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Are writers guilty of muzzling voice of vulnerable minors?

By Lee Mwiti | April 9th 2016
Morris Mwenda a street child whose plight was highlighted by the media. PHOTO: COURTESY

NAIROBI: The piteous cries of Morris Mwenda, a street boy begging for an opportunity to make something good out of his life a few weeks ago, captured the hearts of Kenyans. Here was a shabbily dressed, glue-smelling, scrawny street kid who represents what we all resent as a society, speaking the queens language with the aplomb of Tennyson.

Mwenda has proved to be the Oliver Twist of his age. That little, weak soul that the society has discarded to be grid by the merciless wheels of unbridled inequality, greed and moral injustice has no one to speak for him. Not even the writer.

Children have been subjected to exploitation and physical abuse since the age of industrialisation. Children were forced into coal and steel manufacturing plants to toil for a living. Worse, they were bundled into sinister abodes called workhouses where they were punished with back-breaking work and regular beatings that left them scarred for life. English novelist Charles Dickens was forced into such a workhouse. The experience gave him a lifelong urge to write about the suffering of children from an adult’s perspective and produced novels that shocked the world.

Extreme imagery

The ability of Dickens to paint such a grotesque existence of his child character Pip in his classic novel Great Expectations showed the world what a torturous journey orphans can go through. The novel is full of extreme imagery — poverty, prison ships and chains, and fights to the death.   The other poignant portrayal by Dickens of the child character David Copperfield was clearly not only a narration about his life, as the opening lines of the novel show: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Dickens was not the only writer of his age to write boldly about the suffering of children. Other writers like Wilkie Collins and Charles Kingsley, in their novels Armadale and Water Babies respectively, tell us about the mistreatment of orphans during the industrial age. Virginia Wolf never tired of lamenting that “there were more children seen suffering in the pages of Victorian novels than there were on the streets!”

A deep reading of Dickens and his contemporaries leaves someone wondering what the world has come to when children like Mwenda and others suffer and cry for help today, yet none of our writers is telling their story in an adult’s tone.

Prof Chris Wanjala, a writer and critic, agrees that writers nowadays don’t produce work that demonstrates the suffering of children from an adult’s perspective. “I agree that we no longer have books that portray the suffering of children. Dickens could clearly read a child’s mind and show his struggles with the world. No writer of this generation can do that,” Wanjala says.

He argues that the only writer he encountered who could tell of how society can be cruel to children is the late Cyprian Ekwesi. Ekwesi’s novel The Drummer Boy tells the story of a young, talented, blind drummer and singer who moves from place to place entertaining people, but deep down is very unhappy. The tale resonates well with Dickens works. Wanjala thinks that most today’s writers cannot tell children’s stories in a wise, mature way, since they too have barely come out of childhood.

“Young Kenyan writers are yet to detach themselves from adolescence to understand how the mind of a child works. Such writing should be left to older writers who have seen enough of society’s ills and can read a child’s mind to see how these ills affect them. But the older writers have failed in this aspect,” Wanjala avers.

Prof Egara Kabaji, Deputy Vice Chancellor Planning Research and Innovation at Masinde Muliro University, however, disputes that argument. He cites Chinua Achebe’s portrayal of the boy Ikemefuna at the hands of the brutal hero Okonkwo in the famed novel Things Fall Apart as a good example of a writer telling a child’s story from an adult’s perspective.

“It would be wrong to collectively state that today’s writers are not writing about the suffering of children. I have read material from Kwani? journal where the writers are telling children’s stories. Even Binyavanga Wainanina’s memoirs are about the struggles of a child,” Kabaji says. “I am currently reading a touching novel titled Still Born by Diekoye Oyeyinka and published by East African Educational Publishers. It is about an orphan who is speaking about the ills society has forced on him.”

Tony Mochama, a published author and poet, dismisses the idea that a writer should feel compelled to write about something that does not ignite his imagination. He also thinks that we should not fall into the temptation of bringing the romanticism involved with the Victorian writers into the 21st Century.

“There is something called activism art that I am opposed to. The idea that I have to write to fulfill some societal obligations like corruption, free elections and the like. I believe a writer should write what spurs his imagination. I should only write what interests me. If I don’t write I will produce pathetic art. I am not a member of some Coalition Against the Youth in Kenya that I should champion their problems,” says Mr Mochama .

Another young writer Stanley Mitoko, famed for his recent collection of poetry titled Afrikan Dreams and the play Dead Gods, agrees that books about children’s suffering are few to come by.

“I have just read a novel called Run, Cheche, Run (Tony Mochama) whose central character is a young girl. I feel books about children are being produced by the younger writers but not at a rate that the older writers were producing. It is good we work on that,” Mr Mitoko says.

Another young generation writer Gloria Mwaniga notes for her collection of abridged versions of Bible stories for children, fully agrees that current writers have denied the child a voice in their work.

“Growing up, my best books included Enid Blyton’s lesser known works like Come to the Circus, the story of an orphan living with a harsh aunt. Then the Mexican writer Rudolfo Anaya’s book Bless Me Ultima. It mattered to me that I could identify with challenges facing the kids and I learnt from the kid protagonists how to cope with similar issues in my life. Now kids have been largely ignored in literature because we are focused on textbooks for profits,” says Ms Mwaniaga .

Lucas Wafula, a senior editor with the East African Publishers, notes that although books that have been nominated for this year’s Banta Awards are all about children, there is little literature about those suffering at the hands of society like the street children and orphans.

“I think our writers have concentrated more on political and social themes and denied children like Mwenda a voice. Writers should look back and tell their stories by making them central in their plots. Albeit not in the old way— the way Dickens and his contemporaries told their stories. But in a new way that is in line with the plight children are facing today,” Mr Wafula avers. That society can be mean with children who are too weak to fight the vices it heaps on them, is an aversion that cannot be challenged. Our writers have the task of looking at ways to give a voice to the Morris Mwendas of this world.

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