Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Deadly Money Maker: Revisiting McOdongo’s Autobiographical “Tale”

The breadth and depth of autobiographical writing remains a tall tale that only God and the autobiographer himself or herself can verify the veracity thereof of the story. Every time I pick my copy of Saga McOdongo’s Deadly Money Maker to read, I find that I discover more questions as opposed to answers. Saga McOdongo aka Judith Akinyi is known as the former Kenya Polytechnic lecturer who turned into a drug trafficker, a prisoner, an assumed transformed woman and now possibly a prisoner again for alleged lapse into drug trafficking.
I choose to refer to her autobiography as a “tale” deliberately to underscore the failure of the text to resonate with the reader. There are too many gaps that are left wide open. Gaps that dent holes into her perceived conversion from a drug trafficker to an assumed redeemed one. This is especially so bearing in mind that in mid 2010 there were reports that Judith Akinyi had been caught in Italy allegedly trafficking more drugs even after she had convincingly written her text as testimony of her remorse and assumed change of character.
Ideally, an autobiography is expected to help the writer bare her/his soul to the scrutiny of the reader. There is always an assumed sense of trust that is established between the autobiographer and the reader. When this trust is breached, then the autobiography fails in its effort to edify the reader.
It can be argued that Deadly Money Maker breaks the bond of trust the minute the writer chooses a surrogate author to tell her tale. The reader becomes suspicious that the writer could be hiding something hence masquerading and foiling her actions by using a pseudonym. It is this instance that first raises the antennae of doubt about this autobiography.
Furthermore, actions/events in the autobiography must in essence appear credible. Unfortunately, this is not so as far as this autobiography is concerned. The persona comes from a relatively well-to-do family and hence there is no justification for her to use the excuse of money to engage in crime. At the time that she is tempted to join Queen in her deadly money making business, the persona is the daughter of parents who own several rental houses in Buru Buru – a middle class estate.
Her justification that she had to do what Queen was coercing her to do albeit unknowingly is accepted with a pinch of salt. She appears to lay blame on witchcraft but is not believable when she says that she found herself in Pakistan without knowing what business she was to engage in. The question thus begs, if she had already suspected Queen to be a mysterious and dangerous person, then why did she agree to be lured into a business partnership with her?
Other aspects that raise concern about the autobiographical truth of her text include the exaggerated excerpts where she makes attempts to underline her spirituality and assumed redemption. She appears to have quickly metamorphosed and become remorseful of her actions. The reader faults the persona as someone who might be courting for sympathy and early release from prison. Ultimately she benefits from a presidential pardon after serving about seven years out of the eleven she had been sentenced to serve. Watch the story about her return to prison here:
She appears to manipulate the emotions of the reader and to lay emphasis on her guilt and regret. This is albeit the fact that she neither provides details of her husband nor his profession and how her imprisonment affects her family. The tales that she gives about victims of drug abuse being brought to prison and some going insane or dying appear like contrived stories meant to draw the reader to empathise with her and thereby hopefully forgive her. She eventually appears to have succeeded especially when she selflessly takes care of a fellow prisoner who is ailing from HIV/AIDS and who finally succumbs.
McOdongo dedicates a large part of her autobiography to spiritual matters. For example she says that “I was filled with the urge to read the Bible.” (80) As a result, she gives her life to God and begins the spiritual journey to attain redemption. She even compares herself to great men and women in the Bible who had fallen short of God’s glory but later turned to Him for salvation: Paul/Saul, David, Rahab, Moses, Mary Magdalene etc. These analogies are purposed solely to draw the reader to identify with the persona’s wish for empathy and understanding for her fall. Like them, she can also rise from grass to grace.
The remorse and regret exhibited in the autobiography however does not seem to hold together owing to the autobiographical gaps. Her confessions appear to be overtly exaggerated and her release from prison is not talked about. On the contrary, she is slightly humanised by her forgiveness and testimony against Queen when the latter is tried and convicted in the US. As a result, her failure to interrogate her criminal and prison experiences deeper leaves her autobiography dry and brittle. Hers, thus, comes across as another “tale” from prison which may not necessarily be believable.
It is thus not surprising to hear reports that she might be doing another term in prison for allegedly slipping and falling back into the very snare she had made attempts to convince the reader that she had overcome. It is tragic and regrettable that her autobiography would fall short of the ability to edify the reader and thereby act as a testimony of the writer’s redemption from the shackles of crime. Does her text pander to candour or is it just another tale?  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Epitaph for Westgate Mall

It was during the Westgate Mall siege that it suddenly dawned on me that some of the things I watch in movies can happen in real life. It was a frustrating realisation for me especially because I am a student of literature. As a student of literature I should have remembered that movies are part of literature and despite the exaggerations they still bear a sense of faithfulness to reality because after all literature is a mirror of the society. Now that is interesting. During this devastating time I penned down the following poem as a tribute to humankind:

To be so vulnerable,
To know that there is nothing one can do,
To lie hopeless like a hit and run victim,
To think of the muzzles of guns,
To imagine of death, to smell the fear in the air,
To listen to the rat a tat of gun fire,
To see the bodies strewn all over, 
the kids & women scampering about in panic,
This is to be intimate with horror,
And to understand helplessness...

May those that were affected by this tragedy discover the Lord's love and grace.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Nuditas Virtualis vis-à-vis Nuditas Criminalis

Image courtesy of Google
Nudity has always remained an enigma for the human being. Yet the question remains: should we be so enthralled by nudity? What is the charm in a nude being that so holds us entranced and engrossed in debate endlessly? These thoughts are not in any way an attempt to answer these and other related questions. I am only penning my limited experience with art and its discourse with nudity.
The first time I heard the expression nuditas virtualis and nuditas criminalis mentioned was in my undergraduate class. My Modern African Poetry Lecturer, The late Teyie – a great teacher and poet – made reference to these terms in connection to western African totems and other symbolic elements in West African poetry. Little did I know that the words would have such a big influence in my interaction with writers such as David Maillu, D.H. Lawrence, Jackie Collins, Gustave Flaubert, and Charles Mangua amongst others.
Nuditas virtualis refers to art that aspires for the divine, the pure and the uncorrupted whereas nuditas criminalis connotes art that is corrupted, laced with shame or tainted with thoughts of sin. These statements are not absolute in any way and there are of course academic definitions to shed light further on what the terms stand for. But hey, am only blogging here.
How then do we read/interpret statues, photos, graffiti and other texts that provide us with infinite opportunities for knowledge regeneration? Umberto Eco argues that “A text is a device conceived in order to produce its Model Reader. This Reader is not the one who makes the 'only/ right' conjecture. A text can foresee a Model Reader entitled to try infinite conjectures.” Let me run away from the academia and simply state that we are all entitled to make observations and draw conclusions based on our views of any text but such interpretations are guided and guarded by the very text itself.
Therefore, any statements a reader makes in relation to a text are inherently supposed to be based within the confines of the text’s context, that is, the text being coherent as a whole. This is what makes it possible for us to conclude that a text is interesting, boring, intuitive, philosophical, religious, or even immoral if you like. As Umberto Eco surmises, “the internal textual coherence controls the otherwise uncontrollable drives of the reader”.
There used to be a statue outside Uchumi Aga Khan Walk. I don’t know whether it is still there. What I liked the most about it were the words inscribed on the roughly hewn out figure of a man that was supposed to be a prototype for the urban labourer I imagine. The wording was something like “He lives in the city but his heart is at home”. The phrase has always resonated with my alienation as a Nairobian.
I have often felt that the city is no place for the likes of me. I look back to my rural home and life with a lot of nostalgia. I don’t know whether it is culture shock or the inability to integrate well into the urban life but I always feel out of place whilst in Nairobi. Perhaps it is my romantic nature that feels starved and denied the fragrance of fresh oxygen and cold mountain breezes that are a preserve of rural/country life. I may never know where the discrepancy lies.
But I digress too much. I was penning this write up as a tribute to the statue at the High Court compound. I remember the kind of furore it raised when it was propped up. If memory serves me right there were even some attempts by certain Christians to have it brought down. Their argument was that it was immoral to have the statue of a young boy urinating in public with full view of his genitalia glaring to the masses. Remember? I am not even sure that the statue of the boy is peeing!!
On this note can someone please tell me if the human sized statues at the entrance of the Museum of Kenya are still there? When I first saw them in the 90s I could not help it but focalise on their nudity too. In fact I still remember thinking out loud that the sculptor had been generous with their genitalia and taboo parts in terms of sizing et al. 
Then there is the sculpture of the woman at the entry of Maendeleo House with her breasts. I wonder whether this has also been a subject of bitter altercations. I am sure that there are many other forms of art not just in Kenya but the world over that have given many sleepless nights. For example there is the painting by Leonardo da Vinci of the last supper which Dan Brown drew from in The Da Vinci Code and which became a source of controversy. In addition, there are numerous novels that have been castigated as amoral. 
Image courtesy of Google
I guess then what is important is our ability to determine between what is nuditas virtualis and nuditas criminalis. If a young person were to take a peek at a nude adult, then that would be considered unethical; hence morally criminal. The same would apply to posting nude photos online, watching pornography, dirty magazines etc. But how do we judge and arrive at the conclusion that such a process entails nuditas criminalis?
The Neoplatonic thinking argues that nuditas criminalis encapsulates all art forms that lead to moral decay – that is the degenerative process of our physical beings to succumb to immorality. For example, we can argue that in Kenya we have politically, socially or even economically degenerated. Hence our sense of innocence is lost and our yearning for that which is pure becomes curtailed. Consequently, our thinking is clouded by evil thoughts/intentions and the perspective of religious piety is essentially lost.
On the contrary, nuditas virtualis is indicative of purity or that which is in the state of innocence – unblemished. It is in essence based on the Neoplatonic concept of divinity. This is pegged on the identification of that which is beautiful, good and true. Hence, good texts or sculptures for that matter aim at portraying a sense of the externalisation of the spirituality of the human soul in their art. If we were to hold true the belief that man is the image of God then clothing the human body can be perceived as corrupting it literally.
Thus, this might explain why in the traditional African setting most body parts were left uncovered. I wish I could glean some information from our ancestors whether they found it weird to walk around naked and if they ever found themselves mesmerised by each other’s genitalia. On the same vein can anyone tell me whether in the northern part of Kenya some communities still have some of their members walking around semi nude? Is it a sense of cultural pride – nuditas virtualis or would anyone consider it nuditas criminalis?
I will probably never determine the line between that which is divine and pure and that which is ugly and corrupting when it comes to art. This might be because of the subjective nature of human conjectures. For instance, movies have a tendency to portray more taboo body parts of women as opposed to those of men. Is it a case of gender insensitivity? Last but not least, are nude statues immoral or is it us, the humans, who are immoral? Is it our thinking that is corrupt and unable to process beauty – divination – but instead succumbs to the degenerative process hence resulting to criminalis?

A Review of Onduko bw'Atebe's “The Verdict of Death”

Welcome to the world of prison writing. The title echoes the passing of a judgement over someone or something. Believe it or not you have to read the text to unravel the mystery behind this title. The story is curved out around the protagonist, Morii Matano, who happens to be an unlucky victim of a love gone awry. The story opens with prisoners being rushed to jail and vivid descriptions of the gory details of brutality in prison. It all seems like a movie but the events narrated in this text can easily be corroborated by the plethora of prison novels and autobiographies from Kenyan prisons.
In retrospect and through flashbacks we are indulged in the flashy lifestyles of flight attendants. Apparently Morii has been working for the Continental Airlines up to and until his subsequent arrest and imprisonment. Thus, the author conflates the events in the narrative in a way that all the details unfold at the same time – shifting from the past to the present simultaneously. This is how we savour the steamy relationship between Morii and Amina even though he is married to Susan and they have two gorgeous kids. Encased in the love web is Simon Mutua a security officer who also happens to have fallen in love with Amina – the la femme fatale goddess of the novel.
In a whirlwind of events, Mutua goes out of his way to woo Amina to love him by buying her expensive items like a smart phone and even dares to acquire for her a sports car. On his part, Morii takes advantage of his position to influence the duty roster of Amina so that their working schedules are synchronised. It is Morii who conquers her heart when they eventually cement their feelings for each other in London as they traverse the country visiting Morii’s aunt and sampling delicacies at Ling Ying’s Chinese restaurant.
Some readers may take issue with the perceived tolerance for polygamy or the suggested myth that women can only be won through money and lavish lifestyles but this is a fictional narrative. Whether it is true to reality or not the fact is that the text resonates with gender issues that will have many up in arms. Importantly, the text underscores the question of crime and punishment and indicts all of us for abdicating our social responsibility in one way or the other.
Mutua, the jilted lover, connives and implicates Morii on the theft of a passenger’s wallet and the rest is history. Morii is incarcerated and sentenced to imprisonment. It is whilst in prison that we learn the stories of similar characters like Osuka who have been unlawfully indicted to waste their lives in prison owing to disagreements with either business partners or under suspicious circumstances. The demeaning prison environment has dehumanised both the prisoners and the prison warders creating an environment conducive for violence.
Morii is eventually brutalised in an unfathomable way by Omosh and his gang. As a result, he develops a black hate for all his tormentors and passes a death verdict, vowing to kill everyone who had lend a hand in his turmoil. It is up to you to read and determine whether Morii’s verdict of death is warranted or not.

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