Writers in search of a nation

Friday February 27 2009



Post-election violence, a hurried, interim label coined in those desperate January days as the country slid towards civil war is what, unfortunately, has stuck one year after the signing of the February 28 peace accord.

It is the catch-all phrase we now use to abbreviate the single most horrific period in Kenya’s history.

Not the charge of genocide that overheated politicos were flinging about — as much to seize the moral high ground after the stealing of elections as in reaction to the burning of the church in Kiambaa — and a stop short of civil war, it is a description that in typical Kenyan fashion reduces the mayhem to the sum of its parts and therefore accords decorum to insanity. The Kenyan public psyche runs on euphemisms.

The effect of post-election violence is that it fixes the two months of horror into a particular time and frame, an immediately identifiable context that allows us to talk about it as an aberration.

In a state of national denial, the PEV — an abbreviation of the abbreviation, constructed as soon as we could put a safe distance between now and then — makes it unreasonable to discuss the violence as systemic; as that part of Kenyan political culture and history that remains invisible because it is not named.

As such, the bullet-pointed flurry with which we have now resolved to workshop our enduring national crises becomes possible.


With the signing of the National Accord, life was able to resume where it had left off before the PEV — the pursuit of Amos Kimunya’s 7 per cent growth, and the celebration of yet another year of spectacular bank profits.

The Safaricom IPO was the first order of business, and with Kofi Annan back in Geneva, the Serena Group saw little reason to meet and instead gathered under the Safaricom tent at the KICC.

As the Ugandan writer Kalundi Serumaga acerbically remarked, peace came when Nakumatt reopened and the middle classes could begin shopping again.

Everybody and everything were back in their places, more or less, even if there was the little problem of half a million people living in tents and invisible millions, mostly young, mostly unemployed, who could still be rapidly deployed as militias, gangs and warriors.

In regarding our chronic national crisis as the PEV then, we can ignore its systemic roots, instead shed a tear when the slo-mo news clips remind us of the brief, terrible period when Kenya was burning on CNN.

And yet, something fundamental was fractured by the PEV — the rough-hewn sense of Kenyan-ness splintered into a series of sharp ethnicities. And really, it can be said that what now remains is the intact shell of an abandoned idea.

We have geography and we have parliament and the circus of politics (coming to you live!), and sometimes we are united by indignation, by shameless scandal. But the shell is empty and you can’t televise that.

“What texts can we turn to for an explanation of the first few weeks of 2008?” asks Billy Kahora in his editorial, “After the Vote” in the first of two volumes of Kwani? dedicated to the post-election violence. “What will be our defining texts in the light of what happened during those 100 days of 2008?”

The first is a puzzling question. It can only really be appreciated if one were examining the narrative of the PEV and not its meaning or its historical roots.

Kahora prefaces the question by scouring the literary landscape for war lit and war characters — the child soldiers that have populated much of new West African literature this decade, as well as older ones such as Ken Saro Wiwa’s Soza Boy. He rejects them, rightly pointing out that they cannot retell the story of the PEV.

In a later response to this question, Marjorie Oludhe-Macgoye says: “In fact, the consciousness of violence is present is 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.”

Marjorie cites a body of Kenyan writing — both fiction and non-fiction — going back 40 years, in which the awareness of ethnic diversity (if not tension) is always a running theme.

It could be added that the themes of betrayal of the nationalist ideals, the emergence of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wabenzi, the corrupt politician-businessman who has been such a feature of Kenyan life; as well as the street life of inequality and suspicion in the works of such writers as Meja Mwangi, Henry ole Kulet and Charles Mangua, all presaged the PEV.

For Mwangi and Mangua, Nairobi was often written as a script for a “blaxploitation” 1970s movie.

But the speed and sourness of urban life, while refusing to refer directly to politics, could not be avoided, and in fact was the reason the city seemed to teem with such rootless, restless souls.

In Henry ole Kulet, a prolific writer to whom sufficient attention has not been paid, you must reinvent yourself, erase your past, to become one of the new men. But in playing the game, you corrupt the “authentic.” It will invariably come back to bite you.

This circular destiny, and the suggestion that we cannot run away from the past, contains much of what the crisis was about: A country of two tribes, a tiny minority in the throes of Amos Kimunya’s 7 per cent growth and a silent majority, made invisible by their exclusion from the ambitions of the elite. The PEV was about their un-silencing.

It is what the academic Paul Goldsmith, in an illuminating essay in the first volume of the current Kwani?, describes as a “black swan event” — an unexpected event with extreme consequences whose explanation, in retrospect, suggest that its causes were there all along.

Editor Billy Kahora hinged this double-volume of Kwani? on the idea — hinted at in those two earlier questions — that the PEV needed to be thoroughly documented.

The form he has chosen to do this is creative non-fiction — a journalism that borrows heavily from elements of fiction in order to more accurately tell the story.

Assembling a team of young writers in November 2007, Kwani? sent them off to various constituencies to narrate the election story. There were of course few signs in that November that the stories they would return with would be so explosive.

The result is a closely observed and tightly woven street-level account of the December elections.

Two stories in particular, Arno Kopecky’s “Hustle N.’GO” about a former street-kid turned politician campaigning for councillor in Dagoretti constituency, and Mwangi “”Mwas” Mahugu’s “Habari” stand out.

Kopecky tells the sweet-and-shady story of the charismatic young director of a boys’ rescue centre, who ventures into the muddy world of council politics.

Kopecky, a Canadian writer who worked at the Nation and later helped produce these editions of Kwani?, perches himself on the candidate’s shoulder and tracks him everywhere.

The story weaves through the muddy alleys of Dagoretti, into the candidate’s turbulent childhood and family life and his rather dodgy business dealings.

He leaves out nothing. We meet the voters, mamas and wasee wa mtaa, ex-street kids now grown up, with their palms permanently outstretched for the politician’s money.

Ultimately, it is a heartbreaking story of personal ambition checked by political corruption, but one that also subtly asks whether this young streetwise man with his big talk and bigger heart would have ended up any different than the grimy older politicians that he was up against.

“Mwas” Mahugu is a rapper, musician and writer from Dandora. A few years ago, he started writing in Sheng. His story “Habari” is set in Nyahururu, where Mwas had gone to report the elections. What he has achieved is a compelling tale consciously set against the unspoken backdrop of the violence that followed.

He has an eye and an ear for the street and a wicked sense of humour, which gives the story such a familiarity that it becomes a revelation of what a writer with a facility for language can achieve.

Throughout the story, Mwas is translating from Kikuyu to Sheng and coming up with gems.

But Mwas’ biggest strength is his inner eye, a weird private vision that he allows to run across his reportage in streams of consciousness.

In the end, as KICC turns ugly and violence spreads across the country, Mwas at sunset is staring across a valley filled with sheep without a shepherd. “Just like Kenyans”.

In Kenya, fact may always be stranger than fiction, but it is the work of two “outsiders” that lends these Kwani? volumes added weight.

Kalundi Serumaga’s essay “Unsettled” could not have explained Kenya better if it were written by a mwenyeji.

The real violence in Kenya, he says, is the poverty and inequality that has always produced madness and invisibility.

Having lived in Kenya during his teenage years, he mixes memoir and political commentary to construct an argument whose real genius, I realised, lay in the fact that it was staring at me all the time.

Similarly, David Kaiza’s travelogue into the Luo of Kenya and Uganda seems to me to have produced a new kind of writing, combining history, anthropology and truly exquisite writing to construct a new world.

For me, the real value of these Kwanis will be better understood in later years.

They are a radical departure from earlier issues of the journal that relied heavily on the literature of the Kenyan middle-class — comfortable, personal and more than a little self-involved.

Written in the grip of the post-Moi era, the sense of individual self-discovery (the celebration of the “I”) loomed large on the agenda.

With the PEV, Kenyan literature has been forced to return to the concerns of an earlier generation of writers. Except that this return journey now involves writers in search of a nation.