by April Zhu
“Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales” sounds like the title of a picture book for kids in their twenties and thirties. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s to stop feeling like an imposter. Trust the process. Trust your own hard work. “Blinky” Bill Sellanga’s first solo album is an anthem for the young creative just trying to “do the thing.”
Blinky Bill pulls back the curtain on the performance of celebrity and instead “performs” humility. He goes out of his way to prove that, even when you become a big shot, some things don’t change. The song “Bills to Pay” bypasses the glamour of creative work and instead elevates small and unsexy humiliations like chasing after your own money after you’ve done the job. With a string of sharp puns on PayBill, pay the bills, and “pay Bill to play”—plus that passive-aggressive “my dia”—Blinky Bill drops the ultimata that hustlers want to but can’t always: “Wakati wa kulipa umefika / Toa pesa sasa hivi, sasa hivi.” Louder for the clients in the back, please.
“My dia my dia my dia you do
not know me very well
So let me tell you little something
I am looking for no drama.”
– Blinky Bill, “Bills To Pay,” “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”
The whole album toggles between reassurance and desperation. Take “Oh Wah,” which features Nneka and Petite Noir. It’s an internal dialogue, a backdrop to bad news on TV: “Healing is what you need / is what I need is what they need / but my country keeps hurting my soul / I can’t watch the news no more / I can’t watch the news no more.” It’s familiar for any young Kenyan who has witnessed their country fall and sighed, “How now, Kenya.”
Or for any young person, really, who daily processes the rapid reel of the internet, suffering and humor and love and meaninglessness assorted on one feed. Who sees bad things in the world on her screen and feels, at the same time, both incredibly privileged and completely powerless. “Oh Wah” is not pedantic; it’s not even a call to action. It is an honest meditation on injustice that doesn’t shove answers into questions. Running through this album are these kinds of interrogations about where we belong in the world, often with brave uncertainty.
For this reason, the opening track, “Lwanda Magere”—named for the mythical Luo warrior whose invincibility was unraveled by a woman—is at first jarring. A kick drum mimics the forward march of battle-ready hide drums, while bass and talkbox trade off into one another and are all swept into pixelated static: a myth, digitalized. What does it mean that an album that grapples with endless questions—especially the big one, “Where do we come from?”—begins first with some sort of answer? “Lwanda Magere” hangs like a plaque above the door we step inside, a benediction to origin that will frame everything else to follow.
Everyone knows that Blinky Bill has a thing for nostalgia. He trawls up sounds we didn’t know we still remember, like those of the Bata Shoeshine Boys. When asked about his influences, he points backwards: The Mighty Cavaliers, Slim Ali and the Hodi Boys, and many more. Kenyans speak starry-eyed about music of the past—the golden age of immortal zilizopendwa, or genge and kapuka, a time when our sounds were envied. Blinky Bill takes on a quiet resistance to that pessimism. Resistance, because he is deliberate (almost political) about reversing Kenyans’ musical amnesia. Quiet, because he makes it good without having to tell us it’s good. His optimism is stubbornly Nairobi-centric.
“We’re at the most
interesting phase of any art scene, to be honest, in Africa. If you’re looking
at Africa, you’ll take a look at Nairobi. We’re just discovering ourselves and
figuring out how to express ourselves in a way that makes sense to us.”
– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014
You won’t find cheap copy-pastes of “traditional” “African” sounds, easy tropes that are vaguely “tribal.” You do, however, get that cold little sparkle of an ongeng’o in “Winner.” Or a thin veil of distant chant in “Oh Wah.” Or the crunchy “chka chka ka chka chka” in “Atenshan” (and his mic tests) you hear in K-South’s “Kapuka This.” In the same way that benga artists, translating nyatiti into guitar, bridged old tunes into a new world, all the while creating something singular, Blinky Bill is certainly a bridge from something to something.
“No one back home considers [The Mighty Cavaliers’] contribution important so, with working with this music, I’m going backwards into Kenyan music history and trying to bring it forth so the new generation that’s listening to Kenyan music—which we’re at the forefront of pushing—are exposed to these musicians and their work.”
– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014, referring to Just A Band’s rendition of [The Mighty Cavaliers’ “Dunia Ina Mambo”
But from what to what? “Genre” is deceptively subjective. British artist FKA Twigs described this: “When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s not in a genre. And then my picture came out six months later, now she’s an R&B singer.” The act of “genre”-ing music is intractably political and fraught with questions about gaze.
“One of my least favorite terms is the box of ‘World Music,’ where for years the music from the ‘Other’ places has been lumped together,” Blinky Bill said in an interview with OneBeat. The concept of “world music,” according to journalist Ian Burrell, originated in a north London pub as a means for promoting non-Western artists, but now just puts them in a “ghetto.” Take Nneka, who features in “Oh Wah.” She lives in Berlin and sings in English, says Burrell, “but she hails from Warri, Nigeria, so gets categorised as a world music performer and thus finds it that much harder to get on playlists, get gigs, and get attention.”
This seems to be a conversation that Blinky Bill runs into a lot, especially outside of Africa, where feels he most needs to “explain” himself. (Although maybe this is changing?) As this album rappels down into the rest of the world, it will only become more necessary to “explain” his work in terms of Africanness.
Or not. “I feel sometimes when outsiders look to African music, there’s an expectation of a certain sound,” Blinky Bill said in an interview with OneBeat. “I’d like it to be just music.” He cares about “cooking up” interesting music, and apart from that, people can take it as they will.
Everyone wants to know Blinky Bill’s secret sauce. What’s his process? What “inspires” him? Where does he learn? But there’s no recipe. When interrogated on his process, Blinky Bill gives dry-cut answers with the same few wholesome ingredients: hard work, focus, learning from the masters.
He’s not bluffing. In any art form, intuitive talent can go a long way, but “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”—almost all of which Blinky Bill produced himself—demonstrates a grasp of the chemistry and mechanics of sound. Think of how he electrified the gospel number “Mungu Halali” with that groovy, glittering Wurlitzer that slides over the choir. Or how the big brass in “Atenshan” swoon as they crackle on the low notes, dragging a moment behind at the end of a phrase, weighed down by their own wooziness.
Sometimes you can tell when an artist is limited by their lack of control over their own medium. Blinky Bill, especially in this project, has transcended that. He’s mastered the foundations but hasn’t lost his experimental edge.
“What’s inspiring my new
album? Mostly….life. Having that understanding that no one truly has the
answers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because the journey is as
interesting as the destiny.”
– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014
But the whole point of this album—again, if we can call it a storybook for the young creative—is that, when it comes to making good work, there’s no mystique, kids, no winning juice. When you run out of ideas, DJ for some time. Force yourself to keep making, if only for its own sake. “Winner” is a sort of self-hype-talk, one you can imagine giving yourself in front of the bathroom mirror in the morning: affirmations of untouchability, unstoppability, unshrinkability. That it’s okay to doubt yourself and puff out your chest at the same time. Held at another angle, it’s a prayer.
“Let That Go,” featuring the loose-jawed, syrupy verse of Sampa the Great, offers another angle to confidence: a refuge that comes from another way of knowing. This track follows the contrite “Mungu Halali,” and it embodies an underside of faith in God: faith in oneself. I love this one precisely because it’s a woman saying she doesn’t give a fuck.
“I keep the hate up on the dinner
Play it like a lullaby till all the haters simmer
Throw away the throwaways till I discover
To keep the spirit when all my shit come down to winter.”
– Sampa the Great, “Let That Go,” “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”
Blinky Bill picks up these ideas of success and turns them around in his hand. Where does success come from? Why is it so hard to reach? Is it wrought out by hard work? The grace of God? What is it even? What do we tell haters? What do we tell our worst critic, our selves?
And then, just like that, in the last line of the last track, one more question—this one from Asa—lifts us off into a bright blue sky: “Why can’t we be happy?”
A question that, if you sing it, sounds more like an answer.
April Zhu is a writer and artist in Nairobi, Kenya
by Sheena M
I arrived about 20 minutes early, and already there was a large gathering waiting to see Rafiki. The moment I walked into the waiting area at Prestige Plaza cinemas, I felt the stares. We were all sizing each other up. Who are you? Do I know you? Are you a threat? Do I have to be concerned about your presence?
It was all nerves, muscles tensed and ready to spring into action. It was like we were all doing something we knew our parents would not approve of. This feeling wasn’t unfounded. I mean, you only need to look at Ezekiel Mutua’s tweets about this movie to how bad it is. So being at the cinema waiting to watch a movie about two Kenyan girls falling in love felt like a risk in itself, whatever your sexual orientation.
The movie’s director Wanuri Kahiu has already given various statements in the media about why she chose to go ahead with Rafiki, despite it not being welcome in its own home. She insisted that she wanted to make a love story and “contribute to that language of softness.” I can confidently say that Wanuri accomplished that desire.
Rafiki is the first Kenyan feature film to be screened at a Cannes Film Festival –it was filmed earlier last year. To have a Kenyan film, about Kenyans, made by Kenyans, showcased at the largest international showcase of cinematic art is a feat to be celebrated. Wanuri is no stranger to the movie scene. Her first feature film, From a Whisper, won awards at the Pan African Film Festival and the African Movie Academy Awards. While that movie was based on the events of the 1998 bombings on the US Embassy in Nairobi, Rafiki’s inspiration was drawn from the 2007 Caine Prize Winning Short Story “Jambula Tree” by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko.
Watching Rafiki was a reminder that we are really all the same. The 83-minute film was so captivating that I did not want it to end.
Set in a fictional place called Slopes in Kenya, Rafiki tells the story of Kena (played by Samantha Mugatsia), a young tomboy living a regular Kenyan life. As we watch Kena skating along and meeting up with her male friends, it’s clear that she’s been accepted as ‘one of the guys’, even though one of the guys calls her ‘his number one girl’. When Kena’s not hanging out with Blacksta, she’s helping her dad run his shop or making sure her mom’s fed – a good Kenyan girl doing the good Kenyan girl thing.
Then one day, Kena notices a girl noticing her. This girl is obviously different – you can tell from her long, multi-coloured braids and the makeup. Even though this girl is the daughter of Kena’s father’s political opponent, Kena can’t help but be drawn to her. A friendship quickly blossoms between Kena and Ziki (played by Sheila Munyiva) and just as quickly grows into something more.
“The courage that you have when you’re in love is really what I hope resonates.”
~ Wanuri Kahiu
The opening scene of Rafiki is like an ode to all things Kenyan. Kiosks, campaign posters stuck on walls and the noa noa guy sharpening knives at the corner all blend together to paint the picture of a local Kenyan neighbourhood. As soon as the movie started, whatever tension we all had within us began to dissipate. Watching such familiar scenes drew us into a sense of comfort, a feeling of being home, even before we heard anyone speak onscreen.
As an audience, that bound us instantly. Kena may as well have been one of us – going to church with her mother every Sunday, hanging out with her boys at the local spot, eating chapo dondo. It only made the tender moments more tender and the harsh ones more painful, more alive, more real. We laughed as one at the funny parts, held our breaths when we didn’t know what was coming, gasped at the moments that shocked us and cried silently as we watched Kena and Ziki struggle to stay true to themselves.
The music was on point as well. From Kena skating along to the gentle moments between Kena and Ziki, the songs that played throughout the movie matched the mood perfectly. It was no surprise that the artists featured include some of Kenya’s most dynamic musicians. Muthoni the Drummer Queen, Blinky Bill, Mayonde, Chemutai Sage, Mumbi Kasumba, Njoki Karu, Trina Mungai and Jaaz Odongo all lent their musical prowess to the magic of Rafiki.
Wanuri’s directing shines brightest in the use of vivid close ups shots and nothing but facial expressions, showing us a lot of what is said through the unsaid, the sneer, the turn of the check, looking away and so forth. The first time Kena and Ziki share an intense staredown, it lasts long enough to undeniably feel the emotion behind it. It also lasts long enough to deliberately make us uncomfortable.
Not for any other reason other than the guilt of intruding on a moment of intimacy.
The movie tells the story of how Kena and Ziki find love and then face opposition from their family and friends because of it. Wanuri’s creative storytelling and the actors’ in-depth portrayal of their characters pull us in. The mirror image given by Rafiki is such an accurate reflection of our society that it’s impossible not to be moved.
All things 254
The hairstyles, the clothes, the buildings, the boda boda guy with his pimped out ride and even the local neighbourhood gossip were all familiar to anyone who’s lived in Kenya. Seeing all of them in cinema in a high-quality movie was surreal. It made everything seem possible. And the dialogue was so typically Kenyan we couldn’t help but relate. If anything it’s the way we say things that made many of us laugh out loud. Like Ziki saying, “A nurse? You? Why?”
Wanuri was right.
We don’t get to see as many moments of tenderness in cinema as exist in real life. Rafiki removed the veil from things we normally distance from ourselves. It helped us see that we are just as capable of love as we are of everything that is not.
And that is what makes Rafiki a powerful movie.
Sheena M is in love with words and how they shape themselves. That’s why she keeps a blog that’s not as ‘organised’ as most. To see her musings, check out her blog What She Thinks
“I surrender this isn’t love it’s torture”
- Hold me down
Love, or ideas of what love can be, has the ability to bring us to our knees. With our backs against the wall and confronted by the harsh truth that no one is subject to your will – that illusions of control are just that. Love, we are reminded is a battlefield for preservation of the self, in a landscape that continuously asks for compromise, for a little letting go for a little more space – just a little.
My first encounter with the album “Dreams in Stereo” happens in Eric Wainaina’s studio. I have wandered into the space on other business and Eric has just come from recording “Okay,” the opening track on the album. The song takes us to all the places we know and trust Eric to take us. Heavily layered choir like melodies over intricate piano and guitar with the trademark tenor that brought us “nchi ya kitu kidogo” immediately let’s you know one thing – you’re listening to an Eric Wainaina record.
But if love itself has the ability to bring us down to our knees then what does its absence do? At what point in the process of unraveling and bringing back together does one decide enough is enough? And, post this decision, what does it look like to put oneself decision in the absence of the person they had decided was supposed to be with them for the rest of their lives?
I miss my second encounter with the album. Having made it to the album launch I barely make it through Sage Chemutai and Tetu Shani’s great openings before a my body decides that it has had enough of my nonsense. The migraine has me in bed before Eric takes the stage.
Speaking at an interview this is what he had to say about the album,“It is an even more personal and intimate album in many ways, where I felt freer to just be myself. It also explores a wide range of musical genres that are close to my heart.”
“Nilikukosea nini, ukanichukia?”
- Don’t bury me
The tapestry takes us through a variety of sounds, with each song painting a particular place in the landscape that our attention is being drawn to. There is clear evidence of very deliberate thought about where each note is placed, where every sound effect resonates and every echo. Even when he brings other artists in, we see why they are where they are. A personal favourite is how the diverse style of John Nzenze, Kendi Nkonge and Blinky Bill come together on “don’t bury me” creating a bouncy, snappy track that moves at the everyday rhythm of life – in a song that talks about moving on, moving forward without anger or angst, but rather letting go to move forward.
“Can we fly away together, tell no one – don’t leave a number.”
- Fly away together
I spend the week after the concert streaming the album almost every day. Not only because I was supposed to conjure up a few words about it, but because I am drawn to find more in every listen. To find more of the narrative, to move through the nostalgia and hope once again – I tire my kid brother on one such listen – so perhaps the music intended for more errr mature audiences.
Life has a way of not stopping. No matter what happens, life trudges on. And even as we tell ourselves that love is irreplaceable, we find ourselves slipping once more. We find ourselves loving, despite ourselves. We find ourselves caring, despite ourselves. And, no matter how careful we are, we find ourselves asking, once more to love and to be loved.
“Paid my dues, now I’m ready for the loving, ready for loving – no substituting.”
- Long time coming
As I write this essay I am still listening to the album. At 41 minutes long, the piece of work lends itself to a long drive, a long walk or the mindless listen at your work desk as you wait for 5pm. Packed with lyrical and musical content, this is more than the songs you play in the background and ignore – this music demands being listened to, demands being heard – again
“I need you to take me to a brand new day”
Brand new day
“Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen”
Perhaps this is why we turn to art for the answers. When love pushes us to our knees we already know what we are supposed to do. We already know that there is little to be done. Instead we need someone to remind us that, eventually, it gets better. Eventually, we see the world as beautiful again. Eventually we love – again.
If a painting is worth a thousand words then it would take a novel about the length of Atlas Shrugged to even begin to write a review of Visual Voices. Put together by Footprints press the collection covers over 400 pieces of work from over 57 artists in a variety of contemporary method. I don’t know if there has been, but I’m yet to come across as deliberate and detailed a collection of Kenyan artists.
I do not consider myself Ayn Rand – and I doubt you’re here to read a 1000 page novel. I am, however going to attempt to say a few things about some of the work in this book and the space it occupies.
We are often unable to talk about the murk behind forming identity. This book tries to put together and present a fairly representative sample of what holding these identities in one light looks like. The book itself is murky by which I mean there are few ways to bring the book together in a neat little bow – and as it should be. In fact, it is this mess that makes the book such an important collection. Because the diverse styles are presented as a singular collection under the same light we begin to think about what the overlapping areas could be. How do we Kenya better?
Some of the work looks familiar to me. Reminiscent of the art of some of the books I read in primary school – most of them swahili (not most of the books I’ve read, most of the books with the styles I came across). Some of the work reminds me of the work that I’ve seen on sale in the markets. Some of the work was completely unfamiliar, forcing me to look at it from several odd angles (often upside down) – a luxury that would not be accommodated to me had I seen them in the gallery.
Maybe the best thing to do is to look at a few of the pieces.
Perhaps the best place to start is Florence Wangui’s birds. There’s something about a series of charcoal paintings about cocks (male hens) that sounds dull. This series seems to use the image of the cock to show spirit. Which makes sense when you think of how animated and full of life chickens can be. But it’s not even that, maybe it is how alone the chicken are in all the images, removed from context their fierce determination becomes starker.
But if isolation is a thing that is happening then Tabitha Wa Thuku takes it to a whole other level with Safe Hand and mother’s love. The image itself barely kisses the surface of the painting, causing a double or even triple take to capture the fragments the artist provides and the context and your imagination to put the image together.
Boniface Maina’s broken men (as I have knighted them) particularly caught my eye. His confines series shows oddly formed men in a state of semi wakefulness. There’s something to be said about these men themselves. Their confines never look too restraining, rather, they look like they are drooping. The men though, the men seem out of energy, as if unable to shrug even this off. The men in the images are all look down, defeated. The only question is will they give up? Or will they carry on, slowly unravelling the things that weigh them down?
Joseph Bertier’s public spaces each seem to tell a story about how we occupy shared spaces – who gets to occupy these spaces and how much of this space do they get. With more emphasis on the people rather than the setting most of the faces in his work are turned to face the viewer. Their expressions are made known to us creating a kind of landscape of people’s reactions. This changes the scene to a form of map of how emotions gather in public spaces – who’s smiling, who isn’t? Where are these people in relation to each other?
It’s definitely a coffee table book. One of those books you buy knowing it will be on your table for a while – or one of those books you should make sure to look at if you find on someone else’s coffee table.
Visual Voices available in bookshops countrywide
“The world is changing and they say it’s time to be free
But you live with the fear of just being me
Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be
No harm for them, no harm for me
But life is short, and it’s time to be free
Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed”
- Gloria Carter, Smile.
There are many things that are up for debate. But one thing we all seem to agree on is the necessity of love. We need love. Which is why I found this whole idea of revolutionary type love interesting. Why did love also need to be finessed? What was wrong with the ordinary brand of love? This leads us to challenge what we have seen as ordinary, who that excludes. And how those excluded find home, find voice and center themselves. Perhaps this is why when Kawiria Mwirichia brought six queer photographers together they described the project as a project whose “main purpose is the acknowledgement and celebration of Queer love and the Queer individual.”
It is this idea of the queer individual that I would like to start with. And to do this I will focus on Awuor Onyango’s work. Awuor tried to create using Focault’s interior ‘androgyny and hermaphrodism of the soul that which created the homosexual out of the sodomite, a kind of Kenyan queer semiology.’ It is difficult to read through this without drawing thinking of humanizing. Making human, making whole. And it is difficult to take that away from the Facebook post I saw earlier this morning of a gay man proposing to his partner, and the hundreds of hate comments under it. How would humanizing queer people look like in such a space? What does working towards that mean for the individual and how does it affect the choices they make? Aptly named, “Visibility is a Trap,” the five part series does a lot of work around showing bodies and giving them a form of intrinsic power. None of the revolutionary loves she shows are working against anything external. Rather her subjects always seem to yield themselves. Perhaps in here is where we begin to see the humanizing work, the owning of the self and of the body.
The exhibition room itself feels warm. The walls are draped with yellow and red cloth. All the windows are closed and the light is set low. Along the floor the paths are mapped in Khanga. The net result is warmth. ‘We even wanted to put pillows on the ground but then we were afraid people would fall asleep’ Kawiria says, chuckling. And it did put you at ease, the second you walked in. And looked at the first exhibition, which was Faith Wanjala’s work.
Her photo series was about the individual finding their light, slowly shifting from being able to connect with oneself to being able to connect with an other. In many ways this series echoed the work of Mal Muga, who used his space on the wall to talk about vulnerability in gay men. In both scenarios the subjects first had to deal with themselves before being able to deal with another. This is not to say they were the same though. Faith Wanjala’s work focused on the self. Trying to show how one must come to themselves, and their own light before sharing or partaking in the light of another. Meanwhile, Mal’s work seemed to focus on how one must trust the other that they are giving themselves to. He demonstrated this taking inspiration from the Japanese form of bondage art known as Kinbaku.
Maganga decided to show queer love in its everydayness. He captured intimacies that lead me one to question – why are all these things happening indoors? Why not on the street? It’s Hand holding, sharing a meal, hugs . The banalities of being in a relationship and how they look. His work, he hopes will “humanise queer people and see that LGBTIQ relationships aren’t only just about sex,” something that Neo Musangi does not shy away from in their work. Not necessarily sex, but this idea of the phallus and why it is at the only way we seem to be able to imagine gender.
Wawera Njeru, on the other hand, decided focus on Dennis Nzioka. Dennis Nzioka is an activist and has been on the forefront of the queer struggle in the country. Towards her celebration of him she captures his tattoos and in two images tries to explore this idea of the lone wolf. A philosophy that Nzioka himself lives by.
The thing that most appealed to me about this project was the diversity of ideas it offered. In a space where to be queer is often equated to sex, as Maganaga explores, the project gives life to this idea of diverse ways of being, of allowing ourselves to be, and of allowing others to be. And this is important in a space where love has been so strictly defined. Perhaps this is the revolutionary type love. Love that allows other to be in different ways.
To Revolutionary Type Love ran from May 18th to June 3rd 2017.A sequel is expected in 2018. Find them on Instagram here.
Ezekiel Mutua’s recent attempt at seeking relevance involved an attempt at regulating social media. Something that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook themselves struggle with, he believes he can do with ease. The Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) CEO wants to stop people from people from using fake names on social media, saying:
To deal with the spectre of fake news, we are proposing a law that will bar people from using fake or pseudo names. If you are not into any mischief why do you want to have a fake facebook account? If you must give your true identity to open an mpesa account, why should you hide behind anonymity to operate a facebook account to insult people or spread falsehoods?
Let’s ignore the false equivalence between MPesa, a financial service, and Facebook, a social network. Let’s even put aside the fact that you have a right to freedom of expression and such a law would be going against your rights. Or the fact that many people have good reason to be anonymous on the internet, their personal safety being the main one. Let us instead talk about censorship, and why people like Mr. Mutua are dangerous for democracy.
Just last year, on 10th October 2016, we woke up to a rightfully outraged creative sector after Mr. Mutua proposed a Film Bill so archaic, the British colonialists would be proud. In KFCB’s hubris, the initial document was labelled the Film, Stage Plays and Publications Act, yet it was still a draft. This bill proposed to give a film classification board the power to regulate, control and censor almost everything in the creative sector.
This draft was intended to be applied to films, stage plays, posters and other media promoting these films and stage plays, broadcast content, commercials, infomercials, documentaries, interviews, programme promotions, programme listings, community service announcements, gaming applications, video on demand, over the top services (such as Netflix and Youtube), outdoor advertising and print publications. Quite ambitious for a colonial relic created to classify films and stage plays.
The bill was also clearly done at Mutua’s behest, with the words “the Chief Executive Officer” appearing 40 times. One would be forgiven for thinking Ezekiel Mutua is the only one that works there. For example: “if the alterations or additions are in a language other than English, and the Chief Executive Officer so requires, a translation thereof into English, certified to the satisfaction of the Chief Executive Officer” or “…or other person appointed for the purpose by the Chief Executive Officer, shall be present at the making of the film, and to such other conditions as the Chief Executive Officer may think fit.”
Ezekiel Mutua began over-reaching as soon as he stepped into his role in 2015. He has the seemingly unending capacity to pick fights with anyone. He had an advertisement by East African Breweries for Tusker Lite (featuring Jeff Koinange) banned from airing during watershed hours (that is, between 5am and 10pm) because it promoted drug abuse. He also banned Durex and Trust condom ads, for being “pornographic in nature, promoting and glamourizing sex among teenagers.” This was without consultation of the National Aids Control Council, which counts the promotion of condom use during sex as one of the strategies we can use to combat the HIV/AIDS in the country.
He banned an advertisement from Coca Cola’s Taste the Feeling campaign because it had a kissing scene (yet we still have soap operas airing the same thing). He also banned a Fresh Fri advertisement, a Lux Soap advertisement, and another alcohol advertisement by London Distillers. He has banned parties such as Project X and the Rainbow Speed dating party, the former because according to him, it was luring children with sex and drugs, and the latter because he thought it would be a lesbian orgy because the poster utilized rainbow colours that are associated with gay pride.
When Netflix came to Kenya, he said that its content was a threat to national security, and that it had explicit foreign content that is unsuitable for local consumption. He said he could block Netflix for this, and that they needed to run their content by KFCB to have it counterchecked to ensure that it does not go against our national values and morals. Which is odd, because this service is not based in Kenya. The people who use it do so because they elect to. The internet is permanently on. It has no watershed hours. What does this approach mean for people making YouTube tutorials? For people sharing their writing online? For people sharing cat videos on Facebook? Would they also need his approval?
The arts have been our key tool of dissent in times of oppression. In 1997, for example, the requirement for stage plays to submit their scripts to the KFCB for approval was repealed. This was the requirement that many a time got Ngugi wa Thiongo arrested and jailed for using theatre as a means of civic education. However, after this requirement was repealed, a group like Redykyulass, for example, was able to exist and somehow mock Moi when everyone else was deathly scared to. And they, in no small part, helped usher in the current freedom of expression we have that we never imagined during the Moi days. Now we can criticize our politicians freely, and make all manner of satire lampooning them, and other powerful people. So why would Ezekiel Mutua and KFCB want to take us back to the dark days?
There are benefits to a vibrant creative sector. To see the benefits of a vibrant film industry, for example, look at Bollywood and Hollywood. Closer home, look at Nollywood, a 3 billion dollar industry only coming second to India’s Bollywood by volume. We learn most of what we know about the USA, India and Nigeria through their movies, music and art. So how can such attempts at censorship happen during the tenure of a government that said when it came to power that it would invest in the arts and use them to power our economy?
In a recent article on the New York Times, Eve Ewing offers an answer.
Art creates pathways for subversion, for political understanding and solidarity among coalition builders. Art teaches us that lives other than our own have value. Like the proverbial court jester who can openly mock the king in his own court, artists who occupy marginalized social positions can use their art to challenge structures of power in ways that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible.
Which is why Ezekiel Mutua’s moral policeman approach simply won’t work. It cannot stop change – at the end of the day people have free will. And calling to culture is equally ill informed. Culture is fluid, and changes with the times – culture is made to serve man, and not man to serve culture. We preceded culture. We create it as we go along. And, we coexist in this world with others. We are not the same – in this country alone, we are a melting pot of ethnicities, religions, skin colours, sexualities and so on. Diversity is beautiful, and a source of strength.
Because of this diversity, we cannot say that there is one way to do things. We can only say what we agreed in our constitution and our other laws. We have a bill of rights, which protects freedom of expression and association. For me, a good guideline has always been to exercise your right to freedom as long as it does not cause another harm. And no, harm does not include hurt feelings, or dislike of something. Just because you do not like something, does not mean it’s wrong or immoral. Who gets to say what is wrong or immoral? Is this not subjective? Which is why we keep coming back to our constitution.
We need to fight for our freedom of expression and association. Laws don’t only affect people you don’t like or know – that’s not how laws work. Today you’re cheering the censoring of a film or play, tomorrow your church play will be censored using the very same law. Today you’re advocating for the jailing of someone you don’t know using a primitive law, tomorrow it’s your loved one being jailed. Such things go both ways. Which is why we must always fight for fairness, equality and justice for all before the law. And why any dispensation that goes against this diminishes human dignity.
This rule of law – this consideration of fairness, justice and equality, and the centering of human dignity, is why we call ourselves civilized. Censorship is not the answer. It can never be. It goes against our freedom of expression. Banning rarely, if ever, solves things. If what you are proposing is sane, beneficial and attractive – why do you have to force it down people’s throats? Why impose one’s thoughts and beliefs on others? Banning things is not the answer. Bans are usually touted as solutions to societal problems, but they also usually ignore the underlying issues that cause the issues we can see.
Moral policing is especially dangerous because it almost always leads to violence. Which is why men will feel justified assaulting and stripping a woman because she was “poorly dressed.” What is poorly dressed? Who dictates it? Where did we all sign a dress code? One cannot answer these questions, because there is no poorly dressed. There is only – I do not like your dressing.
Just as we recognize that we must not strip and sexually assault someone because of how they are dressed, we must recognize that we can’t censor people because we don’t like what they do or say. Tolerance and acceptance are key, and diversity is the spice of life.
When a journal makes a call for speculative fiction they are rarely expecting a single type of story. This is to say if you ask minds to wander they are often going to wander in different directions from each other – even when they seem to be on similar paths. In short, a speculative fiction anthology is set to give you a diverse range of stories.
This is exactly what happened with Will This Be A Problem’s third anthology. The book features writing from 7 writers (6 of whom are male). It was made available for free download in the second week of January 2017.
What worlds are imagined by these stories? The following fragments peer into these worlds.
Time is, largely, unpredictable. And, because it is only revealed to us at a steady relentless pace we are often torn between grappling with the secrets of the past, the puzzles of the present or the mysteries of the future.
In Andrew Dakalira’s The Rise of the Akafula, aside from fact that it is in the future, time is also used in the protagonist’s character. How he patiently waited for the perfect moment. And what that wait entailed. This becomes most apparent in the opening scenes of the story. In this scene Tilinde (2nd in command) is talking to the leader:
Tilinde said nothing. He knew quite well what Africa’s council representatives were doing on the moon; making merry along with other continents’ representatives and the others who had managed to buy plots on the previously-uninhabitable satellite.
“Did they say anything else? Did you mention the disappearance of your kind?”
Your kind. Tilinde resented that, but he calmed himself. “They said it is our problem, that the nchewe have devoured them. They cannot spare anyone else.”
I find myself wondering how many times Tilinde bit his tongue in the years he was working for the leader. How bidding time, in a way, is allowing and opening yourself to a series of papercuts. Allowing yourself to stay in a situation that will constantly grate at you in many invisible ways.
Maybe the most definitive grasp that time has over us is that it is finite. We die. The Last History tries to strip time of this power – if human’s can’t die, then is time consequential?
Time shows itself again in Mark Lelan’s Mortuary Man. This time as a teacher. Tao, an undertaker, is skeptical about the superstitions around death. But the longer he stays at his job the more he realizes that perhaps superstitions are not as silly as they seem.
With magic, James Kariuki’s The Real Deal, takes a practical approach:
“I gave them a potion to keep their husbands at home over the weekends. That was
the problem they wanted me to solve.”
“So it was a love potion?”
“It was something to give them diarrhoea.”
- The Real Deal, James Kariuki
In The Mortuary Man we see an apparition. Tao, the main character, even has a conversation with one. Throughout the story, though, magic stays in the realm of the unknown and unexplained. The apparition just is, without reason or logic.
But it’s Michelle Angwenyi’s What Happens when it Rains that brings us into the world of the magical. The story revolves around a ceremony that happens when it rains. It is at this ceremony that the protagonist discovers her destiny, how she is tied not only to this world but to a spirit world. It’s through her eyes that we see this ceremony, that we discover the magic for the first time. And the author is very deliberate about making sure that we see and feel the presence (and absence) of magic through her images:
The number of lizards skittering all over the ground steadily increased. I felt as though the shed would collapse from the intensity of their running movements and the rain outside. They ran in all directions, over each other, up the tables, down the tables, all over the benches. They did not climb over any of us, perfectly avoiding the outlines of our feet on the ground. They had eyes of red, yellow, blue and green that shone like jewels.
- What happens when it rains, Michelle Angwenyi.
In the time of Fees Must Fall, Black Lives Matter and the general wave of a global fight for decolonization, it is only fitting that a book on speculative fiction has African nations as the centre of the global narrative. It’s a reversal that many are trying to see even now.
In The Last History, following some post apocalyptic cunning, East Africa finds itself as the only place in the world with rain and plants. Lausdeus Chiegboka makes an interesting decision with power in Future Long Since Passed. In a less dramatic change of power (away from stories of revolutions and catastrophes) he imagines the change of power pragmatically. In his future Nigeria has a better tax policy and governance. This, coupled with a medical start up solving some of medicine’s larger mysteries a company finds itself quickly at the top of the world and the founder finds himself grappling with trying to bring himself back from the space between life and death.
In The Rise of the Akafula, while Africa is still at the bottom of the totem pole, there is a narrative on power and oppressive histories. The story shows how, power can blind those who have it and how that blindness can lead to its own implosion.
“For me, at least, what’s great about fantasy and science fiction is that you’re often literalizing things that people talk about in metaphoric terms. But those things are realities.”
Perhaps, then, the most interesting thing about this anthology is how stark a light it sheds on the world around us. Whether they are calling our attention to louder things like climate change, or quieter things like the sound of the rain or cuts on people’s arms – the stories in this anthology give context and new perspective to many old puzzles.
We close the year to a doctor’s strike that has no end in sight and a call from the opposition that there will be civil action early in 2017. In many ways, the world seems grim. Our president himself told us this year that there is nothing that can be done about corruption in a kind of throwing his hands up kind of way. And these are just the problems that we must focus on because they exist here in front of our noses. We have not even begun to talk about the election of he who shall be named too often in the land of the free.
It causes us to question – what is it of this freedom? Is it then too much to demand proper healthcare and a functional government. Will the world come stop because people are demanding accountability? The moment only asks that we wait, and try to make sense of the chaos.
Here are a few moments of stillness from 2016, click on the title to read the full piece:
by Isaac Otidi
“My friend’s father – who never failed to attend Sunday mass, and had a rosary hanging above the dashboard of his old Toyota saloon – had built his house exactly at the border between Kenya and Uganda, such that to get to his house, one had to use the earthen road which was used as the border between the two countries. If one left the gate to my friend’s home – which was in Kenya – and crossed the road right outside their gate, then one was in Uganda.”
by Ndinda Kioko
“A matter for consideration in this is how between the 60s and the 80s, the state attempted to articulate a national architecture. Buildings like KICC and the parliament not only became a central feature of urban topography but they also shaped how the city is consumed and articulated even now. One then wonders what it must mean to shape the images of a city with a symbol like KICC that is sanctioned by the state. What happens when state sanctioned buildings become urban icons?”
by John Allan Namu
“Eyewitnesses claim that four days earlier on Thursday the 2nd of December, at about 1:15pm, Asnina was picked up and bundled into an unmarked vehicle by a group of not more than four men, in full view of all her fellow stall operators at the town’s main market place. She ran a food kiosk there. Once the car drove off, a KDF Armored Personnel Vehicle that had been perched at the edge of the market slowly followed the unmarked car. That same evening, her father, Omar Mohammed made a report of her disappearance to the local police. Her name was now part of an open inquest file. Four days later, on the morning of the 6th of December 40 kilometers away in Omar Jillow, it’s said that a herdsman was grazing his goats when he saw her body, half jutting out of the ground.
It’s alleged that he saw twelve more mounds like Asnina’s.”
by Anton Spice
“Right here, between the stalls selling beef and goat meat, is one of a handful of places in Nairobi trading in vinyl records. Although the city was once the musical hub of East Africa, with scores independent record labels and multinational record companies establishing their regional headquarters here and a pressing plant which was in operation until the early 1990s, vintage records are hard to come by. In downtown Nairobi, off a noisy street by the bus station, is Melodica Music Stores, one of the few places other than Jimmy’s place that sells records. Established in 1971, Melodica recorded and produced hundreds of East African records, many of which can still be found, piled high and unplayed, in the shop’s storage room. But while Melodica is a treasure trove for original, untouched African singles, Stall 570 is the only place in the city which has a large collection of used LPs and singles for sale.”
by Nanjala Nyabola
“The fact that the AP system survives means Kenya is still policed by a colonial service and is more proof of the country’s stillborn independence. Kenya may have become politically free in 1963, but the ruling elites’ interests in maintaining and profiting from colonial structures led to several incomplete transformations.”
by Christine Mungai
“But there’s something else. Although Koffi Olomide is the apex of a huge pool of talent coming out of DR Congo, the spread of Koffi fever in East Africa followed a familiar route that others had travelled before him – through western Tanzania and then, western Kenya, finding fertile ground in cities like Mwanza, Tabora, Kisumu and Busia. There, the rumba sound – and its local iterations, often broadly called benga – is the region’s bona fide pop music.”
by Samira Sawlani
“The trial of the five men accused of being behind the Garissa massacre continues, while criticism of the Kenyan authorities’ response to the attack has been swept aside by the Government. Kenyan commentator and journalist Patrick Gathara says, “I think the government has been rather opaque about what happened that day and why it happened. As for the victims and their families, it is clear that they feel abandoned by the government”.”
And here are your favourite pieces from Brainstorm this year:
by Brenda Wambui
“It is true that this issue frustrates you.
That is, if your facial expressions whenever you address the issue are to be believed. What is not true, however, is that there hasn’t been an administration that has taken action on corruption like yours has. You see, in the work most of us do, we measure outcomes to establish effectiveness. Thus your colleague could have worked for 2 hours and she generates 20 sales, while you worked for 5 and generate only 10, and you would not be able to tell your boss that you work harder than she does. Because that doesn’t mean anything for the bottom line. It’s sad, but that’s how things work. You sir, have corruption at between 25 and 27, (out of 100) based on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. This is similar to Daniel arap Moi’s era, which many (including myself) would call a dictatorship. Do you work harder than Mr. Moi? Perhaps. But your results are the same, and given the direction we are going in, yours are getting worse. This is not a comparison we should even be able to make.”
by Alan Ong’ang’a
“But why do many young enterprises fail? The pressure to become entrepreneurs perhaps is too great for some to weather the storm. Many young minds will launch startups without enough managerial experience to help navigate the murky waters of the business world. When this happens, what follows is an array of poor business decisions, one-man show approach and a tendency to suffer founders’ syndrome. Coupled with poor financial management, since most can barely afford to hire financial experts to manage their books, the businesses’ only path is an assured oblivion.”
by Brenda Wambui
“This income inequality thus creates new challenges, such as welfare and other social support structure concerns on the part of the government. And, we must never forget that globalization only continues to exist due to the goodwill of populations around the world, which has been on the decline since the 2008 global economic crisis. Fringe right wing nationalist groups, also known as the far right, have quickly become mainstream due to their capitalization on the pain of those affected. They have positioned themselves as against “the global/liberal elite” who are the only ones to have benefited from globalization and increased multiculturalism. They practice extreme nationalism (nationalism is the shared belief that your country is great and superior because you, and the other people in it, were born in it).”
This list is not exhaustive – much has been written about Kenya or in Kenya in 2016. Any other pieces that we should have included? Please share in the comments. Thank you for your contributions, support and critique – we are now three years old, and appreciate you all coming along for this journey. We look forward to an even better 2017. Happy new year!
“It began as a teardrop in Babylon”
How Ambi Became Paisley, Migritude, Shailja Patel.
Dagoretti corner was the great corner. Tenwek is so named because it took ten weeks to walk there. We know these stories. We have told them to each other many times. What is apparent from them is the way in which names carry histories is often very apparent – all that is needed is a little digging. But we never ask ourselves what to do with the truths that come out of that digging. What happens when the story told by a word becomes one we would rather ignore?
One that we have buried deep?
“Until Kashmiri became cashmere. Mosuleen became muslin. Ambi became paisley.
And a hundred and fifty years later, chai became a bewerage invented in California.”
- How Ambi Became Paisley
Migritude is a truth gathering, history correcting text. Following words and sentences through their history Shailja uses her story and the contexts around her to create a path from the past to the present. And not just the present of the book, but presents that make themselves aware to us even now. Take this paragraph for example:
“We read daily news stories about journalists, activists, even students, who were jailed for sedition. Every so often our literature teacher would tell us that such and such a poet had been banned – and we’d dutifully cross out their name and poems in our school textbooks.”
It’s difficult to read this paragraph without thinking of the Kenya Film Classification Board’s push for the Film, Stage Plays and Publications Act. Or to read her write about the deportation of East African Asians from Uganda and not hear echoes in Boniface Mwangi’s voicing of an underlying sentiment. Migritude paints a picture of the places the world has been and, in showing us how it has been, allows us to see how it is.
Migritude was a word coined by the author herself as a play on Negritude and Migrant attitude. “It,” she states, “asserts the dignity of outsider status. Migritude celebrates and revalorizes immigrant/diasporic culture. It captures the unique political and cultural space occupied by migrants who refuse to choose between identities of origin and identities of assimilation, who channel difference as a source of power rather than conceal or erase it.”
The book is in four parts. The first part, titled Migritude, weaves through her personal story and the history of colonialism and appropriation. She unravels ties parts of her memory to memory of official record and gives context to life while unraveling Idi Amin, love in shillings and everything in between. The Shadow, the second part, is behind the scenes of the performance of the book. It adds details about the work in Migritude so that the reader can understand further. The thirst part of the book is the poetry that laid the groundwork for Migritude. The fourth part, The Journey, which is best described by its prelude:
“Migritude is political history told through personal story. It is also the tale of a creative journey. The timeline in this section seeks to capture both. The choice of what to include and leave out was somewhat idiosyncratic. I wanted to show that Empires reproduce themselves; that history buried becomes history repeated; that art is as much process as product. That we cannot know ourselves or our nations – or meet the truth of our present moment – until we look at how we got here.”
The timeline begins in the 6th century BCE when the earliest depictions of boteh/ambi/paisley motif were found in Central Asia and ends in 2010 with the book’s publication.
In many ways this seems particularly relevant now. When we are actively thinking about decolonization and turning our eyes back into ourselves. Given the fact that official histories have been sanitized to exclude a lot of the injustice – and with the French ex Prime Minister describing colonialism as cultural exchange – it is important to track and notice the ways the small erasures happen. This particularly comes to light in The Sky has not Changed Colour. This poem addresses the rape of Maasai and Samburu women and children by British troops post -independence; from 1965 to 2001. The final paragraph of the poem reads:
“Adrian Bloomfield in Nanyuki reports:
Human rights activists have encourages prostitutes to submit fake rape claims against British soldiers.”
And it is little reversals like this that make reading Migritude the journey that it is. In juxtaposing truths she makes apparent that which we already know. Because we know (because we know) that colonialism came with violence, rape included. There was no real reason of official record to know this. We know it because it was a fact of war. And because it is in the nature of soldiers to rape and pillage. So to say that something happened – something that we know happened – is to do the work of insisting that we do not forget. That we do not let words like colonialism lose their story. That we don’t forget the violent history that changed Kashmiri to cashmere, Mosuleen to muslin, and ambi to paisley.
Update Nov 29th 2016: Earlier version showed that the sky has not changed colour addressed colonial govt injustice. Post has been changed to reflect that it actually documents rape and sexual assault in post colonial Kenya.
Ed: A version of this essay was initially published on The New Inquiry. We republish it here to remember. Editors notes will be interspersed in the essay in italics.
by Aaron Bady
The ICC Witness Project is an archive of poems written and posted to the internet starting March 2013; there are over 151 of them now, with 145 titled as witnesses— “Witness #1, Witness #2” plus a handful that are numbered in other ways.
A little background: the ICC is the “International Criminal Court,” the court of last resort which was established by the Rome Statute in 2002, to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression; there is currently a prosecution pending against the sitting president and deputy president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto.
Ed: At the time of this essay being written there were cases against the president and deputy president in court. On Dec 5th 2014 the court dropped the case against president Uhuru Kenyatta. On April 5th 2016 the case against vice president William Ruto was dropped. The last poem in the witnesses project was posted on April 7th 2016.
The ICC Witness Project is not a part of the ICC case, nor are the poets involved “witnesses” in the normal sense. The poems are an effort to represent the voices which have been excluded from the ICC’s truth-making apparatus, in its construction of what passes for justice. On the one hand, then, the poems work to evoke the modes of subjectivity which cannot—for a variety of reasons—be heard at the Hague, the many kinds of testimony which do not achieve official truth status (a very broad category).
At the same time, the project is a testimony to “un-witnessing,” the manner in which absent testimony is actually present, present-as-absent, or an absence construed as a testimony to what is absent: in this case, the guilt of the accused. As the most recent poem puts it, “un-witnessing is cooperation in the production of reality in which Uhuru Kenyatta is president…either he will be convicted and cease to be president or he will be acquitted and cease to be the accused.”
“One of these realities will become true,” the poet writes, “the other will…” and then there is silence.
In other words, witnesses who do not testify are un-witnesses, self-negating: they testify to the absence of the reality which they might otherwise have reported to have witnessed, and which remains subjectively true, even if it never reaches truth-making apparatuses like the ICC. I stress the ICC as a truth-making apparatus, in other words, because as the poems show, there is no way to opt out of the process. If we observe the zero-sum calculation by which Uhuru Kenyatta is either president of Kenya or international criminal—the fact that he will either retain state power or become its subject—then un-witnessing cannot be simply the absence of witnessing.
Not-witnessing is forced to be testimony to the absence of witnesses.
Overt witness intimidation is the foundational fact of the project, which began February 2013, when a link to this BBC article was shared on two listservs, the Concerned Kenyan Writers google-group and the Kenyan Poetry Catalyst google-group:
The article concerns the slow-motion collapse of the International Criminal Court’s case against Kenya’s president and deputy president, as its witnesses have been intimidated into silence. As Fatou Bensouda, the chief ICC prosecutor, has complained:
“The scale of witness interference that the office has seen in the Kenya cases has been unprecedented…The challenge we face is that the intimidation and interference goes beyond individual witnesses themselves and extends to pressures on their immediate and extended families, relatives and loved ones.”
Placed in this context, un-witnessing is not only the witness’s non-act of not-witnessing. The violence is all the more insidious and invasive because the witness testifies to her nonexistence by her silence. Silence becomes what anthropologist Veena Das calls “poisonous knowledge,” in which containing the knowledge of the violation, in silence, is itself the expression of that knowledge. To cite a different speech-act theorist named Austin, something becomes “a truth universally acknowledged” when no one in particular needs to avow it for it to be compulsory in its truth. Silence, in such a context, is not disavowal, but consent, the forced consent of structural violence and interpellation.
Why the project? In 2007, Kenya’s presidential election resulted in three months of wide-spread violence across the country—particularly expressed by and iflected across ethnicity and gender—at the end of which about 1500 people were dead, perhaps a million people displaced, and countless thousands were sexually assaulted. In 2010, the ICC brought crimes against humanity charges against Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto (and four others) for instigating and organizing the violence. In response to the ICC charges, they joined forces and ran for president and deputy president, as the “jubilee” coalition.
The ICC case was already collapsing, but their electoral victory was the final nail in the coffin.
The ICC Witness Project began in February, before the election, and went online the day Kenyatta was declared the winner, March 11th.40 poems were uploaded on March 9th, and another 50 or so were gradually added through the rest of March. These are the vast majority of the project; only 22 poems have posted since July 1st 2014.
So how do we approach such a text?
The things that make this project interesting and innovative also necessitate new critical paradigms, so I’m going to write about the three different frames of reference I’ll use to make the project legible, though the three inevitably bleed into each other.
- The Digital
- The Historical
- The Poetic
I The Digital
Let’s start with the digital. I’m always skeptical of sharp distinctions drawn between digital and analog, because they tend to be simplistic and ahistorical celebrations of how the modern world is above the past world – leaving no room for the modern world to be part of, and actively working with the past. A version of Derrida’s argument that writing comes before speech, for example, could be applied to African literary history, where the fetishization of oral literature was a decisively post-print development, structured by a desire to produce an authentic African culture that could serve as an alternative to print-literatures that were tainted by their colonial origins.
It was print culture, in other words, that made “orality” newly important. Something similar is true for African digital publishing: “online” is less a transcendence of the print form, than a development within it, and made legible as such only by a crisis within print culture itself.
Kenyan literature is experiencing a particular literary renaissance right now, and digital media are a crucial part of it.
Binyavanga Wainaina, for example, has been at the center of the post-2002 proliferation of new Kenyan writing and all of his early writing was born online—including much that would later be published in print—and the viral circulation of his essay “How to Write About Africa” allowed it to reach an audience exponentially larger and for a much longer time than the original Granta print run. You can’t find it in print even if you want to, but everyone’s read it online. It’s an incredibly influential document; citing it is almost second nature, and it continues to circulate. People still email it to me.
So I don’t want to think of the digital as “post-book,” or as a transcendence of the conventionally printed word. Situating this archive within its digitized 21st-century context requires accounting for the ways that the global textual ecosystem and the ways writers are responding to new modes of literary production. Time is part of this work of historicizing. But the timeline is not simple or two-dimensional: history is always layered and develops unevenly across geography. To understand what the ICC Witness Project says that is new—and to frame why it says it this way—we have to place that novelty within a specifically African and Kenyan context, the particular “history of the book” that obtains there archive for myself has made me a part of it, in ways that I’m trying to be thoughtful and ethical about.
II. The Historical: Kenya is Moving On
The ICC Witness poems were written and circulate online, but “online” is only meaningful within a textual ecosystem that still gives the printed word a pride of place. In fact, I would suggest that the ICC Witness Project’s relation to “the book” is part of what makes it a subaltern form. These are not texts that easily accrue legibility, cultural capital, or authority. Anonymous witnesses lack testimonial authority, for one thing, and if “realism” marks discursive claim to some kind of empirical, objective validity, then these poems are, as poems, subjective and decidedly anti-realist.
I am using “realism” in a very particular way, so let me be clear about what I mean. Keguro Macharia writes;
“Over the past 15 years and more specifically the past ten years or so, Kenyan writing has been shaped by NGO demands: the “report” has become the dominant aesthetic foundation. Whether personal and confessional or empirical and factual or creative and imaginative, report-based writing privileges donors’ desires: to help, but not too much; to save, but not too fast; to uplift, but never to foster equality.”
This is the mode of realism which the project begins by taking apart:
The first poem in the series sets the tone not because of what is says, but because of what it doesn’t, and can’t. “They killed my family” is a painfully direct report of a horrific event, in painfully simple words. Four words, three lines, two stanzas, one poem. This is such a forced constriction of form to the production of a report—the fact that the speaker’s family was killed by “them”—that the poem collapses the very discursive structure through which it might signify. It reports everything and nothing, and this is its provocation, which started the project moving: it reports what happened, but in doing so, performs the inadequacy of the report.
By contrast, the report has been the major official response to Post Election Violence; the Waki commission produced a report which jump-started the ICC prosecution, and a Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission was established to determine what the long-term causes of the violence had been.
These truth-making processes have run their course and accomplished little. Some of the reports have been redacted and suppressed—or buried in thousands of pages of impenetrably boring prose—but mostly they’ve just been ignored. Without a political will to revisit the past, “moving on” has been co-extensive with refusing to see, read, or witness what the reports have revealed: the TJRC report is, itself, a kind of un-witness; while its recommendations carry the force of law, the government of Kenya has simply pretended it doesn’t, which becomes the new truth as a result.
Instead, Kenyatta and Ruto have taken their electoral mandate to be that “Kenya is moving on” and created a narrative of reconciliation through forgetting to mark the jubilee of their administration.
As Kenyatta declared:
“This year marks 50 years since the birth of our nation – this is our jubilee year. As the Bible tells us the year of the Jubilee is the year of healing and forgiveness. It is the year of renewal. My brother William Ruto and I were once on opposite sides but we agreed to put our differences aside and come together as leaders to end this cycle of violence and bring enduring peace, this has been our Jubilee journey.”
He closed his speech with this invocation:
We have but only one choice, do we go forward or back?
Do we embrace hope and change and sail on or do we cling to fear and division?
We have the drive to take Kenya forward
We have the vigour and strength to carry Kenya forward
The subtext, however, is impunity for perpetrators; on the eve of the election, Kenyatta told Al-Jazeera that “if Kenyans do vote for us, it will mean that Kenyans themselves have questioned the process that has landed us at the International Criminal Court.”
Ed: Later, after having his case dropped, president Uhuru Kenyatta had this to say: ““Today, we celebrate the triumph of democracy, the triumph of peace, the triumph of nationhood. Despite the misgivings of many in the world, we demonstrated a level of political maturity that surpassed expectations. That is the real victory today. A victory for our nation. A victory that demonstrates to all that Kenya has finally come of age. That this, indeed, is Kenya’s moment.” Which makes one wonder just what is meant by Kenya as a noun. Kenya is moving on and now a victory for Kenya. Just how has this Kenya been imagined?
“Jubilee,” however, is not the same thing as forgetting; in fact, these kinds of charters of renewal are more like monuments to the forgotten than real forgetting: in the Jubilee narrative, the alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto enacts the reconciliation of their respective communities. The victims are not part of this narrative, of course; Kenyatta and Ruto were the beneficiaries of the PEV. But you don’t forget something by insistently declaring that it’s over. “Jubilee” is still a story about the violence. It’s a story in which violence has no subject, in which it “happened,” “erupted,” “exploded,” or “consumed” Kenya, for a period of time, but for which no discussion of cause or effect is appropriate. It happened and then it stopped happening. Like the holocaust or 9/11, it’s an event after which “everything changed,” the event which now structures the language and priorities of national politics, and does so all the more insidiously if we pretend we have moved on.
Ed: As recently as April 2016 the issue of IDP’s has still not been fully settled with compensation schemes falling apart.
If the new priorities are to move on, then, it is the victims whose continued existence (as victims) stands as the obstacle to progress. Indeed, IDPs—an acronym meaning internally displaced persons—remain as the residue of the violence, the mess that has been left over, and which it is the job of the government of Kenya to clean up. Or, in government and NGO speak, “to integrate.”
However, to integrate IDPs is to solve the problem by making its subjects disappear. As IDPs become the logistical problem of “integrating” them into new communities, the problem is solved when they cease to be IDPs. A report from last year reads “Out of the more than 660,000 people displaced, the government considers that over 300,000 or around 47 percent have been ‘integrated’ in communities across the country.” Kenya’s progress, then, is measured by the number of IDPs that do not continue as IDPs, that have left the “temporary” camps which were set up to hold them, for whatever reason. Kenya moves on when IDPs disappear. But a dead IDP is just as integrated as one who has been “re-settled” in a new community. The question which becomes impossible to answer, then, is how it feels to be a problem.
Unsurprisingly, those who are accused of organizing, instigating, and benefiting from the violence are the main proponents of this narrative. Statistics tell a useful story if you have an interest in describing the violence as being over, and forgetting the continuity of everything that numbers don’t measure. And here, we have to talk about violence that cannot be construed numerically. There was widespread sexual violence during the PEV, for example, but nobody knows how to account for it, and so they generally don’t. Telling the story of violence through numbers un-narrates forms of violence which leave their victims alive. This is especially true when it leaves them socially stigmatized, as most categories of sexual violence do; nowhere is it more clear that the truth does not set you free than in the case of rape victims, a category of victim for whom public tribunals are particularly ill-suited, and in many cases, an exacerbation of the original violation. The spread of HIV through rape and the children conceived by rape are elements of the PEV landscape that are persistently invisible.
Witness #47, I think, is the poem that most clearly articulates the poetic retort.
“Kenya needs us to work together;
Kenya needs us to move on.”
(Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenyan President-elect, March 2013)
Kenya needs a great many things.
It needs PEV to unhappen:
Those who were killed need to undie, need to
crawl from their graves in solidarity.
Ashes need to burn backwards, float in air,
gently unfuse themselves from wooden church doors
and melted glass windows.
women need to guard their wombs, begin the process
of being unraped, erase their memories
as they become whole, unbirth those children
who were begotten from violence.
And those IDPs! They need to move,
redisplace themselves back to their original locations.
Retill their lands, watch the stones
jump magically back into houses.
The pangas need to flake off the blood,
replace themselves quietly,
claim back the rust that spotted them before.
Kenya is moving on.
Kenya is moving on.
In the voice of the president, the statement to move on becomes an imperative, a governmental command. The poem highlights the absurdity of this official fantasy: moving on seems to literally require moving backwards. Victims are healed by using machetes to re-attach severed limbs, stuffing children back into their wombs, and watching as scattered stones and rubble magically rises to construct houses, which promptly unburn themselves up from the ground.
This magical healing, however, is a burden placed on the victims, a “need” which is a command:
Those who were killed need to undie
women need to guard their wombs
[women need to] erase their memories
And those IDPs! They need to move
This is the hidden violence of “Kenya is moving on”; the labor of moving on is placed on the shoulders of the victims, whose responsibility it is to erase themselves as victims. As they “crawl from their graves in solidarity,” one might say, they have a patriotic duty to not be dead. Yet this un-doing only exacerbates the original violations, repeating the trauma. The injunction to move on rehearse each of the categories of victim—killed, raped, displaced—reliving the instant of the violation. It also demands that the dead assent to the official fantasy and rise from the grave like zombies. If you fail to perform the miracle, you are a failed subject. Despite the substantive content of the statement “Kenya is moving on,” in other words, the form of the poem demonstrates how Kenya is being made to move on.
Many poems, like Witness #47, satirize the Jubilee injunction to move on, the official understanding of the problem. But many of the poems describe how it feels to be a problem, speaking from the position of a trauma that can find no public expression. There are, for example, a series of poems in which witnesses apologize for their existence.
Witness #122: “we are sorry for being roadblocks on the highway to national reconciliation”
Witness #49, begins:
They tell me.
Why can’t you
pick yourself up
and move on?
I’m sorry if I offend you…
And Witness #129:
We are very sorry that the president
(and his deputy) were involved
in not committing these crimes:
We are sorry that Wanjiku acted
of her own accord, when she gathered
her children in a burning church;
There are, in fact, a lot of sorry-poems. But as if to prove that reality is more absurd than fiction, on October 25—well after those poems were posted—K24TV tweeted the following, a quote from an actual ICC witness, in court that day:
Witness: I am sorry if I offended anybody in my appearance in this court. I am sorry. #ICCTrialsKE
This tweet, however, has since been deleted. I remember seeing it—as you can imagine, it caused quite an uproar—but in going back into the archive, I couldn’t find any official trace of it. Instead, it only exists because Shailja Patel, re-tweeted it, and because of various other commentaries and exclamations of horror and disgust. The voice of that witness, such as it is, can only be heard through the kind of fossil of its suppression that remains.
III. The Poetic: The Social Life of Poetry
The poets in this project are officially anonymous. Within the archive proper anonymity is an important fictive component of the project. I use the word “fictive” because it involves a suspension of knowledge: in the interviews with the four poets involved that I conducted, all of them told me some variation of the following sentiment:
“part of the mental model of preserving the anonymity of some of the writers has actually made me ‘forget’ (at least, temporarily) who wrote what…looking at the older email threads has revealed the poets again, but I know there are times I’ve looked at the project and failed to recognise even my own voice”
As this poet acknowledges, there exists a relatively clear record of who wrote what, in hundreds of inboxes. But it’s easy to pierce the anonymity of the process, because it wasn’t very anonymous, originally. Anonymity was added in, after the fact, at the precise moment when Kenyatta and Ruto were declared the winners of the election, when the poetry went online. The effect was to take a digital dialog between poets who know each other, and are fairly well known, and to turn it into a single first-person plural sequence, voiced by a national subject who witnessed the violence, in the broadest sense of the word. As one poet put it,
“I prefer anonymity, because I think it allows us to be a collective of poets writing beyond whatever categories of difference ostensibly divide us. I’d like us to think of how our collective art can provide a space and method for being together as Kenyans.”
Anonimity removes the temptation to read the poems as, say, a male muslim or a kikuyu woman. It enables a form of sympathetic identification that ethic and gender marks could precluude: a Kalenjin whose family was killed by Kikuyu can identify with a Kikuyu whose family was killed by Kalenjin. Realist specificity would get in the way.
Voiced anonymously, the poetry speaks into existence a national subjectivity defined only by the experience of witnessing PEV, and by how it feels to be a problem: the problem of being forced to do the impossible, to cease existing.
I’ve taken my title from Witness #97, which reads:
I am tired
And it continues not to end.
In this sense, the openness of the form—since each poem is an instant in time, but they do not resolve into a story, only an interminable unresolved and plural present—reflects the refusal of the wound to close on its own. Kenya does not move on, on its own, which is exactly the problem: there is no closure or resolution immanent to the text itself.
In the context of an increasingly repressive media atmosphere, in Kenya, part of the project has been to test the waters and see if such things could still be said. As one of the poets put it, “Suddenly, for the first time in a long time, we couldn’t assume we still officially possess the freedom to speak. The ICC Witness project is a way to take – and test – that freedom.”
In that sense, while the ICC Witness poems individually attempt to recall and remember the moments of past trauma, and to testify to stuck-ness of the present, the project as a whole is a project, moving forward, the work of calling into existence a Kenya where such things can be remembered as something that will not continue to happen.
Aaron Bady is an editor at The New Inquiry. He also tweets as @zunguzungu