Blame Kwani? for East Africa’s literary swamp

The region has been accused of literary barrenness. Today Abenea Ndago looks at credibility of Kwani? in its efforts to demystify literary blame

The late Francis Imbuga said the following to a newspaper journalist a few days before his demise: “It is true that creative writers don’t earn big money, unless your book becomes a set book, but still this is not an excuse for writers to walk around in sandals.”

Evan Mwangi, a Kenyan literary scholar, also wrote in the same paper: “Although I would wish that 21st century Kenyan writers should be included in the syllabus, it is hard to think of any that we would want our children to emulate. Their works are opportunistically written for the high school syllabus by pretending to tackle ‘burning issues of the day’, such as drug abuse. This tactic works better in ephemeral short skits for inter-dormitory competition than in an ambitious work of art that seeks to stand the test of time.” But Egara Kabaji has been more belligerent.

Like the Nigerian literary activist Ikhide R Ikheloa, he keeps lashing at a certain group of Kenyans for “celebrating orthodoxy and mediocrity.”

The target

The target, of course, has been the Kwani? group.

However, my opinion of these people had been different. I thought that we also needed to focus on their positive side as well.

 It would be dishonest to deny the benefits of the large space for literary discussion, which they have created through the Kwani? Literary Festival.

This year alone, they hosted writers Charles Mangua and David Mailu (Kenya), Hadraawi (Somalia), Jamal Mahjoub (Sudanese British), Alemseged Tefsayi (Eritrea), Nawal el Sadaawi (Egypt), Helon Habila and Chuma Nwokolo (Nigeria), and Chehem Watta (Djibouti). I was particularly happy that Hadraawi, the Somali sage next door, temporarily purified the Kenyan literary air of its obnoxious one man stench.

But that was then. Today, I must turn against the Kwani? outfit because its approach now appears more poisonous than hemlock.

The latest issue of the BBC Focus on Africa magazine has an article titled Take Another Look by the managing editor of the Kwani? Trust, in which he accidentally leaks out their own magazine’s official literary policy.

Behaving like a mouthpiece for persons called Keguro Macharia and Binyavanga Wainaina, the editor writes that we should give up the “ordinariness” of contemporary African writing together with its “oppressed voice. “Two misrepresentations should be righted first: Rotimi Babatunde’s short story is not called Bombay Republic. Nor is there a Zimbabwean writer called ‘Tsitsi Dangaremba.’

Might the two slips be pointers to Kwani?’s casualness of approach? Billy Kahora then rejects the social commentary thread in African writing and welcomes a blend that is “unique in the complete subversion of both the expected and the ordinary.”

The editor writes: “In 2010, the Kwani? Trust held a short story competition targeted at writers under 30, and themed The Kenya I Live In. The winning entry was a story of a young Kenyan-Indian chess player’s adventures in a chaotic media-saturated Nairobi universe.

The runner-up was a tale told in heavy Nairobi slang through an ambivalent character, a politician’s young daughter who was being sexually harassed by her father’s political ally.” Firstly, even before you have used a tenth of your brain, you will have seen that both the stories are set in a place called Nairobi. What then is “new”? Is it the chaos and sexual madness with which we have always associated Nairobi, or the mere presence of a Kenyan-Indian chess player? Kahora confirms what must inevitably happen when a people are exclusively fed on a single literary meal through the Kenya Institute of Education.

Even though they have been around for over two centuries, our Kenyan-Asians have been so thoroughly devoiced that the mere presence of one in a literary text is quickly celebrated as a milestone.

Deliberate effort

Secondly, something is obviously wrong with you if you cannot see that the theme of your competition should have been, The Nairobi I Live In. There is a deliberate effort by Kwani? and the “Kwaniacs” (because of their mania and naked lust for publicity) to urbanise East African literature, a very bold attempt to legitimise a literary fraud.

 And if that is their path – sexing up a few urban sketches and projecting the same as the official East African literature – then they surely compete with the Kenya Institute of Education for an appalling narrowness of mind. The result is a boundless literary swamp of tenth rate urban texts. A small research will tell them that true literature is often spontaneous. As Chris Wanjala has severally repeated, the future of Kenyan writing is in the countryside. The Kwaniacs only need to examine the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The reason, I think, is that urbanity is a relatively new occurrence in the artistic experience of the human mind.

Literary activism is despicable. Good writing dies at the slightest whiff of confinement or rigidity. Some of the blandest books I have read were written during the Socialist Realism period of Russian literature. Taban Lo Liyong must be disappointed that no new classic has emerged in East Africa exactly twenty-two years since he urged us to write ‘new’ literature in Another Last Word (1990).