A candid view of Kenya’s socio-economic landscape

Sunday July 31 2011

Youths armed with crude weapons at the height of the post-election violence in 2008, near Nairobi.  Picture: File

Youths armed with crude weapons at the height of the post-election violence in 2008, near Nairobi. Picture: File 

I have tried my best to be a good citizen. But it is clearly not enough. The country is lurching from crisis to crisis and all I can do is watch, wait and pray for a miracle.

This is an excerpt from Rasna Warah’s new collection of articles, columns and essays titled Red Soil and Roasted Maize, which puts together her best writing over the past two decades. Many of the articles were first published in Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Daily Nation, to which she is a regular contributor.

The book is divided into three parts: Part 1, which is introspective and personal, explores the role of the writer, her family’s tribulations and her own perspective on what it means to be a woman; Part 2 outlines issues that have dominated the social and economic discourse in contemporary Kenya, such as ethnic chauvinism, corruption and the 2007/8 post-election violence; Part 3 focuses on aid and the “development industry” and the systems that have continued to exploit and under-develop Africa in the name of aid and humanitarian assistance.

It is the “development myth” that Warah is most emphatic about — analysing the aid and charity bandwagon with razor-sharp clarity; and with a discerning eye to spot the contradictions in what she aptly describes as “the aid charade.”

Warah is not at all bashful in the topics that she takes on: One of her memorable pieces is, Why adopt a baby when you can adopt a clitoris? in which she criticises Western non governmental organisation for taking on causes (in this case, the fight against female genital mutilation) ostensibly to help poor Africans, but which have the overall effect of displacing the voices and eroding the dignity of the Africans that they are supposedly saving.

In the article, first published in the Daily Nation in April 2010, she shatters the warm coziness that the aid industry imparts to do-gooders. She writes: “Central to the debate is the question of dignity. If African women’s body parts can be appropriated – or ‘adopted’ by well-intentioned, albeit ignorant, Westerners, then what will be appropriated next? ... Charities exist because there is a need for them. But mostly they exist so that they can provide false comfort to citizens of rich countries who naively believe that a donation can erase poverty and under development caused by centuries of colonialism, exploitation and poor governance.”

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Warah’s own experience at the helm of the development industry — she worked at UN-Habitat, no less — gives her the kind of insider perspectives that make her writing not only poignant but authoritative. She left the international organisation to focus on her writing. Her previous works include Triple Heritage: A Journey to Self-discovery (1998), a memoir that evaluates the role of Asians in Kenya’s political and economic spheres.

In 2008, Warah edited Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits, an anthology of pieces by various writers who critique the conflicts and ambiguities of the development world.

In Red Soil and Roasted Maize, Warah also tackles the question of ethnicity and social fragmentation in Kenya, which was brought to the forefront in a most unforgettable way in the 2007/8 post-election violence. In an article written at the height of the violence, in January 2008, Warah is subtle yet scathing in her criticism of the apathy of the middle class: “Neither my neighbours nor I bore the brunt of the violence that rocked Nairobi’s slums. We live in leafy neighbourhoods where killing your neighbours is not only bad manners but bad for business... Why, we wondered, couldn’t [slum dwellers] remove their ethnic blinkers and see how their activities were affecting tourism and the Nairobi Stock Exchange?”

Her writing is straight-forward and hard-hitting, and never wrapped in euphemisms: She is a “tell it like it is and from the rooftops” kind of author. Red Soil and Roasted Maize is an introspective journey of one writer that follows the journey of the nation, towards self-discovery and clarity of identity.

When writing about why she left a high-flying career to follow her passion, she says, “One meeting became as pointless as the other, and before I knew it, I became a clone of my male colleagues — scoring meaningless points over meaningless issues for meaningless objectives.”

It is this kind of sharp-edged thinking that makes Warah’s articles memorable, though this is not a book one can read easily in one sitting — it has to be taken in in small doses, or else one might suffer acute “analysis-paralysis.”