Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Ngumbe or Guturamira Invocation

Although it is not purely a preserve of the Gikuyu community, guturamira, the act of cursing someone by stripping is arguably one that has featured across the cultures of several African communities albeit expressed in different diction. At least, I have encountered its equivalent being discoursed about amongst the Akamba community in a number of contexts. In Kĩkamba it is commonly referred to as ngumbe.
Word has it that this curse is executed by a woman against someone who has irked her enormously or towards someone who has immensely acted against the norms and values of the community. It can be enacted singularly, meaning that it can involve the act of ngumbe or guturamira by an individual woman or it can be collectively executed by a group of women. Whichever the case, the woman/women are generally expected to be child bearers who demand respect owing to the stature that motherhood and other responsibilities have bestowed upon them.  
Ngumbe or Guturamira is considered to be a powerful curse, indeed the ultimate curse because it involves being exposed to a mother’s genitalia. The woman would face away from the victim, exposing her back then strip stark naked and bend backwards! It is an anathema which only few people in Kenyan communities can attest to having been witnesses to/of. Henceforth, the accursed victim is occluded from social events or activities of the given community – excommunicated!
There are many postulations regarding why the curse is despicable but it appears that as an adult it is excruciatingly painful to be compelled to witness the nakedness of your “mother”. It is a brutal act that violates ethics at its core. In this case the mother figure emblematises anyone whose age and social standing reflects the equivalent of someone’s biological mother. I can posit that perhaps a woman recoils into her maternal instinct so that when she is at the end of her wits she reaches for the life birthing tool to curse a person to damnation. It is a complete cycle – whatever gave birth to you ironically becomes a source of death so to speak – social death in this instance!
Although not commonly referred to, there are instances where old men have been implicated in ngumbe or guturamira. My knowledge on this is limited but I am privy to discussions amongst elderly men in my community who have hinted that an old man can also use his genitalia to curse. For the men, the stripping and exposure of genitals does not involve showing the back rather, they would do the act whilst facing the person one on one. However, the fact that this is uncommonly spoken about intimates that is not as prevalent as that by the women.
Historically, during the arrest of Harry Thuku in 1922, a woman by the name Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru was shot dead by colonial agents who might have been out of touch with probably “primitive acts and practices!” during a rebellious act of guturamira to resist Thuku’s arrest. But during the struggle for multiparty democracy in Kenya, guturamira served the purpose because the police recognised the cultural dynamics at play when the women, cornered and helpless, decided to invoke it as a means of self-defence and as a mechanism for survival and self-preservation.
However, the incumbent president, Moi, chose to read the act as a barbaric behaviour by women who had lost their minds. Never mind that his anger might have been specifically directed at the late Nobel Peace recipient – Wangari Maathai. In the end the women, whose sons were political prisoners, won their battle to have them released from political detention amongst them Koigi wa Wamwere. Naturally pressure from human rights groups such as RPP (Release Political Prisoners) and other international bodies helped to exert pressure on the government.
Therefore, the ngumbe or guturamira is a cultural practice whose invocation should spell doom and elicit dread. Am reminded of a cultural belief from a remote part of Ukambani where if an old man is extremely angry with you he chooses to point his finger towards anything else but the victim. I cannot substantiate the truth but rumour has it that if he points towards a tree, it dries up within days! Indeed we need to guard against behaviour and other acts that violate cultural norms so as to preserve ourselves against the shortfalls of ignorance and human fallibility. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Education in Kenya: Who wants to be a Professor anyway?

Courtesy of: http://www.outsidethebeltway.com
An interesting spectacle unfolded during the last three days of last week as I attended a doctoral supervision training course at UFS (University of the Free State Bloemfontein) aimed at strengthening and enhancing the quality of doctoral research in South Africa. It suddenly dawned on me that a society’s values are best measured depending on where its money is invested. Suffice to note that a good number of developed economies invest a colossal sum of their money in building human capital through educational programmes. The inverse is true for developing countries whose resources seem to get wasted through political leaders hell-bent on attaining highest honours on self-aggrandisement and economic enrichment.
For example, Kenya has a small number of quality doctorates in relation to its population compared to a preferable sample ratio of 100 doctorates per one million individuals. The trickledown effect is that educational standards are adversely affected. As a result, instead of having the most qualified personnel teaching pre-schoolers and early grade children, the reverse is witnessed. In Kenya, the more qualified you are, the less likely you are to teach lower cadres of students. Indeed, most professors are stuck in teaching doctoral students, or handling administrative tasks, thus denying young scholars the opportunity to benefit from their knowledge.
In an ideal environment, a professor should be the one teaching children and helping to nurture and horn the educational skills of a future generation. However, in most developing countries, this task is delegated to people who failed in school because the career is associated with poor pay and lack of respect or recognition. It is thus not surprising to realise that there is a dialectic relationship between the quality of education amongst the majority of people who happen to be poor and their masterly of language skills or other pedagogical matters.
On the contrary, those who can afford to enrol their children in expensive schools, begin to reap the benefits of a quality education system that, so to speak, unfairly advantages their children over those from poor backgrounds. Essentially this means that expensive schools have the capacity to attract and retain highly qualified personnel as opposed to public schools that have to rely on meagre government funding. Thus, it might be possible to surmise that our educational system is large and by responsible for exacerbating the social stratification of our nation.
Image Courtesy: http://www.google.com/imgres
What would it take for a country like Kenya to have qualified professors to teach kindergarten kids? As it is, many undergraduates will finish their first degree without imbibing or sipping from the fountains of professors’ wisdom. And therein lies our educational tragedy. I am not in any way postulating that people with master’s degrees or PhD’s are not qualified, no way! My argument is simply meant to underscore the fact that the years invested in research and dissemination of knowledge percolates into the making of the individual thereby making him/her a better academician.
Besides, if the Kenyan educational environment was conducive, apportioning adequate resources in terms of time and money, many people would venture into the profession. Unfortunately, being a teacher in a Kenyan context is something that most of us disdain and look down upon. There is no question that societal demands have pushed many a young person to escape the academic path lest they wallow in eternal miasmic conditions of poverty. It is thus prudent for us to rethink the values of education and to appreciate the different demands that societal responsibilities will exert on us. In this way, we will equip ourselves with different skills and pursue different careers with our heads held high.
Indeed, we need to re-invest in the education sector. We need to retrain our children that education is important. Although there are high achievers in the society who are school dropouts, our children need to be in the know that pursuing education does not mean putting one’s goals to an end. Rather, it means that education becomes a means to help them to better focus and crystallise their vision and goals. Maybe it is high time we stopped being paranoid about education and respected this noble profession if we actually belief in the sanctity of human growth and a holistic society.

Back to by doctoral supervision course. At least I learnt one important issue regarding power play in connection to supervision – education can make or break someone’s future! Consequently, if we are not careful, our educational pursuits as a country will end up breaking our kids’ souls instead of transforming them into inspired qualified beings capable of discovering innovative solutions to our social, political and economic woes. I hope that the next time we talk to our kids about what they want to be when they grow up we will think about the need for a quality educational system that can propel them to be what they visualise in their dreams and fantasies. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Trauma in Benjamin Garth Bundeh’s Birds of Kamiti

Imprisonment can be a traumatising affair. It is especially so if you are convicted and sentenced to death row and compelled to witness the hanging of fellow convicts as the clock tick tocks and your hour of reckoning draws nigh. This is what Benjamin Garth Bundeh discovers when the police pick him up and hold him for the suspected murder of an old white businessman, Mr Nigel Fawssett. Fawssett happens to have been Bundeh’s business associate before his demise as narrated in Bundeh’s text.

Birds of Kamiti is the memoir of Bundeh in which the writer adopts a persona to remember the events connected with his arrest and subsequent conviction for the murder of Fawsset. The writer uses the memoir genre to help him memorialise the dark events connected with his years in death row. Although his experience is one that can be described as unspeakable and one which the writer would rather forget, he has to relive the trauma – to remember the painful details; hence, he has to confess (publicly through the writing of his story) what happened to him so that he can begin his traumatic healing.
This text highlights the pain that those who are convicted for crimes that they have not committed go through. It seeks to demonstrate that police can and sometimes do connive to adduce trumped up charges against suspects and have them incarcerated for crimes they have not committed. This is the fate that befalls Bundeh. It is a narrative that emblematises failed judicial processes in Kenya and Africa at large. Indeed, Bundeh’s story is reminiscent of political detentions and torture of the infamous Nyayo Torture Chambers linked to the leadership of the former President of Kenya – Moi.   
Bundeh’s memoir thus seeks to reconstruct the events of the persona’s life before and after his conviction. Narrated in retrospect, the story highlights the persona’s struggle to repudiate the police evidence against him when he lodges an appeal in the hope that justice can be meted out to him. While serving his time in death row, the persona encounters the debilitating effects of capital punishment and the terror it unleashes on the human soul. The horrendous events that unfold at Kamiti are despicable and they attest to the animalistic tendencies that human beings are reduced to when subjected to dehumanising conditions.
He becomes a witness to the massacre of convicts through the hanging of specifically those that had been convicted for the attempted coup d’état of 1982 in Kenya. It is a harrowing period that the persona and other inmates have to endure as one by one the convicts are picked up by the hangman. The hanging of their fellow inmates traumatises them and leaves them with indelible psychological wounds that demand therapy to heal. Indeed, bearing witness to the death cries of fellow inmates is not anyone’s wish! The imagination that a living soul you have been sharing space with is no more is almost unfathomable. Thus, the psychological exertions of death row end up painfully bruising the human psyche of prisoners thereby drawing the reader’s empathy for those that are unfortunate to endure or later succumb to such experiences.
Police injustice and violence is vivified through their handling of the prisoners. First, they torture the protagonist and force him to sign blank papers which they later fill up with falsified evidence which they then use against him in court. Second, their arrogance is evidenced in the way they threaten Bundeh and how they handle the prisoners during body searches for contraband. Hence, they come across as dehumanised and the reader is persuaded to distance himself/herself from their callous behaviour. Such methods of coercion are not uncommon in Kenyan cells. One wishes that the judiciary would treat evidence collection methods with a tinge of suspicion!
Besides, the justice system is cast as corrupt and open to manipulation. The fact that the judge, in Bundeh’s case, fails to interrogate the assumed signed confession of the suspect is a good pointer to the unprofessional manner in which the Kenyan courts are at times run. At least the reader is convinced to empathise with the persona and his predicament when the judge sentences him to death because he appears genuine in his rhetoric. This is made possible through the juxtaposition of his confession vis-à-vis that of the police which is adduced in court. Thus, the reader rejects the police evidence as it is more of an admission than a confession because it is extracted from the persona through torture as opposed to wilful disclosure.
Bundeh’s breakthrough happens when he conducts his appeal and gets acquitted for the murder of Fawssett. He regains a sense of self-worth although he harbours bitterness towards the government for unfair imprisonment. This pain and bitterness is a major hindrance to his emotional and psychological healing and recovery. However, he finds a sense of closure about the death of some of his colleagues through the assurance that the birds of Kamiti keep vigil over their graves. His testimony is symbolic of the victims of unjust legal systems whose stories are cast into oblivion through capital punishment and subsequent death.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Lifetime Adventure as Narrated in "Why We Took the Car" by Wolfgang Herrndorf

Teen literature is often rife with adventure and a spirit of romance. Most texts that target teenagers teem with narratives that recount escapades, breathless moments, investigative pursuits and encounters with the unknown world amongst other aspects. This is best captured through the lenses of Mike Klingenberg, a fourteen year old boy, who clutches at a lifetime opportunity to make sure that his life will never be the same again.
Mike and his classmate, Andrej Tschichatschow, are the typical boring classmates whom no one wants to associate with. It is even worse for Mike who thinks that he writes great essays, he can do the high jump better than any other boy in his class and better still he can draw great images. At least, Tschick is the odd one out because he is perpetually drunk and he doesn’t care about anyone; even when the teachers make fun of him he is less interested.
However, the lives of the two young boys inevitably change when they are denied invites to Tatiana’s birthday party. It is a big blow to Mike who has a secret crush on her; he has even drawn a great Beyoncé image for her as a gift. Tschick manages to drag Mike for a road trip on a stolen car after they have dropped the drawing at Tatiana’s party rendezvous.
Theirs is a road trip like no other. Tschick is just learning how to wire cars and has not mastered the driving skill. Although Mike has been instructed by his father and left alone at home because his mother has made the umpteenth visit to the rehab centre, he jumps onto the idea and begins to visualise a world of infinite possibilities.
It is a journey that begins from Mike’s home and ends exactly there. Although the two of them are clueless of where to go, they decide to head towards Wallachia – a destination that is almost fictitious and non-existent. It is a trip that comingles with their encounters with dangerous people, reckless driving, thrilling moments of being free to roam the world and the fear and anxiety of the unknown when the two of them get lost in mountains and forested areas.
Why we Took the Car is an exciting story interspersed with moments of suspense. At one moment we are worried when they run out of gas but a teenage girl, Isa, whom they bump into at a garbage site helps them siphon petrol. Thereafter, their first accident results from a reckless desire to outmanoeuvre a police car. Our breath is held when the car rolls almost a dozen times before it lands on its roof and the wheels are left spinning in the air. However, the story must uphold the spirit of heroism. Mike and Tschick survive with minor bruises.
The late Wolfgang Herrndof (shot himself in Aug. 2013 after being diagnosed with cancer in 2010)
Read more about the author here: http://www.goethe.de/kue/lit/prj/lit/arc/b11/004/enindex.htm
But, their heroism is short-lived because a few pages later Mike crushes the car into a trailer ferrying pigs. Although Tschick is taken to juvenile court and Mike let loose, the boys have learnt their lessons and acquired new statuses and identities. This is best affirmed when their teacher, Wagenbach is proofed wrong about their road trip by the arrival of policemen to the school.

The narrative adopts simple language and uses humour to mock adults. This resonates well with teenagers because they dislike adults for meddling in their life affairs. Memorability is enhanced through descriptions like that of the hippo woman, Isa’s romantic moment with Mike, the countryside etc. It is a novel that teenagers will definitely love to read.  

Saturday, September 13, 2014

David Maillu’s "Man from Machakos"

Image courtesy of internet source
David Maillu is famed for titles such as My Dear Bottle, After 4:30, Unfit for Human Consumption, For Mbatha and Rabeka, and Benni Kamba 009 in operation DXT amongst many other titles.
As an author, Maillu has attracted controversy and fame in almost equal measure. Those who have read his texts would bear witness that they have at times been warned to keep off from his titles. This is owed to the fact that some readers consider the content of his books to be immoral. Others have commented that his style of writing is too explicit.
On the contrary, Maillu has penned down texts which should be of great interest to literary enthusiasts. Broken Drum is one of Maillu’s great achievements and it was extensively studied by Evan Mwangi, currently an Associate Professor at Northwestern University USA. Others are Kisalu and His Fruit Garden and Other Stories and also Man from Machakos.
Man from Machakos is a postmodernist text that provides a confluence of cultural, political and economic ideas. It is the story of Kivindyo whose name symbolises a true Mukamba – a native or if you like an indigenous Kamba man. His story is representative of the plight of jobless youth who look up to the government to provide them with jobs. But, Kivindyo’s realisation about the state of affairs concerning jobs and employment is not only daunting but utterly devastating.
His one desire is to join the Kenyan army and to settle down with the love of his life Mbeleete. Unfortunately, his bid to join the army is unsuccessful. Thus, he misses the golden opportunity to impress Mbeleete and it is, ironically, his arch-rival Justus Mwaka who wins the heart of the beautiful woman. It is a story that puts materialism into focus and castigates both men and women who build their relationships around material things. Read more about Maillu: http://www.davidgmaillu.com/
Kivindyo’s broken heart plunges him into self-deprecation and it takes his father’s scathing words to draw him out of self-pity. His father has a way with words, proverbs and he sometimes even indulges in silence as a form of communication. He is characterised as a wise old man whose wealth of experiences and knowledge is unsurpassed in the whole of Kyevaluki. He summons Kivindyo one night and bequeaths him with crucial Akamba people totems: a bow, a quiver of arrows and a traditional stool.  
Thereafter, he demands that the son should man up and stop whining like a bum. Kivindyo’s father – Mweleli son of Nguso – also gifts him with his only billy-goat and proffers a wealth of Akamba people’s wisdom inherited over the years upon his son. Thus, it would appear Maillu exploits the stereotype that Akamba people are honest and hardworking to fashion out the life of Kivindyo – the novel’s protagonist.
Working fastidiously, Kivindyo employs himself and manages to demystify the myth that people should always wait upon the government to help them. He transforms the lives of his fellow villagers, countrymen and even those beyond Kenya. The text suggests that personal initiatives are important but it also underlines the importance of moral and economic support in the quest for self-reliance. One of the key people who helps to nurture Kivindyo’s dreams is Munuka a learned man working in Nairobi.
The moral implications of Kivindyo’s resilience are substantiated in Lusia’s, Mukambi’s and Justus’s character transformation from a life of helplessness to one of enviable economic standing. Thus, Man from Machakos is an allegorical text that posits that we can forge a tribeless Kenyan nation of honest, hardworking people who abhor greed, hate and selfishness.

PS: This article was first published by The People Daily and is available here: http://mediamaxnetwork.co.ke/peopledaily/?p=102015

Monday, September 1, 2014

Why we should Read for Entertainment’s Sake

Reading "Dust" during a Daystar Book Club Meeting 
There have been substantial debates regarding the reading culture in Kenya today. Most of these discussions, if not all, squarely lay the blame on the current system of education and a generation Y that is allergic to reading. Whether such observations are true or not should not bother us so much as we should be by the lack of reading for leisure among the general populace.
When we hosted StoryMoja Festival’s Ideagasm session in Daystar University last week, I was confronted with startling remarks that jolted me back into the reality of what ails our reading culture. Some of the questions that were raised in the discussion included: What are we reading? What do we want to read? What are we writing? Why are we not telling our stories in film and in literature? What is the fear that plagues us?
The questions sparked off a spirited discussion that essentially accused the literary critic of not inspiring a critical mass of readers. Apparently, literary critics, I included, are fond of using complex theoretical phrases and diction that puts off general readers. I am not arguing that Kenyans lack the mental capacity to interpret such scholarly language but rather I am taking note that book reviews should be written in a way that would excite a majority of readers to yearn to read for fun.
A part of those present observed that Kenyan literary critics limit the scope of their audience by targeting each other. These critics hardly make any effort to describe the texts in simple and interesting approaches that would appeal to a wider section of Kenyans. As a result, most book reviews end up being counterproductive because the readers don’t see the texts as a source of entertainment.
Owing to the education system, most of us dislike literary texts because of the high school set books. The system is such that students are drilled to read to pass exams and the same applies to literature. With limited time for play and other leisure activities, the students develop a negative attitude towards reading thereby disliking literature as well. We cannot also discount the fact that books are expensive and that those who teach the subject may not have interesting ways of engaging the young minds to learn to appreciate the arts.
As a result, poor reading habits are extended to our homes. The contemporary society appears keener on making ends meet; thus, there is little or no time at all to nurture a reading culture. We have to create time to read not because we will be examined but simply to indulge in the pleasures of the text. This process will require that we read basically for entertainment: to enjoy the thrills of the story, to connect with the characters, to discover the lessons, to admire the choice of words, to marvel at the descriptions, adventures etc.
Probably, if we chose to read on such basis and not for themes or stylistic devices, then we might begin to fall in love with literature. We should also avoid general categories of texts such as serious and popular which at times discourage some readers from reading. There is an assumption amongst some people that reading a popular novel is inferior; but, reading Achebe should be as exciting as reading Sheldon.

Ultimately, we have interesting stories to tell through novels, paintings, graffiti, dance, music or even film. Thus, if we decide to embrace our diverse interests, both academic and non-academic, when reviewing arts then we will achieve the true spirit of literature. 
The article also featured here: http://mediamaxnetwork.co.ke/peopledaily/95691/reading-books-fun-bad/

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Walk through the Criminal’s Underworld

It is one thing to commit a crime but it is a totally different thing to confess to having committed that crime. A reader’s interest is thus greatly aroused by a text that boldly declares a writer’s indulgence in crime. This trend commonly features amongst Kenyan criminal writers.
John Kiggia Kimani’s Life and Times of a Bank Robber is testimony of the persona’s engagement with and about crime. It is the story of Kimani’s life from a time of innocence in his childhood to his experiences as a criminal in teenage and adulthood. The autobiography reconstructs Kimani’s early life experiences and shows how these sow a seed of a life of iniquities in him.
As a young boy, Kimani confesses to having been thrust into adulthood responsibilities without his consent: “I was forced by circumstances to go to Nairobi when I was barely twelve”. Because his father gets captured along with other Mau Mau members, Kimani is obliged to travel to Nairobi to pick up his father’s property. This serves as a good reason for him to visit Nairobi a place that he has already fallen in love with: “I had made up my mind that the city was my place”. He is ensnared by the glamour and glitter of the city.
Unfortunately, the persona is not privy to the fact that beneath the city’s glamour lurks a world of unequal opportunities built around colonial discrimination and hatred for the Mau Mau sympathisers. When Kimani attempts to make ends meet in the city, he finds it arduous and he ends up being easily lured to engage in business ventures that drive him into crime.
One of the businesses he tries his hand in is a hawking business. It is reminiscent of the power games that hawkers and city council askaris engage in within Nairobi today. Although he later tries importing bananas from Uganda, Kimani admits that the enticement of crime money is more potent than any other source of income. Macharia, his “worthy lieutenant” not only initiates him into crime, but also tutors him to master the survival techniques especially dodging police dragnets.
Kimani gangs up with other criminals and although he starts off with petty crimes like selling stolen goods, picking pockets, and car break ins etc., he eventually graduates into a hard-core criminal. Thereafter, he becomes their leader and commandeers his gang to conduct bank heists. It is interesting to note that the transition from petty crime to armed crime is carefully described with an adventurous spirit that resonates with the reader and makes it possible for him/her to believe in Kimani’s story.
This is a story of a chequered past and a traumatic childhood exacerbated by colonial prejudice. It forms part of the rationale that Kimani uses to justify his deterioration into crime. Growing up and seeing the white settlers having everything in abundance whilst his people wallowed in abject poverty serves to fuel his prejudice against them. It is no wonder that the white people end up constituting a big part of his victims as he commits crime as part of wreaking vengeance against an unjust system.

However, it is Kimani’s spiritual reflections whilst in prison that helps him to transcend the shortcomings of crime and punishment. During his prison sentence, he realises that there are many more criminals in society like cruel prison warders. As a result, he develops a contrite heart and triumphs over crime. Thereafter, he emerges as a transformed man and reintegrates back into the society to lead his life as a redeemed soul.  
PS: This article was first published by The People Daily and is available here: http://mediamaxnetwork.co.ke/peopledaily/94380/walk-criminals-underworld/

Monday, August 4, 2014

Meja Mwangi’s Going Down River Road

It was first published in 1976 but Meja Mwangi’s Going Down River Road is still as relevant as it will be for centuries ad infinitum
This is because the text tackles human conflict that is centred on universal economic inequalities rife in urban settings. Reminiscent of an emerging Kenyan nation grappling with newly found independence from colonialism, the text abrogates itself the duty to serve as the watchdog of the less fortunate in the city. 
It traces the life of Ben Wachira and his dishevelled buddy, Ocholla, as they struggle against all odds to eke out a living as construction workers for Patel and Chakur Contractors. It is a demeaning job that reduces the casual labourers to objects who can be hired and fired at the whim of the employer.
Wachira appropriately describes their identity at the construction site as “Hands” and bemoans that “That is what they are here…if the contractor would make hands, he would never need labourers!” By identifying the labourers as hands, the contractor dehumanizes them and this makes it possible to exploit the labourers since they are not appreciated as fellow human beings. 
Thus, they inhabit backstreets, slums and other poor tenements where moral decay is the nemesis of an upright life. Mwangi’s text posits that unbridled urban growth that ignores the welfare of the people is doomed. The moral fabric of the society described in this novel teeters on the verge of disrepair. 
The women are objects of sexual gratification or simply bastards who are a pain in the arse of the men as Ocholla curses his wives and blames them for his miserable life. Ocholla describes his family as comprising of “Two beastly wives…and the devil knows how many little brats.” This serves to demonstrate the economic challenges entrapping the men and alienating them from their rural homes and families.
Urban life is also characterised by bitterness, revenge, violence and prostitution. Ocholla considers all harlots in Eden as his and the reader is privy to the many occasions in the text where women are willing to sell the bodies in order to make ends meet. Prior to meeting Wini, Wachira is seen scouting for a quick lay and long after Wini abandons him and her bastard child, Baby, Ben deteriorates to engaging with prostitutes to satiate his sexual desires. 
The spectacle is so bleak that at one time Ben engages a fifteen year old prostitute in sex whilst her one old month baby is tucked in a carton in the same room. Moreover, the story highlights the consequences of personal misdemeanour. Wachira is fired from his job as an army lieutenant when he entangles himself with criminals. His downfall culminates in losing a job at the PanAfrican Insurance Company. 
One of his former army colleagues, Onesmus or One-Arse-Mess, holds a grudge against Ben for their lost jobs. His desire to avenge their dismissal his clouded by his abuse of drugs and he ends up being ‘accidentally’ killed by Ocholla who is scared for Ben’s life after the former attempts to run Ben over with his truck.
Ultimately, the novel paints a grim picture of urbanisation although through Wachira and Ocholla we are able to glimpse a glimmer of hope. Ben demonstrates a sense of rational reasoning despite his frustration and at times resigned attitude towards life. Although healthy human relationships are hard to build, the genuine bond between Wachira and Ocholla serves to give the text a sense of hope. Towards the end, Wachira chooses to educate Baby and Ocholla welcomes his rural family to the city. 

Article first appeared in People Daily under the title: Competing for survival in Nairobi City and can be found here: http://mediamaxnetwork.co.ke/peopledaily/?p=93137

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Triumph over drinking to inspire others

Chris Lyimo’s My Side of the Street: One Man’s Journey from Alcoholism to Sobriety
Although Chris Lyimo’s My Side of the Street: One Man’s Journey from Alcoholism to Sobriety may not be adopted as a literary text for study in the classroom, it is one that literary critics should pay close attention to. It is a narrative on masculinity, a misgiving about definitions of sex and gender, a scathing attack on the institution of parenting and above all a clarion call to the society to rethink the essentials of education. Lyimo’s narrative bares it all and strips the reader off any prejudice about matters alcoholism, suicidal tendencies and sexuality.
My Side of the Street is the cry of a lone man abandoned by the very society he thought would not only hold him accountable to his deeds but embrace him and cajole him in the true sense of the words. Lyimo indicts the society for failing him at the moment that he needed a pillar to lean on the most. The absence of a father in his life compounds his socialisation and makes us realise that we are to blame for the failings of our mentees. The genesis of his problems is traceable to his elder sister’s ignorant comment when he is seven years old: the persona is crudely identified by his phallus when the sister intones “Your kanyamu does not look like theirs”.
It is the discourse of exclusion that sets off his life’s path into a trajectory reminiscent of hopelessness and the ever present feeling that whatever the persona attempts to do will ultimately lead to rejection because his kanyamu is different. At this tender age, the persona discovers that his penis, genitalia so to speak, the only body part differentiating him amongst his siblings is the cause of his desolation. He craves to belong, to feel wanted but, unfortunately no one seems to get through to him. The fact that he is the only patriarch in his family makes it worse because of the dented masculine images that hover like a phantom in their homestead. Meet the author: https://www.facebook.com/chris.lyimo
The process of mentoring that would have bailed him whilst growing up is severely challenged. Possible male figures who would have waded in the soles of his father’s feet are losers in their own ways. The cumulative verdict is that he is a loser because men in the family are losers. Sadly, the persona is cocooned in his fragile male ego and things get worse when he indulges in alcohol in the hope that he can get a firm grip of the elusive masculinity – andurume – “the men”.
Confessions are rife in this narrative. The urgency with which the story unfolds makes it vivid and scary. The persona’s struggles to overcome addiction, suicidal thoughts and other negative images on masculinity, marriage and sex serve to demonstrate that it is only an individual’s realisation of their spiritual being that can help to turn their life around. It is a journey of acceptance, a belief in brokenness, worthlessness etc. it is a moment of reckoning that life is worth reconstructing.

My Side of the Street demonstrates redemption and the existence of God. It is a religious narrative coloured by a life of iniquities and other despicable human acts. But it is also a simple story of growing up, falling in love and discovering the first kiss. The narrative has enough lessons for all of us and most importantly it lets us know that there is a haven for every drunkard just as there is a heaven for every sinner as long as one has a strong will to get there. This article was fist published in People Daily: http://mediamaxnetwork.co.ke/peopledaily/?p=91091

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Travails of Kenyan Education

Image Courtesy of: http://alivecampus.com/wp-content/uploads
The psychological and economic exertions of academic pursuits in Kenya cannot be refuted. Although this is not a preserve of developing countries, it is only fair to argue that it is more challenging to attain higher education in an underdeveloped economy as opposed to a developed one. It is likely that developed countries have put in place contingency measures to facilitate learning and research work because they understand the indisputable position of education in shaping human livelihoods. Developing countries, thus, seem to have reneged on this responsibility or taken it for granted.
In 2007 I missed a golden opportunity to relentless chase a DAAD scholarship opportunity and probably learn from some of the best institutions in the world. Blame this on personal error, a miscalculation on my part or being misled by naive and immature love, but the truth is in a blink of an eye I had lost the intellectual opening which would have economically handled my educational prospects. As a result, I went back to my alma mater as a prodigal son and begged to be taken back. At least I could pursue my costly PhD programme at a manageable pace.
I don’t consider myself a bright student by any measure. What I know is that growing up was decorated by financial upheavals and my parents endlessly reminded me that my economic salvation lay with education. It was a psychological and spiritual battle as my young mind strove to make sense of a world of inequalities. I miraculously survived high school and through the benevolence funds of HELB attained my BA degree from the University of Nairobi. Never mind the fact that I am currently paying the last of the instalments of that loan after almost fifteen years later.
At the time I finished my BA degree at least the University of Nairobi had an educational programme for supporting first class honours students to pursue their MA degrees. It is through this arrangement that I attained by MA in Literature. I was not surprised that when I went back to HELB for more funds to pursue my PhD I was turned down. I had never started servicing my undergraduate degree loan! With a missed DAAD opportunity my last fortress was the bank. I may not be able to enumerate the number of banks I visited but one thing is clear about the credit system in the country. If you are not permanently employed or into a business then there is no bank, worth its name, that would transact business with you.
Somehow I enrolled for my PhD with scrapings from here and there. When I essentially became a permanent employee of Daystar University in 2010, after almost five years of part time teaching, I saw the door to cementing my education. Because Daystar has no dependable financial kitty for higher learning for its staff development programme, I took the riskier path and went to the bank once more. My bitterness with an unforgiving economic environment and a country without proper support mechanisms for education transformed me into an introvert. I never even applied for study leave or reduced workload from my employer. When you are a new employee you generously understand that these are not your preserves.
The fact that I completed my PhD studies under duress cannot be underscored. I empathise with all learners and academic enthusiasts who have to contend with lack of educational structures of whatever kind in their quest for knowledge. It is a herculean task that can’t and will never be single-handedly managed. As a society, do we care about education? Do we support those in need of it? My verdict is maybe we care but no we don’t support those in need of education.

  *This article was earlier printed in Daystar Connect, a Daystar University Publication. To purchase a copy, contact the Corporate Affairs Department at pr@daystar.ac.ke.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Social media: a blessing or a curse to institutions of higher learning

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The wealth of communication possibilities available through social media is unmatched. However, there have been concerns raised regarding the effects of social media on learning in the universities. A good number of these effects are positive but there are as well negative impacts accruing from students’ interaction with social media. For example, the social media platform provides unbridled socialisation through which instructors and students can become innovative and imaginatively recreate better learning models. They can do this by posting questions, engaging in online discourses and where possible sharing their research findings and insights for enhanced knowledge dissemination.   
Social media interactions can also improve students’ critical thinking skills. This can best be illustrated by the fact that social media encourages collaborations as opposed to individualistic approaches to problem solving. An online group discussion therefore provides a student with divergent views that require him/her to digest proffered options before making a decision thus horning out the student’s power to examine scenarios before drawing conclusions. Moreover, social media provides an avenue to use graphics, personalise work and adopt other appealing tools that can exceedingly serve to rope in students into subjects that they had initially expressed disdain for.
Furthermore, it is possible for students to integrate classroom learning with peer interactions amassed from outside classroom contexts. This can be argued to be a positive element that serves to prepare the students for situations that demand skill application as opposed to mere theorising. Also, if properly utilised, social media can provide enhanced interpersonal skills and a feedback mechanism that can make it easy for instructors to monitor student progress and provide personalised engagements for the benefit of the learners.
On the contrary, social media can be detrimental to education in institutions of higher learning. If incorporated into the curricular, the instructors might make the assumption that the social media types they adopt are convenient for their students. This is not necessarily true because we all have varied interests and our knowledge of computers and other modes of technological interactions are different. In our case, it is possible that required gadgets for social media use may not even be accessible let alone affordable.
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Chances of students getting distracted from the core business of the course are high and prevalent. The assumption is that social media is highly stimulating and both the instructors and learners can get swayed especially when they are actively engaged in online learning. Such off-topic engagements can derail the learning outcomes and eventually affect the students’ GPA. This means that students will essentially find it difficult to finish assignments and their course work thereof. Also, social media thrives on truncation of words owing to space limitations and students’ language skills are consequently impaired by the repeated use of corrupted codes of communication.

In addition, social media is difficult to regulate and one cannot overrule the chances of cyber theft, bullying, abuse, plagiarism etc. There are of course other forms of addictive behaviour like gaming, chatting, or possibly pornographic engagements. But, technological advancement is here to stay and these challenges cannot be wished away. Thus it is prudent for educators to adopt a hands-on-approach to the use of social media and ensure that the learning process is not only collaborative but one that encourages creativity even as it sustains academic integrity. 
  *This article was earlier printed in Daystar Connect, a Daystar University Publication. To purchase a copy, contact the Corporate Affairs Department at pr@daystar.ac.ke.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Tasting the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of “The Stone Hills of Maragoli”

Courtesy: www.peopledaily.co.ke 
Stanley Gazemba’s “The Stone Hills of Maragoli” is reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s transgressions in the Garden of Eden when they chose to savour the forbidden fruit despite having a wide variety of fruits to pick from. But, unlike the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve had unlimited access to the fruits and provisions of the garden, Ombima in Gazemba’s text must not covet that which does not belong to him – Madam Tabitha. Tabitha is the wife of Ombima’s master and employer Andimi who owns a vast garden characterised by plenty of crops and fruits.
This is a story of inequities. It is a blend of the urban and the rural. A story of fading African traditional cultural practices and the emergent mixed cultural milieu characterised by loose personal relationships and wanting moral values. Andimi is cast as the thrifty business man who has painstakingly invested in building a local empire in the village. Andimi’s homestead is clearly foregrounded as a castle in the backdrop of the wretched village huts that appear like they can cave in at any moment as symbolised in Ang’ote’s dilapidated thatched hut.
Gazemba traces the story of Ombima and his travails as the novel’s protagonist. Ombima’s nuclear family betrays the effort to represent a village life setting since traditionally families would have an average of about ten people in the nuclear family and many more through the extended filial bonds. However, it could also be reminiscent of the shift from the traditional lifestyle to a more modernised mode of life. The serene ambience in Ombima’s homestead is shattered by the death of his only daughter – Saliku – who has been ailing since birth.
Suffice to note that the novel is characterised by elaborate descriptions which cast the story’s setting as a romantic paradise unadulterated by the corrupting ills of mechanization and industrial development. The villagers till their tiny farms and supplement their day to day needs by being casual labourers in Andimi’s farm. Their main chores are tea picking and delivering the produce at the local weighing station. It is a typical farm life commandeered by a foreman in the name of Mudeya-Ngoko, and coloured by the petty jealousies of the labourers as they jostle to find favour either in the foreman or the owner of the farm.
The greatest turbulence in Gazemba’s The Stone Hills of Maragoli happens when Andimi’s wife rocks the proverbial ship after she becomes unhappy with her husband’s obsession with the business franchise as opposed to their marriage. It becomes the same old story of an unhappy wife who falls in love outside marriage, for example, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. All these texts express disillusionment with married life and cast it as dull and listless. It is thus adequate to surmise that Gazemba borrows from this tradition of realistic narration to domesticate the ups and downs of a rural Kenyan village life.
Ombima never thinks nor imagines of an affair with Madam Tabitha. As far as he is concerned, Tabitha is way beyond his reach but when Ombima breaks the law and steals vegetables from Andimi’s garden she takes advantage of her knowledge of his misdemeanour to engage him in an illicit affair without the knowledge of her husband. It is Tabitha who initiates the relationship and dictates the direction of their uninhibited romp. In this context, Ombima is an unwilling party who nevertheless has to dance the marionette dance as long as Madam Tabitha holds the reigns of the strings to their affair. Tabitha’s power and economic standing casts her as possessing an intoxicating and magnetic pull that is characterised by her perfume and one from which Ombima’s weak protestations cannot help him wiggle out of.
It is a relationship that catapults Ombima into turmoil by throwing him of course in as far as being a man in his family is concerned. He becomes a little reckless and he feels unable to provide a sense of proper direction in his family. When Saliku eventually succumbs to her death, Ombima deteriorates in his moral standing. He seeks for solace in smoking and the burden of his inequities towards his employer weighs heavily on his moral conscience. His attempts to ward off the Madam are unsuccessful and he ends up entangled in the sweet aroma of their escapades as they indulge in the steamy and unbridled partaking of the stolen fruit. It is these escapades that take them up to the stone hills of Maragoli from which the novel’s title is borrowed.
Like in the predecessors’ stories of unlawful affairs, this story also ends tragically. Ombima cannot bear the guilt of his relationship alone and he ends up unburdening his soul to his closest friend – Ang’ote. But the jealousies play out and become exaggerated when Ang’ote considers this information as his only sure way out of poverty. Ang’ote confides in Rebecca – the old widow – that he plans to inform Andimi of the escapades of his wife so that he can find favour with him and earn his way up the ladder to riches and a good life. Although Rebecca cautions him against such an undertaking, Ang’ote still goes ahead and breaks so to speak the brother code by betraying his friend. Ang’ote’s decision to report his best friend demonstrates how poor male labourers’ hold voyeuristic gazes towards their rich madams and how they wish to conquer them by indulging in fantastical erotic sexual imaginations.
It is a catastrophic turn of events as a scorned and irate Andimi vows to gorge out Ombima’s eyes for having used them to covet after his wife. The irony of the turn of events is that Andimi had made a personal pact with himself to spend more time with his wife as a way of atoning for his absenteeism. He has vowed to become more loving and to try to reignite the fire that first brought them together. It is however a little too late because Madam Tabitha has become obsessed with getting married to Ombima. The story cautions us about human relationships that are founded on weak foundations since we discover that Andimi had married Tabitha in order to climb the economic ladder by gaining access to business opportunities that her father had.

At the end, it is Madam Tabitha who bears the brunt of her husband’s jealousy and hatred for Ombima whom he considers as a useless servant who should have never dared to do what he did. Andimi succeeds to gorge out Ombima’s eyes but his wife is killed by a watchman’s arrow who is scared that thieves might be plotting to rob the school. Thereafter, Andimi expresses his interest in making his faithful servant his wife now that Tabitha is gone. The tragedy of the turn of events at the end of the text is appeased in that Ombima’s wife – Sayo – is reunited with him and Aradi – his son – becomes his eyes whilst leading him around town to beg for alms. On one hand, this scenario brings the text’s unity into focus since the beginning of the novel had highlighted another old man led by his grandson.  On the other hand, when the two blind men meet again at the end of the novel, the story can then come to an end on a positive light although no one knows whether the peace of the stone hills of Maragoli will ever be assuaged.
The story fist appeared here: http://mediamaxnetwork.co.ke/peopledaily/88976/tasting-forbidden-fruit-stone-hills-maragoli/

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Teaching Kenyan Literature beyond Fireside “Prattles”

Chon gi lala ... thu tinda (Dholuo)
Osa wano ... wano wakwa wathelela vau (Akamba)
Hadithi hadithi, hadithi njoo ... hadithi yangu imeishia hapo (Swahili)
These are sample openings and their respective closing remarks for traditional story telling sessions amongst select Kenyan communities. Many of us look back nostalgically to the traditional evening sessions that would culminate into riddling sessions, song and dance or story telling moments as the day’s activities came to their sunset moment. It was essentially a part of the informal system of education that people were socialised into long before they, yonder, enrolled into formal schooling. Does African oral literature still hold an unassailable position in our learning processes?
Once upon a time colonialist took siege of the education process in Africa and faute de mieux, as per their assumption, embarked on a premeditated task of civilising and rehabilitating Africans from their “darkness” as Chinua Achebe once mocked. Thus, it has been argued by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe himself amongst other African scholars that the colonialist’s interest in educating the Africans was selfish – to groom clerks who would serve as errand boys for their masters. A number of scholars have since faulted this process as being responsible for African people’s mistrust and indulgence in corruption and preferment of the culture of kickbacks and favours. Whether this is true or not is a question for debate in a different context.
The lack of interest in literature is best vivified in the apathy for reading amongst the contemporary general populace. It is likely that there is definitely something wrong with the way we teach the subject. Consider me old school but my take is that the environment in which we are brought up has a significant role to play in how we handle our learning matters. The process of socialisation has been and will continue to inalienably impact on who we are as we progressively evolve from childhood and get initiated into adulthood. This is why the African traditional lore had different genres of art for different age groups.
In our study of literature we have encountered children songs, stories and even other forms of art for varied age groups. Although the target audience for most of these is children, they are not necessarily a preserve for the young audience; they are nonetheless imbued with certain artistic qualities that are endeared towards a young generation. It could be short lines, regular refrains, predictable rhyme – read nursery rhymes, or simple images (pictographic illustrations) amongst others. The idea is to educate the young people’s impressionistic brains with upright values and mores so as to prepare them for a more complex and morally challenging adult life.
Image Courtesy of: http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/images/sunday/kikwetuinisde090912.jpg
Kilumi Dance being performed by women
Moreover, riddles, a common genre amongst Kenyan traditional communities, have always played the more important task of teasing our minds and provoking critical thought. If my memory serves me right, I recall some time back in the 80’s when during mourning periods old men would engage our minds with riddles during the night vigils. Such moments were characterised by a sombre mood but warmed by the bonfire, the members present would wittingly recreate riddles that would not only help reinvigorate the discussions, but also help to mitigate the devastating effects of the loss of a loved one by keeping those affected psychologically occupied.
Family genealogies would sometimes also be elaborately outlined in such contexts. It was then not uncommon to hear an old man ask a young one to describe his family tree. Those who appeared unapprised of the same would be mocked, made fun of and challenged to embrace their pedigree. As such, there was always a subtle suggestion and an affirmation to the bereaved that through death and birth, the cycle of regeneration would keep their generations alive. The spirit of togetherness was forged and the sense of loss occasioned by death alleviated. On the contrary, the modern society is more individualistic and characterised by weak filial bonds. A more developed society appears to suggest that people are busier and less likely to sacrifice their time for such engagements thus hindering parental mentoring of children.
It is thus clear that oral literature forms part of the basic fundamental educational tools for any community. The dos and don’ts are imaginatively recreated and communicated sometimes through ingenious messages. For example, the traditional African ogre narrative has metamorphosed into a contemporary image that is in touch with modern day realities. Recently, during the Africa Literature Association (ALA) Conference in the University of Witwatersrand in April 2014, Professor Njabulo Ndebele in his keynote address castigated the contemporary intelligentsia. He equated them to a people that epitomise buffoonery because they cower in the presence of corrupt leaders.
Borrowing from Ndebele’s point, we can surmise that our education system has inculcated a spirit of intimidation and thus scholars end up engaging in self-denigration by shimmering in shame and fear whilst corrupt leaders exuberantly wag their tongues and wallow in insatiable desire and unbridled greed. We can infer that a corrupt leader is a thinly veiled reflection of the traditional African ogre figure that devours everything and anything on its path. This evil ogre is disproportionately ugly and symbolises the triple iniquities of selfishness, greed and pride. Just like in these traditional tales, the corrupt leaders will fall and good will triumph over evil.
Aestheticism in literature is thus what appeals to the reader’s interest. Even the bible is widely coloured with stories and parables that serve to grant it a proverbial tastefulness. A tactful adoption of arts in the curricular can help inject the much needed vigour and stimuli in the Kenyan educational system. This might be the remedy or antidote to the laissez faire attitude bedevilling our academic lives. I submit thus, that literature should not be hated upon but embraced as a crucial ingredient in the making of the Kenyan educational broth. If we are to establish a solid Kenyan educational tradition, then we might as well tap into the modes of learning that have shaped who we are as a people over the decades.

Our teaching of literature then needs to be reconstructed. As a society we should embrace the arts and not necessarily see them as tools of subversion. In any case, if we shut down the arts, it essentially means that we curtail creativity and deny ourselves a rare opportunity to open up room for job creation and possibly wealth explosion. Our traditional fireside engagements are thus not futile prattles but rather diverse and dynamic tools which we can employ to educate the masses. Traditional methods of teaching can thus be engendered in modern methods of learning in a complimentary process as opposed to either approach being an exclusive venture.
The article also featured here: http://mediamaxnetwork.co.ke/peopledaily/83935/teaching-kenyan-literature-beyond-fireside-prattles/

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