Celebrating East African Writing!
When we were kids, we had this belief that our fathers were superheroes. This was apparent in the number of times we invoked their names as a defense mechanism. Whenever we felt threatened, we would bring into play these then magic words, “nitaambia baba yangu” which would always ensure our safety from would be perpetrators. We lived in a cocoon whose sheath was the illusion that our fathers were invincible. But part of growing up, for those of us that did, meant acknowledging that these fairy tale stories held no water. When the western kids on TV were crying themselves to sleep on realizing that Santa was not real, we were also coming to terms with the consequences of realizing that our fathers were just human, no more fallible than the next man, woman, or even us. After our fathers suddenly became obsolete, invoking their names in our defense became a sign of weakness and those who did became the subject of ridicule and were even dared to go tell. To survive this new phenomenon, we had to learn fast that the farther we could isolate our fathers from our brawls and start fending for ourselves, the greater our odds became. This meant we had to get into fist fights, arguments, competitions, and so on to establish hierarchy both within us and with other rival kids. The illusion was over and the reality harsh but especially so for those who were late in dispensing away with these illusions.
During my teenage years, I realized that these illusions were not restricted to children alone but extended to our parents too. Illusions were a national pandemic and whereas our parents already knew the limitations of being human, they still held on to some false belief that having some prominent personalities in government would augur well for their tribe in the same way our fathers did before we saw the light. It was tantamount to being rehabilitated of a cigarette addiction only to take up cocaine or opium; a new high. I remember how in our childish games we would recite how patriotic we were. This unconditional love for our country was rarely invoked unless it had the name of some prominent personality attached to it. “Be a patriot like Kenyatta” or “Be a patriot like Moi”, we were told and likewise we recited with a sense of pride that only children would have. In the eyes of our parents and teachers, these were the men to whom we owed our independence and democratic rights and to who we should be forever grateful. They were passed as selfless leaders, heroes who sacrificed to fight for our independence, the embodiment of righteous men who deserved to lead this country. For us kids that had just grown up from one fantasy, our parents were doing a good job ushering us into the next one; the delusion of tribal politics.
And so it came to be in school. The compulsory history lessons were filled with sound bytes of Kenyatta this, Moi that, Odinga this, Mboya that and so on and so forth. But something in me was not buying it. I was one of those kids who thought that my father was unconquerable but I grew up and was not going to fall prey to the same script with a political cast. At that young age, I remember hearing my dad angrily curse a man when we were driving to his workplace and I was shocked. Parents weren’t supposed to curse. Then over the years, I saw that his coming home late was because he was struggling to make ends meet. I was shocked that he was not the boss where he worked and the full scale of this hit me when he was retrenched and we had to move from the company staff houses. He now had to struggle on a whole new level for his family and the strain this had on him was now more evident than ever. Though we never lacked, to see my father in that vulnerable position where he was just another man with his faults, fears, and who everyday struggled like every other man with a wife and kids to do right by them was an eye-opener for me. Informed by this, I treated our GHC (Geography, History, and Civics) lessons with great skepticism. It was all too neat.
Later in life when I had developed a good enough brain to interrogate issues, I realized that our history lessons had hitherto read like storybooks in the cliché sense of the word. I began to notice the discrepancies in the text and sense the words that rung so hollow they echoed. But the beauty of vacuums is that they are in a constant lookout for something to fill them. That was how I came to notice the conversations taking place around me. These conversations were so markedly different that I wished our history classes would have comprised people simply talking, asking questions, giving opinions, sharing, agreeing, disagreeing and engaging as opposed to the bird’s eye view kind of history that we were taught in class. Soon after noticing them, these conversations began taking over every space; each choosing its own topic and recounting its own version and understanding of issues. From talk shows on TV, chitchats while playing cards, high profile panel discussions to street corner deliberations, conversations were taking place. Reservations were cast aside as debates were raging, feelings were expressed, rumours were exchanged, facts articulated, opinions conveyed, and questions posed. From all the above came new understanding, greater insight, renewed doubt, more questions, a couple of answers, and death to delusions.
So what began as whispers in bedrooms, at street corners, and in university hostels had now grown into fully fledged public conversations that were challenging the status quo. The people who were party to these conversations were querying everything under the sun within the Kenyan borders. Gradually, the whispers of those earlier unseen got louder with each additional conversation that joined this amorphous grid of people talking. And with every opinion raised outside official channels, the official accounts of our history among other state positions diminished in stature. Those who were there but were left out of the history books began coming out of the woodworks to tell their stories. They were distancing themselves from and denouncing the official accounts saying that they were fabrications based on official hearsay. Apparently, our school history curricula were accounts written by intellectuals as politicians recounted their romanticized version of what took place. This was propaganda par excellence that is only today coming under attack on a wide scale. We are only learning that politicians hijacked the independence train after it docked on the uhuru station and have been riding it to date. But no more! The secret is coming out and with the advent of Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and MySpace in this age, information has become viral and it will not be long now until everybody is in on any one of the thousands of conversations simultaneously taking place.
The recurrent theme in most of these conversations is that the writing of our history needs to have another side to the coin other than the president’s. Soon enough, students with the benefit of this alternative information at their fingertips will give teachers a tough time answering what they themselves were never taught in school. There will be a need for a total overhaul of the curricula to reflect the true dialectics of history that we were never privy to. Watching Hillary Ng’weno’s documentary series ‘Makers of a nation’ should serve as a preview for those who will rewrite the curricula. It has exposed all those elements that define humanity in its coverage. It was not edited to make it clean-cut, picture perfect, and full of hero worship jargon like we were used to. On the contrary, it has laid bare all the angles that we could never see before. It has shown that these “leaders” were liars, thieves, selfish, corrupt, and conniving bastards at their best. Basically, they were just men among who were fewer men who had integrity. The few good men unfortunately never got far. Ng’weno’s account is one that has been lost to many and which needs to be taught to this new generation. It has all the cards laid bare on the table such that the rainbow is no longer as pretty. The illusion is over and the reality harsh.
But today, people will not sit back and watch this documentary as the source of all truth but rather as just one way to look at things. Society today has embraced the concept of “a google a day keeps ignorance away” and so this documentary will be just one among many sources of information to be interrogated. It will be incorporated into the ongoing conversations. Having questioned the version of history that was peddled to us for a long time, I had my ear out scanning the channels and soon enough I caught on to the whispers signal. I tuned in and became part of the undertone conversations. I have since kept tabs on these whispers both off and online and have been part of their journey to becoming open conversations. Hopefully I will be instrumental in their becoming movements. In these conversations, I have accepted ideas, rejected people, insulted personalities, acknowledged struggles, agreed to disagree, and changed my mind. In short, I participated. Throughout all these, my friends who don’t quite get it have on numerous occasions asked me why the hell I am so preoccupied with this stuff. My only answer to them has been the mind-blowing excerpts of what is actually being said in these different forums.
Earlier this month, I was at the Storymoja Hay Festival to experience all the various forms of art being exhibited there. There was music, poetry, storytelling, discussions, debates, pictures, drawings, movies, books and every other thing that constitutes art. Each was happening in its own tent at different times over the three days the event lasted. That Saturday afternoon at the Can-do tent is where I last engaged in yet another conversation. This was an interesting debate where the topic to be interrogated was ‘Assassinations in Kenya’. Listed as moderators were PLO Lumumba and Parselelo Kantai and on getting there the room was packed…
I waited with the rest as the organizers frantically ran about trying to locate our renowned moderators but they were nowhere to be found. There was however this guy who decided to start us off. He introduced himself as an author but whose name I am at pains trying to remember. At first he had difficulty finding his words and articulating the subject at hand and that prompted a few people to walk out of the tent. They were frustrated that they did not get to see Kantai or hear a big speech by PLO. Lost to them though was the fact that conversations craft their own agenda, set their own pace, follow their own rhythm and that no one big speech could substitute for collective thought on the issue. If PLO had come and started giving us a speech, I would have walked out. Those of us who understood this remained and our author guy got us started by posing a question. He asked us whether those who were assassinated and to whom we had since designated the tag “heroes” really deserved that title. He especially took issue with the late J. M. Kariuki whom he termed a hypocrite because whereas in public he claimed to speak for the poor squatters, in private he had amassed thousands of acres of land. By virtue of owning that land, he was himself responsible for creating the squatter problem in the country. He said that the late JM was merely opium for the masses; he was no hero and since we all die, death whether by assassination or accident does not make us heroes.
In answering his question, I jumped in with my own theory. My take was quite simple. Looking back at the formative years of this country, it is easy to spot similarities between the men that were assassinated. JM, Pio Gama Pinto, and TJ were all politicians whose leadership transcended tribe. At a time when tribal politics was all the leverage politicians sought for posturing and positioning purposes, these three men had chosen to travel the road less traveled and were rewarded for it. It was that extra quality that enabled them to melt through tribal barricades without putting on the pretentious smiles of most politicians which endeared them to all and sundry. This was also their Achilles heel because those pretentious smiles of their fellow envious politicians lit the way to their respective deaths. They had bright political stars and the powers that be saw that it was easier to eliminate those pawns that were on the path to being crowned queen, the most powerful piece in the game. Their blindness to tribe that accorded them adoration from the masses politically meant that they had a clear path to the presidency that only death could stop, and so they died. With them died that symbol of nationhood that we are frantically searching for today.
This was the time when Parselelo Kantai made his way into the tent. After an apology and a brief introduction, he listened for a while and then posed quite a potent question. He asked whether any of us had ever watched the documentary series “Makers of a Nation” by Hillary Ng’weno. We all had. He then asked whether any of our politicians had integrity because gauging from this documentary series, one would be hard pressed to find any one politician whose principles were not contingent on the political mileage they stood to gain. The same people took up outrageously opposing stands depending on the political tides and hence the difficulty in confidently attributing certain core values and principles to any of these politicians. So going back to the assassinations, he asked whether any of these “heroes” had any integrity and hence the reason died or were they destined to follow the morally bankrupt route that their colleagues who lived did. Can we confidently assert that they were beyond reproach or have we just given them the benefit of doubt because they died before we could find out?
Al Kags, another author who had just launched his book – a compilation of short stories by old men and women whose voices were unheard – joined the conversation at this point. He had come in earlier but was busy eating a bugger behind me. His mind was set. Informed by the intricate knowledge he had garnered while interviewing the older generation for his book, he was convinced that it all came down to being on the right side of an argument. He figured that since very few politicians in Kenya would be considered principled, the positions they took on any one issue were based on what they stood to gain. He said that those who were assassinated were not morally superior, they did not have the integrity we claim they had, and they would not have “saved” this country had they lived; they were just politicians who were on the right side of the argument at the times of their deaths. He argued that even today, if a politician with a track record tainted with corruption like a graffiti wall were to die, accidentally or not, Kenyans would claim that he was assassinated for his beliefs and dub him a hero. He was convinced that we would have hated these guys like the rest of them if they had lived, for integrity in Kenya is subject to convenience.
When Al Kags was done, this guy of Indian or maybe Caucasian descent said that whichever way we chose to look at it, it came down to what Marvin (me) said. He said that it was also his belief that those who were assassinated had to die because of the political threat that they were becoming. They represented what the politicians of the time and also today’s both within and outside the establishment feared the most, leaders who would not be coerced for fear of losing tribal votes because they already had all ilk of voters in the bag. He wondered if we found it curious that only those leaders who could without travesty transcend tribal lines were the ones to meet the assassin’s bullet. This definitely exacerbated tribal mistrust by creating rifts between tribes and in retrospect, it was the classic case of divide and rule policy that politicians have been reaping from to date. He then requested us to ask ourselves whether we were really serious about putting an end to tribalism because all the actions we had taken as a country suggested the contrary to be the case. For instance, instead of urging them on and nurturing them, we killed the only leaders who never hid behind tribe; the very people who were the symbol of a tribe called Kenya. And even in today’s charged atmosphere of tribal alliances that began back then, one gets the feeling that if such versatile leaders with nationwide appeal as TJ were to emerge, they would be met by a bullet from new age assassin on the orders of old age politicians or their apprentices.
And it has nothing to do with tribe is my belief. People from my own tribe will kill me if they thought that my nationalistic outlook will deny them the leverage of consolidating tribal votes for posturing purposes. And nothing said it more clearly than the words of Okuku, the brother to Tom Mboya when he addressed mourners at the funeral of JM Kariuki. Borrowing from the now famous words of the German reverend, he said and I paraphrase “when they killed pinto, you kept quiet because you are not Indian; when they killed Mboya, you kept quiet because you are not Luo; now they have killed J. M. Kariuki.”
But our author moderator whose name I still haven’t recalled was not convinced. He said that death alone should not automatically warrant one a hero status. He asked to be told what people did that they deserved to be remembered for after their deaths. He said that JM had nothing for the people he professed to be speaking for yet he had been in government and was rich enough to make a substantial enough change for his people. He termed JM a populist who just fed people hollow words. But this guy who had arrived a bit late into the tent and sat next to me was not prepared to let that go unchallenged. He interjected and said he was from Nyanza and to establish credibility introduced himself as a grandson of one of those gentlemen who were in the loop back then. He gave us “witness accounts” of what happened behind the scenes on so many things and eventually got around to JM. He said that JM was indeed wealthy and in an effort to further humiliate the government which he had increasingly condemned over the years for creating “10 millionaires and 10 million beggars”, he was planning to give away his tracts of land to squatters. Having got wind of this plan and understanding the precarious position that it would have put the government in, Kenyatta and his henchmen had JM assassinated.
This little piece of information silenced our author friend for a while. But in following with his antihero mentality, I questioned our ability in choosing leaders not only in Kenya but across the continent. Over the years, most people who rose to be presidents of African countries were those perceived to have suffered the most, case in point being ex prisoners like Mandela and Kenyatta. This might as well have been the birth place of sympathy votes. In the end, the majority of such leaders became neocolonialists with colonial mentalities that were upheld by colonial constitutions. Going further, I expressed with contempt my disgust for the founding president, Kenyatta, who at one point referred to the Mau Mau as a disease. What followed shocked me and further entrenched my conviction that a potent question always trumps present understanding. Without asking, my off cuff remark about the founding president had put across a perception that needed clarification. The power of conversations is in their raw, informal, amorphous, unrepentant, uninhibited frameworks which mean no holds barred. There was no holding back what needed to be said in this tent.
My disgust at Kenyatta’s insult directed at the MauMau was met by the same answer from several people almost in unison. They all said “Kenyatta was never Mau Mau!” Who knew? I had on numerous occasions seen him on TV with his unkempt hair and beard proudly proclaiming “Mzungu aende Ulaya, Mwafrika apate Uhuru” and to me that qualified him as party to the Mau Mau rebellion. I even thought that this was the reason he was jailed for the 10 or so years. Though I was yet to read a book that said he was Mau Mau, nothing I had read said he wasn’t Mau Mau including all those history lessons in school. One of those who said Kenyatta was never Mau Mau was this short lady who had all through been quietly listening from the second row. Just to make sure we heard her right, this short, elderly, unassuming, impressively eloquent lady went ahead to tell us that Kenyatta himself was viewed suspiciously by the Mau Mau. She said that he was in fact never privy to what they did or planned to do. I remember people bursting out in laughter when she said that if we had followed Kenyatta’s roadmap for independence, we would still be a British colony. To her, Kenyatta was an opportunist, just a politician who was placed at the helm by elders because the true rebellion leaders were too illiterate to lead the country. She considered him a moderate and just stopped short of calling him a British stooge though she might as well have.
Kantai interjected at this point probably because he felt compelled to give us the bigger picture. He said that before we go ahead with the rebellion theory, we should keep in mind that the much hailed Mau Mau rebellion killed only 32 people during that whole independence struggle. If I had a detachable jaw, instead of it dropping I would have thrown it away. That is how shocked I was. They say that every rumour usually has some truth to it and this is a sacred statement to skeptics like me. Even skeptics usually hope that there is truth to most of what they interrogate and this one of those things I never thought I would hear. Here I was thinking that we fought tooth and nail, through blood sweat and tears like the Vietnamese did against America, and had the British running out of this place in an embarrassing defeat. Apparently not; there was no white flag and running scared and instead, the settlers who left only left after they were paid by a loan that we took as a country from the British Government to buy them out. I do not know about you but if I am fighting with somebody on whom I barely land a punch, and then I take a loan to pay him to leave me alone, I am the coward of the century. And I wouldn’t tell either because that is nothing to write home about. And since few people know about the 32 people casualty or the loan that we are still paying, the government did a pretty good job covering it up. Most people still believe that we valiantly ran the British out.
While I was caught up in the above thoughts, our elderly lady continued speaking. She had the same serious intonation in her voice and was speaking on a more personal level now, like a mother. She told us that she is from Central province and that she had seen all these before. By all these she meant the tribal bickering, the endless arguments about who killed who, and the entrapment of people in cycles that led them nowhere. She said that it was a pity that in 2009, we would still be discussing the very things that her generation wasted decades on. And extrapolating how these four decades were wasted, it was easy to see how Vision 2030 would end up becoming Vision 3020. She ended with a plea that was so forceful it came out like an order. She told us to just stop with all this nonsense of who killed who and for what reasons and instead focus our energies on more productive things. And with that, the conversation effectively came to an end with Parselelo confessing that he wanted to clap for her. The next minutes were spent on closing remarks in which nothing new was said.
This is just one conversation and such are the intricacies of most conversations and the weight they often carry. We each left that tent as I have left many other discussions, informed, curious, and eager to share the knowledge. For me, what lay ahead was crystal clear. First I would write a post about it in my blog, which would be followed by sending links of it to both my twitter and facebook accounts and I would then engage those who would care to reply to the blog post. That is my way of keeping the conversation going. Looking at Kantai, I wondered whether what was discussed would influence his perception as he drafts his upcoming book on Tom Mboya. Watching Al Kags, I also wondered whether he would do another compilation of short stories because the astoundingly compelling case our elderly lady friend had just made gave credence to importance of hearing out such unheard voices. Glancing over at our author guy whose name I have given up on, I smiled as I speculated whether in light the temporary reprieve that JM had been given in the tent, he would be less critical of the man either in subsequent forums or in his writing. I hoped that everybody who was present at that tent would tell their friends and colleagues the bits of information that they found most intriguing on their end. It would be their way of keeping the conversation going.
But even as I go out of my way to either initiate or join ongoing conversations about this potentially great nation of ours, it is not lost to me that people wake up differently. This evokes memories of our younger days when we had to contend with the fact that our fathers were mere mortals. There were those of us who took it in our stride and then there were those who needed to cry a river first before embracing the harsh reality. In between the two, there were many more categories which stemmed from the ease or difficulty that people have waking up from deep slumber. For instance, there are those like me who are light sleepers (mild insomniacs) and hence do not need the huge cathedral bells to wake us up. Just a whisper and we are wide awake ready to take on the world. By virtue of being light sleepers, we are woken up by the sounds of politicians sneaking around at night plotting with fellow thugs about the next big catch at our expense. Our duty then has become that of watchmen, keeping vigil and raising alarm at any sign of trouble be it a typing error, an off cuff remark, or unholy alliances. Though we all eventually sleep, it is never too deep or for very long because our biology and psychology does not allow us.
But there are more: there are the insomniacs who are keeping eternal vigil. There are those who set alarms to wake them up; that alarm rang loudly when the country approached the precipice in the post election debacle and now they are wide awake. There are also those who set alarms only to throw them in water because the reality of waking up and smelling the coffee is too great to bear. They are a challenge. There are those who sleep until they can sleep no more; like an ostrich that puts its head in the sand, they think they will avert the worst if they just ignore it. There are those who can only be woken up by nightmares and only by drawing them a picture that this country is a nightmare waiting to happen will they wake up. Then there are those who sleep walk; they honestly think that since they are walking they must be awake. This is a hypnotic trance that needs to be broken for them to be of any help to the rest of us. Lastly there are those who wake up but not fully. My friend Dallas for instance, on waking up, he stays in this stupor as he simultaneously scratches his stomach and crotch. That tells me that he fully wakes up when his food and posterity come under threat. There are others who need hot coffee, or jogging to be fully awake. Such is the challenge facing this amorphous revolution that began in whispers. The whispers have become conversations which may now have to change into shouts of dissent if we are to wake up everybody to the reality that is with us today.
At the end of the day and without calling it the ‘Kenya we want,’ these formless conversations are articulating the illusions of the Kenya we have been living in. Our hope is to finally break away from rhetoric that tells us we will one day get to cloud nine and yet we don’t have even a ladder today. There are many one liners that are products of these conversations but which we laugh off as witty remarks while failing to appreciate their true meaning. Such lines as “navumilia kuwa Mkenya”, “najihurumia kuwa Mkenya”, “naumia kuwa Mkenya”, are honest opinions of those who utter them and should carry with them the weight that led to their very expression. The emerging one liners that run parallel to new rhetoric such as “Vision 2030 Mission 2012”, “Vision 3020” should not be treated as jokes to be laughed at but as realities to be dealt with. The fact of the matter is that those of us that are proud to be Kenyan are proud in spite of as opposed to because. This means even though tunaumia, tunajihurumia, tunavumilia, bado tunajivunia. To be proud to be Kenyan is not mutually exclusive because it does not negate the fact that we are paying a heavy price for that pride.
Reality check is one of the terms and conditions attached to our pride and we are making that known. The Kenya we want has to deal with the reality of the Kenya we live first and similarly, living Kenyans need to deal with the illusions of the Kenya we have been living in.
For a tethered goat to enjoy the nourishment of new pasture, it must break the rope tied around its neck. As a kid who always invoked his father’s name at the slightest sign of trouble, I was scared to get out his shadow because I feared I would get my ass whopped. But when I emerged from his shadow albeit reluctantly, I realized as someone once wrote that it was my own shadow that was standing in my way. The moment I stepped out on my own was like a new breath of life to me. Earlier, I would only play around the house so that he could hear me when I called for help. But when I learned to fend for myself, suddenly I could go to far away places that I would never have ventured out of fear. And we all got stronger after we learned to stand on our own. And the same goes for Kenya, unless we break from the generation giving us these visions, we will only go as far the outline of their shadows. And given what they have done with this country since independence vis-à-vis other countries, they are a generation of dwarfs and so we only have so far to tether around. Around our necks are ropes that read corruption, tribalism, pillage, our turn to eat, and that is the menu of dwarfs that can only lead to stunted growth. If only we dare cut loose these ropes, we will realize that there is a whole world of opportunities for each of us to exploit. By finally letting our creative juices ooze freely, we will do by 2012 their vision of 2030. If we let the ropes stay, our kids will have to wait until 3020 to see 2030.
©Marvin K. Tumbo 2009
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