Report & Essay
Conflict (or, All A Writer Needs)

Report & Essay

Conflict (or, All A Writer Needs)
Arno Kopecky

 Incredibly, no one went over their five minutes. Going by the event’s title – “Writer’s Stories: Unpacking Kenya’s Crisis Session” – not to mention the venue, a Nairobi University lecture hall, all signs were pointing to a listener’s crisis of over-pontification.

Instead, we started out with a sneak preview of Wanuri Kahiu’s new film, From A Whisper, marking the tenth anniversary of the American embassy bombing with possibly the best film about it to date – I say possibly because it wasn’t long before her characters began speaking Swahili and I had to start inventing the plot.The preview was followed, appropriately, with a moment of silence, and then, melodramatically, with the national anthem. “Remind me to tell you what Oscar Wilde said about patriotism,” whispered Kwani? editor Billy Kahora before we’d even sat back down.
Oxfam director Irungu Houghton took over from there, MCing the almost-full auditorium through a rapid succession of five-minute readings by all kinds of fiendish writers. The good professor, Wambui Mwangi, started out by reading the poetic hate letter Shailja Patel wrote to ECK chairman Samuel Kivuitu a few months back. Moving, yes – but it’s too bad the letter Kivuitu published in response never made it into the auditorium.
Binyavanga Wainaina came up next, introduced as the man who’s “collected over 1300 African recipes.” (“Bullshit,” coughed Kahora in the seat next to me.) True to form, Wainaina told a whimsical tale of the evolution of his name’s pronunciation over the thirty-some year’s he’s been hearing it, a subject he somehow related to the topic at hand.
Playwright Simiyu Barasa followed that up with the obituary he wrote himself in January – you know, just in case. It was that kind of month. The letter found its way into the New York Times and marked Simiyu’s descent from unchecked optimism to miserly cynicism as far as his beloved Kenya was concerned. Apparently he’s swung back to the middle, having “learned that too much love can make you a fundamentalist.”
Betty Murungi – yep, ODM stalwart James Orengo’s wife – then took us through an excerpt from the Diary of a Mad Kenyan Women, aka Wambui Mwangi’s blogsite, which as early as January 2nd presumed to say of the post-election madness: “we caused this, let’s fix it.” We’re trying, you madwoman, we’re trying.
I lied earlier, by the way. Irungu fielded some questions from the audience at this point, provoking an unsolicited poem which breached the five-minute mark.
Was that what Kalundi Serumaga had in mind when he took the stage next and said “When I get to disturbed, I like to share the feeling”? Hard to say. The razor-witted Ugandan leaves very few crimes unexposed, starting with the writers beside him: “When you say the violence started in January,” he wondered, “what exactly do you mean? Kenya has been violent to the core since independence…the role of the writer is to talk about these things in good time.” That is, before they happen, you assholes.
But where would we be if we actually learned to prevent them? Nairobi U professor Okoth Okwombo came on to point out the “paradoxical relationship between writers and conflict,” as in, how many great novels have you read about peace? (And yet, I wondered, how can it be that my own polite, well-ordered country has produced writers like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Alice Munro?)
The Okwombo Paradox was a good segue to Ishmael Beah, child soldier extraordinaire and the afternoon’s final contestant. Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone tells the story of his recruitment to Sierra Leone’s civil war at the age of 13; it’s sold a million hardcover copies in a year, making it the best selling African book ever. I wonder – would it have sold as many copies if Beah still looked like a drugged-out badass instead of a Benetton model? Either way, it’s an ironic shame A Long Way Gone remains unavailable in Africa, as Ishmael ruefully pointed out to me later.
“Conflict is a part of human nature, it’s inevitable,” Beah surmised on stage. “What we can do as writers is minimize it.”
Question-and-answers from there on in. You shoulda been there. Suffice to say we reached a few tentative conclusions, chief among them the fact that writers have a tendency to take themselves and their so-called role too seriously. Or do we? Why then, as Binyavanga pointed out, does a government like Zimbabwe’s, which can’t even fill a pothole on Mugabe Boulevard, still find the time to bomb its independent newspapers?
Whatever the case, next time you feel like throwing a Molotov into the Kenyan Parliament’s nonstop cocktail party, keep Beah’s closing quote in mind (penned by the incontestable Maya Angelou): “We must be angry, but we must never be bitter.”

Arno Kopecky is an editor at Kwani?

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