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.
“Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; – the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
This is Dickens’ take on the slogan of the French Revolution, “The Republic One and Indivisible of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death,” and I do not think there is a better statement to describe the happenings in Kenya, the rest of Africa, and perhaps the rest of the world than this one. We are wont to think of liberty and equality as concepts that go hand in hand, seeing as liberty is often defined as independence from arbitrary rule, and equality is thought of as the provision of the same rights to all in the republic (usually before the law).
What happens when we think of liberty in the same way, but equality as not just as equality of rights before the law, but that of results as well? Such that when a rich man and a poor man are tried before the courts for theft, for example, the outcome is the same? Perhaps a jail term or a steep bail? Then we begin to see tears in the fabric of our republic, and this has been very clear in Kenya this year. To suggest brotherhood, or fraternity, in such a republic then becomes a joke, for how can we have fraternity in the absence of true liberty and equality? And when there is a lack of fraternity, coupled with false liberty and lack of equality, what can exist except death?
These are our favourite pieces from 2015. [Click the title, in bold, to go to the respective piece]
by Aleya Kassam
“To the Shareholders and Directors of Imperial Bank,
Exactly one month ago on a cloudless morning, a message soundlessly snuck into our family whatsapp group. It sat there nestled underneath photos of the newest addition to our family – a floppy eared Alsatian pup with a vicious teething problem.
Imperial Bank had been placed under receivership.
Overnight we were rendered effectively broke. Just like that.”
by David Ndii
“Queue-voting was the smartest rigging strategy ever as it left no trail — once the queues were disbanded that was it. And so it is with this Eurobondgate. The only thing we are certain of is that it happened. The rest is smoke and mirrors.”
Also worth reading is an earlier article by Dr. Ndii on the same issue, Eurobond billions: Curious incident of a dog in the night-time.
by Samira Ali
“The statistics for rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence are terrifying. Especially if you are women reading these stats is enough to give one, nightmares. However, the problem with these abstract numbers, is that it desensitizes you from the issue so you are left separating yourself from it entirely. Therefore, I decided to ask four simple questions to 60 girls in my contact list, 42 of them got back to me…Have you ever started something and just wanted to turn back? I wanted to be informed and inform others but this was horrifying. I couldn’t separate myself from this because it was my reality and the reality of all girls. I started off angry and halfway through receiving the answers, I put off my phone and just cried myself to sleep. Our reality is far more horrific.”
“In 1896, builders of Lunatic Line set up a small supply depot and a camp on the plains. The original boundaries of what is now Nairobi were for “the area within a radius of one and a half miles from the offices of the sub-commissioner of the Ukambani Province.” There was no plan beyond that, and Nairobi was merely one in a chain of such supply depots. But the plains were different. There was something captivating, if not majestic, about the rather brash plains. The small supply depot would be right at the middle of the line from Mombasa to Kampala, the target destination for the line. In 1899, the rail-head reached Nairobi. With it, a new future begun.”
by Cera Njagi
“There are many more stories such as the few I have briefly re-told, both documented and undocumented, lost to the vagaries of time. This loss of peoples’ memories has happened all over the world: to Africans, Native Americans, Aborigines in Australia, the peoples of India, and even in Europe. Even in instances where some of these stories are documented, they are often ignored in the formal body of knowledge. The heroism of women remains silent, with the formal education and mainstream media choosing to perpetuate the narrative of powerful male heroes, often from dominant communities, while women remain behind the scenes or completely out of the picture.”
by Billy Kahora
“I’d long been fascinated with accounts of criminal life and the sociology of Nairobi’s surrounding danger zones: Wangige, Kinoo, Uthiru, Lari, Riruta, Kangemi, Ruiru, Kiambu town, Gachie, Mucatha, Kikuyu. Some of the older spaces had been the first sites of pre-independence Central Province urbanisation and later became home to Nairobi’s middle-class citizens. Ultimately, population explosions, failing agro-economies and changing sociological conditions created informal settlements side by side and in between upper middle-class homes. At first these areas provided informal labour and eventually raw material for organised crime in the city. The peri-urban areas became the openly criminal retreats that eventually turned on the more affluent and respectable citizens, who also became victims of armed robbery. Ultimately, these areas became informally controlled by criminal overlords, who used their new wealth to buy or forcefully occupy the old middle-class homes. The context from which Mwas came from in Nairobi Half Life was as a result of this evolution.”
by Magunga Williams
“The moment I hang up, I receive a message from Mother Karua. Before Mabiria’s call I had told her about the incident at Strathmore University. I had told her about what I was getting from tweets and Facebook posts. That in order to examine their level of disaster preparedness, Strathmore University admin had decided to stage a mock terrorist attack, in which masked gunmen stormed into the university, firing live bullets. However, the students and staff thought it was a real attack by the Al Shabaab; that whatever happened during the Garissa University terror attack had been reincarnated in their campus. So some students had jumped into the slimy Nairobi River that cuts across Madaraka Estate, Strathmore University, Tuskys-TMall, Nairobi West and then further down to wherever rivers that are full of shit flow to. Other people, who had been trapped in the buildings, thought they would rather try their luck with a free fall than face sure death of terrorists. So they jumped. And one of them was my brother, Deogratias. They had no idea it was a drill.”
On Brainstorm, the essays that were most popular were:
by Brenda Wambui
“Every time I have been made to recount my story, it is as if I am reliving the violence. This is why we must be careful whenever we unnecessarily ask victims of sexual violence to tell us what happened. We are forcing them to relive the violence. I always knew that the stripping of women never has anything to do with what a woman is wearing. It is an act committed by men (or women) who wish to disempower a woman when she acts in a manner that is too empowered for their tastes. It is a cowardly act. I have experienced several people asking me “What were you wearing?” as if it matters. I was dressed in my regular uniform, a shirt and pants, and the issue of stripping only came up when I punched the makanga who thought he had a right to my time, space and body. When I showed him he did not, he aimed to humiliate me in the worst way he could imagine.”
“The level of ethnic profiling that goes on every time there is an attack, whether in Garissa or in South C or Eastleigh, is built on this security paradigm. It is a rather interesting way to look at it; that it is outsiders who spoil citizens. Yet, the truth is that Kenya will never know peace until the North Eastern region it annexed is peaceful and thriving socially and economically.
That peace will not come from police crackdowns and ethnic profiling. Fighting the Al Shabaab should stop being about fighting the Somali people, because profiling is not the solution. Neither is a border barrier or a closed refugee camp. Both ideas are as terrible as the idea of training Kenyan Somalis to fight in Somalia. It will only furnish Kenya’s enemies with new recruits.
The real battle is not in Kismayu or Mogadishu, it is right within Kenya’s borders, and it cannot be won with guns and armored tanks.”
by Wanjeri Gakuru
“Why are we so ill at ease about clinically discussing sex in public?
We have the triple misfortune of being a nation that clings to outmoded traditional values, straight-jacketed religious beliefs and a government prone to selective prudishness. Former President Moi famously banned the Kenyan TV show Tushauriane for showing a kiss on the national broadcasting station KBC. And, in 1995, we also suffered a two-year ban on condom communication.”
by Michael Onsando
“I remember this in isolation, without context. I must have been at that age where time is only counted in a series of nows. Again something had happened. Again I was in tears. My aunt gave me a book titled “Real Men Don’t Cry.” The book was way above my age grade – she didn’t even imagine I’d read it. I tried but the words were too complicated, and harder to focus on through waterlogged eyes.
I got her point though.”
As always, this list is not exhaustive – a lot has been written about Kenya or in Kenya in 2015. Which pieces did you like that we did not include? Please share in the comments. From the Brainstorm team: thank you for your contributions, support and criticism as we turned two and began our third year. We look forward to to growing, thinking, learning and loving with you all in 2016. Happy new year!
Akello is a book of love poems.
That’s the short version. But I’m wondering what it means to say the words “love poems” anymore. To explore the ideas of feeling and being a space that is decidedly against these same ideas. Love slowly moves to being a radical act (still, I hear echoes of ‘the power of love, but that’s not it either – at least not all of it).
“Let me define
– 21, Akello
Audre Lorde reminds us that the personal is political. I’ve been reading this book thinking about what it means to ask to define boundaries as a young person navigating Nairobi – a space of dictation. I’m trying to see what it means to take that which is yours but somehow has never been.
What does it mean to really hear what the poet is asking for and let her define?
The thing about writing poetry is that it is from a place of truth. Sometimes that truth is as simple as a creak
“The gate creaks open
in sol-fa, like a diva
Seeing that this poem comes from a place of truth and knowing that craft is consistent (even if that consistence is change) we can begin to open up to some other truths that will present themselves. Some others that then become less apparent/comfortable to imagine. The interesting thing about these poems particular is that they are a truth we are uncomfortable with in a different way. In a way we are okay with.
We’ve somehow become okay with ignoring the significance of just how close that love cuts to our core. Having listened to love song after love song it’s become easy to reduce a lot of the message to “another love poem.” But poetry has been about love since its inception – one wonders at what point they expected the romantics to stop romanticizing.
Still it’s easier to do that than to admit “I crave you like/a hemp farm craves weed.” Or, “But I don’t want to. If/there is one/better than you/with less flaws/ and more money/I don’t want him” First, because we have set ourselves inside relationships that are so controlled by power dynamics that admitting a need of that magnitude is unimaginable to many. But also because it is corny, and we like to see ourselves as serious people. As people who are above the pettiness of heartbreak. We have repeated it in the mirror like a mantra watching our lips form the words.
The poet herself writes it in 38 a poem on Nairobi:
“only the proud survive, only the true love.”
Truth isn’t about comfort. Truth is just truth.
“In my life
I’m not sure
which is easier to find
I’m wondering what form of challenging exists in creating love poems in the age of protest (even as I hold back on ascribing intent. Truth is often not a position, but a state of being). Still, I’m wondering what this state of being brings out in us and what it says.
Some of the things it brings out are simple:
things I need to accept:
The living of life leaves no room for regret
and you need to grab all the happiness you can get”
“You’ve got me going
And some, hopeless:
“I can’t seem to stop myself
and I don’t have a plan
to get back to normalcy”
And further and further it journeys into places that make us squirm because they are places that we are either not used to being in or places we have identified as weakness. But what do we dismiss when we ignore weakness, and what does strength demand? Wambui Mwangi writes:
If Superman leaps over a tall building at a single bound, well, yawn, stretch and change the channel. If I were ever to leap over a tall building at a single bound, I would expect some serious attention, astonishment, adoration and for everyone to realise that having done all this leaping about, I would fairly obviously need a good long rest.
Conversely, I most certainly would not appreciate having immediately presented to me another building, over which I am also expected to leap without question or hesitation.
In this article, titled the Myth of the Strong Black Woman, the professor is talking about the unseeing that comes with imagining extra strength. If we imagine that black women have infinitely more capacity if becomes easier to dump and unsee as the paragraph above shows.
“It’s not that I don’t
have secrets. It’s just you’ve ne
ver asked me to tell”
The news shows us death and dying. The state continues to blame citizens for everything from wars to climate change. These are things we need to know, they are happening and this they are important. And, in a world where all these things are happening, surely it comes as a bit of a comfort that someone is still writing love poems – because that means love still exists somewhere. Even if only in the off white pages of a 92 page book.
“And if I were different, this story would be
told again and again, upon eternity.
My words are unable
my words are unable.”
“and when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive”
These are the works that spoke to us the most in 2014. [Click the title, in bold, to go to the respective piece.]
by Olivia Kidula
“The nature of these attacks stems from the entitlement to women’s bodies. For so long women have been viewed as property, extensions of men and not their own independent entities. A woman’s body belongs to her and her alone. For men to strip a woman naked because they disagree on how she dresses is a direct violation of her rights. #MyDressMyChoice has been addressing demanding equal rights to privacy and public safety and debunking ridiculous notions are commonplace in society. However due to the brevity of Twitter posts it has been difficult for the supporters of the hashtag to properly articulate the issues with the opposer’s arguments. Here are some of the arguments that I have observed online and the reasons why they are inaccurate.”
by Keguro Macharia
“On December 19, 2014, Kenya’s president, former ICC indictee Uhuru Kenyatta, signed a very bad piece of legislation into law. Rushed through the National Assembly, the legislation was not subjected to much, if any, public scrutiny…Clearly, Kenya is far from any kind of democracy that depends on persuading others through convincing arguments, the kind of democracy that is much theorized, but nowhere practiced. The president has asked Kenyans to read the legislation. Following his advice, I will post five blogs on different aspects of the legislation: 1. The Police 2. Refugees 3. Citizen Reporting 4. Human Rights 5. Everyday Life …Each post will tackle how this new legislation transforms Kenya into a less free, less possible space.”
by Will This Be A Problem
“We’re big fans of fantasy here at WTBAP. Over the years I’ve talked about the rather inexplicable lack of African fantasy books. The content is really just begging to be written and I know African fantasy readers aren’t rare by any measure. But, somehow, there just isn’t much of it and when there is people tie themselves in knots to not call it fantasy. Magical realism pops up a lot and I’ve even seen Ben Okri’s work called (I’m not even kidding) African Traditional Religion Realism. It’s kind of the overlooked child of African literature. So, the minute we got a chance to make some fantasy we hopped right onto that train (though one could argue that we may have accidentally boarded onto the horror express. Oops). We made the theme for our first issue Fantasy and we got down to work. I think we’ve come up with something special.”
by Morris Kiruga
“Civilian leadership of the military is a principle that must not only be law but must be seen to be done. The capitalization of the entire legal command within the office of the President is meant to ensure that we do not slide into a military dictatorship. The President is bound by democratic principles; primarily that he will not extend the power of the arm of government he heads, the Executive, using his hold on the military command. The Constitution provides the basis of the President as Commander-in-Chief, specifically, a civilian head of the military. Had he been the Chief of Staff of the military, he would have first had to resign from his position to run as a civilian presidential candidate.”
“at a party three weeks ago, someone in the crowd caressed my fully covered breasts and disappeared before i could say anything. my friends explained to me that childbirth had given me an admirable bosom. i went home and chopped off my boobs and bled and bled and bled. my shirts no longer fit me. last weekend, my husband stumbled into our bed piss-drunk and grabbed my butt. i told him to leave me alone, and he said my butt belonged to him. i told him itdid not and he hit me hard across the head. i think i remember our daughter crying. i woke up and felt the pain he had left between my legs. he told me that’s what love felt like sometimes. he did not notice the holes in my chest.”
by David Ndii
“We are investing Sh300 billion or thereabouts in the standard gauge railway. A year of tertiary education costs about Sh300,000. The opportunity cost of the SGR is a million person years of tertiary education (250,000 degrees, or 500,000 diplomas). Which mega-project, the SGR or an additional million person years of tertiary education would have a bigger impact on long term economic growth rate?”
by Aleya Kassam
“It is said your whole life flashes before your eyes in a near death situation. November 26th 2014 is probably the closest I have come to tasting my mortality. And it stank of cheap alcohol. I had just driven home from work that night, and when I opened my car to get out, I was confronted by a shadow with a loud whisper. And a gun. In that moment, it was not the life I have lived that flashed before my eyes, but the life I wanted to live. I saw it all. The kids. The adventures. The book(s). The crows eyes. The bittersweet. The joyful. The falling. The getting up. The mundane. Each not-yet-memory tumbling out with a pang of disappointment at hopes that may never be realised.”
by Patrick Gathara
“Not even our justice system provides a refuge for those whom we have disempowered, including our women. Despite the existence of thousands of survivors and witnesses of the 2008 post-election violence crimes, we are told that there exists no evidence to prosecute any of the offenders. The rules and norms privilege the powerful. Even when we dare prosecute they can afford to tie up their cases in legalistic tape for years on end. They can even secure judgements to stop themselves being investigated! Many times, the presumptions and requirements of the courtroom serve not to protect the innocent but to shield the powerful. Many of the victims, denied justice inside the courtroom, find that outside it, their suffering is itself rendered illegitimate. They are said to have “moved on” or even to have “come out way ahead.””
On Brainstorm, the essays that were most popular were:
by Brenda Wambui
“Money: Almost everything is acceptable as long as it was done “for the hustle”. Whenever you can, steal from your place of work. Do you work at a bank? Steal from your customers. Are you a contractor? Skim. Once you are rich, no one will care how you got your money. They will love you, and pester you with questions on Twitter all day on how they can be like you. Fatten your chicken with ARVs. Use carcinogens to ripen your fruits faster. This same formula can be applied to any business. Brake fluid? Dilute it. Alcohol? A little methanol and formalin don’t hurt. Are you a matatu driver? Drive over kerbs, on pavements and through petrol stations. Some people might die…but that’s none of your business, right?”
by Samira Sawlani
“Somalis in Kenya not only live in fear of terrorists like the rest of the country, they also live in fear of those very agencies meant to protect them. Through “legal looting”, men and women who work hard to feed their families, run businesses which aid the Kenyan economy and largely mind their own business are being exploited. As if this is not enough, they then experience humiliation in police stations, in their homes and on the streets only to find that when they speak out, no one is listening. How many media houses have continuously reported on this? How many public figures came forward to clarify to people what their rights are?”
by Sheila Maingi
“There is an urgent need for us to address the problem of street harassment. We need to stop treating our mothers, daughters, sisters and friends like inferior human beings. As a man, you never have to worry about going to a certain shop because the men who sit outside might make an unwelcome comment. You never have to worry about male colleagues at work- some as old as your father- making inappropriate sexual comments and jokes directed at you. As a man, you’re not constantly in fear of darkness falling while you are away from home because some man on the streets might attack and rape you. When you go to the club, you don’t have to worry about not wearing your favourite skirt because some pervert might slip his hand under it. When taking that taxi home, you never have to worry about the cab driver turning on you. Most women end up having one or two trustworthy cab drivers who they will await for as long as it takes because it is much safer than taking an unknown cab.”
This list is not exhaustive – a lot of great writing happened in Kenya, and about Kenya, in 2014. Which pieces did you like that we did not include? Please share in the comments. From the Brainstorm team: thank you for the contributions, support and criticism this year. We look forward to to growing, thinking, learning and loving with you all in 2015. Happy new year!
On many occasions when talking about Brainstorm, the journal, the future and the work that we believe that this journal should do, I’ve been asked about hope. This question comes up again with people who read my blog. And it’s not just me, it’s like the message that is being passed across by many writers, many thinkers is, “we’re screwed.”
In Kampala during a question and answer session, I’m asked this by someone who reads me often. They ask why I don’t write happier things, why I don’t give people hope. In response I get angry. “If happier writers do not have a burden of sorrow imposed upon them, why must I carry this burden of joy?” are the exact words I use to reply. I remember these words verbatim because they stay with me for months.
In ‘Beyond Hope’ environmentalist Derrick Jensen writes:
“When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free—truly free—to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.”
Then there’s this word ‘despair.’ It carries an utter desolateness within itself. It is defined as ‘the complete loss or absence of hope’ but, I believe, that is not the meaning that has attached itself to the word. While I do feel, to a large extent, completely without hope for Kenya, I do not feel despair.
Despair carries with itself the connotation that nothing can be done. And, because nothing can be done, nothing will be done. Further, in doing nothing, the original statement is proven – nothing can be done. Despair is, within itself, a self fulfilling prophecy.
I have never been a big fan of hope. Even as I write that, however, I realize I have never been a big fan of despair either. Both seem to create a situation of inaction. In ‘Problems with Names’ Sara Ahmed writes:
“I would argue that if feminism is to have a future in the academy, we need to name sexism, we need to give this problem its name; we need to revolt against sexism.”
While she is talking about sexism, I think this applies to much more than that. It is important that we be able to give things names. That we be able to touch them, feel them, identify and analyze them. There is a space where I am now. It is not a place where I feel hope, neither is it a place of despair. What do we call this place? How do we interact with it if we can’t touch it?
When I started writing this, I was thinking about how to be hopeful about the country. How does one navigate and keep their chin up when we are actively un-humaning an entire community? Even the things we find to be happy about are vastly outweighed by the others. I, for example, really like the ice cream at Sno Cream. How does this weigh in what I need to write about vis-à-vis everything else that is happening in the world, the continent, the country – my neighbourhood?
There is a two way divide that has been created in Kenya. This divide has been created for writers who exist here. The writers who pretend nothing is wrong and are very happy about Kenya, and the writers who, basically, say that “We’re screwed.” Both these writers run off the need to tell a different story. (Think about how we repel stories of a backward village type Kenya with stories of skyscrapers). This divide has been extended to emotion. One is either hopeful for the future of the country or in complete despair.
This is obviously not true.
The first reason this can’t be true is that we know that human beings are complex creatures capable of holding more than one emotion at once. How many times have you been angry at someone you love, yet still loved them? Who said emotions must exist in this place of black and white when we know that everything is grey?
The second reason for this is the complete failure of English as a language. I toyed with the idea of naming this space but decided against it. I’m sure there’s a language that has a name for it (please tell me down there in the comments if you know it) and English, as a language has just failed us with its limited range – as it often does.
The third reason is slightly more nuanced. What does this divide do? In a country where everybody either hopes the place will fix itself or knows nothing can be done, we end up in a space where everything will remain the same. It creates two positions that are inactive and inactivity is great for the status quo.
I intend to stay in this place. This place is where the magic happens. It is where I am comfortable and functional. I just need to know where this place is so that the next time someone asks me “Michael, is there no hope?” I can calmly look them in the eye and say “There is no hope, there is only this – existence.”
by Linda Musita
An African proverb implies that a young bull does not know the back of a cow from its front. What the adolescent does when it is horny is try to get itself “in” through the face of its object of desire. I would like to assume it is because the young bull does not know any better, but I am certain it does, it just wants to prove that it is a real man without learning the ropes.
I am a young Kenyan writer. I like to believe that I am extremely wise and know everything about writing. My stories are perfect and no one can tell me otherwise. One day publishers will be scheming behind each others’ backs to get my work. I just know it.
I am not the only cocky writer around. There are many of us and we were all born in Kenya in the 80s and 90s. We all hate each others’ guts but live together like one big happy family. We are young and relatively naïve yet we have one thing in common: our mixed feelings for Nigerian writers.
The Caine Prize 2013 shortlist was released on May 15 and it was full of Nigerians. Four out of the five stories chosen by the judges were written by Nigerians. This may mean that the country has a host of very good writers or the prize is just biased towards the scribes from the West. Take your pick. However, the odds that a Nigerian, Tope Folarin, was to be announced the winner were pretty high.
Last year, a Kenyan, Billy Kahora was on the shortlist but he did not win the award. This year, no Kenyan was shortlisted but, we, the young bulls complained about the “oga” infiltration even before reading the stories. My questions were why are there so many Nigerians on that list? What is so special about them? Why isn’t one of us on that list? The same old questions that my peers ask when another hardworking West African gets the recognition that they only dream about.
Do they know that to be considered for the £10,000 Caine prize and its shortlist a story has to have been published? And the story is not submitted by the writer but by the publisher?
Do they also know that to be published, one must first write something and then try to find a publisher to put it in an anthology or something similar? Do they know that some publishers have standards and a story that the writer will not allow to be critiqued or edited will not cut it?
No, they do not. They are not making any effort to expose their writing to the right people. One could even question whether they are writing anything meaningful.
But I know all that and I have been writing meaningful things, exposing them to the wrong people because I am scared gutless of submitting it to a well established literary magazine as I have problems with censoring myself. I write very “forward” and ”brazen” things that have been called vindictive and shameless. Things that may land me into moral trouble. No, I am not making excuses. I am just being a clever, self-absorbed writer.
The Nigerians, like me, know that they must be published to scoop that prize money and the benefits that come with it. That is why they haggle for space in any anthology or literary magazine they can find.
Do young Kenyan writers know what the judges of the prize look for and why they like stories about guavas, slums, diasporadical dreams and buck wild violence and war stories that are not really violent?
Do they know who Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, Sokari Douglas Camp, Lord Northcliffe, John Sutherland, Professor Nathan Hensley and Leila Aboulela are and why they had to put all those Nigerians on the shortlist?
I confess, I am a Kenyan writer and I do not know those judges and why they chose those stories.
I can bet my writer friends do not know them either, and at the end of the day, maybe all good, young and active African writers are Nigerian. In the same way that most good and active long distance runners are Kenyan.
Or could it be that Kenyan writers born between 1980 and 1993 are not faithful to the art?
Alexander Ikawah was shortlisted for this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize for a story that he wrote in 2011. It is a good story, titled Fatima Saleh, about a woman who is sexually abused by police officers at a refugee camp and ends up being a mujahideen by poisoning them to their deserved deaths. The question here is; what has Ikawah been writing since 2011?
Another writer, Clifton Gachagua, won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. He writes very good poems and puts them on a blog. Lucky for him, thanks to the prize, some of the poems on his blog will be published in his first poetry anthology, Madman at Kilifi, by the end of this year.
These two young “bulls” are only known to a few of us who will never win the literary awards because we are not writing anything new. We are still basking in our Facebook friends’ flowery comments on our work or just looking at our one piece of brilliance.
What exactly is the problem with me and other 20 to 30 something year old writers?
We are not writing. We used to write but we are not writing anymore. We are mostly reading writing advice online that we never apply because we can never bring ourselves to finish anything we write. Our excuse is that we need to learn the craft before creating the art. Old fashioned practice makes perfect. If we have the talent, which we do, we should be writing not reading about how other people write.
There are a number of writer cliques. These usually consist of writers who write for each other once in a while. They then read each others’ works out loud in classrooms or coffee houses. Make some cryptic comments about the work and then get into a discussion about how they like sitting together like moles and enjoying the darkness around them.
They are in the”underground” world; a mysterious place that does wonders for their brains. They will not show their work to anyone else, especially a publisher, because it will get contaminated once it becomes mainstream literature.
These underground rats are the “sufferers” of the writing world. Lack of recognition does not bother them at all.
Fear of critique
We have few good literary critics in Kenya. And they are busy writing academic papers about this and the other. They are the reason Kenyan writers do not know what to do with critique.
On the rare occasions that the work of young Kenyan writers is put under a public telescope they form an odd almost cultic brotherhood and attack the critic mercilessly. It does not matter that the critic is right. What matters is that a small or a big truth has been told and an objective reaction to it is not possible.
A writer’s work will always be praised or trashed. The wise ones know not to trust their family and friends as critics. They also know that a writer should never ever respond to critique. When their work is beaten up, they try and see if what the critic is saying is true or false, if it is true they accept it, fix the problem and move on. If it is not true, they ignore it and move on.
The critic is not the enemy. That is the only person in the literary world who gives the writer the chance to grow a thick skin and create better work.
Worship of the old and the dead
When a person sits on a grave, forever mourning and praising a dead man, that person is as good as dead.
Yes we had very good writers in the past. Now they are old and some of them are dead. We loved their work when we read it. Some of us are not reading that work anymore.
We want new fiction. Fiction that is relevant to this day and age.
But what are we young writers doing?
We still think of Ngugi wa Thiong’o as the great Kenyan writer and are utterly confounded by David Maillu’s wonderful lack of self censorship. So confounded that we forget to write our own stories.
We are barren and do not have the knack to sit down and write a full-length manuscript. Ironically, we have it easy with our computers and fancy gadgets, the people we still worship had to work with paper, pen and typewriters.
It is okay to read and praise the writers that came before us but being eternally star struck and hypnotised is another problem that may require exorcisms and séances.
Birds of a feather flock together and excrete on the same leaves. There are publishing houses in the country that only work with certain writers. These writers in turn introduce their writer buddies to these publishers and together they produce very bad books.
This is one of the things that discourage young writers from writing because talent and merit do not count. It is whom you drink beer with that will take you where you want to go.
There are very many literary forums in Nairobi. I know not of across the country, but there are loads in Nairobi.
We meet and talk about the first drafts of our novels that only have a 3000 word count thanks to writers’ block. We say mean things about the Nigerians winning prizes all over the world. We complain about how literary festivals in Kenya only invite foreign authors to speak and lead workshops.
The forums also turn into pools of gossip about which writer is in bed with that other writer and how the genes will go crazy if they procreate because, well, writers are stark raving mad.
After the “literati parties” we all go home and sleep. Zero writing follows all that talk.
Lack of foresight
There are two young creative Ghanaians, Eyram Tawia and Wesley Kirinya, who have formed a gaming company, Leti Games, that among other things writes comics. Their premise is African superheroes. In that brilliant mix of superheroes, they have a Maasai one called iWarrior. Their story was reported on BBC and they have very big goals that they are keen on attaining. One look at their website and their vision is absolutely clear.
Young Kenyan writers have the same ideas, the same technological opportunities, the Maasai warriors and the avenues for funding. Yet we still believe that the only way we can express ourselves is through print.
Very few of us want to collaborate with artists and techies to create something brilliant. And those who are willing are all talk. And talk is very cheap.
Lack of editors
Everyone doubles as an editor. The truth is, a writer should never edit his own work. Neither should a writer have a friend do the editing.
However, Kenya does not have enough editors who can do their job well and without distractions or fits of uncontrollable jealousy.
They will not give honest advice and would much prefer a writer to fail than succeed under their guidance.
All that said, there is a new prize in town. The Etisalat Prize for Literature was launched in Nigeria on June 4 and all submissions must be made by a publisher. One of the judges is Billy Kahora, but who wants to bet that Nigerians will win this one too?
Linda is a writer, a literary agent at Lesleigh Inc and an editor at the Star newspaper.