One would readily recall a Kenyan literary critic who, in commenting on the supposed divide between sciences and the humanities, thought that only a political leader trained in the sciences can torch people in a church (see Saturday Nation, Jun 11, 2016). Perhaps the observation was well-intended, but the target was obvious. The infamous burning of the above church occurred at Kiambaa, in Kenya’s North Rift region where the Kalenjin people live. The 35 victims of the arson were members of the Kikuyu community (see Waki Report, 2008).
However, that’s a daring statement from a literary scholar, if one considers the history of Kenyan leadership. This point is relevant to the relationship between literature and propaganda specifically in regard to Kwani? writing, an idea which forms the core of this discussion. It is possible to argue that many of Alex La Guma’s and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s writings are “Socialist propaganda.” Similarly, one would partially interpret George Orwell’s works as “Capitalist propaganda.” I am interested mainly in how Kwani? depicts the 2007 elections in its Kwani? 05 Twin edition part-1 (2008). We should keep in mind that this particular election pitted Kikuyu and Luo candidates against each other.
To return to the Kiambaa church tragedy above, and show how the unfortunate incident probably had nothing to do with sciences and the humanities, I observe that Kenya has known many cruelties since independence in 1963. And yet all of the country’s four presidents came from the humanities. Jomo Kenyatta had a diploma in anthropology; Daniel Arap Moi was a teacher of the humanities; Mwai Kibaki studied economics; and Uhuru Kenyatta is a political science graduate. Apart from the beastly Kiambaa church incident above, many recall the 11 members of a family which perished in an arson case blamed on an outlawed sect (Mungiki) in Naivasha Town during the same 2007/2008 post-election violence. In this particular case, even a foetus was burnt in the womb (see IRIN, Feb 16, 2011).
With the data of Kenyan presidents in mind, it would be impossible to conclude that the Naivasha case was the commission or omission of a scientist leader. However, what one should remember is the Waki Report’s confirmation that a majority of victims in Naivasha were Luo, Luhyia, and Kalenjin in that order.The Kriegler and Waki Report (Revised Edition, 2009) captures some of the gruesome things that happened to Naivasha victims:
Women and children’s labia and vaginas were cut using sharp objects and bottles were stuffed into them. Men and boys, in turn, had their penises cut off and were traumatically circumcised, in some cases using cut glass. Furthermore, entire families, including children often were forced to watch their parents, brothers and sisters being sexually violated (p.55).
There’s a sense in which Literature should challenge and humanise governance, however risky it is for a writer to do so. It shouldn’t matter that the president comes from a writer’s community. I think that the books that a country’s authors produce – at least those that narrate statehood with all its shortcomings and successes – should teach the people that they, and all the others, are enclosed within the state as a temporal imaginary. This is where the writings of Kwani? Trust come in, in regard to how they depict what happened in Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence.
We appreciate that a very thin line separates Literature from propaganda. A slight deviation from the boundary –especially in Africa with her varied ethnicities – makes Literature a “political act.” In the case of Kwani? writing, we may note that nearly all villains come from a specific Kenyan community (based on names). Conversely, all heroes and heroines are embedded in a separate community. In cases where the former rule is disobeyed, an authorial rider is offered to justify the circumstances.
I think it’s a dangerous way to depict characters in a postcolonial African context.The trend runs the risk of stereotyping certain sections of the national community.To contextualise the above perception, it’s important to observe that Kwani? Writing exhibits a skewed view of corruption and violence in Kenya. The only corruption scandal which a Kwani? text explores at length is the Goldenberg Scandal which occurred in the Moi regime during the 1990s. Based on the Scandal, Kwani?’s managing editor, Billy Kahora, wrote “The True Story of David Munyakei: Goldenberg Whistleblower” (in Kwani? 01, 2003).
One would rightly question why David Munyakei remains the only anti-corruption crusader on whom Kwani? has done some work.The best known anti-corruption crusader in Kenya today is John Githongo. He’s the whistleblower who raised the red flag on Kenya’s Anglo-Leasing Scandal. Githongo has risked life and limb fighting corruption for 26 years. Is it possible that Kwani? Trust remains disinterested in Githongo’s life story because Anglo-Leasing Scandal did not happen in the Moi regime?
Even currently, under President Uhuru Kenyatta’s tenure, most Kenyan experts agree that the country has never had to contend with a higher level of corruption cases in her history (see Daily Nation, Aug 2, 2015). However the good thing is that most of these cases have been unearthed. If commitment were the chief motivation, then I don’t see what would prevent a Kwani? managing editor from writing the life stories of these valiant whistleblowers.
In Binyavanga’s memoir (2011), corruption cases which occurred during Jomo Kenyatta’s and Kibaki’s reigns are overlooked.Conversely, those hatched in the Moi regime appear overblown. While the perception of Moi’s tenure as a corrupt president is exaggerated and sexed up in the above memoir, (and re-told in Parselelo Kantai’s The Cock Thief (2010)), the horrendous excesses of the Kenyatta regime –especially blood-chilling assassinations and institutional land grabbing through “land-buying companies” at the time – appear silenced and subtly glorified in Binyavanga’s The Life of Mzee Ondego (2006).
Eva Kasaya’s memoir (2010) seems to re-tell the greedy brutality of the administrative police during the Moi era (the “ligutu”). However the same doesn’t apply in the context of Kwani? 05 Part-1, a volume which was issued to capture Kenya’s post-election violence. In the latter case, the legendary heavy-handedness of the police force during the 2008 post-election violence remains loudly inaudible. So does the pivotal role of the Mungiki Sect in that election. Even at the level of pictures alone, one is able to draw conclusions regarding a possible journalistic slant. There are around 3 photographs intended to summarise what happened in Kibera (a perceived opposition zone). The rest of the photographs are devoted to the Rift Valley (out of over 100 pictures). Needless to say, there’s no photograph of the house where the 11 members of a family perished in Naivasha.
Arguably the most objective analysis of the 2008 violence can be said to be TheWaki Report. It reads in part:
Evidence from the pathologist DrOdour352 revealed that of the 50 people shot by police in Kisumu 30 were shot from behind and a further 9 from the side. In addition 3 of the deceased were under the age of 14 years (one a 10 year old girl) and 3 were female. One of the children, a 12 year old boy, was shot twice in the back. Further a 45 year old woman was shot and killed whilst in her home just outside the CBD (P.398).
Somebody killed Kenyans in 2007/2008. Interestingly, the Waki Report documents that a majority of the 1,133 post-election violence deaths in 2008 were as a result of police bullets. The Report further clarifies:
The Commission found that there was a heavy-handed Police response whereby large numbers of citizens were shot – 405 fatally 415 – by Police in Kisumu, Kakamega, Trans Nzoia, Uasin Gishu, Kericho, Nakuru, Nairobi, and other places. Among the victims were some who were ostensibly going about their lawful business when they were hit by bullets and many more whose wounds confirmed that they had been shot from behind (pp.417-418).
The towns stated above are found in the then opposition axis. Therefore, those who suffered the brunt of police brutality mostly belonged to the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), as opposed to Mwai Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU). The Waki Report carries an objective view of how the violence spread in Nairobi:
Violence started in Kibera, Mathare, Dandora, Kariobangi and Kawangware upon announcement of the Presidential results and the subsequent swearing in of President Kibaki on 30th December 2007. Police were deployed to cordon off Uhuru Park to prevent the ODM and its leaders from holding its meeting there. Later, the killing of the late Embakasi MP-HonMelitus Mugabe Were on 29th January 2008 in Nairobi’s Woodley Estate accelerated the violence. A common thread in the post election violence was the wanton destruction of property and the severe effect arson has had on people’s lives and property. Forced circumcision reportedly on Luo victims and attributed to members of the Mungiki Sect was also reported [my emphasis] (p.64).
There appears to be no difference at all between how Kwani? literature conceptualises Kenya’s liminal binary between violence and statehood, and Ngugi’s traditional view which attributes the story of Kenya’s independence to the Mau Mau alone. All Kwani? writing seems to identify with, and glorify the idea of violence as redemptive, especially when it comes from a specific geographical origin. The South African hero “Nongoloza” (p.168) in Binyavanga’s memoir might be an allusion to Ngugi’s Dedan Kimathi. Kwani? 05 doesn’t seem to acknowledge violence when it is visited on other Kenyan communities. This might be the reason the whole of Kwani? 05 fails to name the attrocities that Mungiki Sect meted out on other Kenyan communities in the 2008 post-election violence.
The above philosophy may have been spread across all the nine volumes of the Kwani? Journal publication. Eva Kasaya’s memoir also echoes this trend in terms of attributing violence to just one Kenyan community. Kasaya’s text contains not a quirk of the post-election drama, yet it unfolded and found her caught between Nairobi and Mbale, in Western Province. Is there a part of the writer’s life story around that time which may offend certain quarters, since her community belonged in the then opposition?
The reason Kwani? 05 doesn’t name political violence directed at other Kenyan communities might lie elsewhere. Binyavanga Wainaina seems to identify with, and glorify the Mungiki Sect in his memoir. He appears to speak for them. He writes:
When Mungiki militias took over this area, they started to build straight roads and demolish shacks. They said that straight roads make it hard for thieves to hide. Most of us think Mungiki are the lowest of the low…Mash is a Mungiki supporter; he says crime has stopped and young men have something to believe in, something to do (2011:252).
The Mungiki Sect is largely found in Central Province. Some of its concerns are very valid, such as poverty and landlessness, which was exacerbated by the Jomo Kenyatta regime. However, its methods are objectionable: the sect believes in violence, Gikuyu ethnic superiority, female genital mutilation, and in the myth that Kenyan leadership must revolve around Mount Kenya.The Sect remains one of the most conservative political forces in Kikuyuland (see Daily Nation, March 2, 2013).
There is palpable bias in the way Kwani? 05 captures the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya. Someone ought to investigate why all Kwani?’s post-election violence writing is depicted outside the context of colonial land policy, and Jomo Kenyatta’s and Tom Mboya’s Sessional Paper Number 10 of 1965. This is the document that’s largely responsible for the land mayhem which continues to haunt Kenya to date, and any discussion on Kenyan politics revolving around land and settlement is untenable outside its context.
The Mungiki theme and its possible connection to Kwani? Trust aside, there are other obvious reasons why the Ford Foundation, the Lambent Foundation, and Stichting Doen should all find out if their donor money is being guzzled in political propaganda. Take the example of Kenya’s cultural production in regard to music – specifically the benga/nyatiti/orutu genre – and how Binyavanga’s memoir treats the same with respect to the 2002 elections (the very last section of the book is the author’s attempt at interpreting the efficacy of benga music; one notes the overtly spiteful tone – as spiteful as it is when the narrator refers to nyatiti and orutu musical instruments in the initial pages).
All Kenyan musicologists attribute the origins of benga music to Western Kenya, specifically to the Luo community. In Tabu Osusa’s DVD which Binyavanga refers to in the memoir, benga genre is traced to orutu and nyatiti (both are traditional Luo musical instruments). Two of the most recognisable characteristics of benga music are: (1) a prominent base, and (2) the fact that the solo guitar line echoes the vocal orientation of the singers. To Binyavanga, the latter is proof of the inferiority of benga music.
To be fair though, Binyavanga should be congratulated on attempting a treatise on Luo music. However any true musicologist must find the result amateurish and a bit too personal. The analysis is philosophically ignorant. It also sounds driven by something else much more than the desire to know – a vitriolic impulse.
Given Kenya’s largely savannah landscape and the link between the physical environment and music, my own interpretation is that benga music could have erupted anywhere else in Kenya. It didn’t have to be the Luo. That virtually all Kenyan communities easily absorbed and appropriated the genre might be the proof.
Why does the chorus echo the solo guitar in benga music in, for instance, Awino Lawi’s “Rusco Mammy” (available online)? The reason might lie in Luo history and philosophy. The word “Luwo” – from which the “Luo” tribe derives its name – means to “follow” in Dholuo. The Luo claim that they “followed” the Nile downwards. The word is potent and almost spiritual in contexts revolving around filial relationships, including in the mating of animals. I posit that the phenomenon of chorus/solo guitar concurrence might be an expression of the said philosophy. This particular feature holds true for even ohangla music, the contemporary Luo genre currently enjoying massive airplay in Kenya (songs by Tony Nyadundo, Emma Jalamo, Osogo Winyo…are available online).
Connected to the above is the role music played in Kenya’s elections of 2002. All Kenyan cultural analysts agree that the then opposition party NARC appropriated a rap song, “Who Can Bwogo Me?” by Gidi Gidi Maji Maji (available online). The word “bwogo” is Dholuo for “to scare” – needless to say that the band comprised a Luo duo. Interestingly, Western donors will never find Gidi Gidi Maji Maji in Binyavanga’s memoir. What they are sure to find are then relatively obscure bands such as Kalamashaka and Ukoo Flani Mau Mau.
Any fair understanding of a genuine and responsible contemporary African writer is that which sees such a scribe as an honest chronicler of national upheavals in all their varied shades. Not for the sake of it, but because these overtly conflicting trajectories have a benevolent way of intersecting at a certain point, thereby gelling rather than tearing the national fabric. Kwani? Trust’s silence on what the Mungiki Sect did in 2008 – and the Sect’s praise by the establishment’s founder – might be more than just an accident. It could be something so conservative as to revolt the many Kikuyu intellectuals I work with. The Ford Foundation, the Lambent Foundation, and Stichting Doen ought to find out if their support to Kenyan Literature stands in the way of real national integration in Kenya.
AFP. Aug 2, 2015. “Corruption in Kenya ‘worse than ever’ says veteran campaigner John Githongo.” Daily Nation.
Kahora, Billy. 2003. “The True Story of David Munyakei: Goldenberg Whistleblower.” In Kwani? 01. Nairobi: Kwani Trust.
Kantai, Parselelo. 2010. The Cock Thief. Nairobi: Kwani Trust.
Kasaya, Eva. 2010. Tale of Kasaya. Nairobi: Kwani Trust.
Mukinda, Fred. Mar 2, 2013. “Police on the trail of letter to CJ author.” Daily Nation.
Mwangi, Evan. Jun 11, 2016. “Dear Dr Matiang’i, don’t kill arts; it will pull us from brink.” Daily Nation.
Odiwuor, Kenneth. Feb, 16, 2011. ‘Benard Ndege, “I Need to Know Who Killed My Family.”’ IRIN.
Wainaina, Binyavanga. 2006. The Life of Mzee Ondego. Nairobi: Kwani Trust.
——–2011. One Day I Will Write About this Place. Nairobi: Kwani Trust.
Waki, Philip. 2008. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Post Election Violence (CIPEV). Nairobi: Govt. Printer.