why I just fell in love with the 'pocket fitting' booklets by Kwani. This is probably the most 'kadogo' and metaphoric form of conveying narrative content that I have seen in this country for a long time. Anybody familiar with the pocket size 'Drum for Men' published in will agree with me that this Kwani venture is exciting, daring and so Kenyan economy-wise.
However, the prices of the booklets betray the whole notion of making reading material accessible. I am an avid reader of books published in , especially novels and I am sure that at KES.500.00, these Kwanini? Series may just be over-priced - especially so in these times. Consider that if the intention is to interest Kenyans to buy affordable and portable texts, then at five hundred shillings, a compelling reading such as After the Vote will compete poorly with many of the magazines and imported American bestsellers, some of which cost just about one thousand shillings for a full-fledged novel. But the cost aside, let me tell you of my first impressions of After the Vote (Kwani Trust, 2008).
Five sharp stories. 'Unsettled' by Kalundi Serumaga. 'Untitled' by Andia Kisia. 'The Multiplication of Votes' by Alison Ojany Owuor. 'The Obituary of Simiyu Barasa' by Simiyu Barasa. 'The Road to Eldoret' by Tony Mochama. The five are carefully packaged in a language that will disconcert readers used to stories with authors 'distanced' from the 'message' of the narrative. Not these writers. They are at times direct in their address to the reader. They challenge the reader to take positions on some of the themes in the stories; and then challenge her further to question those positions when confronted with the 'realities' of post-27th-December-2007-general-elections-in-Kenya.
The thread that links the five narrative/narrators is that blot on our postcolonial history that we have come to casually refer to as the 'disputed presidential election results.' In 'The Multiplication of Votes', Owuor is quite clear about whom to blame for the fiasco that we took for elections in December 2007. His anger seeps through the narrative. His voice reverberates with the fury of a young Kenyan condemned to a life that is circumscribed by violence and death; all attributable to the whimsical character of politicians. He however refuses to let the overpowering impotence that afflicts his generation to kill his hope. He proclaims the vestiges of optimism in him: I can hope. Can't I?
Andia Kisia's dilemma is shared by millions of Kenyans whose identities are 'split.' The question that echoes throughout this short and incisive tale is: what to do for those Kenyans who have a shared parentage across the many ethnic groups? Given the events of the forgettable (memorable for others!) December 2007, is it possible to take it for granted that 'we' Kenyans have a shared identity? Kisia's story suggests that there is something ominous in that assumption. The fact that the story remains untitled deconstructs the foundations of the claims to Kenyan nationhood and individual identities (Kenyannes) that we have so vainly held on. The inability by the narrator to 'name' the tale is a challenge to the reader/audience to search for a better idiom with which we can start a truly Kenyan dialogue.
In 'Unsettled', Serumaga offers the outsider's (he is really an insider having partly grown up in ) view on . Having run away from a murderous regime in in the 1970s and settled in as a refugee, Serumaga opines that the seeds of the self-destruction that we treated ourselves to from late last year to early this year had been sown a long time ago. December was harvest time. With a tinge of 'a knowing smile' accompanying his tale, he weaves between the 1982 attempted military take-over of the government and the resultant blood; the hounding of 'Wakimbizi' (Ugandan refugees) by the Kenyan police in order to extract bribes; the aborted 'revolution' in Uganda; and the failure of the Kenyan intelligentsia to produce any intelligent 'alternatives to this mess.' It is quite a well crafted indictment of a society that had for ages lazily assumed that it was peaceful compared to its 'warring' neighbours. There, the balloon has been punctured!
'The Obituary of Simiyu Barasa, Written by Himself' is an act of self-immolation. Barasa offers himself as a sacrifice, meant to appease the bloodthirsty gods of the tribe in . Read his last words: 'I have nowhere to go. No tribe to run to. No tribesmen to protect me. Except the grave. Which is where my fellow countrymen intend to send all those who don't belong to their tribe.'
Recall Andia Kisia's dilemma: where does one belong when one's parentage cuts across mountains and ridges and rivers and regions and valleys and tongues and hues and sizes?across the tribe? Barasa's crisis was sadly and violently enacted in this country across the regions: babies were torn from their mother's bosoms; husbands were killed for marrying from the 'wrong' tribe, and ages-old relationships were destroyed, simply because an individual could not utter greetings in some particular language at a particular time! Only an invitation to the grave to accommodate one (a very unAfrican act) can solve such a puzzle.
'The Road to Eldoret' symbolizes the many 'roads' to many of our towns and cities from the 27th of December 2007 to late February 2008. The roads became deathtraps. They were war-zones where the password, was no longer money (think of the bribes that police routinely ask for, hijackers are always looking for money and the extortionist tendencies of those who run our transport system, where matatus whimsically hike fares) as 'Mwangi' found out. One's identity card became the magic wand which could deliver you across the ridges and valleys or the sure invite to death. Kenyan roads have always been bloodthirsty. But not on the scales witnessed during those dark hours and days after the elections. Mochama's 'The Road to Eldoret' is not just a fictionalized (fiction may just be a more real her compare to fact) account of the murderous drama of our times, it is also a personal story of how 'near' death can approach.
These five short stories will unsettle any reader used to the idea of a story that progresses from the beginning to its logical conclusion. The moment of the writing of these stories violently overturned such structures: hopes were dashed; machetes were sharpened; petrol was poured and fires of death lit; a name carelessly mentioned could lead to instant death - how do you neatly structure such 'realities.' The trauma inherent in these stories and the forceful telling of this pain is what marks them as probably just the critical turning point in the telling of the story of this nation. How do we get to put a copy each in the pigeonholes of the 'honourable' Members of Parliament?
Dr. Tom Odhiambo researches and teaches literature, culture and communication. firstname.lastname@example.org