Kwani? 04 and "How to Write About Africa" (a la Binyavanga Wainaina)

It has been just over a full week now since we've been in Nairobi. In my first days here, I got a hold of some Kwani? publications, figuring they would be a good introduction to what's going on in the Kenyan writing scene. I've read Kwani? 03 before and stuff on their site, but Kwani? publications are not easy (or cheap) to come by in America. There was actually a literary festival that Kwani? was putting on this past week in Nairobi, but we were so busy getting settled and recovering our lost baggage, etc. that we weren't able to make it to any of it, not that we had the means to even get there if we wanted to. Getting around without a car is problematic here. That is probably the biggest adjustment we've had to make. Not that we had a car in NYC, but lack of mobility in general, or even more generally, lack of accessibility is the problem. If you are accustomed to it anyway. In NYC, anything we wanted was at our fingertips. We could walk out our door and find anything within a few blocks or a short subway ride. And we had high-speed internet at our fingertips at any given time. Everything here is more of a struggle. Which I suppose you could argue makes you appreciate things more. There is no public transportation in these parts (Runda). There are no matatus. It's like trying to get through Beverly Hills without a car (which I've tried). Nairobi is a sprawling and seemingly random rat nest of roads that are made for vehicles, and not bikes or pedestrians. There are sparse few arteries pumping blood and no capillaries spidering in between unless you are willing to walk through backyards and forests, fending off barking Rhodesian ridgebacks and leopards for all I know. Walking to the Village Market, which is the nearest thing to us that isn't someone's electric-fenced-in house, takes well over an hour. For Jess to get to work takes over an hour of brisk walking. So we've had to rely on taxis and car services to get anywhere. And even then, the traffic here is out of control. But I'm whining and we've only been living like this for just over a week, and we are living in comparative luxury and can afford (or at least be able to expense) taxis, etc. But hey, it's all relative. If you are on a train making $300 a day and pass a train making $1 a day... or worse yet, the trains collide ... then what? (Kwani? by the way means what? in Swahili).

Kwani? 04
The event I really wanted to catch was Revisioning Kenya, but we were invited for drinks at the same time at Jess's boss's house who heads the MDG Centre at the World Agroforestry Centre. I would link to an MDG Centre site, but they don't have one yet. I met with him today to see about that. So much for enjoying my decadent unemploymency. Now the Kwani? litfest is on it's second leg in some coastal town called Lamu, I think. Oh well, next time. In the meantime, I read through Kwani? 04 (just in time for Kwani? 05, which was supposed to be released at this litfest).

Kwani? bills itself as a literary journal, but it seemed most of the pieces qualified (at least in my mind) as creative journalism. I don't know if this is representative of Kenya or East African Literature in general, or just Kwani? but almost every piece was a first person narrative about life in Kenya or East Africa, most of it with political or social themes, or even full-on academic essays. It was a welcoming cocktail of contemporary Kenya culture and issues and politics, with a literary lemon twist. The two main ingredients or fuel for the fire I'd say were the Gikuyu vs. Luo conflict/tension and bitching about NGOs/Expats in Nairobi.

Some somewhat random thoughts while reading through Kwani? 04:

¢ At the very end was a blog entry and heated comments from October 2006 post entitled the "Kenyan National Crisis That Everybody Ignores" that delved into the Kikuyu-Luo tensions. In retrospect, these bloggers definitely saw the bloodshed of early this year coming. All because a Luo threw a chair at Kenyatta back in 1969. Or because Kikuyus don't like Luos because they aren't circumcised. Nothing a a few snips of the scalpel couldn't fix. The last word (at least in print) was, "for as long as we shall have this Luo-Kikuyu issue, we shall never advance. Let us refuse to be roped into the yoke left by colonialism." Though it would appear many Kenyans are already roped in by this yoke left by colonialism, so it might be better stated to say to cut the rope or throw off the yoke.

¢ There's a thorough academic piece on tribalism by a Paul Goldsmith, that talks of a term I'm not familiar with, 4GW or Fourth Generation Warfare, of which tribes are the specific organizational structure waging this type of contemporary warfare. Maybe tribes are inevitable in the natural order of things. The tribal problem in Kenya is as complex and nebulous as its roads.

¢ There was another academic piece on the psychological aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda (and also Andrea Yates, the woman who drowned her children in Texas (?!)) by Peter Trachtenberg, son of a holocaust survivor and also spouse of Mary Gaitskill. When a Rwandan genocide survivor heard Trachtenberg was a holocaust survivor he opened up to him and said, "then you'd understand." But as Trachtenberg points out, the circumstances around the two genocides were very different. The Rwandan genocide took place in the streets, by the people. I can't imagine anybody can fathom what it's like to live with that except Rwandans.

¢ Interspersed throughout the issue are actual blog entries, many from a refreshingly jaded and cynical blogger named Potash from 2006. Seeing blog entries as they appear on screen in print is a strange experience. Maybe in Kenya print journals are more accessible than the internet? I'm happy they were printed as I haven't had reliable internet here. I've heard it exists and when I get it I scramble to save everything I can on my desktop. This Potash character continues to blog now. I'm following him on twitter. He's the only person I'm following. I'm actually not sure what the point of twitter is. If a tree twitters on a desert island, did it twitter? Go ahead and twitter me otherwise.

¢ Also interspersed are these funny potato pictures with cartoon dialogue bubbles. And some seemingly random additions of lists of what you get when you google "I hate Kikuyus" and little bits of vetted and edited paragraphs pulled from various sources off the internet. There was one paragraph I thought was particularly telling (in reference to "Gikuyuness")(the author listed simply as "B"):

The Rwanda comparison: I do not really think there are similarities here. That by invoking tribe we are automatically headed down the road to mass violence. If anything, the present government's attempt in Rwanda to argue that there is no such thing as ethnicity—so as to forestall future genocides I guess—only reinforces the divide. It reminds me of Nietzsche who said that it is not enough to reach for atheism by simply concluding there is no God, he is present and must be murdered.

Shit, did Nietzsche really say that? Seems like a contradiction in logic. Unless "God" is the belief in people's minds that needs to be killed. I don't believe in god, and I suppose I believe he needs be murdered, through education, or by providing a substitute for the unknown vacant variables left in believer's minds. American money needs to be vandalized to remove god's trust from it. By spending it you are buying into it. I'm happier with Kenyan shillings as my currency (note the 5cense logo change above, not that they use cents now). Jesus fish should be fought with man-eating Darwin fish. Christianity is colonial, yet many here still buy into it. It's common for people to die here, and not uncommon for people to just shrug and say it's god's will. Rather than get pissed about it and do something to prevent it the next time. Has the Christian god not forsaken them enough? This is not to say that there was anything remotely religious in Kwani?. There wasn't, thank god. What god? Kenya would be a better place if more people read Kwani? rather than the bible.

I also don't belong to a tribe, so it's hard for me to relate or belong. I believe in individualism. And tribalism kills individualism. Individualism can kill tribes. Individualism can also be isolating and lonely. Tribes will help you out, if you belong to them. To some extent, every society has tribes. Bostonians are a tribe. Republicans and democrats are tribes, punk-rockers are tribes, a school of literature is a tribe, gangs are tribes, a blog roll is a tribe, the Mafia is a tribe, religions builds tribes. It might feel good and safe to not be alone in your thinking, but by joining a tribe you lose individualism and can be easily swept with the tide without stopping to question. Tribes can turn into mobs.

Going back to the first comment above, I guess you could substitute "yoke of colonialism" for "tribalism" or Nietzsche's god.

¢ There was an interesting article on woman-woman marriages in Kenya. The motives are more along the lines of woman wanting to have children because they can't bear their own, and continuing the lineage of land inheritors. 

¢ There was an enlightening story by J Mburu Kabaa about growing up gay in Kenya. Needless to say, his bio simply says he lives in California now.

¢ There was some bad poetry. Then again, "good poetry" is an oxymoron in my eyes, so I can't be trusted. And the dosage was milder than most contemporary lit journals.

¢ There was some excerpts from this blog which was probably some of the best writing in the issue in my opinion. Reading it now, I see the author is a Michael Otieno and the more recent posts are fantastic as well. If he twittered, I would follow him.

¢ There was a funny piece on a "Kenyan's Guide to Kenya" by a blogger named Kenyan Chic. Some interesting advice Kenyan Chic imparted: you can buy beer at police stations, and Kenyans "drink" cigarettes, and they pepper their speech liberally with "si" which doesn't mean anything in Swahili (or "Swa"). One thing I can already testify to is I've heard a lot of "sa" or "sasa." Kenyan Chic says it means "now," and is used as a greeting, but we were told it means "okay." Same difference when you say it just for effect.

¢ Kwani? is highly editorialized. It starts with two different editorials, and then ends with an editorial rant on how the largest bookstore chain in Kenya (Books First) wouldn't carry Kwani? Funny, as every bookstore I looked in and even in the produce section of a supermarket, I saw Kwani? displays (as a publisher, you'd think I know the name of those cardboard contraptions at the ends of aisles, but I don't). Maybe this sort of love is a consequence of the biting editorial rant. Literally minutes after I had finished the piece by Muthoni Garland, I turned on the TV to see if I could catch some of the Olympics, and there she was on some primetime news show on their main station channel 1. Muthoni Garland was given a whole 15-minute segment to complain about how nobody in Kenya reads and how they don't receive support from publisher or bookstores. She was even challenging Kibaki and Odinga to read and support small press literature. The nerve! She was saying a typical print run for a book is only 3,000 copies. I also use that number... as a mark of success, as a threshold of the number of people that actually read literature in America. If I can sell 3,000 copies of a book in the U.S. I would be happy, that's small press market saturation. And America has over 6 times the population of Kenya, and more people that can afford to buy books. Maybe American small presses are too content or have too low of expectations and should get themselves on primetime national news to bitch about how nobody's buying their books? And shame Bush for not reading small press literature!

Back to my comments on "creative journalism" ... not that I have any problems with it. I guess that's what you could call this, and in the case of Kwani? it was informative for me as a new writer/reader coming to Kenya. But I expect more in a literary journal and books I guess. I like to see them rise above. Books belong on pedestals. Maybe most literary journals in the states consist of this type of "story-telling," and opinionated commentary, I wouldn't know. I guess you could call it contemporary literature of the Kenyan variety, and it's contemporary literature in general that I'm adverse to, or just not in tune with. Especially when they have political or social themes. Maybe that will change here. As editor of Sleepingfish, we receive our fair share of Bush or Iraq stories, which I reject immediately upon seeing those 4-letter words. The only things worse are religious stories, of which we also receive our share. But that's me and my warped discretion. Given the sheer number of subs, I imagine most mainstream lit mags publish a lot of stories on Bush and Iraq, as I imagine as many are interested in reading them as telling them.

Most of the pieces in Kwani? 04 were good at giving you a sense of what contemporary Kenyan and African culture is like, they were good at "relating" or telling. But I think what it is is that I like is literature that creates. That shows without telling. That isn't so real. That is below being real, surreal, irreal. That contemplates it's own navel less and creates more "babies". Anyway, that's my general pet peeve about general contemporary literature. Most literary journals I would lose interest in when I came across such story-telling or socio-political themes, but reading through Kwani? 04 helped me to identify what it is that I don't like about most contemporary literature. If I step off my condescending "in the name of art" soap box, then Kwani? 04 was enjoyable and informative as "creative journalism," and if anyone is interested in Kenyan contemporary literature and culture, then I'd suggest it.

That said, it's very Kenayn-centric and might alienate people outside of Kenya. Or even some people within Kenya. There's a lot of NGO and mzungu "do-gooder" bashing and criticism. The opening page says "NGOs can be dangerous to the health of a nation." Perhaps it's for good reason, and it's definitely true that there is a huge ex-pat population here working in NGOs, driving around in ridiculously huge Landcruisers and Rangerovers with their cause emblazoned on the sides, living in huge houses with servants, etc., which includes us strictly based on the color of our skin and the reason why we're here. Or at least why my better half is here, I myself am here for strictly selfish reasons in that I want to experience something different. I'm guilty of working in the past for organizations that are trying to better the lives of Africans. But I'm over that. I'd rather sit back and watch life in Kenya improve on it's own volition. More important to me is experiencing Kenya and Africa, and trying to get other people to take an interest in Africa instead of taking pity on it, as there's definitely already enough pity to go around.

Which brings me to a "Kwanini?" (a mini chapbook-sized Kwani? publication) by Binyavanga Wainaina (the Kwani? founding editor) called How to Write About Africa. I've read the title piece before, where it was first published in Granta, but the Kwanini? is a nicely made book object of it's own merit. It also includes two additional pieces, "Power of Love" and "My Clan KC." Binyavanga definitely has some angst to grind, but keeps his wits sharp. The bitter irony captured in "How to Write About Africa" is carried over in "My Clan KC" and "Power of Love".

KC stands for Kenya Cowboy, and characterizes white Kenyans who "drink Tusker and proclaim that 'Kenya is my country, Landrover is my car!'" I don't know if we've come across too many of these Kenyan Cowboys, maybe a few people Jess works with, but I think most of the Kenyan Cowboys live down in an area of Nairobi called Karen where evidently people are independently wealthy and have lots of land (think of Karen Blixen from Out of Africa, lamenting, "I had a faaarm in Africa").

How to Write About Africa by Binyavangana Wainiaina

I'm definitely of the NFB (Not Fully Belonging) stereotype. Even in NYC, after living there 8 years, I was NFB. Even where I was born I am NFB. I have no desire to belong anywhere. If you belong somewhere, then it owns you, and all you do is defend it against people that don't belong and you become angst-ridden and can't think or write about anything else except your current situation and the "good old days" before all the poseur infiltrators arrived. The same thing goes on in America. Wainaina comes up with all sorts of other amusing classifications of expatriates. He even pokes fun at animal-lovers, people that come to Africa to see the wildlife. That's me too. I saw monkeys today and got all geeked out. So sue me. Kick me out of Kenya. I think animals are cool. At least Binyavanga gives a little more credit to Americans who spit on their flag, we are one rung up from the bottom on his totem pole. Then again, I have a six-pac of Tusker in my fridge, and Jess just called me to tell me that someone is lending us their Landcruiser until our duty-free car gets here from Singapore via Mombassa. Should I be ashamed to drive it? Should we say, "nah, that's cool, we'll bike it."? Should we not take advantage of our opportunity to get a duty-free car? We also have maids and guards. It's not my place to dismiss them as we are only rent-paying tenants here, but if we did hire them, would that be a bad thing? You could argue that having maids and guards and drivers is providing jobs to those who otherwise wouldn't have them. Personally, I think it's creepy having someone clean up after you, and weird to have someone drive you around or guard you. There are definitely a lot of conflicting emotions and hypocritical contradictions you need to swallow living here, no matter how you live. Unless of course you were born here and remain here and were "schooled" here and not in America or England or some other Scandinavian country.

The final piece in Wainaina's Kwanini? is "Power of Love," which pokes more fun at the hand-holding power-ballads like "We are the World" and all the celebrity love aimed at the bleeding heart of the "Dark Continent" (am I meeting all the requirements he sets forth in "How to Write About Africa?"). Wainaina makes some interesting points about all this kiss-blowing. I'd agree that penny-pinching trustafarian do-gooders are a useless form of humanity. If you come here, you should be prepared to spend money. And you can't expect to be treated like a local, because you are not a local. Never expect to be. Criticizing NGOs and the mzungu celebrity nonsense though is even better if you can provide a home-grown alternative. One thing's for sure, I'd rather spend money here than America. And I'd rather buy a self-consumed Kenyan literary journal, than an American one. It's a great thing that Kwani? exists.

I don't know, reading this sort of stuff makes me tired. Like I've been flogged or had my ass-kicked, intellectually, but at the same time Kwani has kick-started my mind. It makes me realize anyone with knowledge is a hypocrite. The only ones on this planet that aren't hypocrites are the ones that don't know what hypocrite means. This all-to-real, in-your-face literature makes me want to escape, tail between legs, into something bizarre and chaotic and meaningless, that isn't trying to prove anything. But that's just me, a country-less escapist.


(c) 2008 Derek White

Five Senses Reviews