Are We Here Yet?
The 2011 performance at Nairobi’s The Theatre Company opens with two Mau Mau fighters stuck in Mt. Kenya forest. It is 1983. They are unaware Kenya gained independence 20 years ago. The two fighters, Mahela and Githai, re-enact the Mau Mau oath of allegiance, an annual tradition they have practiced the entire time they lived in the bush. Their enduring memory of life before this moment, is of the night they were dispatched to kill a British settler. They went as far as the white man’s bedroom, but developed cold feet. Now, 20 years later, they believe they are cursed for violating a cardinal Mau Mau oath – to kill the enemy. And are convinced that they can only get atonement by finding and killing an alternative white man.
The sound of an approaching vehicle interrupts the dreadlocked Mau Mau fighters obsessing over the oath. Two African American tourists emerge, accompanied by a white tour guide. Due the colour of his skin, Mahela and Githai decide that the tour guide is a colonialist and the accompanying African Americans his home guards – members of indigenous Kenyan communities who chose to collaborate with the British, branded traitors of the independence struggle. When the African Americans spot Mahela and Githai, they ask the tour guide whether the two-dreadlocked men are cast members for a skit and part of the entertainment package for the tourists seeking a full colonial misadventure experience. The confused tour guide mumbles a response as the two fighters presuming they are under attack, strike and capture the group. With a captive white man in their hands, Mahela and Githai debate on whether to kill him to cleanse themselves of the curse. Moments later, the two African American tourists break loose, make a sprint for the forest, and in the ensuing fracas, Githai accidentally shoots the white captive.
That performance, ‘Are We Here Yet’, marked Kenyan thespian Ogutu Muraya’s debut as a scriptwriter.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
In April 2012, a 26 year old, Ogutu woke up in his London hotel to good news. The Guardian newspaper had given the Kiswahili adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ translated by Ogutu, a Five Star rating. This was the highest accolade of any of the 37 Shakespeare performances delivered in 37 different languages at the Globe to Globe Festival – the biggest festival on Shakespeare’s works held during London’s Cultural Olympiad. Apart from translating the play, Ogutu was part of the cast and The Guardian singled him out for naughtily embodying his character, Mistress Quickly.
‘‘Such was the power of the performances, the way the cast seemed to live their lines, that the language barrier hardly mattered… the Swahili had an earthy gusto, an air of languor and sunshine that made Shakespeare’s prose seem prissy and verbose,’’ wrote the Guardian’s Andrew Gilchrist.
‘‘It ended, of course, with a dance, the crowd up on their feet clapping along as the company took their bows. A young girl sitting near me, who had been laughing throughout, was almost overcome. “To see Shakespeare in this setting, in Swahili, in England, it’s fabulous,” she said.
Ogutu and the seven cast members, including Tanzanian poet and thespian Mrisho Mpoto, who played the lead character, had left Nairobi for London on a shoe string budget. They had bought an assortment of second hand clothes for their costume, having only been able to afford proper attire for Mrisho. On arrival in London, they attended the technical rehearsal for Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’, performed in Russian. What they saw made them decide they stood little chance at making an impression on the London audience. They had never performed in such a state of the art theatre. The group’s confidence took another hit when they attended the Maori performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’. At the end of the show, the New Zealand cast performed the haka, the war dance popularized by their All Blacks rugby team.
It therefore came as a pleasant surprise that the East Africans made a lasting Five Star impression on the London audience.
DAS Graduate School
Fresh off ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ high, Ogutu submitted an application to DAS Graduate School (Academy of Theatre and Dance formerly known as DasArt), the prestigious experimental art institute and appendage of the Amsterdam University of the Arts. The main pitch on Ogutu’s portfolio, beside the Mau Mau piece, was that he had translated Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ into Kiswahili, and been part of its cast during London’s Cultural Olympiad. The rejection letter, was accompanied by an email observing that Ogutu had a Shakespearean aesthetic, therefore advised him to instead apply to a British arts school, where he stood a better chance of admission.
Ogutu became aware that translating Shakespeare into Kiswahili and performing the same was not necessarily the most progressive thing for him to do. A member of the London audience observed that he ‘‘understood Shakespeare better in Kiswahili than he ever did in English’’, making the point that by translating Shakespeare, Ogutu had facilitated the export of the Empire’s culture to its former colonies and delivered it in a language and manner that was both agreeable and accessible to the former subjects. The translation had added a cultural richness to Shakespeare and to the validation of English literature in the former colonies.
Fortunately, Ogutu landed a month long residency in the Netherlands in September 2013, where he was to spend time interacting with arts institutions. Before his arrival in the Netherlands, Ogutu announced that DAS rejected his application during the school’s previous intake and he was keen on giving it another shot. The residency granted Ogutu’s wish and he ended up spending two weeks at DAS.
DAS is not your traditional performance school. The conversations dwelled on his future prospects as a performing artist, since DAS mantra was unhinged experimentation and imagination, seeking to break boundaries to produce artists grounded in practice. The more time he spent at DAS, the more Ogutu felt it was where he belonged. DAS admitted between seven and nine students for its two-year graduate program, and Ogutu knew it was not going to be easy gaining admission. He worked on a new application, and in early 2014, received news that he had made the shortlist. He travelled to Amsterdam for a three-day audition, went through a slew of interviews and made the cut second time round, joining DAS in September 2014.
Before admission, Ogutu had to bring a new birth certificate for the process of residency in Amsterdam. The old one was not accepted. He had to pay three times the tuition fees his European classmates paid at DAS, and underwent tests for Tuberculosis every six months. He concluded that for African to gain acceptance in Europe they had to be wealthy, healthy and brainy. The visa application process on its own had become a sort of state sanctioned eugenics, a manmade exercise of natural selection. One of his instructors put it differently. He told Ogutu of the Dutch policy of discouragement – a subtle code for institutional racism – where a myriad roadblocks are placed on the paths of outsiders.
Royal Dutch Shell
Barely a semester into his studies, Ogutu suddenly wanted to abandon his Dutch expedition and opt out of DAS. The reason behind this trepidation was that the school had relocated to a North Amsterdam property, hitherto occupied by the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. Ogutu noted that the grounds that were previously an industrial part of Amsterdam had now been gentrified, comprising newly minted edgy arts institutions, incubators for start-ups, hotels, hostels, a film museum, an underground nightclub and high end apartments. A consortium of the City of Amsterdam now owned the 100-acre property that once housed the largest Shell laboratories in the world. The consortium donated part of the estate to DAS Graduate School, among other institutions.
In an attempt to speak truth to power, Ogutu’s first school project, ‘A Clarification of My Internal Politics’, sought to question DAS’ relocation Shell’s pseudo museum. He sought to interrogate why DAS would want to go anywhere near an ethically stained multinational like Shell, without critical reflection. Through the performance lecture, Ogutu juxtaposed Shell’s reputation in the Netherlands against its misdeeds in Nigeria, particularly in Ogoniland, where it was accused of gross environmental degradation in a UNEP report. In 1995, Sani Abacha’s regime executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others for agitating against Shell’s activities, resulting in a 2009 out of court settlement with Shell paying $15.5m to the Ogoni nine and one other victim and $5m going into an Ogoni education trust fund. Through act of artistic protest, Ogutu hoped, idealistic, that his project would bring DAS back to its senses.
Ogutu’s art project received a lukewarm reception, critiqued for its artistic merits, shortfalls and belittled. Ogutu wondered whether he was naïve to presume society would sit up whenever he presented what he considered radical thought as his classmates and instructors did not necessarily center their practice on the sociopolitical. Disillusioned, Ogutu slipped into depression. He thereafter wrote to DAS, opting out of his studies, unable to navigate his new realities. DAS offered Ogutu a month during the December 2014 break to reflect on his decision. As if extending an olive branch, DAS bought Ogutu’s ticket to Nairobi, after he applied for an emergency grant.
This feeling of powerlessness was not new. During his undergraduate International Relations studies at Nairobi’s United States International University–Africa, Ogutu felt the program taught everything about what was wrong with the world but never offered solutions. Therefore in the pursuit of meaningful change, he embraced the arts, growing to become The Theater Company’s creative director and later joining DAS, only for him to realize late in the day that ‘‘the complexities of life proved immune to the artistic antidote.’’
Back in Nairobi, Ogutu sought out three Kenyan artists who had lived overseas, in search of understanding of his artistic struggles. The writer Binyavanga Wainaina told Ogutu his struggle was familiar, that he was going through a formatting process, advising Ogutu to seek sunshine whenever he could, telling him winter messed people up. The performance artist Sitawa Namwalie told Ogutu those Amsterdam years were his induction into the art world, for him to find his place in it. The publisher Muthoni Garland asked Ogutu to read American writer and activist James Baldwin, mainly ‘Notes of a Native Son’, reflections on Baldwin’s days holed up in Paris.
Finding Baldwin was the best thing anyone could have done for Ogutu. Reading Baldwin instantly unlocked Ogutu’s world, and from that point on, his projects at DAS either revolved around the work and person of Baldwin, or the happenings around the Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Paris in September 1956, that Ogutu gleaned from Baldwin’s works. Ogutu returned to Amsterdam in January 2015, somewhat reenergized. For his second semester project, he produced a short theatre piece titled ‘Nobody Knows My Name’, borrowing explicitly from one of Baldwin’s book titles.
The piece centered around Café Tournon in Paris, a hugely popular meeting spot for African American artists, some of whom were part of the Harlem Renaissance, who had since sought refuge in Paris. The twist in Ogutu’s piece, picked from Baldwin’s writings and of others around the 1956 Congress, was that the CIA, French intelligence and other infiltrators such as the KGB had made inroads within this particular Paris group of Black writers and artists as part of the cultural Warfare. Ogutu’s main character, is a Black writer dealing with writer’s block as he tries to write about his time at Café Tournon. He is unable to make headway because he can no longer tell what was real and what was an enactment of the intelligence agencies, in spite of the glimpses of purity and authenticity at the café.
The idea of a meta-narrative about a Black writer trying to write a story about events of his life in a foreign country where he had sought refuge and escaped his home country’s hounding, reflected Ogutu’s frame of mind. In this case, Café Tournon was the symbol of the physical space abroad and the place where failure lurked, trailed by a mixture of anxiety and paranoia. It had taken Ogutu years of applications and rejections, in the hope of an admission into DAS. Yet at DAS, where he was supposed to thrive, he remained in a state of paralysis.
In his final year project at DAS, Ogutu sunk deeper into the happenings at the four day 1956 Black Writers and Artists congress in Paris, in a performance piece he titled ‘Fractured Memory’.
The piece, broken into four parts, each representing a day at the congress, opens with a scene of the reading of an emotive letter sent by WEB Du Bois, who could not travel to Paris because he was denied an American passport. Du Bois warns that part of the American delegation is state sponsored infiltration and that revelation causes tension at the congress. On the second day, Martinique poet and politician Aime Cesaire delivers a rousing speech on the relationship between colonialism and culture, going as far as labeling African Americans as colonised subjects. To counter Cesaire, Ogutu brings in Baldwin, who points out that Cesaire does not own up to his own personal effects of colonialism, seeing that he was addressing a congress of Blacks gathered in Paris speaking in French.
The third serving dwells on confrontations happening at the Congress, ending with the realization that there was no consensus on how to liberate people of African descent from colonialism, apartheid, segregation and exploitation. In the fourth section, Ogutu recites a poem that introspects on the agitations at the Congress. For each of these segments, Ogutu layers them with contemporary and historical issues in Kenya such as mistrust, anger, division – reiterating that the challenges of Paris 1956 still bedevil the Black people in Africa and elsewhere.
In November 2016, Ogutu performed ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Batard Festival in Brussels. After the performance, Tunde Adefioye, an American-Nigerian curator representing Brussel’s Royal Flemish Theatre came looking for him. Tunde was deeply moved by Ogutu’s performance and offered him a performance slot at the Royal Flemish Theatre in March 2018.
On New Year’s Day 2018, aboard a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi, Ogutu’s state of mind oscillated between elation, anxiety and indecisiveness. Earlier, in September 2017, he was selected as one of 15 artists in residence by the City of Amsterdam. The program, dubbed the Three Package Deal, funded by the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts, came with a €22,500 stipend that covered living expenses, an artist studio and a research budget for a theatre production, to be showcased after the residency. Upon graduation from DAS the previous year, Ogutu was granted a one year visa, usually provided to graduates from Dutch institutions. That one year in Amsterdam post-graduation became a haunting experience. Despite the relief he had found in James Baldwin and his work, Ogutu still had to put up with a sense of not belonging as he wrestled with questions of race and racism, and how this affected his life and work. The residency came with a two year visa, meaning Ogutu had to decide whether he had the stamina to survive Amsterdam.
Here was a man debating whether to continue with the residency or opt out. It was a huge honour to be selected, and he was cognizant of the fact that benefactors who he did not want to disappoint had put up a strong case for him in the process. Ogutu took the entire month of January 2018 to make the decision to return to Amsterdam and take up the residency, partly prompted by the need to return to Europe anyway since he was already slotted to perform ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels.
The Life and Works of Leopold II
Ogutu arrived in Brussels on March 8, 2018, a day before his performance of ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Royal Flemish Theatre. Noah Voelker, an American classmate at DAS who was now a collaborator, accompanied him. They checked into two spacious studio apartments, before proceeding to the theatre to check on the technical elements of the performance. The show, performed in English, had French and Dutch surtitles (as subtitles are known in theatre) to attract both the city’s Dutch and French speakers.
As Ogutu and Noah went through the technical motions of the show, a staffer at the theater told them about ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’, a performance which was being staged on the night of March 8. The show would take place at the main theatre as the anchor performance, followed by Ogutu’s performance on March 9 at an adjoining box theatre. He would later discover that the pairing of the two performances was to ignite a dialogue on colonialism and decolonization. ‘Fractured Memory’ was lined up as a hesitant partner in a weird post-colonial dance with King Leopold II’s misdeeds in the Congo.
Earlier the same day, Ogutu sent Tunde Adefioye – the theater’s curator who had booked Ogutu’s show – a text message requesting tickets for ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’. Tunde told him the show was sold out, but that he would seek out some connections. He never got back to Ogutu. It later emerged that Tunde preferred Ogutu did not watch the Leopold II show, possibly suspecting the performance’s racist undertones would expectedly elicit an unpleasant reaction. Ogutu reasoned that Tunde meant well and wanted to stick to his institution’s program while shielding Ogutu from triggers that would affect his performance. Unknown to Tunde, the theatre’s staffer went to the box office and worked out two tickets for Ogutu and Noah to watch the Leopold II show.
In Ogutu’s narration, the opening scene featured the only black cast member cleaning the front of the theatre using a vacuum cleaner, moving around the stage and into the audience, creating confusion as to whether he was part of the performance. Then the rest of the cast took to the stage, with African characters played by white actors wearing black faces. The King of Congo was depicted as an ape-like creature, and whenever the white actors playing as Africans spoke, their speech was deliberately sluggish and inaudible, as if not representations of actual humans. The actor playing King Leopold II produced a belching sound whenever interacting with Africans, implying that in communication with Africans, one resorted to a range of grunt sounds outside of ordinary speech. In representing African children, their voices became hoarse and croaky.
As the English surtitles streamed past and Ogutu married them to the acts on stage, he got agitated. To Ogutu’s dismay, the worst was yet to come after the performance, when the predominantly white audience gave the cast a standing ovation. The cast moved backstage but as the audience was still clapping, came back on stage to soak in the accolades. Ogutu felt sick to the stomach, not knowing whether to be surprised or disappointed. To this audience in Brussels, the portrayal of Africans as primitive sub-humans passed for art.
From the theatre, Ogutu did not speak to anyone. He went straight to his apartment, and could not sleep that night. The following morning at 9am, Noah was at the theatre, ready to do a test run of ‘Fractured Memory’. He sent Ogutu a text, asking whether he was on his way. Ogutu said he was.
The moment Noah set his eyes on Ogutu he knew something was amiss. Noah also knew it all had to do with what they had watched the previous night. There was no denying that the show was racist. Noah and Ogutu had a little chat, sharing views on the show. Ogutu told Noah he was not sure he wanted to perform ‘Fractured Memory’ in such a racially toxic environment. Noah said he understood, but asked Ogutu to give it further thought. Ogutu walked into the theatre set up for his performance. The moment he walked in, he instinctively knew he would not be performing that night. He told Noah he was going to take a walk back to the apartment, and that by the time he got there, he would relay his final decision.
By the time Ogutu got to the apartment, his mind was made. He was not performing.
When Tunde Adefioye heard about Ogutu’s decision, he requested a meeting. Ogutu asked for an hour as he called Amsterdam, where Veem House of Performance was handling his travel and other logistics. He informed them of his decision to pull out, asking for arrangements for the next available train back to Amsterdam. Tunde was devastated, admitting that he too shared in Ogutu’s frustrations of ‘The Life and Times of King Leopold II’ portrayal of Africans. The theatre’s business manager reached out to Noah, asking for a meeting. Ogutu declined.
By the time Noah and Ogutu arrived in Amsterdam, the main newspapers in Brussels had picked up the story, as a cancelation message had to be sent out by the theater. Journalists wanted a comment from Ogutu, for the next day’s papers. Feeling under weather, Ogutu took his medication and passed out. By the time he woke up, the journalists’ 5pm deadline had lapsed. They went to print without his comment. Phone calls and solidarity messages from friends and industry players started streaming in. By the evening of March 9, Ogutu had to release a statement. He consulted the team at Veem, before making a stinging, succinct Facebook post. The Royal Flemish Theatre on its part issued a defensive counter statement, citing artistic freedom. Tunde wrote a conciliatory piece, hoping Ogutu would have an opportunity to perform at the theatre sometime in future and to contribute to the decolonization discourse. The theatre’s artistic director tried reaching Ogutu through Veem, intending to issue a personal apology.
In his statement, Ogutu bitterly protested the placement of ‘Fractured Memory’ next to a hyper-problematic piece framed as part of an exercise in the critical reflection on colonialism. The use of racist slurs such as nigger, the apish characterization and imbecilic mannerisms attributed to Africans, the racialized costumes and sexualization of the black body, and the use of the black face – all in Ogutu’s words – were some of the unacceptable devices deployed to demean the dignity of black people.
It was as if Ogutu was having an artistic epiphany. All his readings of Baldwin crystallized before his eyes. There he was, a Black artist in Brussels, encountering blatant racism within the very artistic spaces he had hoped to find elevated discourses on culture, race and race relations. Like Baldwin, he now had to react directly to these acts by carving out his own responses. Ogutu had to now live his politics, and mature as a protégé of Baldwin’s work.
Three days later, on March 12 2018, Ogutu boarded a Nairobi bound KLM flight, booked a month earlier. Unlike during his New Year’s Amsterdam to Nairobi flight when he was torn between moving back home or taking up the City of Amsterdam residency, he now felt a sense of artistic purpose. He had taken up the residency and premiered his next show, ‘Because I Always Feel Like Running’, that aptly captured his nomadic tendencies. Brussels may have devastated Ogutu, but it simultaneously awoke the urgency within him.
Because I Always Feel Like Running
The person who helped Ogutu clarify his thoughts was Anne Breure, the director at Amsterdam’s Veem House of Performance. Breure forwarded Ogutu’s name to her coalition of arts organizations back in 2017, proposing him as a potential artist in residency. With his nomination under consideration, Ogutu retreated to his little Amsterdam studio for two months, July and August 2017, where he conceptualized his next performance project, dedicated to the residency. The piece, titled ‘Because I Always Feel Like Running’, investigated the building blocks in the lives of East African long distance runners. Ogutu’s research narrowed down to Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikile, Kenya’s Kipchoge Keino and Tanzania’s John Stephen Akwari.
By looking at the lives of these three at their height on the track, Ogutu intended to develop a piece exhibiting the spirit of sacrifice, excellence and resilience. He might as well have been projecting his own life. At the end of 2017, Ogutu had already done dummy performances of the show at the Veem House of Performance in Amsterdam, the Spielarts Festival in Munich and a follow up show in February 2018 in the city of Gronigen.
By this time, Leila Anderson, a South African artist who was a year ahead of Ogutu at DAS, became one of his closest collaborators, urging him on whenever Ogutu encountered performance-related anxiety.
Previously, like when he performed at the Batard Festival in Brussels in 2016, Ogutu would lock himself up the entire time, only leaving his room to do his show then retreat, never wanting to interact with the outside world. He was now less reclusive thanks to Leila. When Ogutu returned to Amsterdam at the end of January 2018 after taking a break in Nairobi to contemplate whether to carry on with the residency or not – and to spend time with his ailing mother, his only surviving parent for a long time – he pinned six A3 spreadsheets on the wall of his bedroom. He stuck six yellow sticky notes on each of the spreadsheets, and in each sticky note, he chronologically listed the events that had shaped his life for the last decade.
He started out with the 2007/2008 Kenyan post election violence, which inspired his Mau Mau piece, but which had directly affected his family. His name, Ogutu Muruya – with Ogutu coming from his Luo ancestry and Muraya coming from his Kikuyu lineage – was seen as an oxymoron since it collapsed the two politically antagonistic communities into one entity. He was neither Luo enough nor Kikuyu enough for as long as he could remember, and the 2007/2008 ethnic violence put his family on the spot including from neighbours who debated whether they were Luos or Kikuyus. Depending on where one was, being either Luo or Kikuyu could mean life or death. He listed migration, in relation to his move to DAS, and listed his time at DAS under studies. The list kept growing as Ogutu applied specificity.
From each sticky note Ogutu originated a web of arrows pointed into the A3 spreadsheets, where he wrote detailed notes on what ramifications each of the items listed on the sticky notes had brought into his life. By the time he was done, the white A3 surfaces were filled with acres of hardly legible text. Looking at whatever he had written, Ogutu concluded that there was nothing more to be squeezed out of that decade. He had come full circle. He took photos of the spreadsheets and saved them on his phone, before picking his bags and heading to Brussels on March 8 2018.
Brussels through ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’ had already set the mission on how to jumpstart his next ten year cycle, confronting him with the question of race and racism afresh. It was now all up to him.
As Franz Fanon said,
Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it in relative opacity.
A National Reckoning: The Unfinished Business of Tom Mboya
Mboya’s ghost is that of a repressed collective identity submerged into the nation’s unconsciousness. The repression shields the country from confronting its problems of marginalization of minorities, ethnic domination by a few, and state capture by powerful economic interests.
Reading Tom Mboya’s memoir “Freedom and After” (1963) is both depressing and irritating. Mboya was one of Kenya’s nationalists, who through his active role in the trade unions in the 1950s, called for an end to British colonial rule. The depressing nature of his memoir is not just about the lofty ideals he so eloquently talked about that never grew wings in post-independent Kenya, but because he became a principal architect in discarding some of those very same ideals. Maybe some of the ideals have been realized in other forms. One could mention a vibrant and freer media (despite accusations of being too cosy to the state) and a robust democracy where citizens now enjoy various rights and liberties. Unfortunately, citizens are still attracted to the idea of ethnic consciousness that often reaches a crescendo, especially during general elections.
One sunny Saturday afternoon on July 5, 1969, Mboya walked out of a pharmacy on Government Road, now Moi Avenue, probably with the lotion he had gone to buy stuffed in his coat pockets, only to be stopped by two bullets fired at close range sending him slumping on the pavement. By chance, a health ministry official – Dr Mohamed Rafique Chaudhri – happened to be passing by and heard the commotion, and, recognizing Mboya’s car, rushed to the scene.
Images that would later horrify the nation are those of a wounded government minister being wheeled to a waiting ambulance, his left hand slightly hanging on the side, his white shirt spattered with blood and eyes dimmed as Dr Chaudhri raced against time. Outside the Nairobi Hospital casualty department, African police officers in shorts and wielding batons pushed a surging crowd heaving in grief, tears flowing freely. Then a man appeared with a large framed portrait of Mboya clad in a suit and skull cap. Time had stopped.
Nyipir in Yvonne Owuor’s novel “Dust” (2013) reminds his daughter, Ajany, that 1969 was a very hard year. Mboya’s assassination from now onwards is transformed into permanent mourning – something like melancholia among his Luo people. It poisons political relations and some even observe, the economic fortunes of his kinsfolk. His death becomes an allegory of national trauma that had started with the ominous signs of authoritarianism, the shift from multiparty to a one-party state, the micro-management of national affairs by a small tribal gang and the cold-blood elimination of political opponents.
The trauma represses what remains of the desires and aspirations of the nation and a new mode of expression is birthed: silence. The 1970s is a decade which nearly everyone burrows their heads below the resounding din of Kenyatta succession politics above. Not that the people condone the climate of fear. There are a number of brave Kenyans who speak out. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, through his theatrical productions, begins to ask difficult questions concerning the state of the decaying nationhood and the dwindling hopes of achieving some of the post-independence dreams. Others such as Meja Mwangi, like a sly hare, manoeuvres his way and slips through the political dragnet that ensnares Ngugi.
Mwangi’s novels: “Kill Me Quick” (1974), “Going Down River Road” (1977), and “The Cockroach Dance” although on the surface pulpy crime fiction, all point to much deeper critiques: the escalating socio-political and economic decay, the marginalization of the poor to the ‘back streets’ of society. The three fictional accounts through their witty titles become stark symbols of the growing disillusionment, cynicism, and dehumanisation seeping into the national psyche. The after-effects of freedom that Mboya had hoped would propel Kenya to the heights of respected nations have turned into a nightmare of chronic unemployment, stiff bureaucracy, cronyism, tribalism, and nepotism. Maina and Meja, the main characters in “Kill Me Quick” cannot secure jobs because nobody knows them. Attempts at freeing themselves from their precarious condition are vigorously thwarted by don’t-care civil servants, and ordinary people survive through trickery and sheer wit. Noticeboards proclaim everywhere: Hakuna kazi!
Mboya’s memoir is a journey of survival and triumph against the colonial enterprise that forced Africans into beasts of burden, a model that the post-independent leaders inherited, and fashioned creatively in the subsequent decades to benefit them. His father is promoted to an overseer (nyapara) after working for fifteen years as a labourer for a white man in a sisal plantation. It is from that crucible of colonial repression mixed with a determined spirit that he decides to “go to a school where I might learn to read and write.” There is palpable excitement in the way he recounts those formative years. For Mboya’s generation, education is not just a ticket to becoming literate, but a means of emancipating oneself and breaking the chains of oppression and bondage.
Early exposure to education in Central Kenya, a land far removed from his family’s ancestral origins in Rusinga Island, affords Mboya the advantage of a multi-ethnic outlook in life. He becomes a polyglot with the ability to speak Kamba and Gikuyu fluently besides Dholuo, English, and Kiswahili. In the conventional sense, from a tender age, he becomes a ‘Kenyan’; that elusive and controversial term that elicits fierce debate. On the one hand, opponents of the idea of ‘Kenyanness’ ask: Why should they identify as Kenyans? Who defines that identity and who benefits (politically and economically) in such an arrangement? Is it the entire nation or just a few communities closer to the centre of power? On the other hand, the proponents counter that ‘Kenyanness’ helps us to rise above ethnic chauvinism. Not that identification with ethnicity is wrong. In fact, Mboya calls it ‘positive tribalism’ – a form of tribalism critical to the formation of national consciousness and is also reflective of African sensibilities and history. He rightly argues that it can be attained through tapping into our respective ethnic cultures and customs, particularly the concept of communality that, despite the onslaught of modernity, and now globalisation, still remains firm among most Kenyan communities.
Throughout Owuor’s novel, Mboya’s death is an omnipresent event that constantly directs us to a traumatic period that has not been mourned. His ghost is that of a repressed collective identity submerged into the nation’s unconsciousness. The repression shields the country from confronting its problems of marginalization of minorities, ethnic domination by a few, and state capture by powerful economic interests who continue to build empires on the haggard backs of a majority poor. In death, Mboya magnifies the lost agency for a Kenyan identity as the primitive accumulation of wealth by the political class continues to wreak havoc. The ethos of ujamaa has virtually disappeared in a politics of the belly devoid of ideology and vision that Frantz Fanon so prophetically warned about in “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961). Fanon cautioned that unless post-independence leaders remained steadfast against the temptations of narcissism and mediocrity, nothing substantive in form of development and national unity would come out of such nations.
Later at Ruskin College, Oxford, Mboya experiences an awakening. He writes: “It was my first opportunity to taste something of the atmosphere of an academic institution, to meet intellectuals and to read books.” Knowledge is like food. He finds it delicious and immerses himself into intellectual activity, sharpening his thoughts and ideas. He fosters self-confidence and the ability to articulate his arguments with growing clarity and depth. He even flirts with the polemical when the occasion demands. He is only twenty-six years old and soon will start organising funding for the airlifts of Kenyan students to America with the financial assistance of the future American president John F. Kennedy. He rejects Richard Nixon’s offer from the US State Department to keep “the airlift a private programme, rather than turn it into one sponsored by government.”
In the next few years he addresses a Civil Rights rally in Washington, DC alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And in a future televised interview at the University of California, Berkeley, Malcolm X will shower him with glowing tributes in the same sentence with Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Nnamdi Azikiwe. The stage of resistance like a pendulum will swing from local to international back to local as a number of African countries sprint to independence in the early 1960s, that blood-drenched decade of wanton murder and backstabbing of black visionaries.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s “Coming to Birth” (1987) encapsulates that season of bloodletting as characterized by whispers, whispers, whispers. One of her protagonists called Martin Were, slightly younger than Mboya, struggles to have a child with his wife Paulina. However, the desire for an offspring is consistently disrupted by miscarriages. Their life is a trail of one tragedy after another. Like Mboya’s nationalist and pan-Africanist vision that is now clouded in semi-darkness, Macgoye’s fiction could be said to symbolize a nation increasingly finding itself marooned, held captive, and strangulated of its life. Martin finally goes berserk when he learns that Mboya has been slain in broad daylight.
Music is a journey into the recovery of lost memories. Listening to music is to be transported into realms of darkness and light. Music is freedom. In the succeeding decades after Mboya’s assassination, his memory started to find its way into popular culture. Benga music which dates back to the 1950s began churning out dirges praising his famed charisma, his political acumen, his naivety, and his subsequent violent obliteration from national memory. Gabriel Omollo’s song “Tom Mboya” while mining the culturally rich Luo folklore and its animal characters, belted out evocative lamentations asking: “what wrong did we the wretched Luo do to deserve the murder of Mboya?”
Like other earlier benga songs that anchor their themes on hero-worship and death, D.O. Misiani’s “Robert Ouko I &II” also followed the same musical trajectory with his sentimental tone also crying: why us? Emma Jalamo’s song titled “Raila”, a masterful fusion of ohangla and rumba, another creative lament with an air of blues, on the other hand, mourns Mboya, not as a national figure, but a martyr of the Luo community. Death assigns Mboya a new identity. An exclusive ethnic identity so that from now onwards, he becomes ours, not yours. Luo music dedicated to him could equally be said to follow a metaphysical bent detached from the material world of political successions and deal-cutting and of modern-day tenderpreneurs with connections to the state. The music struggles with the darkness of forgetting while constantly rallying the community to remember. Benga music reinvents Mboya’s memory giving us the freedom to remember and celebrate him in numerous ways. Music not only surmounts the silence and the amnesia long associated with his mourning at the national level, but it also reminds us to ask for the umpteenth time:
Who is this big man who ordered the hit?
Mboya’s memoir concludes on a hopeful tone, with his emphatic belief that Kenya will ultimately show up for a dance at the world stage and demonstrate to others what Africans can achieve and accomplish. Underlying the optimism and enthusiasm, he does not reveal the simmering undercurrents of succession politics and his hand in manipulating it to his advantage, a machine that would later immolate him. He neither reflects at length on his political naivete, his unbridled ambition to elbow so many others out of the centre, the digging of the grave. But who has the temerity to admit such personal flaws at the age of thirty-three?
Black Bodies and Black Flesh: A Story in Four Parts
What can one do with the anguish of these truths? With the knowledge that one cannot escape one’s body, no matter how hard one tries? That the past will always find you, in fact it is never past – the present is, in fact, the past in present-time? With the knowledge that if you are caught on the underside of power, your body will become a site of the accumulation of various strikes, until the last chapter of any successful genocide, where the oppressor can remove their hands and say, “My god – what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other.”
Legacy Museum & National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Equal Justice Initiative
Multimedia: Montgomery, Alabama
Written on the body
Stage play: Andia Kisia
Non-fiction, memoir: Kiese Laymon
Film: Silas Miami, Wanjeri Gakuru, Oprah Oyugi. Story mentor: Mbithi Masya
The film Lusala (directed by Mugambi Nthiga) begins with a child being woken up by his drunk father, who forces him to dance as the father sings circumcision songs. The child, Lusala, dances grimly as his father sings and berates him for not knowing the song, and strikes the table menacingly with his bakora to keep the beat. The child cannot know the songs that are sung to make boys into men; he is still a boy. But the father sings his surly song and strikes the table again and again; the scene ends the way we know it will – with that bakora being used to strike the child’s body, a painful end to a painful song.
A few months ago, I visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a beautiful spring day in March. The sun was shining and warm, the air was still. The sky seemed impossibly blue and perfect.
The museum and memorial are two separate but related sites – the former is an indoor museum located in a former warehouse that was used to hold enslaved people; it chronicles the harrowing story of black people in America from slavery, to racial terror, segregation and mass incarceration. The memorial, on an outdoor, six-acre site atop a hill overlooking downtown Montgomery, memorializes more than 4,400 black men, women and children that were shot, hung, burned alive, drowned by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.
We — me, and the friend I was with – began by walking through the museum. He is black, American, and grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, about 300km north of Montgomery. We looked at the notices for slave auctions and newspaper advertisements for the sale of human beings. We read the numerous humiliating laws that made blackness a stain on public spaces, and regulated the most mundane things in the Jim Crow Era, from beaches to billiard tables. We saw the soil that had been collected from sites where people had been lynched, displayed in jars on a shelf – red, brown, and black soil, Abel crying out for justice from the ground.
We got to the memorial, where a statue installation of a black family in chains designed by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo is the first thing that confronts you. It had begun to rust, rivulets of bloody-looking ferric oxide running off the statue. We walked through the 800 steel columns hanging from the roof, each representing a county where a lynching had taken place, the names of the lynched engraved on the columns. They were intended to simulate black bodies swinging in the southern breeze – as Billie Holiday would have put it – and by this time I was thankful that this was outdoors or I might not have been able to breathe. The sky was now like a blanket, bright and blue and suffocating. But I knew I had to hold myself back from tears or breaking down, for I was there with a black American from Alabama. If I was shattering inside, how much more painful would it be for him, looking at places and histories he knew much more intimately.
At the end of the day, after a dinner of shrimp and grits at a restaurant across the road from the museum, I went to bed at 7.30pm. I was exhausted, a different kind of fatigue, one that both comes from the bones and settles on them, and sleep is a small comfort for 400 years of historical and ongoing terror that has taken hold of the body.
The next morning, we went to visit his family in Huntsville, he joked that this little country town was surely nothing like Nairobi city, and I half-agreed – in my eyes it was far too sprawling and sparsely populated to be a city. We played Cornhole, a kind of beanbag tossing game, with his family – his mother, brother and grandparents – in their backyard as the sun went down, and my embarrassing lack of hand-eye coordination threatened to make my team lose badly.
Oppression is written on the body. Just like those three hours in Montgomery made me feel like I had run a marathon, every act of political exclusion, judicial injustice, and intentional impoverishment leaves its mark on the body. Some marks are visible, like Lusala’s as a child at the hands of his violent father. Some are invisible, like later in Lusala’s life when physical scars have healed, but the fear has found a permanent place to live in his mind, until he eventually has a mental breakdown. Even so, the line between his mental state and his body are not clear-cut: Lusala’s terrors live in his body, manifested in frequent bed-wetting. By the end of the film, one realizes that his experiences cannot simply be described as “hallucinations” – they are real, at least as real as the violence and trauma he has suffered in his life. And Brian Ogola, who plays Lusala as an adult, inhabits these tragedies with devastating clarity – even the most fleeting look on his face speaks to so much that cannot bear to be spoken aloud.
Andia Kisia’s stage play Written On The Body, a collection of vignettes uncovering Kenya’s national traumas from the colonial moment to the present day, then turns our attention to the way these terrors can live in a body politic, the brutalization of an entire nation. In this way, Lusala and Written On The Body are in conversation – and coincidentally (or not), both directed by Mugambi Nthiga – speaking to each other and both exploring, in their own particular ways, Francis Imbuga’s famous quote, “When the madness of an entire nation disturbs a solitary mind, it is not enough to say the man is mad.”
It is not enough to say that Lusala is mentally ill, that he has anxiety or paranoia or psychosis. He is, instead, the solitary mind that the madness of this entire nation has taken residence. Lusala is all of us – all our pain, trauma, and catastrophe – which Written On The Body forces us to look at ourselves, and trace the outlines of this collective brokenness.
Written On The Body tells us that Kenya is an on-going war zone, with bodies, minds and spirits of its people the daily casualties. Still, in Kisia’s subtle rendering, Kenyan-ness is something tart rather than bitter, a junction where bleak nihilism sometimes takes a turn into dark humour. In one memorable scene, Kisia places a pair of pathologists – they might be medical examiners or mortuary attendants – at City Mortuary in the days and nights following the attempted coup in 1982. Bodies are coming in faster than the two (exceptionally played by Elsaphan Njora and Charity Nyambura) can process them, and they devise a way to quickly figure out some identifying characteristics for these anonymous cadavers.
It goes exactly where you think it’s going, for we are a country where tribal stereotypes are an instant shorthand for reading bodies – this one is too dark to be a Kamba, and this one is too well-dressed to be a Kisii – but by the time the scene ends in a phallic joke, circumcision making its grim return, the audience’s laughter had turned into embarrassment, even shame – is this what we have become?
Like Written On The Body, Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy traces these same threads, of what happens to bodies when violence becomes the air we breathe. It is set in the Deep South, the place of strange fruit swinging in the southern breeze, whose painful story is ground zero for the memorial atop that hill in Montgomery.
Laymon, today a professor of creative writing at the University of Mississippi, tells the story of growing up in Jackson, Mississippi at the hands of a loving and complicated family, where love hurts and also heals, and it is difficult to see where one scar ends and the other begins.
But Laymon’s book goes further than I’ve seen a memoir go, especially one that inhabits and explores black masculinity. In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be, in Nigerian-speak—a hard man.”
Laymon is not a hard man. His vulnerability, his fear and weakness are real in Heavy, they are literally written on his body – the scars on his body from childhood beatings, in the stress eating, in the 300lbs (135kg) he carries on his body while still a teenager, in the starvation he forces himself to undergo until he faints from lack of food, in the obsessive running that shatters his joints. The body is the site, the agent and the victim.
Still, what we may call vices, addictions or traumas – sexual violence, gambling, alcohol and drug addictions, eating disorders, broken relationships – are, in Laymon’s telling, scenes of tenderness. And by this I mean that he renders the story of black existence tenderly, with sensitivity and kindness, and that the stories themselves are tender – they are raw, inflamed, bruised, still bleeding.
Ultimately, the story in Heavy is that life is complicated, that it is a combination of multiple entanglements “that are so interwoven that it is easier to discard the entire box of tangled threads than to spend the time untangling them,” as C. Leigh McInnis, author and instructor of English at Jackson State University, described Heavy in this review. “[Laymon] provides a process of healing by showing that the first thing that people must do is realize just how multifactorial their hellish lives are and, then, realize that those multifactorial elements can be separated and analyzed even if the process is laborious.”
And so, Laymon gives us a scalpel to do this necessary, heavy work, which, although is inevitably painful, it can at the very least be precise.
What can one do with the anguish of these truths? With the knowledge that one cannot escape one’s body, no matter how hard one tries? That the past will always find you, in fact it is never past – the present is, in fact, the past in present-time? With the knowledge that if you are caught on the underside of power, your body will become a site of the accumulation of various strikes, until the last chapter of any successful genocide, where the oppressor can remove their hands and say, “My god – what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other.”
These are the questions that Lusala, Written on the Body, Heavy and the Legacy Museum & National Memorial for Peace and Justice are asking us to confront, in their own particular yet related ways. Together, they present blackness, black corporeality, black existence – both in Africa and in the African Diaspora – as a site of great struggle, with some victories, but the struggle is ubiquitous, it is continuous, it is cosmic, it is seemingly eternal.
Over the three months that I watched, read and experienced the four works cited in this essay, I also listened to theologian and writer J. Kameron Carter present blackness as something else – a site of true spirituality. In a podcast recorded at Fuller Theological Seminary, Carter presents blackness as a kind of spiritual practice, the forms of life together created at the bottom of slave ships where black bodies are forced to be in contact, in the fields where a “violent arithmetic” reduces them to items on a balance sheet. Yet it is these spaces that are the possibility for alternative practices of the sacred.
In Carter’s reading, blackness as practiced in community always open, always accommodating, there’s always room for one more at the table, and this is how black communities survive – before Dylan Roof shot and killed nine worshipers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, they welcomed him to join them for bible study, and later he said that the warm welcome he received almost made him not go through with the shooting.
This openness makes black communities vulnerable to infiltration, sabotage and attack, but also, paradoxically, makes them impossible to eliminate completely, because they are always renewing themselves in community, together, even through the forced intimacies enforced upon black bodies. “It is a kind of sociality that presumes embrace, not protection,” says Carter, “If there’s any self-defence for blackness is that it keeps on loving, which is why it can’t be killed… which is, in some curious way, a kind of self-defence.”
In other words, the vulnerability and finitude of individual bodies (in Greek, soma), is transfigured in and through community into the messy, unbounded, resilience of the flesh (in Greek, sarx). Blackness is more like flesh than it is like body, as Carter sees it, where flesh is a mode of material life where we are composed in relationship to each other, like compost. “Compost is a number of things put together. You can’t say compost is this, and not that – compost is compositional, it is many things put together…Blackness is like flesh in that way, it is always in touch with everything else, it is unbordered and non-exclusionary.”
This, as painful as it is, is true spiritual practice – a possibility of life together that makes something beautiful from the rubble, from the disaster around us. I was thinking about this on that perfect day in March as I laughed and played Cornhole in the embrace of a family I had just met in Alabama, until my wrist, in fact, my body, gave out.
Poetry Is Dying and Poets Are an Endangered Species
Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol faced numerous rejections from publishers before the collection was eventually published in 1966. The collection of ‘songs’ was a resounding artistic and commercial success. Yet, over 50 years since Okot’s encounter, poetry still appears at the bottom of the publishers’ priority list.
A friend, Evelyne Ongogo, a budding poet who had an anthology of her poems titled, ‘Dichol and Other Poems’ and ‘Breaking the Burdens’ published by non-mainstream publishers a few years back, sent me two of her latest anthologies titled, ‘The eye of the smiling sun’ and ‘Beautiful shards of the maiden pot’. Both these collections are published by what we would call fringe publishers – this could be a euphemism for self-publishing. I read the three collections and was struck by the quality of the writing. However, a nagging thought refused to melt away; the fringe publishing company. I wondered about poetry; the creation, writing, publishing and marketing. I stopped to reflect on the last time a major publishing house operating in Kenya had released an anthology of poetry.
A few weeks later, I attended a function where two poets, Adipo Sidang’ the author of Parliament of Owls an eclectic collection of poems shared the stage with the most amazing Ugandan writer, Mugabi Byenkya, author of Dear Philomena, a novel compiled from a series of social media messages, phone conversations and thoughts. It is as radical as they come. Both these artists read from their works and performed from the corpus of their work. Adipo’s declamatory performance contrasted Mugabi’s sombre reflections, yet both were powerful rendition of poems. This awakened nagging thoughts on poetry; the creation, writing, publishing and marketing.
Speaking to Adipo after the conclusion of the event, he referenced his own experience and let out a tirade about the difficulty of publishing poetry in Kenya. His frustration was obvious as he described the encounter with the mainstream publishers who flatly refused to even consider his work. Having faced so much rejection, he had virtually given up on the idea of publishing, yet when his work found a sympathetic eye to read even he was surprised that the verdict was that it was extraordinary. His collection was published through an initiative supported by the Goethe Institute – not a mainstream publisher. These tribulations reminded me of Okot p’Bitek’s frustrations when he first tried to get Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol published. After many rejections, he eventually published the collection in 1966. The collection of ‘songs’ was a resounding artistic and commercial success and it has been said that many publishers who rejected the manuscripts regretted their poor judgement. Okot’s encounter with the publishers was over fifty years ago, but it seemed that the script remains. The poetry publishing terrain has not changed? “Poetry and Drama” Adipo Sidang’ declared, “occupy the bottom of the priority pile of the overly commercial minded Kenyan publishers. Unless a book is likely to end up among the set-books recommended by Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development that will result in huge sales , they will not publish it”.
Death of Language
Publishers, have over the years been accused of focusing on profit and sacrificing the artistic and cultural importance of creative expression. Poetry seems to have suffered more than all the other literary genres. In the foreword of Dichol, the late Professor Christopher Lukorito Wanjala, the renown literary critic who taught in Kenyan Universities for over forty years, wrote his reflection on poetry: ‘We wondered whether poetry was still read, enjoyed and appreciated, by secondary school students. We concluded that poetry is too important a literary genre to be oversimplified in the social media by the young generation.”
Why would the late literature don doubt the position occupied by poetry in the secondary school language and literature syllabus? This is especially intriguing, because he reiterates the essential position poetry occupies among the corpus of literature genres in the learning of language. Professor Wanjala must have been alluding to a past era when secondary students read and enjoyed poetry as an integral part of learning of English language. Literature, is creative expression of a language, and as such, is a product of mastery and competence in that language. Literature is to language what algebra is to numbers. Whereas one can speak a language enough to get away with it, consuming, appreciating and enjoying (and creating) the literature created in a language is akin to the numeric ability and competence used in solving algebraic equations. It goes beyond simple addition, subtraction and multiplication. It follows, that if secondary school students are not reading, enjoying and appreciating literature and poetry, their mastery of the language, any language, is stunted at its most will remain at the rudimentary level.
If there was recognition of the primacy of literature in the teaching of language, and poetry being among the genres of literature, why would it be that the production of material for the learning and enjoyment of poetry be considered a non-commercially viable enterprise? Could it be that the importance attached to linguistic dexterity that the good professor alluded to, is lost on us?
Recently, a letter purportedly written by a University student leader went viral on social media. Though the subject of the memo was tragic, a student at that university had been shot dead by thugs during a robbery, what caused consternation was the poor language and paucity of grammar sense in the memo. Many commentators were left wondering how a university-level student could write such an incomprehensible memo. To be fair to the student, there were some who did not understand what the fuss was all about!!
The tragic inability of this student to express himself raised questions surrounding standards of English in our education system. The fact that English is the only language of instruction in our education system elevated this concern to crisis level. Was this student able to understand what was being taught and how would he respond to his examiners. Returning to poetry one could ask, with this kind of limited language could this student actually read, enjoy and appreciate poetry?
The crafting of a memo might not be considered a literary exercise, but it calls for one to utilise language creatively in order to communicate a message. In that process of communication, an individual uses a distinct style and voice, they chose their words carefully to create the desired impact. The tone of the memo, in this case announcing the demise of a fellow student, should have conveyed the solemnity of the message. The gravity of the student leader’s appeal to the institution’s administration to do something to ensure the security of the student body should have been contained in the choice of words. Stylistics, is the study of distinctive styles found in literary expression and even a memo such as the one referenced here, was roundly criticised because it was subjected to a stylistic analysis. Herein lies the reason for Professor Wanjala’s lament. The skill to read, enjoy and appreciate writing is taught through literature and more so in poetry. Neglect of poetry in particular, and literature in general, is likely to result in the production of a generation that is ‘word deaf’ or those who cannot understand nuance and word-play. They will not ‘get it’ and what happens to one who goes through life totally at sea regarding things around them?
Poetry taught one to understand meaning that is stated and implied, it taught one to be a ‘wordsmith’ to know when irony, satire, hyperbole and sarcasm are in use. Figurative and colourful language, including proverbs are used in poetry and, as Chinua Achebe taught us, proverbs (and indeed other figurative language) are the palm-oil with which words are eaten! Will this generation not suffer from communication indigestion?
The Hollywood movie titled, Green Book bagged several awards at this year’s Oscar awards. The anti-racism storyline carries a powerful message about intrinsic human nature, and the power of friendship. It tells the story of an unemployed working class Italian-American bouncer who, out of desperation, takes up a job as a driver/bodyguard to a brilliant African American classical pianist traversing the American South in the 60s. This is at the height of the American Civil rights campaigns and racial segregation and lynching was rife. The reversed race roles of Black master and White subordinate ignite the initial spark in a movie that is loaded with nuances. The race stereotype-based assumptions in the movie abound, as expected, but the most fascinating interaction between Merhashala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, playing Don Shirley and Tony Lip respectively, happens when Shirley, the African American, coaches the barely literate clueless white driver how to compose a love letter. Tony’s vocabulary bank is totally overdrawn, he being a man accustomed to using his fist. His distressed attempts at communicating his feelings and emotions to his wife are salvaged by Shirley who injects linguistic flair and poetry into the letters. After much coaching, Tony eventually, catches on and is able to express his feelings and emotions to his wife in poetic language. His letters cause a sensation back at home among the womenfolk unused to such elevated highfalutin expression. When Tony returns from his work-trip, he is welcomed by an extremely elated and charmed spouse, totally enamoured by his communication. Without the benefit of a formal poetry lesson, Tony is walked through a stylistic course at the end of which he is able to read, enjoy, appreciate and create poetry and when he does he is the better for it. Tony’s poetry results in a revolution within and without.
Poetry has had the reputation of being ‘hard’ and in his allusion to the threat of ‘oversimplification’ Professor Wanjala acknowledges that poetry has by nature to be complex. At the same time, he applauds the late poet Okot p’Bitek for simplifying poetry and making it more accessible. Wanjala, must have been making a distinction between simplification in terms of form, but not the complexity of the thoughts and feelings expressed via poetry. Many who went through poetry lessons were scarred to the bone, especially by the likes of poets like the late Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka who took pride in writing esoteric poetry that was supposedly for the initiated and select few and not the masses. Deciphering their works was like solving algebraic problem. One could argue that complicated language used just for its own sake, does not support the need for communication. However, there are critics like Horace Goddard in a review of Interpreters, considered to be among the most obscure of Soyinka’s work in prose, who assert that the complexity in Soyinka’s language was reflective of the complicated issues bedevilling Nigeria. In order to express these issues, he had to coin a language that could capture the complexity. He also argues that when a non-native speaker is using an adopted language there is the challenge of appropriating a language enough to give it a distinct identity other than the original. In this case Soyinka’s English must be distinct from that of any other native English speaker. Could the ‘difficultness’ of poetry be the reason that it has repelled secondary school readers and hence it’s a case of the enemy within?
Many who studied language and literature in the days that Prof Wanjala nostalgically refers to, will recall that the literary genres were handled separately: prose – usually represented by the novels or short stories, drama and poetry. Poetry stood out and retained a certain alien quality, even though there were African and Kenyan poets writing. Whereas the novel was domesticated early, and publishers embraced African novelists and provided them a publishing platform, the same opportunity was not accorded poetry and drama. Poetry actually fared less favourably among the neglected siblings. A casual look at the published works under the African Writers Series set up by Heinemann Educational Books Limited the leading publishers of literary work by Africans at that time, demonstrates the bias. For every poetry collection published, there are twenty extended prose works. Drama does not fare any better. Could this bias have originated from the colonial hangover that concluded that the extended prose form was easily identifiable as an African art and literary form more akin to African storytelling – with a higher chance of commercial success – as compared to poetry and drama? Would it be plausible to speculate that this racist notion actually informed the commercial decision that saw publishing opening up for novelist and not poets? Could the bias against poetry that Adipo Sidang’ recounted a few weeks ago actually have begun well in the sixties? When we reflect on the ground-breaking work by Okot p’Bitek this speculation gains some traction.
Quality versus Quantity
Okot’s attempts to get published by the mainstream publishers faced headwinds. It was difficult to convince publishing houses that Song of Lawino fitted the narrow definition a poem, especially because Okot had called it ‘Wer pa Lawino’ and ‘song’ was not considered a literary genre. This was even though there were western ‘songs’ like Odyssey and Iliad by Homer. Wer, was maybe considered too simple in form. What Wanjala considered its strength, was probably seen as the one feature that excluded it from consideration. Okot’s poem has been hailed as among the most lucid discourses on the process of deculturalisation of the African by western education and religion. Professor Andrew Gurr, who served as head of the Department of English at the University of Nairobi and Okot p’Bitek’s colleague in an inaugural lecture, analysed Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol and explained how they articulated the theme of cultural conflict with deep insight. He went on to compare Okot’s poem to other post-colonial writing and accorded it plaudits as high as other celebrated works. Wanjala recognises Okot for having launched an African poetry tradition in print with his Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. He recognises Evelyne Ongogo, among others, for keeping aflame the song tradition, and he celebrates her for demystifying poetry as an art form and rekindling the interest in African poetry. Professor Wanjala draws a line between oversimplification and demystification and identifies the former as a threat. He says, ‘We concluded that poetry was too important a literary genre to be oversimplified in the social media by the young generation’.
My discussion with Adipo Sidang’ explored the role played by social media in the ‘publication’ of poetry. He acknowledged that because publishers had shunned poetry, poets retreated to the blogosphere. This alternative platform is wonderful for poets to share their work, but Sidang’, like Professor Wanjala, acknowledged that this free forum poses a serious challenge of quality. While the great thing is that there is an outlet for free expression, there are many blogs where what passes as poetry would not pass the test of quality. There is a notion that poetry can exist devoid of any standards of quality. Austin Bukenya, among the foremost poets and teachers avers that, ‘a good poem is made up of a competent fusion of strong feelings and well-structured expression’. The latter part of this definition is most important, ‘well-structured expression’ especially in the face of the proliferation of ‘free verse’ on the social media platforms. Experimentation is fine, but anything done for its own sake defeats the purpose. Free verse is not formless verse; it endeavours to creatively establish its own patterns that best suits what the poet is trying to communicate. When words are thrown together helter-skelter simply to achieve a rhyming or rhythmical effect it results in the oversimplification that Professor Wanjala lamented. Poems, are not simply about rhyme and rhythm, though these elements are crucial for performance poetry.
Performance and Poetic Roots
Performance poetry has a long tradition in Africa, and indeed Okot’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol actually are, or are crafted on the template of traditional Acoli song performance. The Spoken word has emerged as a unique genre within poetry and its growth has been fuelled by the ‘open mic’ tradition that allowed poets to present their poems to a live audience. In the 80s the universities popularised ‘Poetry Nite’ where any poet was free to present their poems to the student body. This is the period of state paranoia and being found with ‘subversive literature’ was the easiest way of ending up as a state guest. Oral performance of political protest poetry caught on as an unintended consequence. Thankfully, it was before the days of mobile phones with video recording capability with which evidence of subversion’ could have been captured. Bold original poems were recited, enjoyed and appreciated.
The ‘open mic’ sessions were highly influenced by the African American and Jamaican spoken word artist like Mutaburuka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Gill Scott Heron and others. These spoken word traditions were heavily influenced by the musical tradition – mainly reggae, soul, blues and jazz and used word play, intonation and voice inflection to communicate. The soul of performance poetry, and spoken word, lies in the musical and lyrical poetic tradition. In our case it seems like many of the artists performing poetry and spoken word have tried to borrow these ‘foreign’ traditions hence are unable to adequately manipulate them. The result is the free verse that Bukenya describes as a travesty.
The Swahili language ‘Ngonjera’ poetic tradition provides a model upon which Kenyan performance poetry can be authentically modelled. Ngonjera is a call-response poetic performance with two opposing sides of a group, or single performers engaging in a battle of wits and rhyme tackling any emerging issue. One performer poses a question or challenge and the other answers as much wit as possible. However, to date the tradition has not evolved, remaining relatively monotonous, but offers great potential for evolving into a rich form of poetry presentation. A more complicated oral poetic form is the Gichaandi – a traditional Gikuyu oral poetry recitation that uses proverbs and riddles and can be performed by one or by two contesting Gichaandi performers in ‘burn out’ format. The loser among the duo is the one who faces a challenge that they are unable to respond to, or respond in manner that is deemed to be inarticulate. The Gichaandi art form is among those that can be described as dying and so is Khuswala Kumuse performed among the Bukusu.
Khuswala is recited as part of the funeral rites of a great departed individual. The recitation details the lineage and history of the departed individual and his history with time, the experts in oral history are dying off and the art form is becoming rarer even as western tradition slowly edge out the traditional Bukusu culture. Among the Luo funeral dirges, sigiiya are among the most resilient. These are usually individual performances unaccompanied by instruments and poetically express the relationship between the mourner and the deceased and also encapsulates the loss experienced by their departure.
This sample of oral poetry traditions is by no means exhaustive. The young generation of poets that Professor Wanjala is afraid might end up oversimplifying poetry could do well to research into these forms and use them as a model. Building a critical mass of consumers of poetry, will convince publishers that a market could be cultivated for poetry. The responsibility of convincing publishers, who are investors like any other and would like to put their investment where there is return, lies with the current crop of poets. The challenge that social media poses is that of ensuring that quality prevails. There are those who would argue that the market forces will determine high quality because it will rise to the top. However, the challenge remains, that if literature is not being taught, and especially stylistics, then the consumer will be unable to read, enjoy and appreciate poetry and that way the vicious cycle that has condemned poetry to the bottom of the literary pile will prevail and so will the quality of language.
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