#2/3 NAIROBI, MON AMOUR (editorial)
by Madeleine Grive
– There is only one word for the Kenya of today, and that is ”Fuck!” says the journalist and writer Parselelo Kantai. He writes political articles on power and corruption in the paper The East African. His face is grim. His choice of this single utterance to characterize the situation is telling for the mood of resignation shared by several of the regular guests at this weekly Garden Party, held at the home of the editor-in-chief. It makes me feel out of place with my questions, in their eyes probably naive, about the situation in the country. But the attitude, which is fully understandable, also reveals a constructive rage to be found in Parselelo Kantai and his colleagues among the younger generation at the party.
The relation among intellectuals to Kenya, their homeland, is problematic but both many-faceted and many-tongued. And most of all: responsible. The editorial staff of 10TAL went to Kenya in order to collect material for this issue on the contemporary literature in the country. The texts we read and the writers and editors we met display a tangible vigour and creativity.
One of those we meet is Wambui Mwangi, who in this issue writes about the concept of ”home”: what it means and how in the Kenya of today it seems almost impossible to find something that one might call home. ”Home”, she says, ”is several different things to me, but for the most part it is Kenya as a place, a feeling, an experience. But it is also a special frustration of sorrow, of love. Kenya is a demanding darling, more likely to break your heart than not, but also full of surprises, novelties and possibilities.”
One night we go out into the wild traffic of Nairobi during rush-hours. We have been told to start at least two hours ahead of time, in order to travel a distance which normally takes fifteen minutes. If death metal were a spectacle, this would be it. People run in all directions between buses, wriggling along the coaches. Matatus with large airbrush-painted portraits of Bin Laden and Obama honk their horns, driving sidelong. Everybody is heading towards a centre where they will be squeezed together. On top of it all, the streets have been washed away by the rain, and people wade knee-deep in a sea of mud. After not stirring for two hours, and rolling for ten minutes, we finally arrive at the old industrial plant which now houses GoDown Art Centre. Here we are to see the musical Mo Faya, depicting life in the Kenyan slum, the greed and manipulations of politicians, and their interest of getting different ethnic groups to fight each other.
– The government doesn’t give a damn about how people live in the slums of Kibera, Mathare, or how life is lived in for example the Somali neighbourhood Eastleigh here in Nairobi. The state doesn’t protect the poor, only the rich. There is an ignorance which is incomprehensible, says the cartoonist Patrick Gathara, full of anger and sorrow. His main theme, as shown by the book he hands me, is the daily politics of Kenya and the self-conceit of certain politicians with regard to the needs of the citizens.
In Kibera, usually considered one of the largest slums in the world, thousands of alleys rest upon a foundation of garbage and excrement. Since the settlement with 1.2 million people is considered illegal, the goverment doesn’t provide water, electricity or drainage. Here, all of Kenya’s over 40 different ethnic groups are represented on a surface the size of Central Park in New York. I try to imagine 1 500 people living on a soccer-field, with so called ”flying toilets”, plastic bags of poo which are thrown out into the street or over to the neighbours, after relieving oneself. Animals never live among their own excrements, but for the people here there is no alternative. Just a mile away, the power elite live a life of luxury.
I get into a conversation with Patrick Gathara at a cocktail party which is held before the performance. It’s a special night; the audience consists of invited guests, all of them very dressed up, from embassies, business and cultural life, and perhaps also one or two from the government and parliament.
”They call it a slum. We call it home”, the poster says. Mo Faya, which is a Sheng expression for ”more fire”, is written and composed by Eric Wainaina. He is one of the leading actors in Nairobi and plays one of the principal parts. The musical, in a few words, is about a DJ at the radio station in a slum called Kwa Maji (where there is water). He speaks for those who have no voice and tries to inspire people in a show alternating between delicacy, drastic humour and scathing criticism.
For the Kenyan writers, literature and politics are welded together. There is no lack of urgent subjects. The corrupt society of bribes and the fraud scandals among officials affect the young literature in a way corresponding to how the cruel, almost century-long oppression of British colonial rule affected the literature of the 1960’s and 70’s.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is the one who put Kenyan literature on the map of the world. His first novel, Weep Not, Child, from 1964, was also the first novel by an East African writer to be published in English. Since then, his books have been translated into more than thirty languages. In many of his works he has depicted Kenya’s development from a British colony to the fight for freedom and the country’s independence in 1963. He has told of how Christian missionaries – ”people with clothes like butterflies” – came to the mountain areas in the Kikuyu country, closely followed by those who built government stations and soon would start ruling the people and demand taxes for a governement in Nairobi. He has told of how land which used to belong to Kenyans was given away to veterans from the First World War, and how the former owners were compelled to forced labour on their own fields. Ngugi and his siblings experienced this themselves. In essays he has dealt with such subjects as post-colonialism and eurocentrism, and written about how important it is that the many African languages are allowed to remain independent and develop. About this latter issue, he talks here in 10TAL with Raoul Granqvist. We also publish an extract from the second part of Ngugi’s memoirs, a work still in progress.
The responsibility for Kenya is now taken up by younger authors, and soon the question might be not only how politics affects literature, but also: What influence may literature have on society?
Last year, Billy Kahora published the documentary novel The True Story of David Munyakei, about the bank employee at the Central Bank of Kenya who leaked documents and disclosed that over one billion dollars had disappeared. Munyakei was fired, and lived unemployed and poor until his death in 2006. Billy Kahora spent four months with Munyakei, writing down his story. A ”typical” Kenyan story, according to Parselelo Kantai, who also praises the book as among the best to be written by younger Kenyan writers.
Many of Kenya’s committed writers belong to the circle around the periodical Kwani? They also publish a series of short stories and novellas, and have also published the photo book Kenya burning, with Boniface Mwangi’s photos from the outbreak of violence after the elections in 2007. This issue of 10TAL presents a selection of photos reflecting these brutal events of contemporary history.
We also publish five prose texts which have appeared in the Kwani? series: Binyavanga Wainaina’s Discovering Home and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuors’s Weight of Whispers, both of them awarded the prestigious Caine prize. By Billy Kahora, the present editor-in-chief of Kwani?, we publish the short story Treadmill Love, by Muthoni Garland Tracking The Scent of My Mother, and by Wambui Mwangi Internally Misplaced.
Wambui Mwangi is one of those of who often talks about the responsibility and opinion-making potential of the writer. She is a writer and political scientist, and has also become known for her spirited blog Diary of a Mad Kenyan Woman. In 10TAL, apart from the fictional piece Internally Misplaced, we also publish her essay on the poetry of Sitawa Namwalie. When I ask Wambui whether writers and their work matter for the independence of a country, she answers:
– Of course. Artists of all kinds are responsible for the imagination of the people: politics is mainly an affair of the collective imagination, so it is a big responsibility. When the government was at its most oppressive, the writers were the first to be arrested, or at least discredited. The state is very much aware of the emancipatory potential of writers, and therefore takes every opportunity to muzzle them. It is quite true that writers have always been the voice of liberty and human rights. In addition, they are also at the forefront when it comes to decolonializing our thoughts: to question, interrogate and dismantle the one-dimensional picture of Africans that the West has invented and used against us ever since the first colonial contact.
One of the most important and active voices belong to the poet and peformance artist Shailja Patel, among other things co-founder of the group Kenyans For Peace, Truth and Justice. She reasons along similar lines as Wambui Mwangi, when I ask her if she believes that literature can contribute to nation-building .
– Literature is nation-building. It is inseparable from the growth and development of an independent nation. Consequently, literature can’t be separated from the nation. The stories of the people are a necessary part of the fabric of a nation. The creation and dissemination of literature – oral, on stage and written – are all essential threads in the fabric of an independent nation.
Shailja Patel, who was a success at the Stockholm Poetry Festival at Dramaten last year, is interviewed by Clemens Altgård in this issue. As a politically committed poet, Shailja wants to open the eyes of her listeners to the possibilities and complexities of concepts that people all too often take as self-evident: truth, freedom and justice. ”In their everyday numbness, people are overprotected against the brutality of life. The desire to wake myself and my audience up is what drives me”, she says. Read her poems in this issue, especially the poignant ”Nairobi Accident Report”, about the 40 000 retired railway workers living with their families in the somewhat run-down neighbourhood Muthurwa, among poisonous air created by illegal roads. They will now be evicted so that the government can sell their land to private developers.
Hopefully, the political climate in Kenya is now about to open up. A few weeks ago there was a peaceful referendum which agreed to a new constitution. The constitution, which strengthens civil rights, was supported by both President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
Even if the new constitution bodes well, the best forum for strengthening the democratic future of Kenya is probably literature. There is a literary rebellion going on. All of these highly active writers who debate, comment, write articles and essays, start publishing firms, and are also internationally known, contribute to the process of democratization in Kenya. As Wambui Mwangi says: ”Literature is the tool for widening our imagination. Political identity means an expanded imagination – literature thus becomes a critical catalyst in the construction of a self-conscious and self-knowing society.”
In the article by Shalini Gidoomal, the lively scene of literary events is depicted, as well as the important oppositions between the different movements. These differences of opinion are a good sign for the future. If there is debate and disagreement among intellectuals, this is an expression of democracy. There is room for different voices, conversations where diverging views are examined, analyzed, and criticized.
Finally, we want to leave the word to the two debutants in this issue of 10TAL, who express both the need to reach the general public and a strong will to succeed in doing so. Alison Ojany Owuor says that Kenya is a great source of inspiration, and that there has always been an abundance of writers in the country. However, the possibilities for publication have been limited. Ngwatilo Mawiyoo agrees, and suggests that writers can no longer sit and wait for readers: ”The next step is to seduce the readers, to make them long desperately for literature”.
Welcome to the first issue of a Swedish periodical exclusively dedicated to introducing Kenyan prose and poetry. Hopefully, it will arouse a frantic desire for more!