MUKOMA: Kenya’s Unrest: An Interview with the Kenyan Poet Mukoma Wa Ngugi
Inside looking out, snow is falling and I am thinking
how happy we once were, when promises and dreams
came easy and how when we, lovers covered only
by a warm Eldoret night, you waved a prophecy
at a shooting star and said, “when the time comes
we shall name our first child, Kenya” and how I
laughed and said “yes, our child then shall be country
and human” and we held hands, rough and toughened
by shelling castor seeds. My dear, when did our
clasped hands become heavy chains and anchors holding
us to the mines and diamond and oil fields? Our hands
calloused by love and play, these same hands – when
did they learn to grip a machete or a gun to spit hate?
And this earth that drinks our blood like a hungry child
this earth that we have scorched to cinders – when we
are done eating it, how much of it will be left for Kenya?
My dear, our child is born, is dying. Tomorrow
the child will be dead.
Kenya-A Love Letter
Mukoma Wa Ngugi -commissioned by the BBC World Service
While attending college in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I befriended a few Kenyans, who, like me, were part of a small yet growing group of international students. We were minorities – all in the unenviable position of assimilating into a predominantly homogeneous community. To this day, I remember the gentle and kind demeanor of my Kenyan friends – they came across admirably, as people with good hearts.
When the news of the violent, bloody clashes in Kenya reached me over the Internet, I thought of my friends and reflected upon the unbelievable contrast between the brutality of the clashes and my fond memories from college.
This striking contrast triggered the strong desire to know exactly what was happening in Kenya, and why. As I sought a more direct source of information, I remembered an author I work with, Mukoma wa Ngugi, the son of a highly regarded Kenyan writer-activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and an activist himself.
On a cold weekend in January, I emailed Mukoma and asked for an interview. We spoke a few days later by phone. During that hour, a couple of things became very evident to me about the crisis in Kenya: the type of violence now raging in Kenya, typically one of the most stable East African countries, has occurred in the past; among Kenyans, there is hesitancy in acknowledging the ethnocentricism that is ever-present (because perhaps, as Mukoma hypothesizes, “Kenyans may have a deep, secret fear of confirming stereotypes that people might have of them”); thirdly, the parties running for government, both the opposition and the sitting parties, have often used ethnicity – and only ethnicity – as a platform, at times engaging anti-ethnic sentiments in their campaigns.
In the unfortunate aftermath of the December 2007 elections, it is not surprising that ethnicity takes “center-stage,” as that which not only continues to fuel violence in post-election Kenya, but also intensifies it.
“Most of the violence is the result of a failure of progressive politics in Kenya,” says Mukoma. “Both parties could easily be faulted for ignoring the need to work with locally-based civil rights groups in order to curb injustices, and for essentially exploiting the angst of the people, especially the disenfranchised.”
Additionally, Mukoma laments, there is no unity among the poor and no power of the people within the “democratic system” – a system that is by and large what he calls “a caricature.”
In too many African countries, deep structural inequalities have existed for many decades. Kenya is no exception; despite its recent economic boom, cavernous disparities prevail between the elite (usually those in positions of political power and “as capitalist as you get’) and the impoverished “underclass,” who, for instance, live in unsightly and overpopulated slums. But then we all know this about many countries in Africa—it is no secret.
Ever the optimist, I asked Mukoma about political solutions to the current crisis in Kenya. He mentions two things immediately: a re-election as one way of putting the country on the right “democratic” track again, and a coalition between the parties as a solution to the bickering. Since neither party wants a recount, re-election does seem best, though Mukoma wonders if there is “the political will to do a re-run,” given the scale of the violence. No doubt, this remains to be seen.
Most importantly, Mukoma notes, “we should be asking ourselves about the nature of democracy in Kenya.”
It is obvious that the current democratic process is not working and does not, as it should, translate into food on the table, jobs, or some material fulfillment for many Kenyans. He insists that any solution should be democratic—and should take into account rampant poverty and injustice, two undeniably serious social ills that continue to undermine any attempts at progress in Kenya.
Tomorrow will be another day for Kenya – hopefully one with little or no violence – and another opportunity for those in power to engage in a democratic process that is fair and inclusive of the basic needs of the Kenyan people. But this is wishful thinking on my part, I know, and that of Mukoma’s since the political (mainly western) model of democracy has unquestionably failed to work in most of Africa.
For now, however, Mukoma is the anguished poet trying to use his creative talents to “speak back” to the violence; he is also an activist looking for long-term solution to the ongoing political crisis in his home country. And despite it all, I am a writer still partial to what I know of the good hearts of many Kenyan people who deserve so much better than what they are now getting from their leaders.
Angela Ajayi spent over ten years in publishing, mainly as a book editor, until she became a freelance writer. She holds a BA from Calvin College and an MA from Columbia University. Her essays and author interviews have appeared in the Star Tribune and Afroeuropa: Journal of Afro-European Studies. She currently writes book reviews for The Common Online. Her first short story, “Galina,” will be published by Fifth Wednesday Journal this fall. She likes to think she defies easy categorization, identifying through birth and citizenship as a Nigerian-Ukrainian-American writer. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and daughter.
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