Kwani? 04 and "How to Write About Africa" (a la Binyavanga Wainaina)
It has been just over a full week now since we've been in Nairobi. In my first days here, I got a hold of some Kwani? publications, figuring they would be a good introduction to what's going on in the Kenyan writing scene. I've read Kwani? 03 before and stuff on their site, but Kwani? publications are not easy (or cheap) to come by in America. There was actually a literary festival that Kwani? was putting on this past week in Nairobi, but we were so busy getting settled and recovering our lost baggage, etc. that we weren't able to make it to any of it, not that we had the means to even get there if we wanted to. Getting around without a car is problematic here. That is probably the biggest adjustment we've had to make. Not that we had a car in NYC, but lack of mobility in general, or even more generally, lack of accessibility is the problem. If you are accustomed to it anyway. In NYC, anything we wanted was at our fingertips. We could walk out our door and find anything within a few blocks or a short subway ride. And we had high-speed internet at our fingertips at any given time. Everything here is more of a struggle. Which I suppose you could argue makes you appreciate things more. There is no public transportation in these parts (Runda). There are no matatus. It's like trying to get through Beverly Hills without a car (which I've tried). Nairobi is a sprawling and seemingly random rat nest of roads that are made for vehicles, and not bikes or pedestrians. There are sparse few arteries pumping blood and no capillaries spidering in between unless you are willing to walk through backyards and forests, fending off barking Rhodesian ridgebacks and leopards for all I know. Walking to the Village Market, which is the nearest thing to us that isn't someone's electric-fenced-in house, takes well over an hour. For Jess to get to work takes over an hour of brisk walking. So we've had to rely on taxis and car services to get anywhere. And even then, the traffic here is out of control. But I'm whining and we've only been living like this for just over a week, and we are living in comparative luxury and can afford (or at least be able to expense) taxis, etc. But hey, it's all relative. If you are on a train making $300 a day and pass a train making $1 a day... or worse yet, the trains collide ... then what? (Kwani? by the way means what? in Swahili).
Some somewhat random thoughts while reading through Kwani? 04:
Shit, did Nietzsche really say that? Seems like a contradiction in logic. Unless "God" is the belief in people's minds that needs to be killed. I don't believe in god, and I suppose I believe he needs be murdered, through education, or by providing a substitute for the unknown vacant variables left in believer's minds. American money needs to be vandalized to remove god's trust from it. By spending it you are buying into it. I'm happier with Kenyan shillings as my currency (note the 5cense logo change above, not that they use cents now). Jesus fish should be fought with man-eating Darwin fish. Christianity is colonial, yet many here still buy into it. It's common for people to die here, and not uncommon for people to just shrug and say it's god's will. Rather than get pissed about it and do something to prevent it the next time. Has the Christian god not forsaken them enough? This is not to say that there was anything remotely religious in Kwani?. There wasn't, thank god. What god? Kenya would be a better place if more people read Kwani? rather than the bible.
I also don't belong to a tribe, so it's hard for me to relate or belong. I believe in individualism. And tribalism kills individualism. Individualism can kill tribes. Individualism can also be isolating and lonely. Tribes will help you out, if you belong to them. To some extent, every society has tribes. Bostonians are a tribe. Republicans and democrats are tribes, punk-rockers are tribes, a school of literature is a tribe, gangs are tribes, a blog roll is a tribe, the Mafia is a tribe, religions builds tribes. It might feel good and safe to not be alone in your thinking, but by joining a tribe you lose individualism and can be easily swept with the tide without stopping to question. Tribes can turn into mobs.
Going back to the first comment above, I guess you could substitute "yoke of colonialism" for "tribalism" or Nietzsche's god.
Back to my comments on "creative journalism" ... not that I have any problems with it. I guess that's what you could call this, and in the case of Kwani? it was informative for me as a new writer/reader coming to Kenya. But I expect more in a literary journal and books I guess. I like to see them rise above. Books belong on pedestals. Maybe most literary journals in the states consist of this type of "story-telling," and opinionated commentary, I wouldn't know. I guess you could call it contemporary literature of the Kenyan variety, and it's contemporary literature in general that I'm adverse to, or just not in tune with. Especially when they have political or social themes. Maybe that will change here. As editor of Sleepingfish, we receive our fair share of Bush or Iraq stories, which I reject immediately upon seeing those 4-letter words. The only things worse are religious stories, of which we also receive our share. But that's me and my warped discretion. Given the sheer number of subs, I imagine most mainstream lit mags publish a lot of stories on Bush and Iraq, as I imagine as many are interested in reading them as telling them.
Most of the pieces in Kwani? 04 were good at giving you a sense of what contemporary Kenyan and African culture is like, they were good at "relating" or telling. But I think what it is is that I like is literature that creates. That shows without telling. That isn't so real. That is below being real, surreal, irreal. That contemplates it's own navel less and creates more "babies". Anyway, that's my general pet peeve about general contemporary literature. Most literary journals I would lose interest in when I came across such story-telling or socio-political themes, but reading through Kwani? 04 helped me to identify what it is that I don't like about most contemporary literature. If I step off my condescending "in the name of art" soap box, then Kwani? 04 was enjoyable and informative as "creative journalism," and if anyone is interested in Kenyan contemporary literature and culture, then I'd suggest it.
That said, it's very Kenayn-centric and might alienate people outside of Kenya. Or even some people within Kenya. There's a lot of NGO and mzungu "do-gooder" bashing and criticism. The opening page says "NGOs can be dangerous to the health of a nation." Perhaps it's for good reason, and it's definitely true that there is a huge ex-pat population here working in NGOs, driving around in ridiculously huge Landcruisers and Rangerovers with their cause emblazoned on the sides, living in huge houses with servants, etc., which includes us strictly based on the color of our skin and the reason why we're here. Or at least why my better half is here, I myself am here for strictly selfish reasons in that I want to experience something different. I'm guilty of working in the past for organizations that are trying to better the lives of Africans. But I'm over that. I'd rather sit back and watch life in Kenya improve on it's own volition. More important to me is experiencing Kenya and Africa, and trying to get other people to take an interest in Africa instead of taking pity on it, as there's definitely already enough pity to go around.
I'm definitely of the NFB (Not Fully Belonging) stereotype. Even in NYC, after living there 8 years, I was NFB. Even where I was born I am NFB. I have no desire to belong anywhere. If you belong somewhere, then it owns you, and all you do is defend it against people that don't belong and you become angst-ridden and can't think or write about anything else except your current situation and the "good old days" before all the poseur infiltrators arrived. The same thing goes on in America. Wainaina comes up with all sorts of other amusing classifications of expatriates. He even pokes fun at animal-lovers, people that come to Africa to see the wildlife. That's me too. I saw monkeys today and got all geeked out. So sue me. Kick me out of Kenya. I think animals are cool. At least Binyavanga gives a little more credit to Americans who spit on their flag, we are one rung up from the bottom on his totem pole. Then again, I have a six-pac of Tusker in my fridge, and Jess just called me to tell me that someone is lending us their Landcruiser until our duty-free car gets here from Singapore via Mombassa. Should I be ashamed to drive it? Should we say, "nah, that's cool, we'll bike it."? Should we not take advantage of our opportunity to get a duty-free car? We also have maids and guards. It's not my place to dismiss them as we are only rent-paying tenants here, but if we did hire them, would that be a bad thing? You could argue that having maids and guards and drivers is providing jobs to those who otherwise wouldn't have them. Personally, I think it's creepy having someone clean up after you, and weird to have someone drive you around or guard you. There are definitely a lot of conflicting emotions and hypocritical contradictions you need to swallow living here, no matter how you live. Unless of course you were born here and remain here and were "schooled" here and not in America or England or some other Scandinavian country.
The final piece in Wainaina's Kwanini? is "Power of Love," which pokes more fun at the hand-holding power-ballads like "We are the World" and all the celebrity love aimed at the bleeding heart of the "Dark Continent" (am I meeting all the requirements he sets forth in "How to Write About Africa?"). Wainaina makes some interesting points about all this kiss-blowing. I'd agree that penny-pinching trustafarian do-gooders are a useless form of humanity. If you come here, you should be prepared to spend money. And you can't expect to be treated like a local, because you are not a local. Never expect to be. Criticizing NGOs and the mzungu celebrity nonsense though is even better if you can provide a home-grown alternative. One thing's for sure, I'd rather spend money here than America. And I'd rather buy a self-consumed Kenyan literary journal, than an American one. It's a great thing that Kwani? exists.
I don't know, reading this sort of stuff makes me tired. Like I've been flogged or had my ass-kicked, intellectually, but at the same time Kwani has kick-started my mind. It makes me realize anyone with knowledge is a hypocrite. The only ones on this planet that aren't hypocrites are the ones that don't know what hypocrite means. This all-to-real, in-your-face literature makes me want to escape, tail between legs, into something bizarre and chaotic and meaningless, that isn't trying to prove anything. But that's just me, a country-less escapist.
(c) 2008 Derek White