Something interesting happened in America this year. Harriet Tubman began having her picture on the $20 bill. That’s an extremely bold step. In the Africa of our times, it can only be compared to President Macky Sall, who recently tried to reduce the presidential term limit in Senegal. In Kenyan terms, the cultural symbolism of a former black slave’s picture on an American bill would be as revolutionary as splitting the red colour on the national flag (representing Mau Mau and all those who violently lost their lives in the struggle and negotiation for Kenya’s independence) to include the purple colour of the trade union movement which – by literally arm-twisting the colonial government through strike action – actually oversaw the arrival of Kenya’s independence in 1963.
I write about Tubman’s case because the relationship between art and society is an intimate one. What writers say about their country directly impacts a people’s view of the same. As a nation that has walked that path, America knows how Literature (an art) remains one of the most powerful means through which a young state like Kenya can evolve into a nation.
That’s because writers and critics are often the most liberal-minded component of any truly free society. They are usually at the forefront in seeking justice for all, and in cooling national tempers. I have in mind Wole Soyinka’s position during the Biafra War in Nigeria (1967 – 1970); Orhan Pamuk’s views on the massacre of Turkish Armenians in 1915; and – most specifically – the role played by authors J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer in advocating for racial compromise in South Africa prior to 1994 (humanity can swear that this is a desirable position; I don’t think it’s been through sheer luck that the three writers listed above won the Nobel Prize in Literature).
Perhaps we African writers aren’t even aware of it, but that, in my opinion, remains one of the biggest challenges for the contemporary African writer. I would say the same remains true for all sites of literary production relevant to our continent, be they funded from within or without our borders, and Kenya’s Kwani? Trust is one.
I say so because the contemporary African writer lives in times when most political stalemates on the Continent are attributable to some ethnic ‘germ’ planted in the past. It’s fair to say that all ethnic myths, gossip, and stereotypes aren’t based on any scientific evidence, yet they pose a real threat to the process of state formation in Africa.
Myths have in the past been used to inspire genocides. Rwanda happened twenty-two years ago, but Gerard Prunier showed us, in The Rwanda Crisis (1995), how Hutu myths portrayed Tutsis as cockroaches, and how Tutsi myths depicted Hutus as slaves by God’s decree. Kenya’s case in 2007/2008 revealed very deep-seated hatred between Kikuyu and Luo, all pegged on ethnic stereotypes. I confess that I envy Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Zambia, some of the extremely few African countries where some semblance of national open-mindedness has made it possible for opposition parties to overcome myths and win electoral contests.
My position is that Literature represents a fertile space within which the African society can rid itself of communal myths imposed on it by the accident of colonisation. We can pick out a book as an example. For me, one of the best books to have come out of Africa this century is Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), in the boldness with which it tackles myths around Nigeria’s Biafra War. The final injunction is very clear, whether you are Yoruba, Ibo, or Fulani: ‘Never again.’
Yet it would be near-sacrilegious were the same Literature to be used by African writers as the vehicle for transporting such stereotypes home, and distorting our countries’ national histories, with a view to fencing off state power for our own communities. Not only would such a gesture smell of ethnic selfishness, it would also be an act of juvenile narrow-mindedness on the part of the African writer. That’s dangerous for the Continent. The reason: no society on earth has ever progressed without embedding the idea of inclusion. This will always remain the truth, whether today’s African writer is aware of it or not – which brings me to Kwani? Trust, established in 2003 by Binyavanga Wainaina.
Let me state very openly, that I have nothing against the sexual orientation of Kwani? writing. Nor do I have anything against the LGBTQ community. I’m not in the habit of measuring morality by the ruler, and know the pain of discrimination too well to inflict the same on fellow human beings who make rational choices. In fact, I have severally congratulated Kwani? Trust on its literary achievements for the African Continent.
To return, however, I observe that it’s important for Western donors to Kwani? Trust – which include the Ford Foundation (American), Stichting Doen (Dutch), and the Lambent Foundation (American) – to do a thorough audit on how texts published by the Trust discuss national history and communal stereotypes, because these impact coexistence in Kenya.
What continues to worry me is that even though the US has historically done a lot to promote Kenyan Literature, the support appears to divide Kenya’s sense of nationhood in ways that will be very difficult to mend. And it would be ironic because the US itself painstakingly nurtured its national identity partly using Literature, beginning in the early 1620s, and also by regularly taking bold steps similar to acknowledging the African-American contribution to Americanness through Harriet Tubman.
Thus any blame would be only in part. I think that if Kenyan statehood is today a tragic case in terms of ethnic hatred, then part of the failure to reconcile ourselves might lie in what our literary texts say about our different communities in relation to the Kenyan state. I warn that our high level of ethnic bigotry might be a neat reflection of how badly Kenyan Literature talks about national coexistence.
I repeat that, whatever the outcome of the audit on Kwani? Trust, the US will not have been wholly culpable for the state of our ethnic intolerance. Perhaps the biggest source of ethnic rot in Africa today arises from the shockingly under-educated leadership in most of our countries, where even much younger presidents think that entrenching the political narratives of single communities while leaving out the rest can, in the long run, be tenable.
I have in mind, for instance, the 1980s’ murder of 20000 Ndebeles in Zimbabwe. In the case of Kenya, we know the symptoms of such a skewed view of Kenyan statehood by this year’s Madaraka Day Celebrations in Nakuru Town (June, 1, 2016), where President Uhuru Kenyatta honoured only Mau Mau mothers – as if Kenya’s trade unionists were never born in the first place.
It’s a national lie which the Kenyan state has never been courageous enough to confront. I sometimes think that such possibly intentional acts of myth-making result from the narrow definition of Kenyan statehood, as propounded in almost all books written by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (I will later show that Jomo Kenyatta and Ngugi wa Thiong’o are Binyavanga’s mentors), yet a kind of sloppy trajectory which will never help gel African countries.
Many literary critics have separately observed that Ngugi’s only mojo is the Mau Mau uprising; without it Ngugi isn’t a writer. The Mau Mau theme protrudes so prominently in the author’s texts that it obliterates other contributors to Kenya’s independence.
Whether that’s Ngugi’s intention or not is another matter. Indeed, to be fair to Ngugi, I think that Mau Mau affected him in very immediate ways. However, I do think that a certain ‘Very Heavy Basket’ rests on the contemporary African writer’s head, which imposes on her the responsibility of reminding the state to always welcome all those who live in it. That’s precisely why Ngugi’s current work in progress – I hear it may be called ‘The Myth of Gikuyu and Mumbi’ – has lately shocked me by its narrowness of ethnic thought at the expense of nationhood.
We know what most communal myths are: their political aspects entrench ethnic hegemonies by ‘othering’ communal ‘outsiders’ in a modern-day state. As a curious observation, I recall that I didn’t see Ngugi’s bloated ‘national culture’ at the opening of the Kenya National Theatre on September, 4, 2015 (presided over by President Uhuru Kenyatta, and Ngugi himself) in which only one Kenyan community occupied the front row from wall to wall.
Let it be known that even though I am a Luo writer, I hold no grudge against the Kikuyu. Indeed, I have often felt deeply touched by the inhuman cruelty meted out on the Kikuyu by the British colonial government during the Mau Mau. That’s in spite of all the ugly things that happened to the Luo after the fall-out between Capitalist Jomo Kenyatta and Communist Oginga Odinga. I take that to be the only context in which, today, Oginga hasn’t a single pavement named after him in Nairobi (a country’s first vice-president!), even when Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere – both thoroughgoing Communists – have Nairobi roads named after them (The late Ali Mazrui once observed that Africans have a short memory of hate but I don’t think that’s analytically accurate; perhaps we do, but only when those we fell out with are white).
Having said that of the Kikuyu, let me also reiterate that I can’t accept the dangerous lie – overtly contained in most Kwani? texts, probably following in the footsteps of most of Ngugi’s novels – that it is the Mau Mau who won Kenya’s independence. I’m totally against any kind of ‘African Literature’ which attempts to place a single African community above the rest in the national sphere. My view is that the Mau Mau did ‘contribute’ to the independence struggle and negotiation in Kenya, even if the uprising ended painfully in 1957; and that implies the presence of other contributors (chiefly the trade unions and civil society), all of which must also be celebrated if Kenyan statehood is to see the light of day, and which Kenyan Literature needs to acknowledge and entrench.
The same way it ought to in Kenya, Literature played an invaluable role in forging a sense of national identity beyond racial barriers in the US. For instance, nothing strikes me more than the racially accommodative way of writing, observable in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). For a white author who witnessed America of the 1930s’ Great Depression, Steinbeck does really shock me by his sympathetic depiction of how that tragedy affected a black family.
America’s contribution to the story of African Literature is well documented. It funded pioneer literary journals such as Ulli Beier’s Black Orpheus (West Africa), Rajat Neogy’s Transition (East Africa), and Bob Crisp’s Drum (Southern Africa). The US also played key roles in those early African writers’ conferences in Uganda and elsewhere. If today the Ford Foundation happens to be Kwani? Trust’s chief donor, then it’s in keeping with the historical trend. Yet I suggest that we investigate the possible injustice which Kwani? Trust’s writing might be doing to the state of Kenyan nationhood.
Granted, some selective studies have been done on Kwani? Trust by Lillian Kaviti (2015), Doreen Strauhs (2013), Dina Ligaga (2005), Tom Odhiambo (2013), Alina Rinkanya (2015), Kingwa Kamencu (2012), Grace Musila (2014), Evan Mwangi (2013), Stephen Partington (2013), and Aurelia Journo (2009). However, save for my occasional investigations in the past, nearly all these researches foreground the ‘cultural’ aspect of the Trust over its ‘political’ content. Moreover, I warn that much of the research was done by the Trust’s committed insiders. Therefore, even though the findings are important contributions to knowledge, a disinterested observer can always raise questions over the issue of objectivity.
The most recent PhD research on Kwani? Trust was done by Macharia Mwangi (2015) at the University of Nairobi. One of its findings is that a huge portion of Kwani? writing is a result of guidance in the form of literary workshops conducted in Nairobi and elsewhere. If there are similarities in the way Kwani? texts depict certain Kenyan communities, then it might be because of the said workshops, hence the need for Western donors to investigate the Trust’s commitment to Kenyan nationhood.
We appreciate both the humanity and the danger that the written word presents to mankind. For instance, most of our religions are pegged on a certain ‘holy book.’ But even Adolf Hitler is known to have concretised his strange ideas in a book called Mein Kampf (1925). The Rwandan genocide is also often partially blamed on the writings of a Rwandan philosopher, Alexis Kagame. My point is that the written word is as dangerous as it is helpful, because the reader attaches emotional truth to it. I think that the European society is fully aware of this fact; that’s why Western legal thought heavily punishes sedition.
If that’s true, then we should be awake to the reality that even a country’s literature can mend or rend the national fabric. In Kenya’s case, the most emotive political disagreements – including the 2007 elections – seem to revolve around the context of the Cold War. Deep-seated communal myths have been spawned around it. How do Kwani? Trust’s writings deal with such national myths and communal stereotypes?
I have in the past written that the main problem with Kenyan nationhood – which fuels even grand corruption – might lie in the state’s appropriation of one community’s political narrative while trashing the rest. I repeat that this is a dangerous trend which every Kenyan writer must learn to die resisting, because it won’t help anybody in the long run. We intentionally ignore the contributions of the civil society, the trade union movement, everybody else, and even Asian and European moderates who genuinely agitated on behalf of Kenyans.
If it is true, as I probe and will reveal in the coming weeks, that the Kwani? Trust establishment has systematically engaged in publishing texts that depict other Kenyan communities as being foreigners in their own state for thirteen years of the Trust’s existence, then America knows how dangerous such a trend can be to a fragile state like Kenya. Would the US allow same to happen on American soil? The rest remains my burden in subsequent articles.