One of the most enduring characteristics of Kwani? Literature is its apparently smooth but cryptic nature. This is at the surface level. Much of the writing sounds subtle, coded, and relies on a network of multi-layered allusion underpinned by, in most cases, playful language. The keen reader almost feels as if there’s something the text tries to hide.
A good example would be an extract from Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write about This Place (2011). In a specific instant, an intriguing conversation takes place between the narrator and his two friends, Mash and Ndizi. Binyavanga writes:
I hand over some money to Mash, and Ndizi passes me the rolls of bhangi.
His dreadlocks splash spaghetti shadows on my shirt.
“Why do they call you Ndizi?”
His laugh sounds like paper rustling on a radio microphone.
“Ndizi kaa Sunday morning.”
An answer and no answer. A Jamaican accent smudges the seams of his Sheng.
His voice has the rich musical undertones of a Luo [my emphasis] (p.254).
In this discussion, I set out to probe what the narrator’s intention would be in linking the word ‘Ndizi’ with ‘Luo’, especially considering the cultural/historical milieu in which Binyavanga’s writing is embedded. For those from outside East Africa’s linguistic space, ‘Ndizi’ is the Swahili/Sheng word for a banana. Even though I will occasionally refer to the above-mentioned memoir, and to Eva Kasaya’s Tale of Kasaya (2010) – also published by Kwani? Trust – my main focus will be the eight volumes which Kwani? has so far published, since they form the Trust’s most important body of work. The volumes are: Kwani? 01 (2003); Kwani? 02 (2004); Kwani? 03 (2003); Kwani? 04 (2007); Kwani? 05 Part-1 (2008); Kwani? 05 Part-2 (2008); Kwani? 06 (2010); Kwani? 07 (2012); and Kwani? 08 (2015).
To understand the narrator’s reference to a banana, it might be important to first trace the history of the writer’s use of the word, and then put the same into context. Perhaps we also need to bear in mind that 2002 was the year Binyavanga won Kenya her first Caine Prize for African Writing. It means that “Discovering Home” – the writer’s prize-winning short story which forms chapters 18 to 22 of the memoir – must have been published earlier than December 29, 2002.
Binyavanga’s first literary reference to a banana is in “Discovering Home” and, in the description where the word appears, the motif oozes very fond memories in the mind of the narrator. About Uganda, which is the narrator’s mother’s origins, Binyavanga writes:
This is the country I used to associate with banana trees…It is humid, and hot,
and the banana trees flirt with you, swaying gently like fans offering coolness
that never materializes.
Everything smells musky, as if a thick, soft steam has risen like broth…Mum once
told me that, traveling in Uganda in the 1940s and 1950s, if you were hungry
you could simply enter a banana plantation and eat as much as you wished
[my emphasis] (pp. 213–2014).
In the above extract, the narrator associates the banana fruit with the maternal warmth and regenerative benevolence of his own mother. However, Binyavanga’s tone changes when he next uses the word in his short story, “An Affair to Dismember”, published in Kwani? 01 in 2003, after President Kibaki (Kikuyu) has taken over power from Daniel Arap Moi (Kalenjin). Just as the writer uses the word in a seemingly ambiguous context when associating the banana with a Luo in the initial extract, Binyavanga does the same in describing young/lazy people in Mwea Town (note the adjectives “lazy/young”, for they may later be relevant to the old debate between Capitalists and Communists in the history of Kenyan politics). The narrator says:
Mwea is a boomtown sharing a border with three districts…It is the place
young, hungry young people who cannot make it in their home districts come
to seek their fortunes…If you stop one and say you crave a banana, they will
fetch one for you, and get a commission for doing so [my emphasis]
Why exactly is there a sudden change in terms of adjectival association of the banana fruit, from positive (mother) to negative (lazy/hungry/young)? Perhaps it has everything to do with Kenyan politics. The clue might lie in the year 2002 when President Kibaki replaced President Moi. Kenya is a country of deeply virulent ethnic feeling and, if so, then there’s a way in which Mwea Town can itself be mapped onto the usually very subtle sentiment in much of Nairobi, a city where some adjacent communities are always rumoured to feel that others – specifically the Luo and Luhyia from Western Kenya, and everybody else – are intruders. As the capital city of Kenya, Nairobi sometimes acts as the literary “centre” of power from which the other communities are supposed to be expelled and “decentred.”
Indeed, the title of Binyavanga’s short story above (“An Affair to Dismember”) seems to suggest an indirect cue and encouragement to President Kibaki to ruthlessly trash the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that Kibaki was said to have entered into with Kalonzo Musyoka (Kamba), William ole Ntimama (Maasai), and Raila Odinga (Luo), and which played a pivotal role in propelling Kibaki to power. There’s every indication that the “headless goats” (p.172) that the narrator alludes to in the short story is a reference to the three Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members above, in the same way the “twenty years” (p.172) also echo the twenty-four years of Moi’s presidency.
Much of Kenya’s political discourse since 2002 attributes the above MoU to Raila Odinga. I don’t know how true that is. If true, then the narrator’s anger in Binyavanga’s short story is mostly directed at a Luo. The reason has been given elsewhere, by the late William Ochieng (2008). The late history professor writes:
Meanwhile a myth was invented and widely promulgated by the Kikuyu
that “a Luo cannot be elected president to lead Kenya.” The myth targeted
Raila Odinga…On May 2, 2007, I wrote a feature article in the Daily Nation
in which I attacked this myth and concluded: “Tribalism is a curable sickness
of the mind, a big attempt must be made to re-design our minds to reject it
and an equally bigger attempt must be put in place to uproot it from our
To understand the said myth and how it pervades much of Kikuyu art (see The Standard, Jul 5, 2012), I should first observe that Kenya’s Luo and Kikuyu communities were often the best of friends, up to shortly after independence in 1963, following which the Cold War set in and separated Jomo Kenyatta (Kikuyu/American-leaning) from Oginga Odinga (Luo/Russian-leaning). Ochieng’s is a concise but depressing book centred solely on the 2007 elections. It’s therefore understandable if the author fails to observe that the “Luo unelectability myth” stated above is centred on the idea of male circumcision, and it predates 2007. The myth has always been at the heart of Kenyan politics since 1966.
Of course the Cold War era was full of stereotypes and myths from both sides of the divide. Some were even humorous. But the most potent one which Capitalism reached for and fanned in the minds of many – but not all – Kenyan Kikuyus is the one stated above, about the Luo being “unfit to lead.” Let me be clear: not all Kikuyus believe in this myth. In fact, some of the most liberal-minded people I know in Kenya today happen to be Kikuyu (Maina Kiai and singer Eric Wainaina).
The unstated reason in the myth is this: traditionally, the Luo do not circumcise. Of course they used to centuries ago. Dholuo word for the rite is “nyangu.” One of the most offensive Dholuo words is the equivalent of English “smegma.” I need to observe that, even though the Luo don’t circumcise traditionally, change has slowly imposed itself on them, in the face of scientific evidence that undergoing the cut reduces chances of contracting HIV by 60 per cent).
However, the debate around circumcision and leadership, especially where the Kikuyu are involved, has been tragic, even though it remains a non-issue to most Kenyan communities that circumcise. Indeed, in the stolen 2007 elections, mobile phone messages which circulated in Kenya revolved around not giving the presidency to the “uncircumcised tribe,” in reference to Raila Odinga.
Since I work in Kikuyu heart land, I fully understand how Kikuyu linguistic coding expresses the political aspects of the circumcision myth in three different ways. Not being circumcised makes one a “child”, a “woman”, or “dirty” – and therefore “unfit to lead.” I confess that I don’t know the Kikuyu cultural understanding of the colour green. But I suggest that this, too, might have to be researched in the context of Kwani? writing, in case it’s an indirect reference to the Western concept of a “green-horn” – which would then be relevant to this discussion.
It is possible that the three manifestations of the circumcision myth I have stated above form the core of Kwani? Trust’s writing, at least in regard to those texts which revolve around the issue of leadership in Kenya. And every time the myth protrudes in a Kwani? text, the reader sees the old rivalry between America and Russia mapping itself onto the perceived incompatibility of the Kikuyu and the Luo.
How is the Cold War rivalry expressed? Even before he’s twelve years old in his memoir, Binyavanga is miraculously able to differentiate the tenets of Capitalism from those of Communism. He writes in his memoir: “Everybody is in trouble from communists” (p.44). The narrator’s desire to associate circumcision with manliness comes out thus: “It is January, 1984. I am thirteen. I was circumcised in December. I am a man” (p.82).
I therefore suggest that we look at Binyavanga’s reference to a banana in Kwani? 01 as a possible symbolic reference to the circumcision rite, for in this context, the narrator is talking about those who do not belong. He sounds unhappy. The narrator is telling the reader about the “others” who have invaded Mwea Town/Nairobi – for they are “young, hungry young”, and have failed to “make it in their home districts.”
In Kwani? 02, “Ships in High Transit” is one of the most interesting stories in terms of how it has been subtly coded. The reader must keep asking who exactly is the ‘ship in high transit’, especially considering that the acronym for the expression is ‘SHIT,’ which is a word Kwani? texts apply when the narrator feels overly vexed about a particular character (see Muthoni Garland’s use of the word on the Kalenjin character, Kiptur, in the short story “Eating.”) In the case of Binyavanga’s “SHIT”, however, Otieno (a Luo character) is the most maligned character relative to Matano (Giriama), Kamande (Kikuyu), Abdullahi (Arab), and the other white tourists. Otieno is depicted as a pathological pretender, a fake. He’s stupid and gay. At one point, Fatuma (Kamande’s wife) tells Otieno:
Ai! Why didn’t you tell me you had a beer bottle in your pants?
I will find somebody for you if you learn to use it properly
[my emphasis] (p.74).
The above emphasis seems to imply that Otieno is a novice. He is ‘young’. It is possible that the clue to Otieno’s ‘dirt’ as a Luo is hidden in the title of the short story – SHIT, which is both an acronym and an abuse. It must be intriguing that Shanks chooses to explain to his white friends, Prescott and Jean Paul, the meaning of SHIT when the only African character around is (uncircumcised) Otieno. Shanks explains:
In the 16th and 17th centuries, before commercial fertiliser was invented,
manure was transported by ship, dry bundles of manure. Once at sea,
it started to get heavy, started to ferment, and methane would build up
below deck. Any spark could blow up a ship – many ships were lost that
way. Eventually, people began stamping the bundles ‘Ships in High
Transit’ so the sailors would know to treat the cargo with respect.
This is where the term ‘shit’ comes from…Many of those around
these days…[my emphasis] (p.77).
It might be that the above emphasis is a cursive reference to Otieno. He is the only character on whom the adjective “tall” is applied, which might echo the “high” in the title of the story. If so, then Otieno is the ‘shit’. For he bears the ‘highness’/pride usually associated with the Luo. Because he is not circumcised; probably he also carries “manure/fertiliser” (smegma) inside his foreskin, which can spark and light.
I observe that most Kwani? texts depict Luo characters as being volatile, highly combustible, and having ‘feminine’ behaviour. This description seems to suit Abdul Adan’s “Blades and Places” (in Kwani 07), in which the Kwani? definition of Luos finds expression in the writer’s description of different categories of customers:
The worst person to have in [a] cab was an angry middle-aged woman:
one whose husband, most probably in mid-life crisis, had a mistress. Such a
woman would be worried about her wrinkles or her rude teenaged daughter.
Having no servant on which to vent her anger, the cab driver was her only
punch bag (p.127).
The above extract can be understood within the context of a belief, rumoured to be contained in much of Kikuyu thinking, and evident in many Kwani? texts, which holds that the Luo are jealous towards the Kikuyu community for having produced three out of four Kenyan presidents. I don’t know if the rumour is true. What I do know is that President Uhuru Kenyatta recently came very close to confirming it at the burial of a Kenyan politician (see Daily Nation, September 16, 2016). Kenyatta compared his ruling Jubilee coalition to a meat-eating feast, and dismissed the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), led by a Luo, as a group of jealous, salivating onlookers.
There is a sense in which a lot of Kwani? writing plays around the issue of Luo jealousy of the Kikuyu, and the depiction appears to be anchored on the age-old perception that jealousy is a feminine sentiment. In most cases, the writing implies that even the other Kenyan communities are jealous of the Kikuyu. In Kwani? 08, Clifford Oluoch’s short story, “In Jericho”, gives the impression that the Luo, Luhyia and Kuria did not have a proper reason for not voting for Uhuru Kenyatta (a Kikuyu) in 2013. The Luo are “feminine” because they are jealous; they complain too much. There are several shades of journalistic imbalance in the story. The narrator interviews more Luo voters than Kikuyu voters, so that the conclusion comes out as biased in favour of the Kikuyu view. Against standard journalistic practice, too, the Luo reason for not voting for Uhuru Kenyatta comes first, so as to have maximum effect on the mind of the reader, in terms of first impressions. The Kikuyu reason for not wanting Raila comes at the tail end. Moreover, only the Luo reason for hating Uhuru is highlighted (p.165); the Kikuyu reason isn’t. TJ’s conversation with the narrator therefore assumes a skewed angle against all Raila’s voters, and portrays them as “women”:
“Why would you vote Luo?” I ask. I am surprised because he
was raised here, among all tribes and married a Kikuyu woman.
“Jakom (Raila Odinga) deserves it,” says TJ. “He has fought long
“Is that the only factor?”
He laughs. “Wasepere (Kikuyus) have had their turn and now it is ours.”
In the above extract, the tone is clear that the narrator belongs in Uhuru’s camp. He mocks the Luo reason for not wanting a Kikuyu president. Later on in the conversation, the narrator takes up an authorial intrusion which sneaks in the issue of age vis a vis leadership, a discussion which always attacked Raila on the basis of his being older than Uhuru. The narrator says, “The politicians of Moi’s time, their time is up,” I say. “Ntimama is 85 years old, Raila is 67 years old” (p.175).