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Binyavanga Wainaina: The Writer Who Democratised Kenya’s Literary Space

8 min read. There is no doubt that Binyavanga Wainaina forever changed the literary landscape in Kenya, opening it up to a new generation of Kenyans who are no longer afraid to experiment or innovate.

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Binyavanga Wainaina: The Writer Who Democratised Kenya’s Literary Space
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“Some birds should never be caged, their feathers are too bright. But when one such is finally set free, something inside of you sings that knows it was wrong to cage it in the first place.” – Red in Shawshank Redemption

I first met Binyavanga Wainana in 2002 – an election year in Kenya when a hopeful country was looking forward to removing an authoritarian regime and ushering in a brave new world. He had just returned from South Africa and was scouting around for ideas for a literary journal that he hoped to establish to revive the dying (if not dead) literary scene in Kenya.

It was during these heady days—when it seemed that anything was possible – that Binya, as he was fondly called, came back home like a gust of fresh air that sweeps through a damp, mouldy room and changes the atmosphere. His enthusiasm was infectious. He could mesmerise an audience so much so that many aspiring writers, including myself, who never imagined having a literary career, began writing their own stories, in their own voices, with no apologies.

With the launch of his brainchild, the literary journal Kwani?, in 2003, he unveiled talented and previously closeted writers who had been silenced not just by a government afraid of creatives, but by a stodgy old school literary fraternity that saw no value or merit in the writings of those they deemed to be too unschooled or undisciplined. As the blogger and academic Wandia Njoya stated in a tweet shortly after his death, Binyavanga “liberated our art from the literature police in Kenyan universities”.

Indeed, Binyavanga democratised the literary space in Kenya, especially for young writers. He entered the Kenyan literary scene at precisely the time when the country was undergoing a major transition – a “second liberation” brought about by a group of anti-establishment politicians and activists and a population hungry for change, which led to the election of Mwai Kibaki and an end to Daniel arap Moi’s 24-year reign.

With the launch of his brainchild, the literary journal Kwani?, in 2003, he unveiled talented and previously closeted writers who had been silenced not just by a government afraid of creatives, but by a stodgy old school literary fraternity that saw no value or merit in the writings of those they deemed to be too unschooled or undisciplined

It is difficult to write about someone you have known, especially someone who was as charismatic and controversial as Binya, whose short life as a literary icon generated as much admiration as it did indignation. He was not without flaws. Loud, sharp, witty, and even rude at times, he dared to question the status quo that reduced Kenyans, and Africans in general, to mere spectators in their own lives – people who saw themselves through other (mainly white) people’s eyes. Binya opened up literary spaces that had remained closed for many Kenyan writers. He gave us permission to write. This, I believe, was his greatest gift to young Kenyan writers, many of whom ventured out on their own and became literary warriors in their own right.

A polarising influence

Binyavanga will be remembered for many things, among them his seminal satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa, in which he lampooned Western journalists and so-called Africa experts for their negative, stereotypical and ignorant depictions of the continent (starving Africans, naked dead bodies, celebrity activists and aid workers trying to save the continent etc.). This essay not only made many Western journalists cringe, but was also a call to African writers to write about their lives and their continent in an authentic voice without worrying too much about how they would be perceived by non-African readers. In his essays, writings and speeches, he represented a new generation of Kenyan writers who, as Nigerian novelist Helon Habila commented, attempt to explain Kenya and Africa but do so “without a knee-jerk resort to colonial woes”.

Wandia Njoya stated in a tweet shortly after his death, Binyavanga “liberated our art from the literature police in Kenyan universities

But the very Westerners that Binya criticised in his writings were quick to adopt him and give him a platform where he could thrive. In a sense, they co-opted him, made him one of their own, thereby taking some of the sting out of his critique. Although often vilified – or perhaps misunderstood – at home, Binya was lauded abroad for his genius and writing acumen. He won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002, which catapulted his career as a writer and earned him a directorship at the Chinua Achebe Centre at Bard College in the United States. Thereafter, he was wined and dined by publishers, agents and philanthropists eager for a fresh new African voice.

The Nigerian blogger and columnist Ikhide R. Ikheloa, in an essay titled “Our World According to Binyavanga Wainaina”, called Binya “a brilliant lunatic” who writes about darkness with “startling clarity and casualness”. However, Ikheloa also censured the Kenyan writer for being one among many African writers who are rescued by the West “like abused puppies”. He was particularly harsh when commenting on the author’s memoir, One Day I Will Write about This Place:

“Wainaina’s book brings to full convergence the anxieties and tensions around the tortured relationship between the West and African writers. On the one hand, Wainaina acknowledges openly and graciously in that book that it was published thanks to generous funding from a long list of Western donors and corporations…On the other hand, Wainaina is almost contemptuous of the interventions of the West in his fortunes; sometimes he gives the impression that he suffers from a culture on entitlement. Indeed if I was to offer any criticism of this lush narrative it is that Wainaina’s analysis conveniently excluded the role of the African writer in fomenting (for profit) the stereotyping of Africa in the enthusiastic hawking of the single story.”

The Economist, in a review of the book, was equally scathing: “Too many African writers are co-opted by the American creative-writing scene only to be reduced by prevailing navel-gazing. Separately, much of the African writing culture that remains on the continent, including Kwani?, is propped up with cash from the Western donors that African writers purport to excoriate.”

However, both Ikheloa and the Economist failed to acknowledge that for any African writer to be taken seriously, he has to first go through an assembly line of agents, editors, publishers and distributors based in Europe or North America. African governments rarely support the arts, writers in particular, and the publishers on the continent are more interested in publishing textbooks (that bring in more profits) than publishing an author who is little known outside his country.

Binyavanga will be remembered for many things, among them his seminal satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa”, in which he lampooned Western journalists and so-called Africa experts for their negative, stereotypical and ignorant depictions of the continent (starving Africans, naked dead bodies, celebrity activists and aid workers trying to save the continent etc.).

In 2007, perhaps in reaction to these criticisms, Binyavanga rejected an invitation by the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s nominating committee to be named as one among 250 Young Global Leaders. In an email to the chair of the committee, Queen Rania of Jordan, he wrote:

“I assume that most, like me, are tempted to go [to China where the WEF was being held] anyway because we will get to be ‘validated’ and glow with the kind of self-congratulation that can only be bestowed by very globally visible and significant people…The problem here is that I am a writer. And although, like many, I go to sleep at night fantasizing about fame, fortune and credibility, the thing that is most valuable in my trade is to try, all the time, to keep myself loose, independent and creative. It would be an act of great fraudulence for me to accept the trite idea that I am ‘going to significantly impact world affairs’.”

Coming out

However, Binyavanga would go on have a significant impact on the LGBTQ community in the last few years of his life when he stoked (some might even say welcomed) controversy, particularly after he came out as a gay man in 2014 and published what he called his book’s “lost chapter”. The coming-out essay, “I am a Homosexual, Mum, enraged the conservative Christian evangelical moral police (who he loathed and who he blamed for turning many Kenyans into zombie religious fanatics), who dismissed the author as the devil’s work. But the gay community both at home and abroad congratulated him for coming out, especially at a time when many African countries were targeting and criminalising homosexuals.

But not everyone was convinced that this Kenyan writer had the intellectual mettle to liberate Kenyan minds. In a critique of his six-part self-made video, “We Must Free Our Imaginations” (or what Binya referred to as “What I Have to Say About Being Gay”) published in the Saturday Nation, the Kenyan social scientist and academic, Joyce Nyairo, described his arguments as “scattered, off-hand generalities” and accused him of having a limited understanding of Kenya’s history. “His knowledge of homosexuality in colonial and post-colonial Kenya is either non-existent or it has been unwisely excluded,” she wrote.

Many also accused him of being deliberately apolitical or politically naïve. His quest to show Kenyan urban middle class lives (like his own family’s in Nakuru) as normal – without sufficiently explaining the abnormality that produced this class – earned him a few barbs. However, when the circumstances demanded, Binya could take on the role of political activist. In January 2008, for instance, at the height of the post-election violence in Kenya, when churches were being torched and women were being gang-raped for being “the wrong tribe”, he mobilised a group of writers to explain to the world what was going on in the country. He believed then that through the power of the pen, Kenya could be prevented from descending into a Rwanda-like genocide.

The Nigerian blogger and columnist Ikhide R. Ikheloa, in an essay titled “Our World According to Binyavanga Wainaina”, called Binya “a brilliant lunatic” who writes about darkness with “startling clarity and casualness”

But while campaigning for a peaceful Kenya, he aligned himself with the very forces that had catapulted the country to the brink of a dangerous precipice. In 2013, when Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were declared the winners of the presidential election, Binyavanga viewed their victory as a victory against the imperialist West and its so-called lackey, the International Criminal Court, which had indicted the duo for crimes against humanity committed after the 2007 election. “Gone are the days when a bunch of European ambassadors speak in confident voices to the Kenyan public about what we should do, why we should do it,” he wrote in the Guardian newspaper. “The west should expect more defiance from an Uhuru government – and more muscular engagement.”

Read series: Binyavanga Wainaina

Though he admitted later that he had perhaps declared victory too soon, he failed to understand that the problem afflicting Kenya was not that Western governments were imposing their will on the Kenyan people, but that Kenya was sliding back to the bad old days of the Moi era, when dissent was not tolerated and when a culture of mediocrity and corruption pervaded all arms of government.

In a letter published in Brittle Paper in October 2017, when Kenya was about to go through another election, he stated: “I would like to apologise to all the people of Kenya for not seeing through the attempts to rig the election in 2013. I believe that going to the polls on 26 October with the same IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] is a mistake.” Like many others who view Kenya’s democracy purely through the lens of free and fair elections, he failed to see that the main problem in Kenya is not that we consistently have rigged elections; the problem is more systemic – we refuse to acknowledge that the rain started beating us at independence, when the first wave of leaders decided that the spoils of a post-colonial state should be distributed among a tiny elite and that ethnic identity should determine the nature and scale of that distribution.

The change that never came

“I want to live a life of free imagination,” Binya stated. “I want to see this continent change.”

Sadly, the change that he envisioned in Kenya did not come during his lifetime. By the time he died last week, at the age of 48, the same reactionary, anti-change forces were back in power – forces that are taking Kenya back to those dark days when creative minds and imaginations were considered a threat to national security (or rather, to the security of the president) and when artistic spirits were crushed. We no longer have the torture chambers that sent writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o into exile four decades ago, but Binya’s untimely death has reminded us that the struggle for a new way of thinking and bold ideas is still not over; on the contrary, the old guard is firmly back in the saddle.

However, there is no doubt that Binyavanga Wainaina forever changed the literary landscape in Kenya, opening it up to a new generation of Kenyans who are no longer afraid to experiment or innovate. He never managed to finish the novel he said he was writing when he fell ill a few years ago, but he did leave behind an indelible body of work that challenged his generation to take charge of their own narratives.

I think Binya would have agreed with the Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, who said, “To write is to die a little less when I die, to leave the children I did not have, to make people think a little more.”

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Ms Warah, the author of War Crimes, a sweeping indictment of foreign meddling in Somalia, and A Triple Heritage, among several other books, is also a freelance journalist based in Malindi, Kenya.

Culture

A Park for the People of Machakos

8 min read. The Machakos People’s Park is more than a public green space, it is a symbol of re-imagination and negotiation from a time when proximity to the Capital City Nairobi determined who or what mattered writes Lutivini Majanja.

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A Park for the People of Machakos
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‘As far as my identity is concerned, I will take care of it myself. That is, I shall not allow it to become cornered in any essence; I shall also pay attention to not mixing it into any amalgam. Rather it does not disturb me to accept that there are places where my identity is obscure to me, and the fact that it amazes me does not mean I relinquish it. Human behaviors are fractal in nature.’ 

Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation

The Machakos People’s Park is located a distance away from Machakos Town and close to the Machakos Agricultural Showgrounds. Some towns in Kenya, former provincial headquarters, have designated showgrounds where annual regional agricultural fairs are hosted. This is also where you might find demonstration farms and agriculture-related support facilities. The drive from Machakos Town to the 40-acre Machakos People’s Park takes about twenty minutes.

Machakos town named after Masaku wa Musya was established in 1887, and was the first administrative centre for the British Colony in East Africa. This timeline does not account for the fact the area was already an important ivory and slave trade route linked to the Indian Ocean and going as far as present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, long before the British arrived. More than this, the place that we now call Machakos was long embraced as a centre of convergence for Kamba people in the way that Kisumu might be the centre for the Luo and Mombasa for the Swahili people. These are places that were cosmopolitan long before it became necessary part of nation-building to talk about ethnic and linguistic diversity.

Ukambani, a term used to refer to the land occupied by a majority of Kenyans who claim Kamba ancestry covers the counties of Machakos, Kitui and Makueni. It is often stereotyped as a place of hardship and suffering due to the semi-arid land. This is the region that is hard hit whenever there is drought in Kenya. There is something to be observed about having Machakos People’s Park as a flagship county project and a premier destination. If nothing else, those of us who do not claim to be of or from Machakos start to associate this place with something else, not just scarcity. Even so, I’m curious about what this park means for Machakos County’s residents to have this as their image. What reality, what memory, and what images does it obscure?

Many cities and towns in Kenya date back to Kenya’s colonial period or the early years of independence. This history explains the locations of green public spaces. In 2010, after years of agitation, Kenyans received a new Constitution. Machakos County is one of 47 counties created in line with devolution. Machakos People’s Park, whether deliberate or not, is a projection of what a new present and future Machakos County might be. Where Micere Mugo in the poem ‘I Took My Son by the Hand’, the child asks, ‘Do we have Matunda ya uhuru in our hut?’, I wonder if this park is matunda ya ugatuzi.

Intentional or not, the choice to use the term People’s in naming this park alludes to the ideas associated with populist movements that created of People’s Republics in the 19th and 20th Century. The People’s Republic of China is one of these. Many of the countries that chose this as part of their names, for example the People’s Republic of Angola and the People’s Republic of Mozambique, considered themselves socialist states. They dropped these titles as they moved away from Marxist and Leninist ideas. Some countries such as Thailand have what is popularly known as the People’s Constitution, recognising the consensus that created it. There is a People’s Park in Berkeley, California, in the USA. This park received its name in 1969 and has its roots in resident activism and resistance. To date, the People’s Park in Berkeley remains a contested space. Paying attention to this history, how will Machakos People’s Park positions itself alongside places that bear this title?

Machakos People’s Park, whether deliberate or not, is a projection of what a new present and future Machakos County might be.

An alternative perspective is that Machakos People’s Park is not named after any individual as many green public spaces in Kenya are. There are no monuments to people, just memorial trees. It names the People of Machakos and even better in Swahili, ‘Bustani La Wananchi wa Machakos.’ Though local and international tourism and all its benefits are stated as the desired results of this park, on the face of it, it is heartening to see that the residents of Machakos have a place that is foremost for them to enjoy free of charge. In the context of a country that frames and values leisure and any other activity that could have the word tourism appended to its name; sports tourism, medical tourism, conference tourism, business tourism, as a source of income, this is unique.

Machakos People’s Park is gated with one entrance and surrounded by a wall. It is open to the public on Thursday afternoons, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The other days are for maintenance work though reserved or ticketed group visits may be permitted. On the way to the park you can see the construction site for what will be the Machakos County Government’s new offices. It’s easy to imagine that in a few years that the area around the park will not appear as isolated as it is.

In 2013 Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua launched the Machakos City Masterplan. The county posted online a short video rendering what was envisioned for the New Machakos City. This video showcases skyscraper buildings, a convention centre, a university, a recreation centre, a marina, a golf course, malls, a designated fashion street, a railway station, residential buildings catering for high income, middle income and lower-income users, a formula one racing track and a hospital. Presumably everything in this video will be built or rebuilt anew. The ongoing construction of the Governor’s offices and the now existing Machakos People’s Park, which is part of the envisioned recreation centre might be the visible steps to fulfilling this dream.

Inside the park, the manicured lawns, green hedges, palm trees, and a wide variety of flowers contrast the dry grass and bare acacia trees outside. A question arises about what landscape is idealised here. Is it possible to have a public green space that emphasizes the beauty of the flora and fauna of the particular place rather than creating an artificial one? During my last visit it was the blooming yellow sunflowers that stood out. Horses awaited riders, and two quacking ducks and their chicks appeared comfortable in this space. The adjacent Maruba dam that supplies water to the Machakos town also provides the water to keep this park green. On this particular visit the dam’s water level was low because we were in the middle of a dry season. The grass in the park was green. There was barely any grass outside the park.

Machakos People’s Park is not named after any individual as many green public spaces in Kenya are. There are no monuments to people, just memorial trees. It names the People of Machakos and even better in Swahili, ‘Bustani La Wananchiwa Machakos.’

On Valentine’s Day in 2014, Machakos People’s Park was officially opened at an event where all the décor was themed around love and romance. President Uhuru Kenyatta and First Lady Margaret Kenyatta attended this event and planted commemorative trees. If there is any doubt that romance matters here, the park has a dedicated lovers’ corner, with heart-shaped flower landscaping and benches just wide enough for two. It’s all about love.

In speaking about the Machakos People’s Park, it is necessary to consider Dr Alfred Mutua’s imaginary and public image. This is a person who came into wider public prominence as the Kenya government’s spokesperson from 2004 to 2012. He led the 2006 Najivunia Kuwa Mkenya campaign, handing out stickers aimed at promoting patriotism. Dr Mutua created and directed the Cobra Squad TV series. Blogger and reviewer Couch Potato summarized it this way: ‘…Cobra Squad looks like it has a massive budget with numerous sponsors. They have managed to shoot in excellent locations. Which is about the only good thing this show has.

It is an imaginary that writes and publishes a book titled How to be Rich in Africa which Prof Evan Mwangi in his review suggested that the book ‘will be a hit, thanks to marketing gimmicks. Its success may teach Kenyan publishers how to package their books.’ This is the Governor who in 2019 is facing questions about the county’s financial accounts.

In addition to the Machakos People’s Park, the Machakos County has advanced, and suffered some setbacks in having Kenyatta Stadium in Machakos included as a venue for Kenya’s Premier Football league and the Masaku 7s Rugby circuit. The question remains whether Machakos People’s Park is just another of Dr Mutua’s short-lived public relations successes or if this will outlive the hype, and be embraced by future Kenyans and Machakos County residents.

In 2013, Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua launched Machawood also called Machakos Entertainment Center for Film, Media, Music and the Arts. Out of this came the Machakos Film Festival which hosts an annual short film competition and gala event at the Machakos People’s Park. According to the competition guidelines for 2019, entrants are required to make 7-minute films featuring at least two iconic features from Machakos County. A happy result of this film festival is the growing online archive of Machakos-featuring films, of multiple genres and languages telling varying stories.

What if we pay attention to Machakos, to Ukambani, to this small film archive negotiating its own definition of itself? Evolving from a time where Nairobi the Capital City of Kenya, and proximity to Nairobi has been the determinant of who or what mattered, might this be how we disrupt this limiting determinant of who or what is valued in Kenya?

The movies I’ve watched from the Machawood archive include historical and contemporary stories. There are science fiction stories, suspenseful movies, love stories, tragedies and comedies. I appreciate the multiple Kenyan languages represented in this archive and the actors’ varying ages. Though the movies are curated to show the best places in Machakos County, this does not seem to have limited the types of stories told. I do consider some of these stories aggressively propagandist but I keep in mind that many of these are produced by filmmakers and actors who are starting out and working with limited budgets.

To Kenya, Machakos People’s Park and Wakamba Forever ask, what if we pay attention to Machakos negotiating its own definition of itself and its own future?

The short film ‘Wakamba Forever‘ submitted for the Machakos Film Festival in 2018, portrays the Kamba ruler Masaku wa Musya and his community in their first encounter with a white man. The film situates Masaku’s people and country outside of colonialism, and includes the Kamba people’s history, spirituality and their relationship to the land. The present-day references in the language use and items such as the cellphone reconfigures time so that Masaku is not only ‘of the time before the long snake’, Masaku is present in 2018, and present in a future Machakos. It does something in particular for me, a person who does not speak or understand Kikamba, to watch this Kamba language feature with English positioned as the other language. Having studied through the Kenyan educational system, the stories referenced here are not unfamiliar to me yet they are made new. I am unlearning something even if I cannot name it yet. The film title plays on the phrase ‘Wakanda Forever’ from Black Panther, the movie and comic book. Both stories both speak to the idea of self-sufficiency, creativity, and knowledge existing outside the colonial gaze.

‘Umau explains they did not expect
so much, didn’t hope to hear me greet them
in their own tongue. My tongue.
The village of my grandparents is happy
for me. I am doing well.’

Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, ‘Sins We Committed’

Aside from the film festival, there are lots of Machakos’ public events that take place at the park. During my day visit, all my interactions suggest that there is high esteem for this park, and what it has made possible and accessible. Everyone I asked was eager to tell me that thousands of people flock here on weekends and public holidays. Among the features at the Park are a seesaw and slide, amusement rides, a maze, a 12D Cinema, a small inflatable child-appropriate swimming pool, two restaurants, a miniature golf course, a zipline, the vast lawn with shaded tables and benches, an outdoor amphitheater for performances, and a footpath around the park. A person can be at the park and not need to spend a shilling, even for the toilets. Park visitors can also go for boat rides on Maruba dam. The park has arches placed over some footpaths. These are ideal for users to pause, take pictures. An obvious incentive to generate multiple happy-face and good scenery images that circulate on social media and among individuals. For many Kenyans, these facilities and activities are only ever accessible at shopping malls, in major towns, and at exclusive parks.

The short film ‘Wakamba Forever’ portrays the Kamba ruler Masaku wa Musya and his community in their first encounter with a white man. The film situates Masaku’s people and country outside of colonialism, and includes the Kamba people’s history, spirituality and their relationship to the land.

Will this park be the example that spurs Kenya’s counties to reproduce, outdo or counter everything that is admired about Machakos County? For me Machakos People’s Park, even with its flaws, shows what public green space makes possible for Machakos, and for Kenya. To borrow from that oft-repeated phrase, ‘we can have nice things.’ To be proud of one’s history, home, ethnic and linguistic identity need not be exclusionary.

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Culture

Boobs and Booties: How Hypersexualised Images of Women Impact Society

8 min read. The backlash against the women’s movement has seen a rise in the hypersexualisation and infantilisation of women, especially in music videos, says RASNA WARAH. This has had a negative impact on how women view their own bodies.

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Boobs and Booties: How Hypersexualised Images of Women Impact Society
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I do not normally agree with self-appointed media censor Ezekial Mutua, who gained notoriety recently for banning the film Rafiki because of its homosexual content, but I think we should not dismiss his claims that some Kenyan music videos are so crude and offensive that they should not be viewed by the public, especially the youth.

Mutua says that videos showing explicit sexual acts promote immorality in society. It is clear that the CEO of the Kenya Film Classification Board is approaching immorality from a purely sexual – dare I say Christian? – perspective. As Christine Mungai argued in a recent article, Kenyan society is immoral at so many levels that confining immorality to sexuality obscures the many ills that bedevil the country. “If we steady our gaze on the nihilism and purposelessness that our young people have been forced – by the older generation – to inhabit, then their lewd chants and booty-shaking becomes less an indictment on their morals and more on our own,” she wrote.

However, if we shift the debate from morality to women’s rights, Mutua’s concerns could be valid. His views might be based on his warped sense of what is moral and immoral in society, but by calling for the ban, he inadvertently became a champion for women’s rights. Let me explain why.

I have stopped watching music videos of Kenyan, Congolese and black American hip hop and rap artists because I find them offensive to women. As a woman who has spent a lifetime fighting the notion that women should be judged by the size of their breasts or buttocks, I find the hypersexualisation of women and girls in many of these videos to be an assault on womanhood. The skimpy outfits, the suggestive gyrating of the extraordinarily large buttocks, the focus on women’s surgically enhanced breasts are all meant to show that women are first and foremost sex objects.

In the majority of these music videos, the men are fully clothed; I have yet to see a man dangling his penis in front of the camera, yet women are expected not just to dangle but to wiggle their nude or semi-nude private parts. These videos are a slap in the face of all those women who fought for women’s rights and who continue to advocate against pornography, which they view as a form of women’s oppression.

As a woman who has spent a lifetime fighting the notion that women should be judged by the size of their breasts or buttocks, I find the hypersexualisation of women and girls in many of these videos to be an assault on womanhood.

Many people believe that the anti-pornography movement denies men and women the right to freedom of expression and has prudish and out-dated views on sex and sexuality. What they don’t recognise is that most anti-pornography activists, such as the inimitable Andrea Dworkin, identify themselves as feminists. They are not against women and men having sex; they are against the debasement of the sexual act and the degradation of women in most porn films.

A former porn star who has started a campaign against the porn industry recently told the BBC’s Stephen Sackur that the sex shown in porn movies promotes unhealthy sexual relations between men and women. Some studies have also shown that men and boys who watch a lot of pornography become desensitised to violent sexual acts committed against women; they see women as purely sexual commodities whose main function is to please men.

The branding of women’s bodies

Unfortunately, the commodification and hypersexualisation of women and girls has gained a new impetus in this today’s money-worshipping world. Memories of slavery and female subjugation have been erased by advertisers, the music industry and the media in general, who use women’s bodies – especially black women’s bodies – to sell everything from cars to watches.

The sexualisation and sexual exploitation of black bodies is nothing new. Myths about black/African men and women’s extraordinary sexual prowess was one reason for the enforcement of strict segregation laws in the United States, South Africa and Kenya. White men feared that white women would not be able resist black/African men, or that black/African men were unable to control their sexual urges (unlike white men who were considered to be more cerebral) and so would be tempted to rape white women. (Yet, black/African slave women were routinely raped by their white owners.) There was even a belief that black women’s bodies were made differently from white women’s bodies and that they could endure more pain. It is therefore sad to see black male musicians perpetuate similar myths in their videos.

The sexualisation of women is not confined to music videos. In Kenya, some female news anchors and TV hosts act as if they are on a catwalk, with each competing with the other to show off their cleavages and legs. This sexing-up and dumbing down of presenters had turned the 9 o’clock news into an indecent show. Radio has not been spared either. Morning shows on some FM stations in Kenya would even make porn queens blush.

As Oyunga Pala noted in an article titled “Slay Queens, Socialites and Sponsors: Sexual Violence in Kenyan Society”, this commodification of women can result in sexual or other forms of violence, including murder. It also reinforces the notion that the only thing women have to sell in today’s market is their bodies. “The message young people hear and see is that eroticism is an investment in itself. To raise one’s sexual potency is a privilege and a currency that can be translated into real material benefits,” he wrote.

The idea that women’s bodies can be used to make money for the women themselves has gained more currency in this age of “social influencers”, who, thanks to the Internet and social media, particularly Instagram and YouTube, compete with each other to gain the most followers. Young women are now “brands” who market themselves. The more hits, likes, shares or followers you get, the more money you make from the platform and the company whose products you display. Social influencing is now considered a respectable career choice, thanks to women like Kim Kardashian whose empire is built entirely on this concept.

An article titled “How to Monetise Yourself Starting Now” published in a recent edition of the Saturday Nation shows you how one can become a rich social influencer. Among the author’s recommendations to become a successful social influencer are: “Be the talk of the town”, which includes being “photographed with the right people”; “Break the Internet”, which includes posting a daring or provocative photo of yourself on social media; and “Bring on the drama”, which means “never being too far from the rumour mill” and being “witnessed by the biggest gossip in town”.

The idea that women’s bodies can be used to make money for the women themselves has gained more currency in this age of “social influencers”, who, thanks to the Internet and social media, compete with each other to gain the most followers. Young women are now “brands” who market their bodies.

All these attention-seeking behaviours are then supposed to translate into money in the bank. Some Kenyan politicians have also bought into the notion that scandals will earn them notoriety, as illustrated by the sex videos posted by politicians or their sexual partners. The current president of the United States, Donald Trump, has not lost his job for his “pussy-grabbing” and making pejorative remarks about women, the disabled and minorities. That is how crude politics in today’s world has become.

Modern-day Hottentot Venuses

Dede Hunt, an African-American woman, recently put out a video that decried the “Baartmanisation” of black women in music videos and on the Internet. She wondered why African-American rappers constantly referred to black women as “whores” and “bitches” and why they used titillating images of black women’s breasts and buttocks in their videos. Is this what slavery had done to a people, she wondered, where former slaves humiliate their own, all in the name of record sales?

Hunt was referring to Saartjie Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, who was a South African woman whose naked body was put on display for four years in London, where she was caged, mocked and leered at by Europeans. Baartman’s unusually large buttocks became the object of much scientific curiosity, amusement and voyeuristic stares. She was even taken to Paris, where an anatomist further examined her body at the Museum of Natural History. Her miserable life was cut short in 1815 when she died of an illness at the age of 25.

However, even death did not spare her the humiliation she had suffered while alive. Her skeleton, genitals and brain were preserved and exhibited at the museum in Paris for the next 150 years; the exhibit was only removed from public view in 1974.

Many would argue that dancing provocatively for a music video or posting nude pictures of yourself on social media is a woman’s right – a type of freedom brought on by the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. These women see themselves as modern, successful professionals who turned their natural physical assets into money-making enterprises.

But I would argue that while the sexual revolution (brought on partly by the invention of the contraceptive pill) did benefit women in many ways – for instance, by removing the stigma associated with “losing one’s virginity” before marriage – it also did them harm. Men viewed the sexual revolution as a licence to have sex irresponsibly – if a woman got pregnant as a result of a sexual liaison, it was both her fault and her responsibility. It also gained men access to more sexual partners, which they didn’t have before; in a sense, it allowed them to have sex for “free” because neither did they have to pay for it, nor did they have to marry the woman. This resulted in a significant rise in sexually transmitted diseases among both men and women.

Unlike Baartman, who was forced to strip and entertain people against her will, modern-day exhibitionists are willingly degrading themselves in front of cameras. They are not the victims of pimps or slave owners; they are the products of a modern world where misogyny has become the norm, and where the backlash against women’s liberation has seen a rise in the hypersexualisation and infantilisation of women.

The undeclared war against women

The advent of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s – with its push towards open market economies and societies where money is worshipped more than gods and goddesses – unleashed regressive, conservative forces that cancelled all the gains achieved by the women’s movement. It was the beginning of an era that elevated pornographers like Hugh Hefner, who, instead of being vilified for objectifying women in his Playboy magazine, got his own reality TV show where naked women young enough to be his granddaughters frolicked with the aging sex maniac in full view of cameras. Meanwhile, conservative religious forces decided what women could or could not do, including use contraception or have an abortion.

The beauty industry, on its part, popularised the “baby doll” look that infantilised women, who were never expected to age gracefully. In her book Backlash, Susan Faludi chronicles the demise of the feminist movement and how the beauty industry helped fuel what she calls “the undeclared war against women”.

In the late 1980s, when Reaganomics and Thatcherism were at their peak, the beauty industry, alarmed by the decline in the use of its products by women who no longer cared for make-up and skin-hugging and revealing clothes, embarked on campaigns to lure women back into the sexist fold. The backlash was not so much a conspiracy against women as it was a calculated business decision to improve sales of cosmetics, plastic surgeries, skin-lightening creams, and other potentially harmful products, whose sales were plummeting.

The beauty industry, on its part, popularised the “baby doll” look that infantilised women, who were never expected to age gracefully. In her book Backlash, Susan Faludi chronicles the demise of the feminist movement and how the beauty industry helped fuel what she calls “the undeclared war against women”.

In societies where women are valued mainly for their bodies, women will go to extraordinary lengths to make their bodies attractive to the men who decide what is attractive and what is not. This has spawned entire industries where women will self-mutilate, through, for example, skin-bleaching creams, tummy tucks and vaginal tightening procedures, in order to achieve a standard of beauty prescribed by the male-dominated culture. This, says Faludi, has had a devastating impact on women’s health and self-esteem. Women and young girls with low self-esteem become easy prey for predators. The impact on their physical health can be deadly: anti-wrinkle creams expose users to cancer-causing agents; silicone breast implants leave painful deformities; liposuction causes infections; and harmful eating disorders among girls and young women escalate.

“Feminist” in this post-feminist world has also become a dirty word, and women who led the women’s movement are now relegated to the pages of history. Some, like Donald Trump and his ilk, have even suggested that such women become feminists either because they are ugly (and so have a grudge against beautiful women) or because they are lesbians (and so do not like men). Meanwhile the rape of women and girls has reached epidemic proportions around the world, with “date rape” being cited as the most common form of sexual violence among college students in the United States.

In other countries, such as India, the Bollywood movie industry has stopped producing serious films on women’s issues; instead films are rated for their sex appeal. “Item numbers” – song-and-dance routines focused on titillating male audiences – are now de rigueur in Bollywood blockbusters. Meanwhile, incidences of rape have increased in cities such as New Delhi, which has been dubbed the rape capital of India.

The backlash against women has entered a critical stage. Women must fight back and remain vigilant.

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The Man Who Brought Marxism Back to Kenya

10 min read. Ali Zaidi and I parachuted into Kenya when it was easier to form relationships and friendships based on shared interests and common humanity. We arrived as outsiders and Kenya became the reality wreck that forced us to co-evolve.

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The Man Who Brought Marxism Back to Kenya
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Jubilee supporters invoke the “colonial mentality” trope to defend the government against critics of Kenya’s spiraling debt burden. Kenya’s inequitable land legacy resurfaces in attacks on the white owners of wildlife conservancies. A chief rapes a minor in the Rift Valley; a social media influencer tweets that the blame lies with colonialism. A commentary on Kenya’s Failed Independence in these pages detours to take aim at “the hare-brained ideas and visions peddled by middle-aged white men,” enroute to calling for a new narrative based on the African experience.

I could not agree more. But the current backlash against the colonial intervention and its post-colonial aftermath points to the decades-wide gap in the conceptualisation of this new narrative. Problems of land, inequality, citizenship rights, and Kenya’s fossilised elitism have not gone away. Several decades after the political economy debate that predicted the failure of the independence project in the first place, the discontent signifies a deeper malaise.

I expected to find this kind of racially-tinged anti-colonial fervour in full swing when I first came to Kenya in 1974. Instead I found pipe-smoking civil servants in knee-length socks, district commissioners in pith helmets, and a near-ubiquitous Anglophilia. The iconic Mau Mau were barely keeping body and soul together. I came in search of the ecstatic poly-rhythmic antecedents of avant-garde jazz only to discover Kenyan hipsters listening to Jim Reeves, Skeeter Davis, and Roger Whitaker.

The conservatism of cosmopolitan Kenyans clashed with the progressive critique dominating the civil rights movement and the robust Third World studies of that era. To be sure, the debate over neocolonialism and capitalism was raging among the university crowd. No one disagreed on the need for some form of colonial detoxification. Secondary students shared frayed paperback copies of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The rhetoric tallied with many of my own assumptions after growing up in America’s Deep South.

I expected to find this kind of racially-tinged anti-colonial fervour in full swing when I first came to Kenya in 1974. Instead I found pipe-smoking civil servants in knee-length socks, district commissioners in pith helmets, and a near-ubiquitous Anglophilia.

But in the countryside and the towns hosting most of Kenya’s population, the post-uhuru betrayal articulated in English-language polemics like Odinga Odinga’s Not Yet Uhuru occupied a narrow band in the public imagination.

Not yet decolonisation

Theory predicted a population receptive to the Marxist arguments of those days but the empirical reality of independent Kenya got in the way. Agrarian commercialisation generated multi-sectoral economic growth while preserving the role of estate agriculture and foreign investment. The transfer of land through the Million Acre scheme cooled anti-colonial passions even though the land problem remained. Kenya’s early post-independence success and stability augured for a continuation of the same.

The Kenya model provided a pragmatic counterpoint to the socialism being championed by Algeria, Mali, Mozambique, Guinea, and post-Haile Selassie Ethiopia. Support for anti-colonial policies nevertheless continued to exert a strong ideological and political influence across the continent. The radical critique advanced by African scholars and writers at home and in the diaspora enjoyed the advantage of authenticity that the liberators who turned conservative once in power could muster little intellectual ammunition to counter.

They did not have to. The Kenyan government conjured up its own version of “African Socialism” in Sessional Paper No. 10. We all know how that played out. The new elites were not content with harvesting the low hanging fruits of uhuru. Anyone standing in their way became enemies of the state. Kenya’s stability bought international support.

In his coloruful memoir, The Reds and the Blacks, the anti-communist US ambassador William Atwood dismissed the post-uhuru angst of Odinga & Co. by explaining that the contest for the political soul of Kenya was really about superpower patronage and ethnicity. The neo-capitalism versus socialism debate was a red herring. The assassination of Tom Mboya two years after the book’s publication suggested he was right.

When Julius Nyerere castigated Kenya as a man-eat-man society during the foreplay that led to the break-up of the East African Community, Charles Njonjo replied that Tanzania was a man-eat-nothing society. The jibe became a political meme. J.M. Kariuki’s comment that the country was becoming a land of “ten millionaires and ten million beggars” arguably came closer to how many citizens felt. The disappearance and death of the outspoken politician in March 1975 triggered the government’s first serious crisis. The crowd heckled Jomo Kenyatta when he addressed the public at Uhuru Park. The president mobilised the military, jets buzzed over Nairobi.

Back on the cooperative farm hosting my field studies programme, our Swahili teachers told us they were going to take up arms. Most of us were sympathetic, although a few of our fellow students did not tune in. Nothing happened, but the martyrdom of J.M. did refocus attention on Kenya’s capitalist problem, at least for a while.

The experience that preceded my arrival in Kenya contributed to my eclectic and nuanced view of developments in Kenya. I participated in the April 31 and May Day anti-Vietnam war protests in Washington D.C., but I was not pro-Ho Chi Minh. I immersed myself in the feed-your-head radicalism of the university environment, but I found the student Marxists pedantic, arrogant, and overbearing.

I took off and spent nine months in Central America, where the time spent in Maya Indian villages converted me to the cause of peasants and indigenous peoples. Like many of my generation radicalised by the war and Anglo-American racism, it was perfectly logical to lionise Che Guevara while rejecting Fidel Castro.

I resonated with the radical anti-colonial analyses of Walter Rodney, Samir Amin, and Franz Fanon before travelling to Africa, but was ambivalent when it came to the record of the continent’s socialist leaders. Once in Kenya, I found my Marxist peers at the University of Nairobi to be even more over-the-top than Gringos. I headed to the lightly colonised periphery where I found that “the idiocy of rural life” provided rich insights into Africans’ creative tradition of adapting to their distinctive environmental and social conditions.

In any case, life in the shags offered a more useful pathway to personal decolonisation, an objective that tempered one’s perceptions of Kenyan politics. Moreover, Kenya’s high profile as an exemplar of capitalist development in Africa actually cut both ways. Ideological opposition to the government contributed to the country’s vibrant intellectual milieu, which in turn translated back-handed support for the status quo. The contradiction manifested in the detention of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for staging his vernacular play Ngahika Ndeenda in 1977, while his English-language books remained on the national secondary school syllabus.

The role of Marxism in the region’s political discourse was, however, already diminishing at this juncture; the detention of several other Marxist critics of the state signaled that in Kenya the party was over. The dominance of the Dependency school, and the mess created by the neo-Marxist shortcuts implemented by its African adherents – as I was to realise many years later – hastened its decline elsewhere across the continent.

I resonated with the radical anti-colonial analyses of Walter Rodney, Samir Amin, and Franz Fanon before travelling to Africa, but was ambivalent when it came to the record of the continent’s socialist leaders. Once in Kenya, I found my Marxist peers at the University of Nairobi to be even more over-the-top than Gringos.

The activism inspired by the radical Marxist narrative returned for a swan song several months after Daniel arap Moi became president in 1978. Nairobi University students registered their dissatisfaction with his government by staging a protest on behalf of striking doctors. A boisterous crowd marched down River Road chanting and carrying placards with the usual slogans: A Lucha Continua, Arise Ye Wretched of the Earth, and Not Yet Uhuru in Kenya.

I watched the impending collision from a box seat on the balcony of the New Kenya Lodge. The General Service Unit ambushed the students when they reached the corner of Latema Road. The ringleader was wearing a red cap. He and several of his mates melted into the crowds of unsuspecting pedestrians. “No maize in Kenya!” they shouted as they weaved their way to safety.

It turned out to be the last time I witnessed Kenyans rallying around Marxist slogans.

The Moi dialectic

The Marxist bogey had returned in the guise of the MwaKenya movement after Moi assumed power, but it did little to slow down the long slog of his “passing cloud” presidency. The failed military coup that almost did on August 1, 1982 had dispensed with the anti-capital clichés. Its inebriated leaders exhorted the gathering mob to loot by shouting “Power!”; the traditional “to the people” refrain was conspicuously absent.

Our friend Ali Zaidi arrived in Kenya from Delhi a year later. Economist by education and journalist by profession, he was a dedicated follower of the writings of Karl Marx, the middle-aged white man who wrote Das Kapital and several other of the modern world’s most influential texts.

Not that Marxism mattered anymore in the febrile narratives of the next twenty years—the direct link between the Air Force coup-makers and the Odinga family had dissipated any political legitimacy the formerly Marxian opposition once enjoyed.

A friend from Harvard once told me that Marxism was the last stage of Christianity. It is an interesting hypothesis. Like Christianity, the Marxian Gospel gave rise to many denominations and interpretations: the epistemological Marxism of the professors, the mobilising ideology of the freedom fighters, the liberation theology of Latin American priests, the Animal Farm Marxism of Lenin’s revolutionary vanguard school, and the magic of the French Structural Marxists who employed class analysis to account for inequality in pre-capitalist societies, to name a few.

The last stage of Christianity metaphor, however, was not about the religiosity behind the draconian purification of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge. Rather, he was referring to the Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic’s similarities with the cosmology of the Christian Trinity.

Our friend Ali Zaidi arrived in Kenya from Delhi a year later. Economist by education and journalist by profession, he was a dedicated follower of the writings of Karl Marx, the middle-aged white man who wrote Das Kapital and several other of the modern world’s most influential texts.

Unlike Ali, I was not a member of that club. I had been initiated into the “consciousness-raising” cult of Marxist theory; I never drank the Kool-Aid. The religious Marxist discourse that had put me off during my youth had much in common with today’s Islamist narrative and the praxis of true believer movements like ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram.

The radical influences that shaped both of us while coming of age steered us towards different compass points. Ali Zaidi believed in Hegelian progress towards the universal spirit as it unfolds through the resolution of capitalism’s contradictions. My quest was the more Fanonian salvation to be found in non-capitalist cultural systems.

The years had melted away since we embarked on the respective paths that had brought us both to Kenya. The twenty-eight year Moi interlude had in fact advanced Kenya’s dialectical process in a manner not anticipated by the middle-aged white, brown, and black men entrusted with charting the neoliberal’s pursuit of the end of history.

Moi was the forest fire that clears the way for new growth, the flood that forced the river to change its course. The largely donor-driven phase of the developmental cycle that unfolded in his wake had bulldozed the once vigorous ecology of ideas and concepts, and left a stagnant swamp of buzzwords, negative ethnicity, and flavour of the day policy analysis in its place. It was bad.

We were all trying to get by and to find a way through the degraded collective mindset when I met Ali Zaidi in 1995.

Commodity fetishism revisited

We had come from different sides of the world, and we were both products of the eclectic countercultural milieu of the 1960s and early 1970s. We shared many of the same interests in music, literature, and international affairs, but with some important differences. He was an urbanite; I have always straddled town and country. I was a baseball person and he was a cricket guy; I was a fan of the Marx Brothers, Ali a dedicated follower of Karl Marx.

Ali underwent a catharsis after the events of 1989 that he described in an essay published in the Executive ten years later. Until his death this month, he retained the belief that Marx was still relevant to the fact that the world deserves better than the mess that was unfolding on all sides. The latter problem became the focus of many long conversations that gravitated towards the former’s work.

I was sceptical in the beginning but came to a new appreciation of the clarity Marx offered under Ali’s tutelage. Like many of the zealous Marxists trading in his ideas, I had actually read only a limited sample of the Prophet’s own writing. I owned up: although Marxist analysis had produced much of the best work in my field, I found Marx’s writing too dense.

Ali, who had actually read the full canon of Marx’s works, disagreed vehemently. I remember one discussion in particular that captured the quality of our discourse. It grew out of my misuse of Marx’s commodity fetishism: I had always assumed the concept was bound up with the anthropological definition of fetishism i.e. the practice of investing inanimate objects with power or some mystical agency.

We had come from different sides of the world, and we were both products of the eclectic countercultural milieu of the 1960s and early 1970s. We shared many of the same interests in music, literature, and international affairs, but with some important differences.

Wrong. “Commodity fetishism is not about personal identification with products and brands,” Ali told me. “It’s about the difference between the use value of an object and the exchange value of the same in the market.”

He went on to explain this difference. “For example, if you catch a fish and we eat it on the table I made, we are sharing in the use-value generated by our labour. But when conditions induce us to sell these products of our time and labour, the end result is the valuation of everything and everyone in monetary terms. Commodity fetishism dehumanises the relationships between people and communities by reducing them to factors of class, wealth, and status.”

No one had connected these dots in a way that brought this basic insight home. The invisible hand of this commodity fetishism is driving the transactional forces reconfiguring the global economy. You can observe it at work in the tribalism, polarisation, and racism exploited by the architects of Brexit and the alt-right. The Kenyan version of this fetish has transformed the struggle for democracy into a violent game of votes, no end in sight.

Ali’s Marxism was not about quasi-religious abstractions; it resurfaced in the decategorised approach Ali personified through his highly interactive lifestyle. Everyone counted. He shared and communicated without pretention, and he was a positive influence on the ever-widening circle of those who came into contact with him.

We are all colonised. We go through life as vehicles for our identities and histories and cultural preferences. It is hard to escape, but the received influences defining our personas can be mitigated by our accumulated experiences. The tendency to categorise people by the language they speak, their clothing, appearance, age, complexion, possessions, and signs of origin was always there, but it has grown stronger as Kenya transits into the kind of atomised capitalist society Marx predicted.

No one had connected these dots in a way that brought this basic insight home. The invisible hand of this commodity fetishism is driving the transactional forces reconfiguring the global economy…The Kenyan version of this fetish has transformed the struggle for democracy into a violent game of votes, no end in sight.

Perhaps we were lucky. Ali and I parachuted in when it was easier to form relationships and friendships based on our shared interests and common humanity. We arrived as outsiders and Kenya became the reality wreck that forced us to co-evolve.

This brings us to the dilemma of the younger Kenyans who are now the majority in Decolony Keenya. They are discovering that when you are born is just as important as where you are born, and they think it is not fair. But as Fanon predicted, “For many years to come we shall be bandaging the countless and sometimes indelible wounds inflicted on our people by the colonialist onslaught.”

Yakubaliwa. Millennials, more than the post-independence generations preceding them, are the real victims of colonial rule. And a dose of Ali Zaidi-style political theory might help them fill the gap in their existential critiques.

Nothing is sacred – even the idea of decolonisation should be decolonised.

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