Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Oasis in the East African Literary Desert



Professor Taban lo Liyong

So what? Any memories of the Kwani? series elicited by this phrase? If Taban lo Liyong believes that the East African region is a literary desert should we weep? Or should we whip/flog ourselves for such a thing? Or rather, and on a different note, from which pedestal does Taban stand as he makes this declaration? From which eon was this statement made and of what relevance is it to a budding East African contemporary writer/scholar?
May be we should ask Prof Wanjala whose recent sentiments sought to understand who commissioned Prof Taban as the prefect of the region’s literariness. I am no expert in matters to do with the region’s creative dexterity and neither am I good with words. In other words, I would not even begin to consider myself a speck of a drop that would in a small way seek to quench the thirst in the said desert. Only a verse or two would stand wobbly in ‘solidarity’ with me when it comes to writing.
 Although truth be told. At the time that Taban unleashed his wrath about the region’s dryness as far as creativity is concerned, there were sproutings here and there to contradict his words. The only problem is that writing during the colonial and immediately postcolonial times was largely in English. Even Ngugi wa Thiong’o laments in Decolonising the Mind that any other form of writing was not considered as African literature. Consequently, writings in local languages and especially those in Kiswahili suffered the damnation of this parameter of judging what could be regarded as literature of the region or continent respectively. Thus, this in a way lends credence to Taban’s words that our region was devoid of writing.   
It is this that resulted to writers like Shaaban Robert famed for Maisha Yangu na Baada ya Miaka Hamsini, Kusadikika, and Wasifu wa Siti binti Saad among others being overlooked. Other compatriots like Ibrahim Hussein a prominent dramatist who wrote Kinjeketile (1969), Mashetani (1971), Jogoo Kijijini (1976), and Arusi (1980)were equally served with a portent dose of biased studies such that their works were almost reduced to set books for schools only. This led to persistent marginalisation thereby and once more underscoring the assumption that the region had no prowess when it came to dominions of imagination.  
Universities in the region have not tasked themselves with the need to demystify the perception that ours is nothing but a literary desert. As scholars, we have cast our nets and buckets were we are. Very few scholars venture outside their comfort zones to study non-mainstream texts. I mean, I still remember being asked to justify why I wanted to study John Kiriamiti’s et al books for my postgrad! Someone actually dared me to explain of what merit such an undertaking would have to academic circles. If only the scholars dared to wade through unchartered waters! Now you understand why sometimes it takes horrific occurrences like the Westgate Mall terrorist attack to get scholars, politicians and the like wagging their tongues.  
I don’t blame Taban. I cannot blame the Professor for year in, year out appearing like a controversial scarecrow that permanently clings to its position and scares the wit out of any marauding animal that ventures into the garden of East African writing. His statement is like the warning light that comes on in a car when it is running low on fuel. Whether you are broke or not, the light is a constant reminder that you have to refuel. And even when you refuel and keep driving, the light comes on again after sometime to ‘ignorantly’ remind you that it is nigh time to revisit the fuel pumps. Thus, Taban’s words are a constant aide memoire that we must keep the flame of writing on irrespective of the times, the number of writers, publishers, or books etc.
I wouldn’t want to rant about Taban as not knowing what he is saying. Mine is an appreciation that we cannot have enough of books to quench the thirst for reading. I actually pen this down as a tribute to all the East African writers who have tangibly contested Taban’s words through their writings. Theirs is a living testimony that ours is a region blooming with vegetated cover of books that is regularly watered and nurtured by the oasis of the genius minds of our writers.
The only protestations I harbour here are towards myself for not being an avid reader. Therefore, I hereby sentence myself to a lifetime of books, hard labour of reading and intermittent strokes of the cane by way of book reviews and critical thoughts based on East African writings. This sentence has no room for reprieve, presidential amnesty or anything whosoever that would give me a chance to get outside the bars of maximum literary imprisonment.
I mean how on earth can I decry lack of books when we have writers such as Ken Walibora, Kinyanjui Kombani, Ng’ang’a Mbugua, Jamal Mahjoub, Tayeb Salih, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Moyez Vassanji, Timothy Wangusa, Nuruddin Farah, Ahmed Artan Hanghe, Susan Kiguli, Esther Kamatari, Benjamin Sehene, Edouard Gasarabwe, Nadifa Mohamed, Maxamed Daahir Afrax, Amandina Lihamba, Moses Isegawa, Doreen Baingana, Bonnie Lubega, Shailja Patel, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Binyavanga Wainaina....
This is just but a taste of the writers we have in addition to the more usual names of John Ruganda, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wahome Mutahi, Grace Ogot, Francis Imbuga, Barbara Kimenye, Katama Mkangi, Meja Mwangi, Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye, Sam Kahiga, David Mailu, John Kiriamiti… the list is as long as it would take to dispute any notion that the East African region is nothing but a literary desert.
            The next time someone irks you about East Africa being a literary desert, tell them that Taban’s statement has metamorphosed into a clich√© which we are glad to relish as a plat form that reminds us of our humble beginnings as a region in the bigger spectrum of the literary world.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

On Reading Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun



I confess that I read Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun way before I got to read any of her other texts. I am not complaining, just acknowledging where Adichie and I tragically met. But before I can say anything more, I have something to share about her novel Purple Hibiscus: in this text, the narrator says “Jaja's defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma's experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. a freedom to be, to do” (p16). This bildungsroman novel narrates the story of Kambili and Jaja two kids raised in a semi-contemporary African context by a religious fanatic father. The story tells of their growth – physical, psychological, social – and how they eventually rebel against their father's tyranny. In this story, it is not only the traditions which fall apart, but also the contemporary values that are rootless, aped from alien cultures and without realistic points of reference from which we can identify with. It seems that the text makes a mockery of the colonial education and its shallowness in attempting to assimilate Africans from their ‘heathen practices’.
Hence, Eugene's obsession with the rosary and his repeated reference to his father as a worshiper of heathen gods projects him as an alienated man whose perspective towards life is bereft of any human life. He is thus unhappy, selfish and he fatalistically drives himself to damnation. His wife epitomises “the traditional subservient woman” who answers the call and beckon of the husband but she can’t take it anymore and so she begins to poison the husband until he dies. It is a bold move that sets her apart from what the reader had expected of her as a timid woman. The husband's death liberates her and at the same time empowers her – releases her from the shackles of tradition which prescribes her space as that of a diminished woman who must heed to what the husband says. This is the story of Kambili whose world seems unfathomable from her innocent child’s perspective yet it is powerfully rendered to demystify the lie that is patriarchy.
So what about Half of a Yellow Sun? This novel gripped me, tantalised my taste buds and at the same time scared the wits out of my mind. After all I read it shortly after the bungled 2007/2008 Kenyan elections and the chaos, death etc that accompanied the release of the results. I could not avoid it and so I had to make a connection between the civil war of Nigeria and the 2007/2008 postelection violence in Kenya. The similarity between the two cannot be overemphasised. The beauty of this novel lies in the story of Kainene and Olanna, the twins whose parents are wealthy business people courtesy of a corrupt government structure. The tensions surrounding their school life, love, relationship, and or marriage is what holds the story together even as we discover the political tensions of the nation at large.
The way the personal lives of Kainene and Olanna are shattered, the challenges they undergo to reconnect, to remember their childhood innocence and the experiences that have embellished scars on their lives physically and psychologically are symbolic of the intrigues that characterise the social, political and economic spectre of the nation described in the novel. But, a bigger tragedy lies in the suspicion and the inbred hatred that throbs in the veins of tribal/ethnic hatred and the religious abhorrence that exists between the Christians and the Muslims.
I became hooked to the story as a result of the vividness with which the events are narrated. The descriptions of the characters, their personalities and temperaments left me with a tingling feeling on my tongue. It is as if I could savour them, feel, hear, smell, and touch. The story comes out in a cinematographic manner and I was not disappointed by the trailer to the movie either. In fact, the minute I saw the trailer, I was able to reconnect with the story and to share in the similar images that I had imagined of all along.
Although, it is the bloodshed and the brutality with which the war is waged that portrays the cruel/evil nature of man. That human beings can turn against each other with such gusto, bile and the ferocity of beasts seems out of this world until you observe your alter ego in a moment of anger. The mangled bodies, charred remains and destroyed property appear like a horror movie especially when you come across the people as they massacre one another. The text warns us against bloodletting because a single drop of innocent human blood might be the ingredient that we all need to be reminded that beneath our human skin lies a monster of un-proportional magnitude incapable of being tamed. This is the tragedy that befalls Ugwu, Odenigbo’s naive house boy.
Caught in the melee of the nation’s disintegration and the deteriorating relationship between Kainene and Olanna is Richard, a British Anthropologist. He represents the expatriates who are torn between identifying themselves with their countries of origin and those of their heart’s desires. They are not the only victims of alienation because Mohammed, Okeoma, Madu, Abdulmalik and many others are inexplicably torn apart by the retributions of alienation. It is a story of love, pain, joy, marriage, break up, death, civil strife, culture, religion, business, migration, education and many others all concocted in one melting pot.
I will bet that watching the movie will be nothing close to a reading of the text. For example the description of the little baby girl’s plaited head covered in a calabash cannot be captured in any better way through camera shots as opposed to the manner in which it is vivified in the novel. Thus, I am looking forward for a copy of Adichie’s third novel Americanah to appease my avid taste for her writing. Although, for now I have to sit back with bated breath to wait for the movie Half of a Yellow Sun, but I am already biased because my appetite has been satiated by a reading of the novel. What about you? 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Vilifying the “Innocent” in Kinyanjui Kombani’s The Last Villains of Molo



Human conflict is one of the key ingredients of literary texts. Kinyanjui Kombani’s The Last Villains of Molo is no exception in this culinary adventure. The denigration of Bone aka Mfupa aka Kimani, Rock aka Irungu, Ngeta aka Waithaka aka Lihanda, Bafu aka Kiprop and Bomu aka Kibet as the last villains of Molo is as ironic as is underscored by the title. Kombani’s novel invites us to read the follies of human beings and the thin line between love and hate. This is a novel about nationalism, ethnic rivalry/hatred, love, bitterness, human suffering, violence, hedonism, selfishness, political profligacy, adventure and forgiveness amongst many other matters that the novel seeks to indulge us in. It is a romantic tale of a love that thrives beyond all odds. It is so romanticised that the reader is tempted to see the ending as a case of deus ex machina to an irreconcilable situation.
The story relives the tribal clashes that have rocked the nation especially in the 1992 and 1997 national elections. Vivified images of the mutilated bodies, the physical scars, the displacement of people together with the emotional and psychological trauma accompanying the experiences makes recipe for almost an existential novel. The reader knows it’s a fictional story but the way it mirrors the reality it’s almost akin to being autobiographic. Those who are privy to the 2007/2008 post-election violence in Kenya might even be tempted to accuse the writer of having inside information of the elections gone awry beforehand. I am reminded Of Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People in which the Nigerian coup d’√©tat was what you might consider a prophecy as forecasted in the narrative. Like a seer, Kombani is the prophet who unconsciously prophesies the Kenyan blood bath long before it is let out.
Narrated through flashbacks that are interlaced with reminiscences and narrative breaks that indulgence us into the past through acts of memory, the story shifts from the past to the present in a smooth flow of events such that the reader is held prisoner aka captivated. The enthralling descriptions and cliff hangers leave the reader thirsting to unravel what happens next. The ingenious way that Nancy, the foible of Bone, is introduced into the story attests to this assertion. She just seems to have dropped from heaven suddenly; but, as soon as she appears in the lives of the hedonistic group of five young men, we all know that something does not add up. Our appetite is whet; we yearn to find out who Nancy is and why she is focalised in this context. Her dressing, her tastes, her mannerisms and the general aura with which she carries herself bespeaks of someone who does not belong to the economic circles of the five “villains” from Molo.
Our reservations about Nancy are heightened when it appears that she is going to replace Stella, the slum hardened girl who is famed for having put a human face to the character of Bone. Stella is the ideal poor girl that fits like a jigsaw into the life of bone. Their relationship is cast, solid and destined to beat the odds until the untimely accident that snatches Stella away. This is not before Nancy has happened between the two of them and Bone has appeared to falter between his faithfulness towards Stella and his admiration for the beautiful, classy and money loaded Nancy. The potency of a hardened slum girl is a force to reckon with as Bone himself confesses he is afraid of what Stella might do to Nancy. However this does not come to pass because Stella dies in a hit and run accident and the ghetto community never forgives Bone, accusing him of causing Stella psychological anguish that drives her to walk recklessly and get hit in the accident. But Bone’s sincerity about his love for her redeems him and the reader forgives him and almost encourages him to pursue Nancy although the economic gap between the two looms large as a form of hindrance.
                   Read more about Kombani here: http://www.kinyanjuikombani.com/
It is the grisly deaths of Bomu and Bafu respectively that wakes us up from our reverie even though we have already been inducted into the violence and deaths of other people in Molo and Ndoinet forests. The lull that we enjoy in the unfolding story is shaken up when the strange deaths occur. Yes we have enjoyed seeing Nancy and Bone traverse the city, fly to Mombasa, and move in and out of Ngando slums. In the same breath, we have seen the character adjustments that the two of them have to make in order to meet each other half way because they are already pitted against one other by the scales of economy which are tipped against them. The contrast between Imara daima, a middle class estate, and Ngando slums, a decrepit habitat housing the poor, is elaborately enunciated through the escapades highlighted in the story.
On the contrary, it is the tragic stories of the five young men that act as the gist of the narrative and not the brewing romance between the two characters. Having hailed from Molo and Ndoinet forest respectively, the young men share a history that is so scarred that they have chosen to obliterate their identity and form new ones. In fact, the pseudonyms they use whilst in the city are new forms of identification that serve to not only humanise them but also grant them a sense of security and belonging. Their pseudonyms are also symbolic of their suffering; these are names that have been given to them variously as a result of violent or strenuous occurrences as they attempt to eke a living and to find footing after escaping from Molo. Two of them are Kikuyu, one is a Luhyia and the other two are Kalenjins. Playing on the assumed enmity between Kalenjins and Kikuyus, the story of the young men serves to illustrate that friendships can be formed from least expected sources. The old generation is cast as a lost generation – one that cannot help to forge unity amongst the different warring groups. The only hope for the ethnic enmity is in the new and young generation that does not know about certain histories, myths and misgivings.
The young men refer to themselves as blood brothers yet they are not kinsmen. Their bond has been strengthened by the violent clashes that brought them together in a mysterious turn of events. They have vowed to stick together and they look as if they have been oathed. They are the future of a tribeless society, a clanless community, a society that has no class or a nation that does not discriminate or look down upon any one of its people on the basis of race, skin colour or any other excuse. How they defend each other, look out for one another is testimony of the lengths they are willing to traverse to protect each other. Their suffering, owing to the deracination occasioned by the clashes, is one more reason that binds them together. When they start dying mysteriously, we are afraid that the hope we have begun to harbour for Kenya as a unified nation is finally under threat. Although theirs is not a saintly life, we nonetheless understand their behaviour and ironically vilify the structures of the nation that reduce its citizens to such demeaning levels. 
           At the end we discover that they are disparaged as being the last of the villains from Molo yet we all know that we are to blame in one way or the other for the human cruelty visited on the various ethnic groups throughout the country in the various burgled electoral processes witnessed in the nation over the years. It is the sealed relationship between Nancy and Bone, the unexpected recovery of Ngeta from a six months’ comma and their sojourn back to Molo that precipitates the hope for healing and reconciliation between the warring groups. The crushing of the machinery of Josiah Rotich et al is significant in offering a premonition for a better tomorrow, a better nation healed from the scars of tribal/ethnic/election clashes. We hinge our hope in the very “last villains of Molo” who are the only harbingers of a future generation that is not poisoned by the history of tribal animosity. This is a book that we must all read if we hope to instil a sense of social justice and freedom from economic fear or destitution of any kind.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Memories of Mekatilili: 100 Years Later



The strength of a woman can only be underestimated by an ignorant person. Mekatilili wa Menza is an historical figure, an enigmatic woman famed for her resistance against the British colonial rule in Kenya. In 1913, a hundred years from this year, she led the Mijikenda in rebelling agaings British Colonial Rule. Her descendants and the people of Bungale in Magarini, Kilifi County still recall vividly the resounding slap she once accorded a white man. The gender implications in such a patriarchal setting are an anathema to discuss.  
She is known to have beaten the odds and for having walked all the way from the Rift Valley, albeit on foot, to the Coast where she hailed from. She defied the odds and led the Giriama people in a rebellion against the British Colonial Administration and policies actively in 1913 – 1914.Mekatilili and a male leader of the Giriama resistance, Wanje wa Mwadorikola, were arrested in October 1913 and sentenced to five years detention. They were deported to the far west of Kenya, Mumias, but escaped a few months later and walked back home to continue with the resistance.
Mekatilili’s escapades and the mammoth following that she drew baffled the British. The British were for instance astonished that she could walk such lengths to reclaim freedom. They particularly wondered how she could have walked such a distance through the forest infested with dangerous wild animals. Consequently, she was again arrested, and sent north to the Somalia border area. Mekatilili could not be deterred, she escaped again and went back home.
The Pwani cultural festival that took place in the month of August this year was in honour of this great legendary figure. In fact, the Giriama people were celebrating 100 years of Mekatilili’s greatness. She led the Giriama people in what is referred to as “The Giriama Uprising” (Kondo ya Chembe). Her passions against the labour laws and the abuse of the Giriama people by the British are things that are remembered vividly in Kilifi County. Perhaps she should be there today. Then, she could help unravel the puzzle behind the uprising of the MRC and the slogan “Pwani si Kenya”.
The streets of Malindi were coloured by the marching of men, women and children who were adorned in beautiful Mijikenda traditional regalia. It was a spectacle to behold. Having been party to the celebrations, I have to admit that I was shocked by the systematic marginalisation of the coast region. Now I know why poverty is an intimate partner to coastalians. The Giriama people appear to be physically stunted which aptly illustrates systemic destitution. I believe that if everyone was well fed and they had equal access to health facilities, amongst other necessities, we would all be physically fit not having some people looking emaciated.
The sprawling huts can be mistaken for environmentally friendly shelters but I refuse to believe that the Giriama’s/Mijikenda people don’t like modern houses. Their traditional cultural attire appears to be the only thing that they hold dear to, perhaps an effort to remain dignified in the face of all the poverty. The entrenched fears about witchcraft and the wanton killings of the elderly are not myths. I met a young man who satiated my thirst for such rumours. He confirmed that actually the youth go to any lengths to escape the poverty that has impoverished the people in this region, even sacrificing your parents. You do not want to hear of graphic details of the gory things that people sometimes do in the name of money.
It is not surprising then that young Giriama girls hang onto tourists or get lured into prostitution at a tender age. I mean what options can poverty offer on a platter laid before the helpless? Young men encourage themselves by becoming beach boys and they shamelessly tag along old grannies if only to make their dreams come true. This is partly what has made believe in witchcraft to thrive. Call it brainwashing or whatever other name but believe in the deities, sorcery, and the supernatural forces is one force that coast people will have to grapple with for some years yet to come.
Arguments can be advanced that it is owing to illiteracy or lack of education that witchcraft thrives. I do not refute. But again I ask, what are the options of a poor soul? On the contrary, the Kaya Fungo practices alternative medicine which is healthy, affordable and easily accessible to the Mijikenda people. The herbs which are administered by traditional medicine men and women are highly revered and in a way the practice has contributed to the preservation of the Kaya forests. This is a great cultural heritage of the people of Kilifi. My only concern is that the Mijikenda are so absorbed in their reverence of Mekatilili that they have unconsciously/consciously sidelined themselves from the rest of the country.
I wish the Mijikenda would contextualise their history in the spectrum of the history of the Kenyan nation. We have stories of heroines like Syokimau, Syotune wa Kathukye, Wangu wa Makeri etc from other Kenyan tribes. They may not necessarily have played similar roles but their roles in the lives of their people are significantly remembered. If the Mijikenda were to see their struggle as a microcosm of the struggle of the people of Kenya, then theirs would be one great story of nationhood building. When I listened to the politicians and the Kaya elders, all I heard was the bitterness of the marginalisation of the Mijikenda. I empathised with them but I also saw a people who are likely to be derailed by empty political rhetoric!
Bungale is the gravesite of Mekatilili. It is an historical site that is now recognised by the government as a tourist attraction point. Hence, it adds to the many other great places that one can tour whilst in Malindi. My escapades could not have ended without a visit to the Great Vasco Da Gama pillar. It is on the same coastal stretch that we have the billionaire’s resort. I assure you Malindi – Coast in general – is a land of great contrasts. The beauty of the place is easily marred by the numerous skimpily dressed girls, girls who are extremely young, I am avoiding the term under age, who struggle to eke a living from prostitution.
My nightly sojourns witnessed all these and many more. I could not avoid but have my conscience pricked. Observing the social and economic activities of Malindi can leave one feeling devastated. You revel in the weather, the great ocean shore, the spectacular views BUT you can’t also turn a blind eye to the underbelly of the Coast region. Live sex soliciting is a common thing. Mind you there is a Karumaindo in the middle of the town. The haggard looks, the pained faces and the immaturely aged girls remind you of Meja Mwangi’s novels Going down River Road and The Cockroach Dance. I am not surprised that drug peddling and use is a common thing here. I mean, you need some form of encouragement to engage in the beastly acts, the demeaning chores, the hell on earth..... no need to continue the list.
My misgivings for Kenya’s vision 2030 gained impetus from my participation in the Pwani Cultural Festival. I discovered that the property in Malindi belongs to Italians and a few big shots in Kenya. If we are going to tell the coast guys that they are part of Kenya then we must humanise them. We must act like we know what happens there and stop the charade that we peddle around! It is when people are pushed to such limits that they discover they have nothing to lose because the very life they hang on to is not theirs, it is managed and controlled by political powers. To these people, social revolution is a must even when the government structures decry otherwise! Why lie, Mekatilili wa Menza’s centennial celebrations rattled me!!

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