This is an open letter to all of us Kenyans who do not behave like Jonah who tried to evade his divine calling to preach God’s message in Nineveh.
I know that I speak for many when I say that in Kenya, the arts sector is abusive. To enter it is not for the faint-hearted, and few of us come out of it intact. Many of us, myself included, have experienced depression or panic attacks. A number of us have been shot in the neck or are victims of rape. And each time the violence happens, the public winks and says we should have seen it coming. They say that we brought it on ourselves by talking, dressing or thinking differently.
When we work as artists, our work is demeaned. It is treated as “talent” and therefore not requiring any pay. We are cheated out of our earnings by not being paid at all, or by accountants lying to us that the cheques are not yet signed so that they can buy more time to play with our hard-earned money. When we are asked “What do you do for a living?” and we say that we are writers or painters or photographers or musicians, we are told, “That’s fine, but what do you do from 8 to 5?” When we say that we are studying the arts, we are asked, “So where do you hope to get a job with that?” One of my students studying music was once advised to have a back-up plan.
The only time we get recognized in Kenya is when we succeed abroad or get recognized abroad. Even here, because the politicians have grabbed the cinema halls, the playgrounds and the social halls, we cannot find anywhere where people can gather to watch or listen to a performance. Instead, we find ourselves running to the halls built by foreign embassies in the Central Business District, far from the neighbourhoods where we live.
Why is being an artist so abusive?
I will tell you why. In Kenya, the state, businesses, the church, the media and the education system (the hegemony) are united in making our lives as artists a living hell.
The hegemony hates us because the arts is where human beings suspend institutional rules. In the arts, we privilege listening to God and the universe over listening to human power. When we dance, for instance, we switch off our consciousness about who is looking at us. We concentrate our minds on following the beat and on being in sync with other dancers. This means that, for that moment, we are focused on the arts – we suspend what the church thinks, what the government thinks, what the school thinks or what the media thinks.
In Myth, Literature and the African World, Wole Soyinka says ritual (or what I will call here the arts) is the space in which human beings collectively come to terms with their place in the world. Through the arts, we accept life as it is, both the good and the bad, and at the same time – not like an accounting balance sheet. We accept pain and love, life and death, as inevitable. We also accept that despite being human, the world operates on rules that even we humans cannot change. In the arts, Soyinka argues, we are even allowed to collectively call the gods to account, as Mother Nature and the gods also hold humanity to account.
The hegemony hates us because the arts is where human beings suspend institutional rules.
So the arts is the space where we bend the rules and break the barriers. It is where we reset the cosmic balance and provide justice to the vulnerable and clip the powers of the mighty. In the arts, we love people for who they are despite what the world tells us, and we reflect the image of God through becoming creators ourselves.
All these things I have described defy the human institutions of the hegemony. That is why the hegemony fights back at the arts.
The autocratic foundations of Kenya
In order to understand why Kenya is this way, it is important to understand that Kenya was constructed on a very narrow agenda – to control the resources (including us) for the profit of the few who did not even live here.
How do absentee plantation owners control a proud people with their own histories, identities and livelihoods? By creating a fiction or stories about how we are such degraded human beings who can only be helped to survive by the very same people who get rich from exploiting us. The arts inevitably became the enemy of our exploiters because the arts are where we can suspend these rules and connect to ourselves and to each other as human beings.
If you understand how power was handed over at independence, through careful selection of the Kenyan colonial sympathizers who joined the colonial civil service, then you’ll understand why that system has remained intact to this day.
The colonial rules which we never got rid of are still constructed on a narrow path to “success”, namely going to Western schools, getting employment, joining politics and becoming rich and displaying that wealth with cars, houses, children in foreign schools and other symbols of Western consumerist wealth.
For this system to continue, it also needs the stories that the colonizers told our ancestors. In church, we’re told that God loves the exploiters and that God is disappointed that we are not like them. In school, we are told to learn so that we become the next generation of exploiters, and that the only purpose of learning is to join the market. In the media, we are told that those who are successful are those who make the most money, not those who do the best for society. Meanwhile, the government sees its only role as setting laws and policy to rule us and sending us the police to punish us.
In the arts, we love people for who they are despite what the world tells us, and we reflect the image of God through becoming creators ourselves.
As you probably know, the system supported by these stories is brutal. In school, children are on their feet from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. In the workplace, the more we work, the more we are insulted and the less we are paid. In the media, we are told that we are irrelevant to development. At church, we are told that God is disappointed in us. The government calls us immoral and the politicians patronizingly call us “talented youth”.
Many Kenyans who go through this brutal system make peace with it. But we artists don’t. And often, that’s not even a decision that we make. It’s just that the fire of God and the universe that burns inside of us is so strong, that we start to ask questions like, “What if God is not as brutal and punitive as we are told? What if we had another definition of success? What if I love the person whom the politician is telling me to hate? What if I dance instead of being miserable? What if I wear orange instead of brown? What if I sing instead of being quiet? What if I admit that I am sad? What if. . . .”
And that scares the people in power, because their power depends on us thinking we have no alternatives. And so, at the pulpits, on the airwaves, in the classroom, at the workplace and in government offices, people are taught to hate us for being different and for refusing to conform. We grow up being told that there is no future in a career in the arts and that we are responsible for immorality and underdevelopment. We are lied to that 80 per cent of students in university are in arts programmes, when the number is below 20 per cent.
So I want to encourage you not to give up. You are on the right track. The road may be difficult now, the system may be abusive, but we are suffering because we reveal the truth about the powerlessness of the system. If we try to suppress the creativity God put in our hearts, God will send a fish to swallow us and spit us out with the command that we must be artists. So we have no choice but to see this through.
We must see our calling through because society depends on it. The arts are the soul of a people. Without the arts, we will feel powerless to change anything, or too much in despair to hope. The arts are the quintessential space for democracy and freedom, because in the arts, we come together collectively but at the same time express our individuality. It is this magic that we know as freedom.
Think of a painting with different colours, or a choir with different voices. Although each colour or each voice is unique on its own and remains unique in the painting or in the singing, the combination of colours produces a sight that is pleasing to the eye and the combination of voices produces a sound that is pleasing to the ear.
That is what democracy is supposed to be. Democracy is supposed to be this magical space where we come together with our unique individual contributions and make something beautiful to the glory of God and in praise of our ancestors. Democracy is modelled on the arts, and that is why we must do our art.
I know that this encouragement does not mean much when courage does not pay the bills or put a roof over our heads. But in my further letters to you, I will explain what we can do to resist the abuse. We have a lot of work to do in terms of education, media, economy and faith. I will talk about how each sector abuses us, but also how we also are sometimes complicit in the abuse.
Joy will come in the morning.