By Henry Munene
In the increasingly popular Studies in Post-Colonial Discourse, a nation is not defined in terms of boundaries, treaties and other terms used in international relations.
It is also never defined as a continuous tale from a single, traditional origin to a new entity, but as the totality of the various voices that have spoken about it.
Put simply, the narratives on the people and events that dot the history of a nation play a crucial part in what Homi Bhabha, in Nation and Narration, calls ‘narrating the nation’.
Thus, the Kenyan narration cannot be taken to be the story of where various tribes came from, where they settled and other totalising narratives as told by early travellers to East Africa. For, as scholars have argued, a nation is always undergoing creation.
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Just like the ten blind men who went to touch an elephant and each gave a different account of the jumbo, the nation comprises many voices; calling to mind Achebe’s quip: “Life is a mask dancing; you see it from very many sides.”
It is these many tentative voices that we should seek.
When Miguna Miguna wrote Peeling Back the Mask, he was in no way giving us a final word on Kenya. The prime subject of Miguna’s book, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, is reportedly also writing his own account of the Kenyan nation, which may give accounts that other people may reinforce or disagree with, in a cacophony of voices whose sum will be a richer understanding of the Kenyan society.
Finding our voice
I have had occasion to ask Taban Lo Liyong to write his autobiography, and remember asking Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye to have her Half-Witted Life published.
Such books have the potential to continue narrating the nation, as did Oginga Odinga’s Not Yet Uhuru, Lazarus Sumbeiywo’s The Mediator, Njenga Karume’s Beyond Expectations: From Charcoal to Gold, Benjamin Kipkorir’s Descent from Cherang’any Hills: Memoirs of a Reluctant Academic, and prison writings such as Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Detained: A Prison Writer’s Diary, Wanyiri Kihoro’s Never Say Die and Maina wa Kinyatti’s works.
So why would I want prominent and not-so-prominent Kenyans — including our dishonest politicians — to write their biographies?
First, though I believe a good book should eschew character assassination, I also believe it is in the multiplicity of narratives that a nation finds its voice.
In a society where ethnic tensions form part of totalising narratives, perhaps we will find our harmony after reconciling the various perspectives presented through good (auto)biographies by our conflicting leaders.
This way, these books may help us heal the country because, come to think about it, perhaps Kenyans are easily made to believe polarising narratives because we do not have enough alternative narratives to challenge the few that politicians with vested interests pass for objective truth.
As German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel argues, progression towards the truth starts with one person’s version of the truth (thesis), which is countered by another (antithesis), before a middle ground (synthesis) emerges.
Given this Hegelian way of looking at history, we need all the conflicting politicians to tell us their accounts of life and that way let us understand what they think of the world, a thesis that no doubt others will write an anti-thesis to counter, and our children can reach a synthesis in future works.
Other than healing, biographies will give us a more nuanced account of where we are coming from, as the story of Kenya would have more life if told from the perspectives of those who saw it all happen.
Of course, many write autobiographies to whitewash their roles in past injustices, while others remain silent on their misdeeds, but at least those who write add to the corpus of writing to enlighten future generations, clear the air on what they have bottled up over the years, and must be commended for the courage to write the story of their lives.
Which is why the publishing side of me cannot understand prominent people who live in the public limelight, surrounded by guards paid from public coffers, and have no qualms going to the grave with all the secrets of what went on behind the scenes.