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

Image: Pixabay.com
Image: Pixabay.com

Moreover, the word ‘keso’ has been used to represent the Kiswahili word ‘kesho’ (tomorrow), which is the day the landlord should come for rent. In omitting the [sh] consonantal sound when Wangeci and Ciku are discussing Steve, the narrator intentionally implies that the landlord is a Luo. This is because Dholuo pronunciation does not have the [sh] sound at all. Its absence occasionally bothers even educated Luo, who then pronounce a word like ‘education’ as ‘educason’ (the phenomenon is sometimes a humorous joke in Kenya). It is possible that Binyavanga takes advantage – not in a bad way – of the absence of the [sh] sound in Dholuo pronunciation. In his memoir, the people who work in the garage around Gikomba market say ‘sokasoba’ to refer to ‘shock absorber’. The mechanics are possibly Luo. There is a Kenyan rumour that generally takes the Luo to be the best mechanics.

Ndiang’ui’s use of the title of the short story (“The Baboon House”) does not seem to be enough in way of stereotyping the Luo. The narrator employs other techniques to cement the stereotype of an uncircumcised “Luo” landlord. The old woman, Cucu, occupies the same space as Raila after the 2007 elections. It is possible that the writer’s intention is to paint the politician with the colours of a decrepit old woman. Like Raila in that election, the woman feels wronged because Wangeci’s child has abused her but, in her quest for justice, Cucu gets rudely turned away. Here, too, the banana motif resurfaces in the description of the landlord’s house:

The ceiling boards were flowered with water marks where Ciku saw
faces: an old woman sucking her thumb carrying a basket with the head
of a mastachioed man popping out; a baby climbing out
of a banana peel [my emphasis] (p.20).

The man with the moustache is clearly Raila Odinga. Kibaki did not keep hair of any kind; Raila kept a moustache in the political battle of 2007.

There is a sense in which the ideological fallout between Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga after Kenya’s independence forms the background of much of Kwani? writing. While the former went for Capitalism, the latter adopted a different path – Communism. In the Kenyan context, therefore, it would be right to conclude that Mukoma wa Ngugi’s short story, “Wounded Men” (in Kwani? 07) is a subtle re-enactment of the “boxing” contest between Kenyatta and Odinga (interestingly, I hear that the writer of the story is the son of Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o; this point will be important to us in future).

In the above story, Mwangi (a Kikuyu name) is in the ring with a curiously nameless opponent, who the narrator only refers to as “Fidel’s boy.” Yet since the nameless boxer is said to come from Cuba, it is possible that the allusion is intended to capture the image of Fidel Castro – a very well known Socialist. But the Kikuyu live only in Kenya. If Mwangi is pitted against a Kenyan Communist, then the reference must be a powerful allusion to the battle between Kenyatta and Raila Odinga’s late father. Even here, it is important to note the narrator’s constant association of “Fidel’s boy” with a “youth”. The name “Fidel” might itself be a possible pun on the tag “infidel”. The narrator captures the last round thus:

Out of nowhere, Mwangi slips the youth’s right cross. Sidesteps and lands
a right punch to the youth’s stomach, dips in even lower, he thunders a punch
to the ribs that sends the youth off balance. Mwangi jabs, taps, jabs and finds
him once again, he doubles a left hook to the ribs and to the jaw, he recoils
and snaps up an upper cut. And that is that [my emphasis] (p.352).

As portrayed above, Mukoma’s story is meant to belittle and humiliate. It re-enacts a certain point in time, during which not just Communism lost, but his Kikuyu community defeated the Luo community. It makes the narrator silently excited.

What needs to be noted about a lot of Kwani? literature is its constant re-telling – with a possible aim of re-fuelling – of the old boundary between Capitalism and Socialism. America and its cultural products are always advertised over Asian countries, specifically China. This might be the context of the beginning of Binyavanga’s “SHIT”, which starts: “Stupid Japanese Tourist” (p.59). In Mehul Gohil’s “Calculus in the Afternoon” (Kwani 07), a trail of negative traits are spat onto Chinese girls, while positive ones are poured on Njoki (a Kikuyu girl), which might therefore be construed to rekindle the embers of the war between the global ideological divide. China is always the unwanted “other” in Gohil’s story. The narrator observes:

Chinese chatter. Mandarin accents…It was hard to know if they were
speaking in English… ‘It’s the way they brush their teeth at the sink.
How they lean over the sink and let the toothpasty spit drool out of
their clean mouths’ (p.278).

Of course that’s not a bad idea at all, since cultural competition is a global reality in terms of how it carries with it all ideas about economic and political dominance. However we need to note that, in the Kenyan context, this tendency translates into fanning the ethnic differences between the Kikuyu and the Luo, and therefore badly ruins any chances of coexistence. These advertised “differences” hinder the process of nation-formation. It is the myths that erupt out of this public shouting out of ethnic differences that overlaps onto political contests such as the 2007 elections, and hurt any genuine attempts at national reconciliation.

In way of concluding my discussion on how Kwani? writing seems curiously obsessed with the shape and look of the Luo penis, let me observe that Kwani? 07 contains Billy Kahora’s “The Cape Cod Bicycle War.” It’s in this short story that a Brazilian called “Joao” (note the similarity of the name to the Sheng term for the Luo community, “Jang’o”), teaches the narrator how “to minimise the effects of grease on my pants” (p.560). “Grease” here might be a tacit reference to smegma in the sense of Binyavanga’s “fertiliser/manure”, in the latter’s “SHIT.”

Why, then, does Binyavanga Wainaina associate the character called “Ndizi” (a banana) with the voice of a Luo? First, we should be clear that, within the context of Kwani? writing, all Luo characters are usually shrill-voiced and petty. Therefore, it cannot be that Ndizi’s voice is booming and rich, and then it sounds like a Luo’s. Moreover, there is no Kenyan stereotype which associates the Luo with a banana in the sense of growing the fruit. The two Kenyan communities which grow bananas in abundance are the Kisii and the Meru.

We observe that, because the narrator in Binyavanga’s memoir asks Ndizi the exact meaning of Ndizi’s name – but not Mash, the other character – there must be a special reason why the narrator does so.

The most probable reason for Binyavanga’s doing so is this: I work in Central Province (the heartland of the Kikuyu community), and therefore understand the silent codes relating to the rite of male circumcision. The old generation of Kikuyus publicly refer to the uncircumcised as “kihii”. The term is often used on the Luo in political contexts. However, the younger generation of Kikuyus, to code their reference and hide the meaning, apply the imagery of “ndizi”/banana, to capture the imagination around the appearance of an uncircumcised penis, which then has to be peeled before one is able to become a leader.  It’s a deeply subtle kind of Kikuyu symbolism. Binyavanga might find it very convenient to draw from in his memoir.

It’s powerful and emotive in the political context. During the 2007/2008 post-election violence in Kenya, many Luo men in Naivasha and Nakuru died from over-bleeding, when their penises were chopped in line with the Kikuyu thinking around circumcision and leadership. As I earlier on stated, the 2007 election was partly pegged on the idea of circumcision, at least if one goes by the kind of text messages which were then circulated in the country.

To be fair to Kwani? Trust, I do not think that all stereotypes are bad. Communal stereotypes are bound to erupt in a context where disparate identities find themselves grouped in a larger one, such as happens in modern-day states. Some stereotypes are beneficial in as far as they are corrective. Indeed, at the level of art alone, I don’t think that imagining an uncircumcised penis in terms of a banana is even a bad idea. It’s inspired. To add humour to a serious discussion, I even think it’s because of that positive imagination around the banana fruit that many Luo men are married to Kikuyu women –as is evident in Kwani? texts (Clifford Oluoch’s “In Jericho”, for instance) – but the reverse is very rare indeed.

Having said that, however, we should accept that the most dangerous basket of stereotypes, which all intelligent societies have learnt to reject, are those that relate to state power and the communities that should or shouldn’t climb to it. These pose apocalyptic danger to national coexistence anywhere in the world.

I do not care about a Luo president in Kenya. In fact, I think that the Luo oughtn’t to become presidents should the Luo political class continue to disregard all the lessons that fifty years have taught it about Kenyan politics. They must forget it honourably, once and for all. But even more fundamentally, we ought to hate the idea that comparatively smaller communities anywhere in Africa should find themselves barred from political leadership merely on the basis of dangerous stereotypes and myths spewed through “African Literature.” Considering what has gone on in Gabon since 1967, and which led to the recent burning of parliament there, I think that the African mind must learn to reject the idea that just single families or communities were created to rule them. I don’t see how any intelligent, well-meaning African writer would bring him/herself to even imagine such a strange thought, leave alone begin a literary NGO which propagates the same thimble-headed, rotten idea. In the face of what’s happening in Syria, where the old divide between America and Russia still prevents the world from working together and saving humanity from its occasional lunacies, we must reject any kind of “literature” that plants old political rivalries to divide their people.

I think that the impact of unenlightened reasoning around the issue of circumcision and leadership in Kenya ought to be discussed in a way that’s more robust than we currently do. Perhaps we might want to remember that the earliest records of male circumcision come from Ancient Egypt, thousands of years ago, and the Luo, a Nilotic group, trace their origins there, climbing up along River Nile. To wit, Bethwell Ogot (2009) writes that even though the Luo used to circumcise, they stopped the rite after their arrival in present day Uganda, and resorted to the removal of six lower teeth as a way of fighting sleeping sickness (lock-jaw). This allowed medicine to be administered even if your jaws were locked. Prof. Ogot writes that virtually all East African Bantus – to which Binyavanga’s Kikuyu belong – borrowed the circumcision rite from East African Nilotes – to which the Luo belong – via the Tiriki community in Western Kenya. The irony becomes very clear.

Scholars have never agreed on the original motivation for male circumcision. Whatever the initial reasons for it, I am certain that the Kikuyu community is at once the best proof that the most baseless of all those reasons is the vacuous claim that only a circumcised man can be a leader. For one, virtually all anthropological observers hold that Kikuyu culture is thoroughly matrilineal. That might be why Binyavanga feels more passionate about his mother and sisters in his memoirs, than he does about his father and brother. The first woman colonial chief in Kenya was called Wangu wa Makeri. She was a Kikuyu, and used to sit on men’s backs – literally. Thirdly, in the history of Kenya’s parliament, the Kikuyu community has produced the most number of female Members of Parliament – even currently. I do not even mention that I find it deeply sexist in this age, to even try to suggest that a woman cannot lead. Indeed, if Kikuyu culture is largely matrilineal, is it possible that the Kwani? obsession with testosterone and patriarchy is a mere Freudian displacement on the Luo?

To return to the issue, I repeat that the Luo and the Kikuyu never knew hatred prior to 1963. Enough has been written about the earlier friendships between Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga and, later, between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. However, in this discussion in which I have considered all the nine Kwani? Trust volumes so far published (Kwani? 05 was issued in two parts), something negative is always being said specifically about the Luo community, and generally about other Kenyan communities (as I will later show). The question is: how can all these writers – some from communities other than Kikuyu, and one a Luo – have the same view of a single Kenyan community which finds itself on the opposition side of the state?

The clue, as I previously wrote, is in Dr. Macharia Mwangi’s (2015) PhD thesis at the University of Nairobi, whose finding is that much of Kwani? Trust’s writing is done through workshops. As to whether it would be right for the contemporary African writer to reduce her/himself to the low ethnic job of antagonising their peoples, that should be left to the Ford Foundation, Stitchting Doen, and the Lambent Foundation. In my next discussion, I focus on how texts by Kwani? Trust depict violence in Kenya.

Images: Pixabay.com


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——————- 2007. “Obituary Man.” In Kwani? 04. Nairobi: Kwani Trust.
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—————– 2012. “Calculus in the Afternoon.” In Kwani? 07. Nairobi: Kwani Trust.
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——————- 2012. “The Cape Cod Bicycle War.” In Kwani? 07. Nairobi: Kwani Trust.
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About the author

Abenea Ndago

Ndago Abenea, a Kenyan writer, is the author of Voices, a novel. An essayist, short fiction writer, and social critic, he also teaches Literature at Kenyatta University.

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