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Is There a Kenyan Renaissance? By Mavia

This question has had diverse reflections from various people especially the artists I meet. When we mention that ‘R’ word it is rarely in reference to something African let alone Kenyan. The historical recollection of this term especially in Europe refers to the time when the autonomy of man was the basis of his value system. It was generally a reaction and what they called rebirth after an era termed as ‘ Dark Age’. The ripple effect of this age affected greatly the architecture, writings, art, music and in general the creative energy and inspiration that interpreted society by artists of that day.

It has been forty years since we got independence a local daily has been churning the landmarks of these years till now. I am eagerly waiting for the artistic landmarks and the trends that have been. Siku za mwizi ni arobaini (forty are the days o a thief’s demise), forty is the number of years we have come so far. Have we been caught pants down in our artistic endeavours? The recollection of any artistic energy in this nation seems jammed with snippets of memories and pockets of some writer or artist who did some feat and got some recognition and who would that be many would shout Ngugiiii!!, Micereee!!, and the rest of the nanis’. The boiling points of The Land of the Majitu days, or Wasi Wasi Detectives not to forget Vioja Mahakmani with such characters as Tama bin Tama, Othorong’ong’o Danger, hey I was forgetting Mzee Pembe and might you recall that song Mama Kifagio, and the Maillu book that was read under blankets titled After 4.30, not forgetting Mwangi Gicheru’s Across the Bridge. This is just a recollection though our short history earns us short memory. We seemed to have given somebody a piece of our mind unfortunately it was the only piece. We stopped! And the artistic world though present was not accorded attention neither did it have energy. Politics and economics killed culture but Tabaan Lo Liyong says Culture is Rotund and my question is, has it come round? Is there a Kenyan Renaissance?

President Thabo Mbeki in his maiden millennium speech termed it (millennium) The African Renaissance obviously he saw it in terms of economic and political pursuits. Experts tend to believe that this century will be characterized by ‘ galactic imagination artistic flowering, deep and wide connectivity, the birth of intellectual veins, exuberant creative period of artistic and intellectual exploration creating individual geniuses compared only to Europe in the 14th and 17th Century - the Renaissance’. What of Kenya? Where are we in this mosaic? Gone are the days when the Ministry of Culture and Social Services was powerful ministry. Do we even have a Culture policy? What happens when we see our Kiondo’s weaved in some other countries? A friend of mine went to New York he carried along with him some curios hoping to entice the NY folks, you guessed right he found them there but they were manufactured in Malaysia - Kenyan stuff (should I say Kenyan art) made in Malaysia!!

Last year was the forty years of publishing for Heinemann especially the African writing series. On their catalogue of distinct African writers under Kenya were Ngugi and Meja Mwangi. Two writers. Nigeria had SEVENTEEN! It is said in 1968 Ngugi at a historic Makerere meeting went and knocked on Chunua Achebe’s door and gave him two manuscripts. Chinua was impressed and that began Ngugi’s writing career. Most African countries went through the tensions of colonialism the expression of these tensions was captured differently artistically. Writing was one of them. It was Bacon that said Reading makes a full man, conference a ready man and Writing a perfect man, most artistic expressions have received attention and have been rewarded even if it is not financially but by exposure. The perfection of men (and women) seems to be not just knocking some major writers door in some campus but in some private confines and houses in this country, apart from the normal writing for press, there is a rebirth of scribes, people freezing moments in phrases. It is no longer just the normal nikishika em I C or becoming a producer, but keyboards and pens and paper thoughts and stories are filling the creative space. Previously these scribes were just hideously engaged, hoping that someday someone is going to read their story and even publish it. The courage to come out and say I write for life let alone for a living seems to have been aroused. Why is this and why now? Many reasons come to mind but I will only concentrate on two namely
1. Historical Tension
2. Philosophical Shift

Historical Tension-
The collective national experience has gone through phases that have unfortunately pegged on political definitions. The need to express the national psyche and pressures in this country has mostly thrived in our culture of passivity. The psychology of accommodation in Kenya has created in us the Hakuna Matata thinking. When there is no matata the artistic space is under no duress to speedily interpret situations. The Ngugi’s et al wrote under tension and pressure from colonial and post-colonial tensions and conflict. So as Soyinka would say the writer would hide his message in a book or script knowingly because African dictators had become illiterate. The young generation of writers waited and waited for that jab and inspiration from its predecessors, most were in exile. Those who were around did not come out strongly the martyr writer was absent. Books were now written to fit into syllabi it was business and the Malkiat everything commercialised it. I believe it has been a situation where we can no longer wait for Godot. I did a survey the other day taking spaces of ten years and the figures and personalities born in those periods - from 1889 to 1979 the findings indicate as one moves down the curve towards 1979 you find more artists and less politicians. This coupled with historical tension and gaps of creativity generates in the current young generation energy only that this energy in our situation tends to assume artistic expression in name it - music, plays, media stations, advertising and WRITING. The gestation period of forty years has bred discontent sorts who are beginning to take the renaissance in its truest definition - the revival of arts and letters.

Philosophical Shift
The Philosophy of any age demands support of spirituality and technology. Modernism was bred under Industrial Technology and the God is dead spirituality. In the post-modern world the technology that rules is Information technology and the spirituality is based on relativity and accommodation of morphed religions. This global philosophical shift tends to affect us in Africa whether we like it or not. The freedom to express oneself, coupled by creative energy raise in the young generation platforms of artistic catharsis. Media is no longer the black and white television we used to have in houses - remember the days of Nairobi Times, Drum, Weekly Review? Do you recall the Big Ben - Kiaeee and Samson? Look at the magazine racks and you will see the liberty of press and everybody wanting to jot something down. The music industry - you can now jump into some studio and record a CD then again nowadays it pays, even if it is not much at least you can make some money. So the information and bytes and bits world combined the telephone and the computer to produce some space called virtual reality. In this space you would be in Kenya and America at the same time. Networking with beings you had never seen, became automatic and as an artist you could write and be critiqued by some writing group in Belfast or South Africa. This meant censoring like the Berlin wall collapsed and publishing your own works onto your own website became a chap chap thing. The flow of content cannot be restricted; downloading of movies, whole books, and essays has become normal. No one really owns anything on the net sharing and stealing thrives but most of all liberty of expression is aloud.

Such was the experience of the likes of Binyavanga Wainaina while contributing to G21 website his piece titled Discovering Home was discovered and went to earn him an International Award. Sites like Zoetrope offer creative space for artists to engage in creative dialogue and presentation of their works. If you do not believe me then let me reiterate after Binyavanga won the Caine Prize he went on to set up an online journal Kwani.org? The contribution of short stories on this platform earned another Kenyan Yvonne Owour this same Caine Award. The philosophical shift of self-expression without restriction has created individual branding and gone beyond major publishing houses who store mountains of unpublished manuscripts denying the free flow of content. As I said earlier forty years since independence siku za mwizi ni arobaini the old guards have been caught pants down and nabbed sleeping while an artistic uprising seeps into once upon a empty creative space. We might have to paukwa pakawa the literary slumber that has been and embrace this moment of a new literary era in Kenya, after all the only reason you have read this article is because I wrote.

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