Some things are best remembered

Friday July 5 2013

By MICHAEL ONSANDO

Psychologists say that forgetting a traumatic experience is part of the mind’s defence mechanisms — we lock out pain, to keep our hearts from feeling it. But what happens when someone comes along and refuses to let you forget?

This is the question a group of anonymous Kenyan poets are asking on a collective blog — iccwitnesses.tumblr.com. The poems are from the perspective of the victims of the 2007-8 post-election violence in Kenya.

“We want to make sure those who were part of the post-election violence that rocked Kenya in 2008 are not forgotten,” they say on the website.

The site has over 100 poems and is still going strong. “At first it was largely experimental, we didn’t even think we could make it to 20 witnesses, let alone 100.

“We are not claiming to be the actual witnesses, but we do know that these witnesses exist and have been rapidly either redacting their testimony or disappearing. The media has reported it, and it has been swept under the rug by two words ‘move on’.”

This, invariably, leads to the question of moving on. It can’t be healthy to dwell on such matters. One poet answers this question in the most intuitive way. “Who gets to move on?” he asks. “Is it the guy who wakes up one morning and finds that somehow… his land is no longer his? Or is it the lady who was raped on the streets? More often than not the people who move on are the people who weren’t directly affected by this period.”

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The most intriguing thing about this project is that it has no attribution; simply witness numbers. Witness #1 is starkly poignant and it simply reads:

They killed
my
family.

The lack of names, they insist, lends credibility to the project.

“Within our community, it is easy for us to identify what area of the country one is from, and hence their political alignment, from their name. It would be very easy for this project to be misread if read with the name bias boiling in the audience’s mind,” says one of the poets.

There have been mixed reactions to the project. Many people would rather forget what happened, because it is more convenient for them to shove it to the back of their minds. Some people have even accused the poets of soiling the graves of the dead, an issue one of the poets attempted to address very directly;

A Writer Responds
Do you want to keep your stories
locked up?
Hidden behind unspeaking eyes?
Dried tongues gasping at the roofs of
your mouths?
Would you rather,
we stay silent?
Pens laid to rest,
ink dripping to the floor,
like the blood of your brother
once did?

“For the most part the response, however, has been positive,” says one of the poets. “The people who are reading the blog not only appreciate poetry, but also appreciate the need for this project, because there is such a need.”

And that, they all agree, is important. They use a medium that they all understand, and love, to pass a message that they believe the world needs to hear.

But, how did it all begin?

“It started with an e-mail,” says one poet. They were constantly in conversation with one another on a Google group about their craft and, more importantly their country.

“Someone posted a link to an article on the BBC about witnesses disappearing in the ICC case.” This article is quoted on the blog. The idea of silencing witnesses was appalling to the poets, so they did the one thing that they could. They wrote.

So what next for the poets? “We’re thinking about many things, but right now we are just writing, it is about not forgetting.”

To remember is not to dwell on the tragedy; to remember is to keep a memory around to draw from its experience, to keep it as a member of your pool of resources.

The ICC witnesses project serves as a reminder, constantly whispering in our ears, “Something happened, something happened, something happened.”

I will not forget one thing:
I cannot unrecall her braids,
neat lines along her scalp,
split clean open.