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As I recover, like every other hopeful Kenyan, from the mild shockwaves set off by the release of the Pandora Papers and the confirmation that the Kenyatta family is indeed an organization with a long heritage of looting. I remember to also spare the devil some time to indulge me:

“Are you really just infuriated by the leaks because you weren’t born into a family that had your future secured in a million-dollar trust in Panama?”  he says, and this is as far as I let him go because what he says tears deep into my empty pockets, it makes me feel like I made the wrong decision to quit a project I had helped conceptualize and pitch just recently.

Late last year I teamed up with an artist I still consider my mentor and friend to create work that would see us occupied for the greater part of this year, linking intergenerational struggles in the political space. What made me leave the project was the realization that we had “philosophical differences” where the utility of the resources allocated were concerned. It was an awkward split as I never really knew how to directly address this philosophical difference; what I had to say about his actions was in conflict with my knowledge of who he was and what I had thought would be his contribution to the project.

I am an artist in my mid-twenties while he has been in the field for longer than I have lived so one can only imagine the crisis of confidence I was in. I chose instead to give my mental health as the reason I would not be able to continue participating in project. This was to me the safest way to resolve this conflict, as I couldn’t tell whether this was actually how art projects are run — with little regard for the objectives initially set, and with the possibility of resources meant for the project being diverted to personal use.

Silence, and second guessing myself, has become my way of coping with this new reality that I find rather obscure. I did not have a clear picture of what was happening and whether my knowledge would have had any impact. Perhaps there really was a different way of doing things that I did not know of. Perhaps structures and plans were just formalities that yielded to personal needs where resources were concerned. There were many disparities between what we had actually done and the financial accounting, facts that our reports concealed, and this has left me without peace. What I was taking part in did not sit well with me since it is my generation that is facing systemic violence from the state using this very same tool of obscurity.

There are many instances where acquaintances have offered me advice that sounded more like a warning from an elder to a young man.

“Chunga usipitwe na wakati.” Don’t let time pass you by.

“Watu mmesoma mna shida.” You educated people are troublesome.

“Hapo penye uko hata sisi tulikuwa.” We once were where you are — now we are here doing other things.

Such warnings are usually given by former artists who become concerned whenever I happen to share with them that I find it difficult to compromise my integrity for financial gain. Some have even gone as far as calling me an idealist for insisting that if the work an artist creates intentionally promotes a certain idea of what the world should be like, then the artist would be a liar to be living their lives contrary to those ideas. But I am reminded that artists too are human beings, with the same flaws, the same needs, facing the same temptations. I have learned to take such advice as polite warnings against losing economic relevance in a country that is diving deep into an economic recession. But what does this reality mean for an artist seeking to live a different way and confronted by the need to make a living?

Reflecting on the conversations I have had with friends on the value of integrity has offered me great insights into where this split occurs. I spoke to Kate and Janet, two university students from Nairobi who seemed to be in agreement that when it comes to making money their integrity can be set aside.

“Money would make me compromise, I will not lie to you, if I see money and there’s an opportunity to get it I would put aside my integrity. After all if I don’t take it someone else is going to take it.” Kate said.

Janet added, “If someone close to me really needed that money then I would definitely have no option but to compromise.”

Both still live at home and all their basic needs are met by their parents. So it was interesting to note that compromising their integrity was not a matter of survival, it just seemed like the most sensible option because that’s what most people would do, and if you missed the opportunity someone else would happily take it. A painter friend, Janice, seemed to be more concerned about how young people are increasingly living on debt, following this thought with a rhetorical question, “For how long does one hold on to their principles when a price is being put on the table?”

Janice concluded by making it clear that she would not like to be an angry fifty-year old who is unable to speak the truth because she compromised a few times in the past.

I never really got an image of what material maturity looked like from my conversations with these friends. Janice only went as far as describing the age at which someone, an adult person, begins to feel the pressure to mature materially as varying with the background that individual comes from. I take this to mean that the imperative to survive — if we are to define material maturity as the ability to provide one’s basic needs — has always existed in all the stages of the lives of the young and poor. This is a very crucial point to consider when looking, for example,  at crime in the streets and the ghetto where young men and teenage boys, driven by the inability of their parents to provide for them, use the only resource they have access to — their physicality — to meet such basic needs as food and shelter. This often involves the use of physical violence or intimidation to gain access to resources.

This is the way of the beasts, the way of life in the bush, not the way of humans and civilized societies. It is a reality that these young men would perish if they found no means to fulfil their basic needs, but does their imperative to survive ever get to be reconciled with the fact that they are causing harm to another? What does integrity mean when the young and poor arrive at this impasse almost every single day of their lives? And based on what other young people have to say, it is an impasse that seems to cut across the class divide. The only difference being that class obscures this impasse, making it seem non-existent for the rich. The more one gains access to resources, the less they have to interact with the implications of their actions.

Perhaps this is why people steal as much as they can, not just to survive or to become the richest, but rather to avoid interaction with the guilt of having hurt others to get where they presently are. There has to exist an unbridgeable physical distance between the dispossessed and the wealth of the oppressor, and for this distance to be effective one has to also create a mental from with reality. Here, the revision of language becomes an important tool, as to have to constantly consider what is meant by a word such as theft might lead one to look into their own actions and see the deed.

We detach the signified from the word theft, substituting it with the signified of the word survival because our reality has come to prove our understanding of language wrong. The majority is doing it. They can’t be wrong, can they?

The capitalist system employs the obscurity created by this distance to reward the biggest thieves with immunity from personal and public guilt, while punishing the pettiest of thieves, who are bound to the public that is their only resource, with death often executed in public. Those that choose not to steal even when faced with the imperative to survive, often end up being swept away by irrelevance, the system swallows them whole.

A friend and contemporary of mine disclosed to me that the reason he stopped performing poetry was because he wasn’t getting anything out of it. He would show up at art events and perform pieces that he’d been rehearsing for weeks only to leave without anything to show for it. He remembers telling a more privileged poet that he felt like art was a curse for him to which the poet responded that, for her, it was like a stream of healing. He found it interesting that contemporaries could have such different experiences of the same space. This conflict had become overwhelming for him, so he moved to the hospitality industry where he earns a good living.

“I can now show up in those spaces and enjoy poetry, this would be difficult before as I would be busy preparing for my own performance, now I can show up without really expecting much from the event,” he said. “I feel like, as a performer, I have lost something I cannot describe.”

I received these remarks with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was happy for him, that he was no longer threatened by the imperative to survive. On the other hand I was disappointed that a creator had been turned into a consumer by virtue of his financial status. It’s worrying how artists from poor backgrounds who refuse to conform to ways of expression that give them access to the system are fighting to stay meaningfully active in the arts.

I met Charles Anthony Matathia earlier this year, a writer and poet whose work in film has received great acclaim from the Kenya art fraternity and beyond. Nairobi Half Life, the film he co-wrote with Billy Kahora et al., is still considered one of the greatest African films of the past decade. My three encounters with this great artist, whose career and life have been disrupted by his mental health with no resources available for him to call upon, were heart-breaking. His contemporaries continue to make meaningful contributions to African art and literature while Charles Matathia occasionally pops up on social media and radio interviews as someone who was once a writer. The idea that artists from privileged backgrounds and those with reliable contacts or resources might be the only ones left mentally fit to create art and give an artistic interpretation of the times is terrifying.

As poets turn to selling clothes vending, social media influencing and photography to survive, as writers cap their pens in order to stay economic relevant by doing sales, my concern is no longer who will speak truth to power, but what type of truth is allowed to be presented before power.