New @ Kwani?
Kwani? has always been significantly connected to the Diaspora through the individuals who founded it, and its early contributors. Its early creative energies were highly informed by individual experiences of different spaces – the US, the UK and South Africa. Roughly one-third of the writers who contributed to the first issues had spent time abroad, mostly as students.
If the 1990s were a defining time for many who wrote for Kwani? in its early years, America was that generation’s preferred destination over the decade. A time when ‘flying out’ was a legitimate pastime, a stint that took years as people kusanyad chums, struggled to get bank statements and I-20s, put together harambees within visits to the Embassy as they partied away the years between school and ‘leaving’. Some never recovered from those years, whether they ‘escaped’ or stayed. The hiatus at times lasted too long – became the most climatic moment in many lives. The dream of Stato could be deferred forever, its realities ignored, by many who remain in limbo – it was as much as possible about going but also waiting to go to Stato. Many who went discovered the desert of the American real and are still trying to reclaim the magical hiatus of before they left. And if many contemporary writers see the 1990s, its various societal fallouts, as key to their work, Diaspora experience and imaginaries is a key component of this.
With this linkage diaspora imaginaries and discourses seem rooted in something akin to a broken back windshield frame of 1990s Kenya; frozen ideas of Kenya abound from the diaspora by those who left when ‘things were bad’. And so, one of Kwani?’s singular narratives has been this collapse of the ‘90s intertwined with ‘leaving’. Of course, this is hardly unique to the period – people have always left Kenya and returned. In doing such an issue we’ve learned that it’s the particular conceit of all generations to imagine that their time is the most significant in a country’s, a society’s history. In the 1970s, people travelled miles to try and join the airlifts. And the leaving continues unabated with the same singular hunger, for the same and different reasons.
Somewhat strange then is that it has taken Kwani? until its seventh issue to pick up the idea of leaving and of return, something that always framed the conversations and hybrid identities of its writers. But if anything this has probably been the most opportune time, between two significant elections, and a time when the journal has the capacity to take a bite at huge themes. So this is our majuu issue.
Conversations on doing an issue dedicated to the Diaspora stemmed from an invite to Kwani?, to collaborate on a documentary on the Diaspora – to write a script that reflected these experiences over time. I responded to the filmmaker and the donor partner involved that this would only be very useful for Kwani? if we did some sort of writing around the topic. After a flurry of excited e-mails, we cast a hugely ambitious net on where to start off and what topics the project would cover. We exchanged a document of almost 10 pages of potential content separated into a chronology of Diaspora experiences in the region going back as far the late 1900s. We created a map of significant aspects, including Burma, the Mboya and Oginga Airlifts, Lancaster House, the ‘90s exodus, the political exiles of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, drug mules, running and international conference circuits. I sat down with literary academic and poet, Keguro Macharia and discussed “the aughts” and aspects of the Diaspora, such as the meaning of Obama to Kenya, conversations around remittances, Kenyan labour in the Diaspora and the question of genealogies.
To echo Julius Caesar, our rung of ambition in approaching this was not lowly and we advanced into the clouds somewhat foolishly. Some of the subsequent submissions and many which made it into this issue gave us direction. It was in story, character and voice that real experience could be gleaned. We discovered when we started soliciting for material, that our wish list had myopically little to do with what the literary and creative community was doing or was interested in. We were talking a language that collapsed Diaspora Studies 101 into Writing 102. Some who heeded our mandate were clearly crippled by it. Its generalistic tones flattered no one but ourselves and we were surprised we didn’t receive the plethora of work we’d expected. After all, the writers in the Diaspora are numerous and, unlike those here, reliable. Having imbibed the western milk of structure, they are not as hampered by challenges of delivery. Ultimately, we had to reboot our thinking, to stop thinking of that term in capital D and think writing, think story, think narrative, think character. Our Diaspora Studies 101 briefs were old laundry that was wrung out. We resigned ourselves to trust those brilliant writers who, relying on the age old mantras of good writing – the use of the specific, in the concrete, in character and by walking up and down the ladder of abstraction – produced good writing. When we felt we needed to retain some of the discursive spaces we’d set out to conquer, other genres of writing came to the rescue: blogs, timelines, academic essays with creative twinges, travelogues, letters, e-mails, replicated online forums, infographics and cartography. And this is the evidence.
In 2006, I travelled to the Mau Forest to investigate the eviction of so-called title-holding squatters from the forest complex. During our investigations we happened upon the charred remains of a trading center just where the trees started, but was seen to lie beyond the legal boundaries of the forest. There is nothing as sophisticated as building trappings of human civilisation that suggest long habitation to claim title, however informal. We were told by our guide: ‘hii ilikuwa inaitwa Sierra Leone.’ This perked our interest – the guide explained that most of the land around the charred remains of the centre had been bought by Kenyan soldiers returning from peacekeeping duties with the UN forces in Sierra Leone. This incident speaks to the nature of the Kenyan Diaspora experience to its very core. Different Kenyan publics have always travelled to different places and used the opportunity to improve their lot back home. Soldiers who were part of the admirable effort in Sierra Leone were also part of the farce that threatened the survival of the forest. This Kenyan scandal, the encroachment of the Mau was perpetrated by similarly corrupt culture to practices such as the Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing scandals. That it spoke as an opportunity to returning soldiers with UN cash and long distance runners with millions signifies that Diaspora experiences by Kenyans have also been about returning home with western currencies. Diaspora experience can, in many ways, bring out the worst of the Kenyan character: re-inforced ethnicity in Kenyan enclaves in North and South East London, New Jersey and Dallas; Drunken students in campuses all over South Africa; and drug mules in India and Pakistan. Diaspora Kenya reflects both the good and bad and illustrates these traits best because of the relative isolation and contrast within different contexts. The Diaspora is key to the understanding of being Kenyan at several levels.
Tapping into my own memory and that of others has served well in discerning which rabbit holes to leap into to find anecdotes that illustrate the larger issues. Whether it is an encounter in Little Muranga, New Jersey, a tale told about experiences in Chandi (Chandigarh) by old friends, or bumping into a Kenyan curio seller I knew back in Cape Town, it is those life moments that have strengthened abstract ideas on what is important, and fun, about recording the Diaspora experience.
Other things didn’t work out so well. By the time we received some of the creative material we were scrambling to find ways in which we would cover the mandate we had set ourselves. It was evident that some of the historical aspects of the Kenyan, East African and African Diaspora experiences were missing. Short of republishing wonderful stories, such as Rotimi’s Babatunde’s Bombay’s Republic, which addresses the issue of returning soldiers after WW2, we did not have creative takes on some of the aspects of, what we felt, were key Diaspora experiences. We set out to look for non-official documents that captured the tenor of Jomo Kenyatta’s stay in London and Moscow, and what was whispered on the corridors of Lancaster House in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, and how that played to our post-independence political dispensation; we looked for literature akin to Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, Peter Abraham’s ‘Wreath For Udomo and Achebe’s No Longer At Ease, which respectively capture aspects of the experience of being black in a white, western space and the schizophrenic experience of return; we did extended interviews to block perceived gaps. Most of the material we received did not touch on the urban legends of student life in India, African student experience in Russia, political exile in Scandinavia and Canada, and brain drain to South Africa and how Kenyan professionals deal with perceived challenges in Johannesburg. We did interviews to broach such gaps. Previous Kwani?s have relied on illustrations or photography to drive visual sensibility – we used infographics and cartography to accompany the writing in this issue.
Like ‘Sierra Leone’, tales of diaspora experience are legion, whether by anecdote or case study. There is no shortage of material but the difficult question also begs: what constitutes the Diaspora experience. How do you create a taxonomy with which you can work easily? In some narratives, Diaspora experience dovetailed with other thematic areas for which we’re working on full narratives, such as education and elections.
The first story of mine published in Kwani? was written while I was living in South Africa – I am yet to write more than a single story of my experiences there. If my writing brain hinges too on the singular Kwani? obsession with the 1990s that I mentioned, the Diaspora is another key theme. We decided to put together this issue to capture all the informal Kwani? conversations that had taken place in the first five years of its existence on Diaspora experience. We hope that endeavor is a worthwhile reading experience for you.