Reading "It's Our Turn to Eat" By Michela Wrong in Mombasa ... Deep wounds, deep healing need!
On the eve of PEN Kenya Centres reading in coastal Mombasa Island
From coast to coast and from the lake shores to the mountains, hills and ridges, Kenyans need to learn we as one people are more important than our politicians. More important than our president and Prime Minister who would not be without us. That the PEN is mightier than the machete.. that we butchered each other over politics dying for people who would not live even a couple of hours for us...and we now must heal...Heal even the homeless people whom we have deprived of dignity through petty politics!
That as Martin Luther King Jr. said in his apocalyptic speech - I see the Promised Land- on the eve of his assassination on 3rd April, 1968:
" The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee- the cry is always the same- "We want to be free!"
PEN Kenya Centre has been revamped in the last one year by dint of our hard work..especially to defend our freedom of expression even as I believe all our freedoms are one and dependant on each other; for where is my freedom to life without expression? We cannot sit back as we lose precious freedoms. We cannot allow silence in the face of corruption because corruption steals from the poor no matter where it happens. It causes deaths.
In Kenya, we needed a space where writers can unite without thinking of tribe ( an accident of birth used for political affiliation in clan and family based politics) and the political divisions that ripped our nation apart in the year 2007 after a General Election. That was a time I will never forget.
It is not that there had not been killings before in my country. There had been. Kenya is not home to many its internally displaced persons since 1991 when we were about to hold our multi-party elections after a hiatus when de jure and de facto, Kenya had been subjected to one party politics.
These killings and displacements had always happened mainly before elections and without excusing the death of even one person, they were not openly seen to be what we saw in Dec 2007. This was a time when we had no national voices as killings happened openly, houses were burnt, people killed and Kenya's moral and physical fabric burned becoming a country that will never be the same again.The churches had been robbed of voice by politics. No politicians came to the people at that time. Most of the elected ones were holed up in plush hotels under heavy security everywhere. No one tried to dialogue with the masses. The silence was so deep that soldier Nthenge who reasoned with the masses at the risk of his own life ended up getting a UN award and recognition by the Kenyan National Human Rights Commission. And this is the silence that has killed my faith in political beings in Kenya including my own.
Political parties particularly the two major ones had become tribal outfits of sorts with a sharp division between the people of the lakes and the mountainous regions of Kenya. I searched for a place to speak from even as a writer and there was none... Why would you choose to be with the silence of death? We love life and expressions of our various freedoms! Can Kenyan politics enshrine those not just in letter but in deed?
PEN Kenya rose like a phoenix from the ashes because we realised just how all other institutions had been torn apart. Why, even the churches had been torn up by politics. In fact, right from Catholic to the smallest sect founded in the last night of the election...In Kenya a sect is born every now and then, we stood separated in a way that I could not explain. How did politics get us there, I kept asking myself? It was a time of pain and deep soul searching, a time when the events of Rwanda in 1994 seemed to be the design resurrecting, only this time between many ethnic groups. It was such a time that even some people abandoned faiths in religions they had belonged to for ages. The nation was shaken to the core; torn like the biblical curtain in the temple when the Christ died; the earth tremors and predictions had come before.
As I wore sackcloth to encourage myself to move around and meet people without fear and to tell them that we are one. As I tried to speak to military people to desist from using gunfire and killing, I was not trying to be a biblical person but the sackcloth helped break the silence and it touched many people. I too was touched by it. It helped me think that we were faced with making a country out of nothing and that we had to. I kept my books, some special ones near me. I looked for a voice and there was none, no common platform. I missed PEN Kenya. I decided to start hard work and get the institution on its feet. True, not all writers in Kenya or anywhere in the world belong to PEN Centres but those who do find a writers community where freedom of expression is valued.
Part of the reason why our country was breaking ( still could) is that we had refused to live by law and to hate corruption. I was delighted as PEN Kenya picked up strength from nowhere to be the one to say we must read Michela Wrong's book when it came out in 2008. Why, this book discusses what tribal groupings mean to politicians. It does not call a big spade scooping all the soup a spoon. It calls it a spade and with names. It was ridiculous that importers in Kenya were cowed by fear not to even bring in the book. When some copies came in, it was via other paths. Bookshops in the main feared to stock the book. We got some books and decided to schedule readings throughout Kenya with other groups. PEN Kenya will be at the coast tomorrow reading once again in a public forum with a big audience like we did in Kisumu and Nairobi. We stand for free expression. We cannot allow our freedoms to be tampered with. It just cannot happen. We are children of the light and not of fear. And of course, we will read other books written locally on corruption. That we must.
"It's our turn to Eat" is obviously a controversial book here. It is the story of a Kenyan Permanent Secretary for ethics working from State House who becomes the corruption czar by name but who finds out and tapes material that reveals that what shocks him as a former civil society activist that the 'eating' being done in two big scandals and more- Anglo Leasing*, Goldenberg* - especially is not by chance. In the end, they tell him in the face that they are taking the public's money on purpose to fund elections in the future and to eat with their people. On a trip in London, he refuses to return to Kenya and spills the beans. Michela Wrong, a long term friend of his ( not romantic as she says in the book) offers him her flat and from there, she writes this great book. He has all the details. His father is the Kibaki ( President today) buddy. He is of the same ethnic group as the President and John Githongo is seen as great betrayer. The one who spoils the broth when all including people he knows are lapping it up!
Exposing corrruption has cost media and writers dearly. In Backlash, the raiding after midnight of a local media house because it had a story on corruption is narrated. "Commandos in balaclavas and hoods, wielding AK47s, broke into the transmission room where two technicians were watching a row of screens. ...ordering KTN staff to close down the station, they kicked them to the gorund and proceeded to ransack the offices, removing vital braodcasting equipment, scores of hard drives and computer monitors..." They hurt some journalists.. they smashed doors open and then went to the industrial area printing plant "and made a bonfire of the thousands of copies of the next day's edition."
"It took a while for the government to admit responsibility for an operation whose brute force seemed more typical of Mugabe's Zimbabwe than of Kenya." It is our Turn To eat- pg.255-256.
The internal security minister then came out with no apology but a wieldy explanation of the state security having been threatened. John Michuki an ex colonial DC, said words which Kenyans will not forget for a long time describing his forces and I suppose Kenya. "If you rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten!"
We love to read this book in our pain because we must not hide deep wounds if they would heal! It is wonderful when a mirror of your society is held before you and you can say, " Ha! this is the real so and so whom we elected to lead a water stressed nation where ten million are faced with starvation stuffing his/her stomach and vomiting out to eat again, like the Romans of yore! This is so and so... protecting you?" This is us! All politicians are out to eat. I therefore, mostly love a kiosk owner that Michela Wrong quotes saying all our politicians are as greedy as hyenas.
You must understand in most of our oral folklore in which values have no tribe, the hyena is a symbol of cowardly greed.. ( I need not apologise to the animal, it does what it should) but when this applies to humans... no apologies..
"People in this country are like meat for hyenas. The only question is which hyena you prefer to be eaten by; Hyena Raila, Hyena Kibaki or Hyena Musyoka? whichever it is, it is still a hyena coming to eat you."
"It's our Turn to Eat," has its shortcomings, but what matters is that it carries forth to the world the voice of younger Kenyans who cannot stand corruption and who want to lead! This is great PR for our nation but the powers that be do not see the good in a book that opens our wounds up trying to heal, a malignant cancer. I heard, but the author is yet to confirm to me that there are already a few libel suits.. but she has the evidence needed and I predict she is on to either a new version or a book two!
PEN Kenya Centre, President ( 2008+3)
* International PEN is an organization of Poets, Novelists, Essayists, journalists and historians. It was founded in 1922.
* google International PEN, Anglo Leasing, Goldenberg for more info ....