Comment & analysis
Is the pen mightier than a machete?
2008-07-09, Issue 386
Is the pen mightier than the panga? This was the question confronting Kenya’s literary establishment in the opening days of 2008, as war spread throughout Kenya’s urban centers and across the fertile Rift Valley in the nation’s heartland. As belligerent armies of unemployed youth paraded before news cameras armed with the one weapon all Kenyans have access to, pangas (machetes) once again became the symbol for death and destruction in Africa. Spoken words, it seemed, coming from the podiums of politicians of every stripe, were what helped ignite this chaos in the first place; was it possible that written words from a more thoughtful source might help reverse the spread of violence? Or barring that, could it at least make sense of the chaos and thereby ensure that when peace returned, it stayed?
Kenya’s writing community didn’t wait long to find out. Three days after the killings began, a truly unique creature was born: the Concerned Kenyan Writers group, a broad and passionate coalition of almost one hundred thinkers, philosophers, poets, journalists, novelists, film-makers, and just about every brand of outraged humanist a person could imagine.
The CKW began simply, as a ‘google group’ whose members submitted prose for the whole group to debate and critique; part workshop, part battleground of ideas, the stories, essays, poems and rants that were posted to the google group would go on to grace the pages of newspapers like The New York Times and the Mail & Guardian, magazines like Nigeria’s Farafina, and dozens more international publications. And despite its name, the CKW quickly grew to include writers who didn’t hold Kenyan passports, but nevertheless felt a strong enough connection to the country to play an active role in its rehabilitation – writers like Kalundi Serumaga, the Ugandan radio and print journalist, and Petina Gappah, the Zimbabwean writer/activist.
But the impact was greatest inside Kenya’s borders. Within a month of its creation, the CKW had grown to encompass virtually every literary institution; Kenya’s three major newspapers, for instance, were ably covered by Rasna Warah, a columnist for the Daily Nation, Martin Kimani, writing for the weekly East African, and Tony Mochama, whose weekly ‘Smitta’ column in the Standard reaches more of Kenya’s youth than any other printed space in the country. Together, these three (and many more like them) presented stories to millions of Kenyans that went beyond the usual stenographic political coverage. They poked and prodded the consciences of not just politicians, but of readers themselves, urging the public to share in the responsibility for what befell the country.
And they went far beyond newspapers. Tony Mochama, normally known for his sharp-witted interviews and vodka-soaked poetry, published a short story, “The Road To Eldoret,” describing one man’s ill-fated drive through Rift Valley. The tale appeared in a small but vivid collection called After the Vote, alongside stories like Simiyu Barasa’s “The Obituary of Simiyu Barasa,” in which the journalist-turned-filmmaker describes his own death at the hands of imagined rioters; and an untitled essay by playwright Andia Kisia who, in imagining her parents’ witnessing the birth of Kenya, realizes that “the country was a continuous experiment with the ever present possibility of failure, a fragile thing that had only just come into being and might very well go out of being…”
Published in early May, After the Vote was the first post-election book to hit the shelves. Many other like-minded initiatives had already come to the public’s eye, though, like the special edition of Wajibu magazine that came out in mid April with doves and flames on the cover and words by every Kenyan writer of note inside. One of those writers was Wambui Mwangi, who had recently started a multimedia project called Generation Kenya aimed at exploring and celebrating the identity(ies) of post-independence Kenya.
Was it ironic that Mwangi should have sprung her project into motion in December of 2007, at almost the exact moment that Kenya revealed its darkest side to itself and the world? Certainly, “Kenyan-ness” suddenly seemed much less of a cause for celebration by the time December 27th came around. But Mwangi adapted her website, Generation Kenya to the new circumstances and used it as a platform to profile the countless ‘mashujaas’ (champions) who had performed acts of heroism on grand and modest scales throughout the election. It turned out to be what Kenya needed most – true and heartening stories that spoke of hope and a fundamental integrity in the Kenyan character at a time when barbarians dominated the stage. The GenKen project resonated so well with the public that the Nation Media Group is now including it as a supplement in their pages, the most widely read in Kenya.
Not to be outdone, the diaspora intelligencia contributed from afar as blogs and websites roared to life – perhaps none more vocally than KenyaImagine.com, whose cast of writers provided an ongoing narrative of the Kenyan drama. Managed by a handful of editors living as far afield as England, the US and South Africa, KenyaImagine blended the humour and absurdity of the post-election period so deftly it was hard to imagine the people running it could be living anywhere but inside the heart of the story. Other sites used their cyberpens to do more than tell stories; they raised cash for aid, like like Dipesh Pabari’s Sukuma Kenya, which pulled in 1.2 million shillings and funneled it towards reconstruction efforts in Kisumu.
And then there is Kwani?, the annual anthology of east African literature spearheaded by Binyavanga Wainaina, who was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the CKW itself. Kwani? was halfway through production of their fifth volume when the election struck and rendered all other topics irrelevant. Instead of pursuing their original table of contents, the editors decided to clear the plate and start fresh; in February, Kwani? sent a dozen writers on the Testimonial Project; they gathered over two hundred interviews from across the country, drawing out voices that were involved in all sides of the conflict for an unprecedented glimpse of what January’s chaos looked like on the ground. Other writers, some of whom had already been commissioned to follow the campaign, were brought in to flesh out the narrative, bringing creative nonfiction, poetry, essays and analysis to the mix. The result will be launched in August, a special twin issue that promises to be the most authoritative and comprehensive reflection to date on this most indelible of historical periods.
That launch coincides with the Kwani Litfest. Writers from all over Africa are coming to Nairobi for the first week of August, an event that may provide the first real opportunity to reflect on a different sort of question – the most painful one for writers, of just how much difference their work has made. There is little doubt that the Kenyan crisis has inspired an already talented crew of writers and forced them to reach for new heights. But the question does remain: Can their collective pens defeat the swords that were drawn in January?
For now those blades are sheathed, while the scribes continue to wage their sharp-tongued war on the status quo. It will take some time to tell how deeply into Kenya’s conscience the country’s writers can cut with their words. In the meantime, the activation and engagement of Kenya’s literary community is already proof that at least one good thing has come from this country’s descent into madness.
*Arno Kopecky is a Canadian journalist and travel writer, currently based in Nairobi. His dispatches have appeared in several international publications, including The Walrus magazine, Utne, Harper's, The Toronto Star, and Kenya's Daily Nation, for whom he reported extensively on Kenya's post-election chaos. He is currently an editor with Kwani?, a literary anthology of east African words, photography and art.
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