Let's celebrate those who write to expand and protect our freedoms

Kenyan flag hoisting during independence at Uhuru Gardens on December 12, 1963. [File, Standard]

Happy Madaraka Day, all. First celebrated on 1 June 1963, the date Kenyans took back internal self-rule from British colonialism, the day finds most significance in 2024 by asking the question how truly free are we all? 

Released in March, the 2023/2024 United Nations Human Development Report informs us that for the first time in 20 years, inequalities are expanding again for many across the world. We have had the highest number of mass conflicts and internally displaced populations since the end of the second world war in 1945.

Last year was the hottest in 140 years for the entire planet. While the Kenyan economy produces a mere 0.5 of the carbon dioxide emissions destroying our planet (compare with Kenya’s partners United Arab Emirates (25) and USA (14.9), the effects of climate catastrophes have been especially devastating for us and those in the global south.

Economies like Kenya have fallen deeper in debt and are more dependent than the last two decades. Identity based polarisation is spiking, producing powerful leaders only interested in self-enrichment, their gender, class, or ethnic groups.

Yet, the digital revolution is phenomenally expanding our access to knowledge. We are living longer and are more internationally mobile. Three times more people now live in countries not of their birth than ever before. 

By the time the Kenya Kwanza administration took office, Kenyans were schooling more, living longer and were healthier than the last 30 years. Kenyans are also more knowledgeable than ever before.

On average, Kenyans were living to the age of 62, were enjoying 11 years of schooling and the gender gap was narrowing. Despite these advances, Kenya ranks 146 out of 193 countries in human development performance.

With a Gini Co-efficiency of 38.7, Kenya remains highly inequitable. The richest 1 per cent own 15 per cent of the national income, the richest 10 per cent, 32 per cent, while the poorest 40 per cent, 18 per cent.

Gross inequalities have a direct impact on human development. Driving misery and distress for millions, it accelerates crime, social instability and reduces economic productivity.

The HDR further argues that time has come for a new form of international cooperation. Revisiting Amatya Sen’s seminal essay “Development as Freedom” they call states and people to go beyond the “froms” (freedom from fear, want and deprivation) to the “ofs” (freedom of self, thought, voice and collection action).

This emancipatory declaration would be music to the ears of Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the late Prof Micere Githae Mugo.

During this month of freedom, the Kenya Diaspora Alliance (USA), Amnesty International Kenya, community and university-based groups are organising 60 “Reading for Freedom” events.

Funded by the public and with support from both authors’ loyal publishing house East African Educational Publishers, the events will see each participating library or resource centres gifted with the writers’ books. 

Close to a thousand Kenyans at home and in the diaspora are expected to read and discuss their writings in Baringo, Bungoma, Busia, Elgeyo-Marakwet, Isiolo, Kericho, Kiambu, Kisii, Kilifi, Kirinyaga, Kisumu, Machakos, Makueni, Meru, Migori, Mombasa, Nairobi, Nakuru, Siaya, Turkana and Wajir between 7-21 June leading up to the final event on June 22 in Atlanta, USA. Ngugi and Micere are two of Kenya’s bravest and most famous writers.

Fifty years of literary writing have catalysed a passion for human rights, freedom from colonial oppression and languages, women’s empowerment and community organising against inequalities across several generations of Kenyans.

Lest we forget, Kenyans did not always have the right and space to write, say, read and publish what we wanted. June 2024 marks the first anniversary of Micere Githae Mugo’s passing away and the retirement of Ngugi wa Thiong’o from active teaching and a move to Atlanta, Georgia.

Let’s celebrate them and all who write, speak or act today to protect and expand the freedoms contained in our Bill of Rights this month. As UNDP urges us, “We can do better. We have a lot going for us. Let’s get moving.”

NOTE: To participate in the upcoming events https://www.amnestykenya.org/celebration-of-kenyans-who-wrote-for-freedom/