Theme As King - The Misreading of African Literature

July 24, 2009

(The essay below is the first post on Kwani? Online - Republic Of Letters)

It is essential to suspend for a while, the time-worn reading of African literature and concentrate on the manner in which these books were written – suspend as if colonialism never happened, as if we are not our colour, nor that Church and Shakespeare ever invaded our sacred spaces. David Kaiza revisits Wole Soyinka’s ‘The Interpreters’ and its place in the canon of African letters, arguing that it challenges the tyranny of theme and post-colonial history as the dual lens through which evaluations of literature in the continent are made. Theme as King – the Misreading of African Literature is the first of a series of essays discussing different aspects of literature and letters in the continent.Read it here.

Kwani? 05,Part 1,Editorial

March 1, 2009

An Apprenticeship in Ethnicity: A Time Beyond The Writer

Never let the facts get in the way of the truth. Old Creative Non-Fiction truism …

In the first week of November 2007, Kwani Trust held a series of creative non-fiction workshops - the purpose: to discuss and reinforce elements of storytelling in of reporting the Kenyan elections of 2007. A group of budding journalists and writers unpublished in Kwani were invited. Though excited with the premise of using ‘fictive’ and ‘literary’ elements in reportage, the journalists present were firmly held in the thrall of the 5 W’s and a H, ‘objective journalism’ school’s mantra. With minds tuned to: ‘Police are investigating reports of a man who was reported to have bitten a dog on Kimathi Street yesterday’; they were skeptical of the whole ‘literary’ premise. The workshop, if anything, for them was a vacation from police/City Council beat reality; at best, some hoped the workshop would make them better writers for the outlets they were working for. For Kwani?, it was an ambitious exercise that would produce, at least 8, creative non-fiction reports from each of the participants at the workshop. I even had a collective, if not pompous, name for the exercise – Dispatches From The Campaign Trail.

We have long been interested in politics rather than politicians; and as human affairs not demagoguery. We are in the business, hopefully, to tell the individual’s story as a citizen in the space called Kenya, their relationship with serikali or state or whatchamacallit, (in Pokot, Kenya is the Other) rather than build one-dimensional narratives from sound bites of Big Men. What is the relationship between Kenyans and government is a question we perpetually asked ourselves, especially in an elections year. The last elections were in 2002, Kwani? was still in its infancy. Another 5 years would be too long a wait. So, we waxed lyrical on the relationship between citizens and manifestations of power; how Kenyan men and women related to parliament, government and their MPs?

We asked ourselves how their incomes related to the state (were they in agriculture, tourism or were they shut out from the 6% growth economy) Excited about the 2007 elections, we did not know how sheltered we were in our little keyboard spaces, our computer screen world, even as we thought the elections would provide the most optimal moment for that answer. Elections, thus, became the catalyst for our controlled experiment; a lab in which we would judge how Kenyans come to grips with what stands for government, state, Kenya, be it the Benz convoy, the Big Man being taxed in various ways as he asked for votes. Government, we suspected, for many was the five year party where you tried to make good through myriads of ways. So, the story was all there, the right elements in place - Character, Plot and Conflict.

Arno Kopecky, Millicent Muthoni, Kingwa Kamengcu, Tim Queresenger, all working for mainstream media at the time, frequently interrupted the workshop with the most pertinent question of all: ‘How do you narrate reality with fictive elements – isn’t that problematic?’. ‘I’ve been taught at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication that reality takes place within the 5 W’s and a H’ someone else asked. The workshop was also attended by Stephen Gazemba, a novelist; Samuel Munene, a poet who had been a runner-up in Kwani’s 2007 poetry competition; Mwas Mahugu, a member of Ukoo Flani who wrote in Sheng; Peter Chepkonga, a sportswriter who worked for a magazine that published in Kalenjin; Victor Oluoch, a KBC reporter. Guest lecturers included former E.A Standard Editor, Kwamchetsi Makokha and writer, Parselelo Kantai.

The journalist/literary artist binary turned out to be false. Luckily, all the writers, including two Canadians, present represented what I see as Kenya’s Generation X. Born between 1968 and ’82 and coming of age as Kenya went through its single party shenanigans in the late 80’s, and in the 90’s with all the politico-economical and socio-cultural upheavals of that time; this is a generation built of citizens who have had to struggle with their own identity, or had to embrace many identities and forced with a monumental preoccupation of all the problems the preceding generation have left them to fix. The need to survive a tough and changing Kenya has resulted in multi-identities, a schizophrenic or rather, contortionist bent, as a friend of mine would have it. Simply put, they were ready to dive into such a project.

The reasons for these are myriad. Most of the writers inherently understood that the complexity of the spaces they were delving into required all the tools that could get. Also, Gen X’s parents are, of course, responsible for Kenya’s baby boom in the early 80’s when Kenya led in the world’s population growth. These ‘boomers’ grew up in a ‘softer’ Kenya – like many of my generation I am very tired of hearing how good it was 30 years ago when all graduates got jobs and life was good. Kenyan Gen X has now been succeeded by Generation ‘Y’, individuals born in the late 80’s and 90s, also referred to in the West as the ‘Post-millenials’. In Kenya, this is the crowd that has been largely accused of the post elections slash and burn, and is also, generally referred by media, the church and all public forums as Yoouutths. Therefore, Generation X finds itself sandwiched between entitled dreamers comfortable with mono or dual identities (I am a Kikuyu, and a Businessman, period, I am Luo and a doctor); and ‘anarchists’ (I am a DJ, and I come from ‘Langa’ Nakuruu, Buru, and my shags is Coast, or Muranga. I’m also in Strath). X’s identity struggles waver between ‘my primo, my high school’ and ‘the estate, mtaa’; tribe is but a third concern. And inherently interested in explaining and learning of things Kenyan, all the workshop participants were willing to try and go out there and do what we asked of them. After all, they are, so far, an unsung generation, hardly recognized as a social force or even noticed much at all. They, unlike Kenya’s baby boomers did not have placid ‘missionary school’ childhoods and teens in the 1960s and ‘70s; they did not become Ministers and Permanent Secretaries in their twenties. They grew up in a time of drugs, economic strain, HIV/AIDS, rural-urban migration, matatus, fracturing family networks and urban class divides.

This was reflected in the stories the writers pitched: the urban tale of a street kid made good, now a civil society activist turned into a civic councillor wannabe; that of rural women in Chevakali, Western Kenya, who have an incredible knack for foretelling national political outcomes; the narrative of a generational electoral battle between a venerated banker and an alleged drug dealer seen by the youth as the local Robin Hood. Many stories reflected a generational clash. But that was then. These discussions reflected a far more innocent time.

One month later, Kenya did a neck-breaking cartwheel. The stories of the street kid turned councillor et al, became, in retrospect, prescriptive and normative discourses of that time in November. The commissioned stories had to be re-evaluated. The deadline of January 7, 2007 was not to be. Kwani had asked each writer to send an online diary entry of 300 words, every three days, between December 21st and New Year’s. A few days away from the elections, those already in the field were already talking of the ‘Fire, This Time’. Then, some of the writers reported that they could only work in ‘friendly zones’ based on their tribe. Their Gen X badges didn’t matter after all. In all their array of identity tags, ethnic origin came before writer, Kenyan citizen, Kangemi-an or Mathare-an. They were caught in the bloody mistakes of their fathers and grandfathers. Gazemba had to leave Kangemi for a few weeks where he had lived for all his working life. Our two Canadian writers, Kopecky and Queresenger, who had been in Kenya for just months could, however, roam the breadth of the land just like their forefathers had done at the turn of the last century. Munene had to watch where he trod in Mathare and Kariobangi.

While I was grappling with this ‘problem’, a writer friend of mine excitedly called me during the first week of 2008 and declared: ‘this is the time of the Kenyan writer. We can now move beyond ‘pretty’ stories about our relationships with our mothers, and write about ‘real’ things. We now have a chance to occupy the centre.’ When I asked him what he meant by real things, there was a silence over the line. ‘War and conflict are and have been the great contemporary African themes that we’ve been locked out of. We soon might be able to write about child soldiers. Imagine that.’

Ah. Child soldiers. Like many a Kenyan contemporary writer, part of me has always wanted to have a Soza Boy child soldier, Half-English warlord or a Jerry Manda Big-Man-in-exile type in my work. Like Brer Rabbit, Bigger Thomas, Ellison’s Invisible Man and a long gallery of other ‘authentic’ stereotypes, they never seem to tire the countless Western glad-handing who swarm around ‘conflict’ writers even after 40 years.

I called back to every one of the writers out in the field and sold this vision to every one of them. At long last, I explained, with the post-elections conflict to draw upon, the Kenyan writer need no longer watch from the sidelines – we had stepped off the high middle-road into darker territory, joined the machete and A-K canon. They all bought it. And that turned out to be a good thing because before we even enter the conflict-writers game, I realize we have to explain this recent past to ourselves. The Kshs 64,000 question is: what texts can we turn to for an explanation of the first few weeks of 2008? It is our instinct, as writers and readers, to seek out stories that help us understand what just happened to Kenya. What are our, or will be our defining texts in the light of what happened during those 100 days of 2008? Well, the writers in these pages have started writing them down.

Unfortunately, few reference points exist – we are without precedents. Having apprenticed at the knee of Ngugi and Marjorie Oludhe-McGoye (also appearing in these pages), whose lenses were focused at either an ethnic or regional level, the contemporary writer is now naked and new born – an offspring of recent events. And though there is always an argument for ‘regionalism’ in literature as a model for capturing the universal, this seems indulgent during a time when the volume of ethnicity has been turned to the max. Yes, our greats went a long way into illuminating particular ethnic spaces, and all we contemporary writers are indebted to them; but we are now at a point where we need to question whether those many lights can possibly make a collective vision.

Our literary cannon is a river that has run aground downstream. Its emphasis on the distinguishing characteristics of this or that ethnicity is perfect for cooler climes, upstream. We need to take up that early impetus. Today, without more contemporary defining texts of Kenya, in the absence of stories, narratives that count, demagoguery, the politician’s voice that claims that the crisis ‘was a small thing’, and that which claims that bands of criminals and killers were fighting for democracy has taken over. Our defining text, our national moments are the politician’s voice on the 9 o’clock news. We hope what is held in these pages goes some way in righting this frightening reality. Never let the facts get in the way of the truth, is a creative non-fiction dictum I hold in high regard. The fact that blood has been spilled, that politicians played a role in the latter, that, especially, ‘yoouottths’ took up arms against each other does not overcome the truth of a possible and real Kenya.

Kwani has collected enough essays and analyses, creative non-fiction, fiction, poetry photographs, cartoons and illustrations, sms’s and posters to this end, enough to literally fill two volumes: a double issue of Kwani 5 – Parts 1 and 2. In these pages the Kenyan writer, brings questions of Kenyan-ness to the fore, even as ethnic trajectories are explored.

Kwani Editor

Marjorie Oludhe’s Rejoinder To Kwani Editorial

February 10, 2009

In his introduction to After the Vote, Billy Kahora asks ‘Where are the texts to explain why, what, where and how’ what we blandly call Mzozo wa baada ya uchaguzi came about?

Of course it is too soon to answer these questions in depth. But we do not have the equivalent of the Viva supplement that so tellingly encapsulated the events of August 1082. I take it that you refer to literary texts, since there is abundant material for an academic assessment of the situation. One of the most illuminating is Tabitha Kanjo’s Squatters and The Rise of Mau Mau. These are not available, through price and erratic distribution, to the majority of readers, but remember that in normal Kenyan parlance ‘novel’ does not mean a work of fiction but any volume read for pleasure rather than for passing examinations of the secular or spiritual variety, and the outstanding bestseller of its day in the home-grown Kenya market was The Kenyatta Succession, by Philip Ochieng and Joseph Karimi, published by Transafrica in 1980. I do not have figures to compare sales with the other trade phenomenon, Charles Mbugua’s Son of Woman (EAPH 1971). I am sure if the NCCK report, The Crooked Arrow, on the land clashes of the 1990s had been presented to the public it would have had similar sales. Well, Philip is still active and exemplary prose stylist; I don’t know whether anyone has asked him what he has up his sleeve.

In fact the consciousness of violence is present in most Kenyan novels and drama, even where it is not the main theme, but we have often shirked the communal aspects of conflict. After all what happened in January was neither unprecedented nor unanticipated. What shocked us was the scale of it. The novel closest to resolving the topic is The Last Villains of Molo, by Kinyanjui Kombani (Acacia 2004), because it depicts a way both perpetrators and victims can go on living after the clashes of the 1990s and effect a partial reconciliation. Though one character is hard to believe in, the writing is not sentimental or evasive. A Friend of the Court, by Murioki Ndung’u (Focus 2004), is not easily readable but it depicts a situation in which a political party masterminds communal violence in order to justify a self-fulfilling prophecy and so stay in power. Much of it strikes the reader as credible. Anthony Waweru Mwangi’s poems reflect his experiences of 1992, since repeated; they remain unpublished, but a few pieces have been accepted for the forthcoming Kwani? poetry anthology.

Kithaka Mberia’s play Maua Kwenye Jua La Asubuhi, performed at the Goethe Institut in 2007 and published by Marimba in 2004, is precisely a reflection of communal violence. The staging of non-Kenyan plays can also be used to highlight local situations.

In fact when the West African play Muntu was set for Form Four about 1980, the authorities stopped performance because it was said to be too violent. The panel had not observed the violence from the printed page. John Sibi Okumu’s Role Play (Mvule 2005), first performed in 2004, includes an account of violence

against Asians in the 1982 abortive coup. His 2007 play Minister Karibu is not yet published. Thomas Akare’s Twilight Women also attempted to deal with the 1982 situation. I am not sure how much it was edited before eventual publication (Heinemann1988).

In generalizing, critics must be aware of the amount of unpublished material circulating privately and of pressures to self-censorship. Akare’s earlier book, The Slums (Heinemann 1981), which received acclaim in African Writers’ Series, can represent the many novels which observe ethnic diversity in ordinary Nairobi life without emphasizing it. The same is true of Meja Mwangi’s stunning trilogy, Kill Me Quick (Heinemann 1970 and AWS), Going Down River Road (Heinemannn 1975 and AWS) and the award-winning The Cockroach Dance (Longman 1979). Keeping a low profile, this author is not always given the pre-eminence he deserves. Even his ‘foreign’ novels centre on themes relevant to Kenyan experience. Wahome Mutahi’s Three Days on the Cross (Heinemann 1991) exemplifies those novels which avoid giving identifiable local names to characters and yet clearly describe political realities. Charles Githae’s A Worm in the Head (Heinemann 1987) draws attention to the difficulties of being a policeman in Kenya.

I had almost forgotten, till taking books from the shelf for reference, Casper Odegi Owuondo’s 1992 pamphlet, The Rise of the ‘Cheering Crowd’: Fiction and Kenya’s Political History. Not at all of us would agree with him, but it is evidence that the topic was under debate.

Yours Sincerely

Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye

Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye is the author of several poetry collections, children’s stories, and novels, including Coming To Birth, winner of the 1986 Sinclair Prize for fiction, and Homing In, runnerup for the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 1985.