Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Pitfalls of Economic Inequalities

Kinyanjui Kombani is the author of The Last Villains of Molo. He is a banker but also a creative writer. In this first novel, Kombani prophetically deals with the palpable scenario that is the flawed Kenyan electoral process. The hope for the country is ostensibly placed on the shoulders of a young generation in the hope that they are not tainted by the blood of tribal animosity that has dogged Kenya since independence.
However, in Den of Inequities, Kombani chooses to revisit the question of socioeconomic stratification. In this narrative we are compelled to come face to face with the ramifications of the ever widening gap between the poor and the rich. A den is a nest or as symbolised in this text it could be a hole in which all hell breaks loose without remorse. In fact, the main abode inhabited by the poor in this novel is a slum known as Mashimoni, literally a hell hole on earth. It is a place where crime is bred and the police have a field day exercising extrajudicial executions. I have gathered from my reading that the reader will have a hard time trying to distinguish what is factual from that which is fictional.  
The writer’s flair of description is evident in the narrative. In the opening chapter we are met with the following: “A hullabaloo of activity heralded the beginning of yet another weekend. The narrow, one-lane main road was bursting with the usual crowd; noisy winos staggering out of illicit liquor dens; mothers making last minute trips to the sukuma-wiki kiosks and charcoal dealers in preparation for supper; haggard-looking men and women trudging home from work and so on.” (p.1) This is the opening scene that heralds the typical Kenyan slum life that the reader will interact with throughout the narrative. 
In addition, characters are appropriately named. It is not uncommon to discover the use of pen names or shortened versions of names amongst slum dwellers. For example instead of Kamau the tenants of such tenements result to Kama, Oti for Otieno, Omosh for Omollo or Omondi amongst others. Whatever the reasons, one can only assume that it is an aesthetic way of trying to colour their lives with some essence of beauty and redeem themselves from the image of disfigurement brought about by poverty, marginalisation and political neglect.
Furthermore, such forms of characterisation can help the reader to unearth elements of deviant behaviour amongst people of the lower cadre in society. Having been socialised in a ghetto life reminiscent of police harassment where the first thing a police officer demands for is a person’s full name – majina yako yote kamili – the slum dwellers may have unconsciously resulted to using shorted versions of names or nicknames as a way of defying the rule of law. It could also be a conscious effort to preserve their identity against the debilitating effects of crime which is usually associated with slum dwellers. Thus, the use of a nickname or a shortened version of one’s name protects the identity of the character and maintains a boundary between who the person is in real life and the external parameters of identification brought about by association to/with crime. 
For example, Omosh is cast as a typical slum dweller. He is a casual labourer in the construction industry and as expected he cannot meet the economic needs of his nuclear family. He uses all his savings to buy medication for his sick toddler despite the fact that his rent is long overdue and he risks having his family spending their nights out in the cold. But even then, he never gets home with the medication. It is as though fate has connived with sickness and an unjust system to drive him to the precipices of suicide. However, an interesting twist of events transforms Omosh from an innocent poverty ravaged man to a cruel vengeance-laden individual.
The reader finds out that Omosh never gets to deliver the medication because some corrupt police pick him up when they mistake him for being part of a street brawl. The other three characters arrested together with him are released after bribing the policemen but Omosh has no cent on him. When he is advised to plead guilty to being drunk and disorderly, he ends up being sentenced to three months imprisonment by a judge who harbours bitterness for drunkards because his wife lost her life thanks to drunken driving by some young rich men. When later released, Omosh discovers that the local carpenter toppled his role as a family head. The psychological turmoil he experiences drives him to the forest to commit suicide but, whilst on the crag of hanging himself, somehow something snaps when he sees policemen on patrol and he bludgeons them to death as reprisal for what the law enforcers had subjected him to. This killing starts off a vicious cycle of killings that pits a special police unit –Operation Fagia (the final clean up) –and The Chama against each other.
On the other hand, Gosti, a sheng word for ghost, is the product of an absentee father. The narrative underscores the fact that the ghost of his absentee father will haunt him to his death. Having been a perpetual prisoner, Gosti comes home one day to find his filthy rich and obese father uncomfortably nestled on a stool in his hovel. Although their encounter is an uncomfortable one, they later strike a rapport when the father frames Gosti to be indicted for a murder he had not committed. He does this so as to conscript Gosti as his killing machine to eliminate political enemies. It is only much later that we discover that Gosti’s father was a member of a dreaded group – The Chama – which symbolises the dreaded infamous Kenyan Mungiki terror gang.
Image courtesy of the writer
The incongruity of the father-son relationship is emphasised in the father’s protuberant belly which makes it impossible for him to hug Gosti and hopefully cement their reunion albeit physically. His Mercedes car so conspicuously stands out such that the reader is compelled to see him as an unnecessary intrusion in the life of his son. Therefore, the text casts him as an outcast in the slum where his poor son has had to glean for morsels to feed himself and the wife whereas the father wallows in opulence. It is no surprise that Gosti ends up becoming a mugger/thief to make ends meet.
Police are stereotypically portrayed in the narrative. They are presented as corrupt, dehumanised and easily compromised. Through the text, we are able to visualise the way in which the police end up getting involved in corrupt deals or the way they extort money from thugs and other criminal gangs so as to provide them with protection. Moreover, politicians such as Aileen’s father have managed to scale the political ladder by adopting similar unethical trends. Consequently, all the characters in the text appear to have split personalities – double identities. For example Edward The Chama leader who falls in love with Aileen although she is not privy of his role in the outlawed group.
On her part, Aileen represents the spoiled ‘brats’ of rich families who dictate the social life in Kenyan universities. Her initial relationship with Alex, a campus rugby player, is reminiscent of young people’s fantasies and the utopian short lived relationships that are as quickly formed and broken as the young people’s tastes change. The disparity of rich kids on campus and the poor ones is glaring. Such disproportions are indicative of the economic gap between the rich and the poor in Kenya. These differences are somehow blamed for the broken moral fabric and the upsurge in insecurity.

The cover appears glossy and aesthetically appealing but the paper used to print the text is wanting. One can only hope that the economic inequalities explored in the narrative are not replicated in the form of a publisher who deliberately exploits the writer or the reader who buys the text. Also, although the text attempts to effectively explore serious issues, the plot and some characters could have done better with proper development. Essentially, the text warns us that if we don’t put in effort to bridge the gap between the poor and the rich, then we should be prepared to accept the attendant issues of insecurity, promiscuity and terrorist attacks amongst many other pitfalls. 
Read more about Kombani here:

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Reclaiming Humanity: A Review of A Human Being Died that Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

On Friday 30th January 2015, it was announced that Eugene de Kock, the former head of covert operations and death squad unit of the South African Apartheid Police popularly referred to as “Prime Evil” had been given parole. Eugene has been granted parole on what the judge refers to as in the interest of forgiveness, national healing and reconciliation. Furthermore, the judge notes that the next of kin of the victims of “Prime Evil” were consulted in arriving at this decision; also, Eugene has to abide by certain conditions set by the court upon his release.
Image courtesy of Google images
Eugene de Kock, mispronounced as Dikoko by black guards in prison as noted by Pumla, was sentenced to two life terms plus 212 years in prison for his activities as head of the infamous Vlakplaas police death squad targeting anti-apartheid activists. The highly decorated former colonel confessed to more than 100 acts of murder, torture and fraud before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in 1995 to consider amnesty for those who confessed their crimes during apartheid. He was granted amnesty for most offences — including the 1982 bombing of the ANC's London offices — but was jailed for six murders that were found to have lacked direct political motivation.
The discussions around his imprisonment and possible parole have been characterized by divergent views. Some have considered his crimes against humanity too heinous to be forgiven whereas others have looked at Eugene as a symbolically repentant prisoner who is serving a term in prison on behalf of leaders who have refused to own up and take responsibility for the crimes committed by the likes of Eugene at their command. Pumla’s interviews with him led her to conclude that “de Kock was clearly angry that he had been made a scapegoat – that while he had been sought after as a master counterinsurgency strategist and treated like a hero under apartheid, he had become the most despised white person in post-apartheid South Africa.”
 Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s text A Human Being Died that Night is a true testimony of Malusi Mpumlwana’s prayer that what we need as human beings is forgiveness and healing because that is the only thing that can redeem us from dehumanisation. During the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, he said: “When they torture you, you look on them and you say, ‘By the way, these are Gods children,’... and you know they need you to help them recover the humanity they are losing.” Although Pumla does not directly prescribe for de Kock to be paroled, her psychological insights gathered from her interactions with him whilst interviewing him in prison attest to these words by Malusi. Besides, Njabulo Ndebele argues that for South Africa to become free from the scars of apartheid, it must engage in the recovery of humans. Read about Pumla here:
This recovery of humanity can only be possible through forgiveness which Pumla defines as being characterised by supernatural powers: “There seems to be something spiritual, even sacramental, about forgiveness – a sign that moves and touches those who are witnesses to its enactment” (95). It is possible to argue that through forgiveness, the victim releases not just the resentment and anger but also the burden of carrying hatred and being weighed down by the feeling of vulnerability and hopelessness. The victim sets both the oppressor and himself/herself free from the bondage of emotional scars and trauma caused by crimes against humanity. Thus, s/he reclaims humanity and regains power by taking control of his/her traumatic past.
TFR Members 2014
Indeed, Pumla describes de Kock as a man who is paradoxically dead. She notes that “As behind-the-scenes engineer of apartheid’s murderous operations, he had been faceless and nameless. Now that he was exposed, his name was unpronounceable – as unspeakable – as his deeds [de Kock being referred to as Dikoko]. Using her skills as a trained clinical psychologist, Pumla sets out to hold a series of sessions with de Kock that are characterised by trepidation on her part. However, she eventually discovers that de Kock has a side of him that might be unknown to the rest of the world – the fact that he is human just like the rest of us. But, for de Kock “A human being died [one particular] night [when he got involved in a] murder operation” (51). The guilty conscience of the killing was so overwhelming that he had to discard his clothes and towels because he felt that death was clinging to him by way of a pungent smell that he couldn’t wash away.
Pumla’s interview sessions with de Kock help her to unearth how the latter is progressively sucked into the bitterness of the apartheid regime and subsequently he becomes their death machine, a highly feared man who spells doom for his victims. The conversations reveal that de Kock looks back with hindsight and regrets his involvement in the torture and murder of blacks. Although religion had taught them that they were fighting for what is right for the whites, de Kock gets shocked to discover a copy of a well-read bible, same as the one he uses, in the hands of a black man. Thereafter, he reckons that “We fought for nothing, we fought each other basically for nothing. We could all have been alive having a beer. And the politicians? If we could put all politicians in the front lines with their families, and grandparents, and grandchildren – if they are in the frontline, I don’t think we will ever have a war again” (78).
Eugene de Kock loses not only his innocence but his sense of self-worth as a human being. It is as a result of this that Pumla considers de Kock a dead man. When you lose your conscience as a human being and begin to rationalise your murderous acts towards fellow human beings, then you cease to exist by the mere fact that you cease to value human life. Unless the perpetrator of crimes against humanity owns up to his/her acts, then s/he remains in a state of limbo of denial and may never be redeemed from their evil acts. Pumla posits that “Typically, the perpetrator starts off with rationalization, to convince himself of the legitimacy of his acts, then he begins to communicate his rationalization to others. At this point it is no longer a rationalization but a “truth” that releases the perpetrator from any sense of guilt he may still feel about the evil deeds. If the enemy is doing the same thing he himself is engaged in, then he can’t be that bad” (23).
Eugene de Kock: Image courtesy of Google images
Part of de Kock’s redemption emanates from the fact that he was a crusader for the protection of children. He argues that his conscience would not have allowed him to see children suffering. Also, Pumla’s touch of his trigger hand helps him to connect with humanity by the mere fact that the gesture demonstrates empathy for his lost soul. His cry for a human touch to help rescue his dead soul from the evil that has swallowed it demonstrates his desire to recant his evil past. Besides, during the Truth and Reconciliation sessions, he notes that his confession helped him to shed off the burden of crimes he had committed that were weighing heavily on his shoulders. Indeed, his meeting with mothers and widows of victims he had tortured and killed not only brings closure to the women, but it also helps position them in a state of power over de Kock. Eventually when they choose to forgive him it is because they connect with de Kock as a human being. One woman says that she had forgiven de Kock owing to the empathy she felt for him and she hoped that when de Kock saw their tears he would realise it was not just for their husbands but also for him – that he can change and rediscover his humanity.

A Human Being Died that Night reveals the power of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. Although there are many issues that require reparation for the South African nation to heal and forge forward in unity, a lot of sacrifice is required from both the victims and perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Full disclosure accompanied by genuine remorse and desire for forgiveness will help give impetus to the process of healing. Pumla notes that although it cannot provide solutions for all problems facing humankind, “dialogue does create avenues for broadening our models of justice and for healing deep fractures in a nation by unearthing, acknowledging, and recording what has been done. It humanizes the dehumanized and confronts perpetrators with their humanity. Through dialogue, victims as well as the greater society come to recognize perpetrators as human beings who failed morally, whether through coercion, the perverted convictions of a warped mind, or fear” (119). It is a text that provides a wealth of knowledge for communities and nations grappling with deep-seated decades of trauma and hatred to seek for a redemptive process hinged on forgiveness and reconciliation. Read about de Kock here:

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