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Kwani? Trust’s Literature 2: Does Binyavanga Wainaina Associate Kenyan Luos with a Banana?


However, anyone who is familiar with the history of Kenyan politics appreciates how complex it is, especially in respect to the real reasons why a Luo might not want to vote for a Kikuyu again. There are deep-running issues, the most prominent being the assassination of Tom Mboya and Dr. Odhiambo Mbai (both Luos); the “betrayal” of Oginga Odinga; the “betrayal” of Raila Odinga, and extremely painful economic marginalisation of Nyanza Province over the years. The authorial intrusion above seems to reduce all these issues merely to “age” and “time.”

The Sheng word for a Luo is ‘Jang’o’. It seems that, all along, the trick for Kwani? writing has been to look for character names that bear close phonic relationship with the word Jang’o, and then attribute to it certain traits which the literature associates with the Luo. In my opinion, it should not be surprising that the narrator in Binyavanga’s memoir crafts a fictional character who he describes as “a tortured young man called Jango” (p.226). In Billy Kahora’s “The Cape Cod Bicycle War” (Kwani? 07), a cowardly Brazilian cook called ‘Joao’ teaches the narrator “how to minimise the effects of grease [my emphasis] on my pants” (p.560); which echoes the familiar smell of smegma/“fertiliser/manure” in Binyavanga’s SHIT (This could be an important clue to the context of Binyavanga’s association of a banana with a Luo character his memoir). Indeed, Joao’s lifestyle fits Kwani?’s conception of a typical Luo character as a careless spendthrift, in the mould of Onyango, the Luo-named narrator in the interesting short story-memoir, “The Life and Times of Richard Onyango” (Kwani? 01).

In Kwani? 03, Muthoni Garland’s short story, “Eating,” echoes Kikuyu association of the uncircumcised with children and the feminine gender. Ndung’u (Kikuyu name), Kiptur (Kalenjin), and Okoth (Luo) are three overworked and underpaid policemen. Doris is Ndung’u’s wife, officially given to him by his parents in Dundori, but Okoth and Kiptur also want to bed Doris. The narration is done in a way to depict Doris as the Kenyan presidency (which therefore ‘rightfully’ belongs to the Kikuyu), and the other two represented communities therefore remain mere pretenders. Of specific interest is the description of Okoth, whose silence and cowardice throughout the plot is striking relative to the others’:

Okoth flapped his lips like a fish [my emphasis] gulping for air…
You stopped the government?
“Kwani you think I can’t. Do I look like a woman?” [my emphasis]


Note that the Luo are associated with fish in Kenya. The last is a rhetorical question directed at Okoth. It implies that he, Okoth, is the cowardly “woman.” Garland further pushes the meaning of the feminine association by making reference to the coup attempt of 1982 – known in Kenya’s public discourse as having been masterminded by the Luo – though secretly acknowledged as the work of a different community – an attempt which the narrator mocks as “the cake whose aroma had maddened teenage [my emphasis] soldiers into attempting a coup that lasted for all of one hot minute” (p.245).

Fish is a revered delicacy in the Luo culinary space; it’s right at the heart of a meal worth that name. As shown above, however, adjectives relating to fish are often used by Kwani? writing to suggest improper behaviour, and “dirt” when referring to the Luo. In his memoir, Binyavanga makes the point very clear in his description of Nakuru Railway Station:

The smell of fish, dry fish, cooking fish, and boiling, bitter green
vegetables is everywhere…It smells like a foreign country – a hot and
languid place. Dried fish from Lake Victoria…Mwalimu Julius Nyerere
is a communist, so the East African Community collapsed.
To recreate Kampala and Kisumu heat in these highlands, these women
keep food boiling on stoves, and inside steaming courtyards and small
rooms (pp.59 – 60).

The strategy of associating dirt, suffocation, and communism works very well for the author, for it brackets out and expels from the centre of the national space the community that identifies itself with fish. In fact, the trick has been perfected in Eva Kasaya’s Tale of Kasaya (also published by Kwani? Trust). Kisumu and Kibera – heartlands of Luo settlement – are assumed to be dirty primarily because of fish. In Kasaya’s text, a typical description of Kisumu’s dirty state invokes the imagery of foul fish:

The air smelt of fish. The Luo had come from Kisumu to sell their
catch…The train smelled, and breathing the air was like inhaling
poison. I almost puked…the air remained stuffy with the smell of sweat,
fish, and second-hand clothes. A woman sitting close to me holding
an empty basket smelled of omena (2010: 94 – 95).

Omena is a species of small fish. To be fair, I should observe that the above description of Kisumu’s passenger trains in the 1980s and 1990s might not be far-fetched. The trains were often overcrowded. What should be intriguing is the seemingly intentional roping in of the Luo tribe each time such dirt and suffocation is being referred to. Eva Kasaya, the author, is a Maragoli Luhyia from Western Kenya. And the Luhyia revere their chicken as much as the Luo do their fish – perhaps even much more than the Luo. Therefore, a permanent characteristic of any train leaving Kisumu for Nairobi then (boarded by Luhyias and Luos) was always the warm smell of fish, and jarring music from not very civil chicken. It should worry the reader that the narrator makes totally no mention of chicken in her descriptions of Kisumu’s trains.

This is the narrator’s description of Kibera when Kasaya reaches Nairobi:

We had gone a short distance when I stepped on something slippery;
I looked at my shoes and saw faeces…On either side of the path were
mud houses not a metre apart…Between two of the houses I saw a child
defecate in front of a woman selling vegetables and fried fish…There
were various smells in different sections. In one there was the smell of
          fish, in others it was mandazi or chapati, and in still others, the smell of
sewage dominated (106 – 107).

Enough has been documented about Kibera slums, one of the largest in Africa. It is a dirty slum inhabited by mainly the Luo. However, in much of Kwani? writing – note that nearly all Kwani? writers have at one time or another written about this particular slum – the tendency is often to attribute Kibera’s poverty and grime to the totality of the Luo as a community, which, in politics, still echoes the old theme of circumcision as a “manly” rite. That might explain the hyperbole and exaggeration which the reader meets in Kasaya’s book as shown above – “a child defecating in front of a woman selling vegetables and fried fish.”

There are many issues in Tale of Kasaya that a keen reader might want to test in seeking for the autobiographical truth. Apart from the one shown above, perhaps the keen reader might want to find out more about the road accident that happens as the narrator and her boss, Mama Jacky – who is a Kikuyu – travel to Murang’a in Central Province. The reader might question how the travellers reach home without any serious damage to their own bodies, and the car, even after the same car has “overturned thrice” (p.154). There is no way a shocked passenger would be able to count the number of times the car she is travelling in is overturning.

Some characters with particular names are favoured in Kasaya’s novel. As happens in Binyavanga’s “Discovering Home” (where Luo, Maasai, Luhyia, Kisii, and Kamba characters all bear negative traits except the Kikuyu), there are similarities in the way characters are depicted in Kasaya’s book, using tribe as the basis for whether they will be good or bad.

In Kasaya’s book, the clearest case of hyperbole which is probably meant to mud-sling a character is in regard to Patrick. The narrator tells us earlier on in the plot that Patrick is a Luo. His wife is Nancy, a Luhyia. The narrator works for this young family in Kibera. Something intriguing happens one night when people go to sleep:

It was now my second month, and I was sleeping in a chair beside
Nancy and Ben [Patrick?]. I used to feel strange sleeping so close
to them. I had no blanket, just a bed sheet…One night I was washing
the dishes, and I went to sleep late. I covered myself and was drifting
off to sleep [when] I felt someone touching me. “Eva… Eva… Eva…”
came the voice as the hands reached for my pants. I coughed loudly and
shouted for him to get off me. Patrick retreated quickly (p.113).

It’s difficult to rule out such an occurrence in Kibera or elsewhere in Kenya. But intelligence would question its probability in that context. It’s true that Nancy has only recently delivered, and therefore Patrick cannot have sex with her. Hence the husband might think of doing it with the narrator, who is the maid. But how remotely possible is it for a husband to plot “illicit” sex with a maid who sleeps in a chair near his matrimonial bed, in a single room, when the wife is present, but only asleep?

Muthoni Garland’s short story, “Obituary Man”, in Kwani? 04 re-enacts the drama of circumcision as a rite without which one is a coward. Called “Wacha Dev”, the protagonist is a Kikuyu with an Asian father. Those familiar with the rhythm and cadence of Dholuo language will quickly recognise the name “Wacha Dev” as being very close to Luo. Therefore, there is a sense in which the narrator implies that the character is a putative Luo.

Specific allusions in Muthoni’s text put Wacha Dev as a character right at the centre of the Luo socio-political universe. An example is: “That was before they’d gone for the HIV test” (p.149). The narrator clarifies that the protagonist is HIV-positive. This introduces us to the trend in nearly all Kwani? writing, which views HIV as a disease of the Luo, as is echoed in Eva Kasaya’s observation about Kibera/Luo in her memoir. Kasaya writes:

There was another teenage boy who wore earings and chains and
baggy T-shirts and sagged his jeans. He had started talking to me,
and I liked him. When I told Night she said, “If you don’t know,
such boys are the ones infected with HIV.” I kept away from the
boy” (p.112).

The above observation might be informed by the subtle Kenyan myth which associates AIDS with the Luo community alone, a fact which has painfully hindered the fight against the disease in Kenya (see The Washington Post Feb 13, 2005). The context might be that, because the Luo do not circumcise, they have been the worst hit by that disease. The Kenyan media have often reported families headed by lower primary school children around Lake Victoria (see Mail&Guardian Apr 12, 2006). This link takes us back to the theme of circumcision. In Garland’s short story, the narrator says, “After all A Whole Penis was an endangered species. In its vicinity, somebody was always sharpening a knife” (p.150). Additionally, Garland’s story plays around the perception that the Luo do not pay rent in time, a myth that can be contextualised around Kenyan politics in the period after 2002, when Raila Odinga was the Minister for Housing. The narrator further invokes the name of a Luo town (Kisumu), and a Luo musician, to tie up the ethnic association: “Suzanne [Suzanna?] Owiyo boomed her famous ode to Kisumu City” (p.155).

As a general rule in Kwani? writing, it should be noted that in nearly all texts that deal with the theme of AIDS as a disease, a Luo name, town, or settlement is always lurking nearby, to cement the perception that the disease belongs to, and is a creation of the Luo. Binyavanga’s observation that Kariuki (a Kikuyu name) “lived with a woman for a year in Kibera, afraid to contact his family because he had no money to provide” (p.197) is put within the context of “We hear about the prison guard who got AIDS and deliberately infected many inmates with the disease before dying” (p.197).

In Kwani 05 Part-1, the short story that best captures the Journal’s mapping of Luo characters onto the not-yet-fully-grown template is David Kaiza’s “Benediction in Oyugis.” Note that Oyugis is a Luo town in South Nyanza. The narrator captures an interesting point in time, during the 2007/08 post-election violence. The traveller comes to Mau Summit (this is a Kikuyu settlement), and sees torched houses. It should be noted that Kenya’s political discourse usually attributes the post-election violence to the then opposition party led by Raila Odinga (a Luo), the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). In the story, the narrator begins to search in his mind for the person who inspired the arson on Kikuyu houses. Kaiza writes:

As we drove past the ravage, my mind was charged. I was holding my
breath watching. My face, drawn and brimming a little hotly, was
the disturbed countenance of a boy just slapped but too proud to cry.
Was that anger? Is that what it is to be afraid? Is that what it is to be
intimidated and then defeated? [my emphasis] (p.110).

One can argue that the above narrator’s target is a Luo. The adjectives ‘afraid’ and ‘proud’, and the noun ‘boy’, are easy to place within the narrow, Kwani?  definition of what traits encompass being Luo. As we have seen in the short stories I considered earlier on, such a definition views the Luo as feminine, childish, dirty, angry, and generally cowardly. They are always plotting revenge against the Kikuyu.

The most prominent myth that Kwani? writing may have worked hard to cement, it would appear, is the perception that even an adult Luo is still a child. Wambui Mwangi’s short story, “Internally Misplaced” (Kwani 05 Part-2) best captures the above aspect of Kwani? literature. The setting is Nairobi in the aftermath of the stolen 2007 elections. The protagonist is Karanja (a Kikuyu name), who is supposed to be a victim of the raging violence in Nairobi. At one point, the narrator tells us what goes on in Seth Karanja’s mind in regard to the cause of the on-going violence:

Seth can almost hear the thing he fears. He can hear it growling in the
German engine below him. Seth has seen it on CNN at Madam’s
house, this thing. A malevolent child, creating strangely heaped
multi-car sculptures around lamp-posts and rippling bridges into skirts
[my emphasis] (p.324).

I can state that all Kwani 05 Part-2 writing attributes the 2007/2008 post-election violence in Kenya to the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), then led by Raila Odinga. It is therefore apparent that the “thing, malevolent child” above, refers to Raila Odinga. Raila’s education in East Germany in the Cold War years has always been an issue of concern in Kenyan politics, hence the subtle reference to a “German engine,” the Mercedes car which Seth Karanja is presently driving. Indeed, a myth is slowly emerging in much of Kikuyuland, which associates the Luo as controllable objects, such as cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and donkeys. This is the context in which to put Karanja driving the car, in the same sense as the narrator in Billy Kahora’s “The Cape Cod Bicycle Wars” chooses whichever bicycle he wants to ride “to the presidency”.

Let me observe here that I’m not an enthusiastic follower of Raila Odinga – even if he is a Luo like me. I’ve faulted his kind of gullible and non-introspective politics in the past, and always will, should the need arise. As a detached observer, for instance, I never imagined that Raila could do to William Ruto (the current Deputy President and Raila’s main supporter in the 2007 election), exactly the same thing President Kibaki did to Raila immediately after 2002. It still baffles me. As a good lesson in politics, therefore, I think that Raila’s electoral flop in 2013 was a very well-deserved loss to President Uhuru Kenyatta.

In Kwani? 06, no short story writer succeeds in making textual references to the Luo community better than Waigwa Ndiang’ui’s “The Baboon House.” We should first be clear that the motif of a “baboon” – or wild primates generally – dominates much of Kwani? writing, probably because it captures a certain Kikuyu perception of the Luo. There is such a term as “uncircumcised baboon,” and it is considered hate speech in Kenya, because the term is a subtle reference to the Luo community. Muthoni Garland’s “Eating” (already considered above), compares the Luo character, Okoth, to a monkey. In Binyavanga’s short story “SHIT” (already considered above), the plot begins in an interesting way:

Stupid Japanese tourist. During breakfast, on the open-air patio
that faces the plains of Lake Nakuru National Park, he saw the
          gang of baboons, saw the two large males, fulfilling with every
grunt and chest bang every human cliché about male brutality
[my emphasis] (p.60).

We may argue that the above reference which characterises the gang of baboons as violent also associates the Luo community with the same (I will later show this trend in my subsequent discussion, such as in Tony Mochama’s “The Road to Eldoret” and Billy Kahora’s – this has been Kwani? Trust’s long-serving Managing Editor – “The Gorilla’s Apprentice” (Kwani 05 Part-1), and Mehul Gohil’s “Bass Weejuns on Tiptoe” (Kwani? 06)). The violence which the narrator refers to in Ndiang’ui’s short story above is reminiscent of how Wambui Mwangi refers to Raila Odinga in “Internally Misplaced.” While Wambui refers to a “malevolent child”, Ndiang’ui describes the baboon thus:

She [Ciku] saw a baboon walking down the track, a cub clutching
the long hair on its back, straight up, proud and menacing like a
little tyrant surveying his domain [my emphasis] (p.25).

We should note that Kwani 06 which contains the above text was published in 2010, only a few years after the 2007 stolen elections. Therefore it is possible that the narrator’s ethnic feelings are still very raw. The first historical circumstance which situates the text specifically around Raila Odinga is how Wangeci, who is Ciku’s mother, describes the landlord, Steve: “He looks like a cat that has been run on” (p.20). The description fits in well within the context of Kenya’s political history where, around mid-2002, Raila Odinga once indirectly referred to himself as “a cub that has been rained on is not a kitten,” before walking out on President Moi and publicly supporting Mr. Kibaki (see The Standard Oct 6, 2013). Here, therefore, the narrator appears to subvert Raila’s assertion and perceive the politician as a cat which he had said he isn’t.

Abenea Ndago
Abenea Ndago
Abenea Ndago is a Kenyan writer/scholar. He has published Voices (2017), Crossing the Border (2018), Lord Kitchener (2023), and several short stories.

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