Article by Bobastles Nondi
Published September 10, 2007
The fourth edition of So What? (for that is what Kwani? is in Kiswahili) journal is out and, like the previous issues, it can pass for whatever one wishes it to be: it can be a forest with sky-clutching trees and creepers and other vegetation in between or a stack of hay in which only a determined searcher can get the needle hidden therein. Robust with provocative writing, BOBASTLES NONDI with OGOVA ONDEGO writes, the 448-page Kwani? 4 comes off as an emergency examination; an alternative paper set in a hurry ‘without much keenness’ to be used only in the event that the real well thought-out exam is either leaked or lost.
Some of the articles that stand out for quality in the journal include The Kenyan Workplace by Haakasa Renja, Wages of Garbage by Charles Matathia, Killer Necklace cartoon by The Mindbender and Binyavanga Wainaina’s editorial on how Kenyans prefer to maintain the status quo even when it hurts them.
For its liberal use of not-so-polite four-letter words, the first editorial by Billy Kahora “why was it necessary to have two editorials, anyway?” is one of the Achilles’ heels in Kwani?4. And now that we have mentioned obscenity, what is a naked man doing running across the pages of Kwani? 4 with his accentuated private parts leading the way in Running by Jackie Lebo?
Why does Kwani? relish the use of four-letter words in its articles, editor Binyavanga Wainaina and your assistant Billy Kahora? To paraphrase Shailja Patel’s poem, An Open Letter to Certain Male Performance Poets, we may pose: ‘Show me how: aesthetically, stylistically, morally, metrically, rhythmically, four letter words are crucial to your writing.
The treatment of Kwani? 4, too, leaves a lot to be desired: the spine peels off or cracks apart on folding. Some texts are smudged, peeled or obliterated. The publication has editing lapses, even in stories that have been published elsewhere.
Articles, poems and blogs in this issue scramble for current news stories and gossip, some almost tied to the general elections in Kenya due in December 2007.
Also hurriedly addressed in this issue is the absurdity of tribalism in Kenya, with the protagonists and antagonists being the Kikuyu and the Luo communities. This topic is given acres of space, with advanced heart-rending illustration of the results of ethnic acrimony as told by Peter Trachtenberg in the 47-page The Purpose of the Blindfold on Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi genocide story.
Perhaps to expose the flippancy of Kenyan journalism, a cut-out is used to address the rampant malady of parent-child molestation just after the Rwanda story. While the writer would like readers to feel him and perhaps take up arms against the perpetrator, he fails to explain how a father who is in police custody would threaten his victim ‘daughter’ with death. Why would the writer use ‘allegedly infected with HIV’ instead of getting the facts from the hospital where the girl is admitted? How would the girl fail to ‘tell anybody’ if it was already a police case? And why did the ‘stepmother’ find it appropriate only to expose her husband when he was already exposed and after repeatedly ‘defiling’ the girl?
And talking of flippancy, Women To Women Marriage by Wairimu Ngaruiya Njambi and William E. O’Brien leaves more questions than answers over woman to woman marriages in Kenya. Although their research appears extensive, they fall short of declaring that they failed to find strong reasons why a woman would pretend to have ‘married’ another woman if the so-called wife has to satisfy her emotional and sexual needs from a man, in most cases the husband of the ‘woman husband’.
Through illustrations, Kwani? 4 ventures out to throw tantrums at the flawed April 2007 election in Nigeria that saw Olusegun Obasanjo hand over the reigns of power to Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
But just before that, there is this �advertisement� that puts things straight with NGOs: An NGO gave me a test drug to shrink the population of Kenya overnight� please help.
Then there is the rider, �NGOs can be dangerous to the health of a nation.�
At a time when many NGOs are struggling to remain relevant and be justified in the eyes of the increasingly empowered populace, and continue appealing to donors, this near factual observation could not have come at a worse time.
Perhaps it would be more justified to qualify such an accusation in the same issue, considering that Kwani Trust, the publisher of Kwani? 4 on whose pages the accusation is made, and its funder, Ford Foundation, are themselves non-governmental organisations.
Kwani?4 is dedicated to David Sadera Munyakei, the man who is said to have blown the whistle on the Goldenberg scandal that fleeced Kenya of billions of shillings during the reign of President Daniel arap Moi in the 1990s. Munyakei �passed on with little recompense, early on this year�.
Considering that this is a book that should endure a long shelf life, and that Goldenberg scandal is a topic in Kenyan history that people will re-visit over generations, the writer needs to be specific with time to spare the reader the trouble of wondering what time �early on this year� refers to.
Although by July 2007 Kwani? 4 was already in circulation, Billy Kahora, in his editorial, writes that “in August this year I traveled back to the past to visit his (Munyakei’s) family.” How many Augusts are there in ‘this year’?
As usual, Binyavanga Wainaina launches into the onslaught on Kenyans for their perceived passivity. He writes: “In Kenya, until we are left naked, we will defend the status quo’ much has been made of the 500 people who earn 90 percent of the government wage bill; much has been made of the knot of families and connections who have taken ownership of this country, and are not happy with all the land they own and all the assets, who will still come to our homes and take the very last cent as taxes to fund their referendum campaign, and the elections in 2007”.
According to Wainaina, Kenyans ‘do not want to challenge a government to be better’, but instead, want ‘to be comfortable with the status quo’, and that that will send Kenyans ‘straight back to 1969. To 1988.’ But he does not explain what happened in 1969 and 1988.
Consistent with its character of just writing in whatever way the author wants, even if only he or she understand the language and style, Kwani?4 launches into storytelling with Wambui Wa Wanjiru’s Kiririkano, an easy first-person story that talks about life in Nairobi in the writer’s parlance. Lambasting people who are obsessed with life in USA, those who have come back and are now carrying it over everyone, or women who are after white men, Wa Wanjiru uses English, Kikuyu, Kiswahili, and Sheng in no particular pattern.
For, even from a terrific storyteller like Wa Wanjiru, we are still expected to believe that in some parts of Kenya, domestic workers who tend gardens refer to their female bosses as ‘Love’ even if romance is involved, and watchmen call their bosses’ daughters ‘baby’ with Yankee-babe connotation. If it is not the writers who are foreigners, then it is some of the stories that are attached to life outside Kenya that appear too abstract.
But why should Kwani? be rehashing stories that have gone even through the mainstream newspapers in Kenya, their quality notwithstanding? While many of the stories are extracts or have been published elsewhere, What My Dying Mother Taught Me About Living by Rasna Warah, is one such story that has been published in a local newspaper.
On its cover full of mosaic graffiti, a poem reads in part: “where the/ clear stream of reason/ has not lost its/ way into dreary/ desert sand of the dead habit.”
If it is true that Kwani? is the stream where ‘clear stream of reason’ flows as is the expectation, then it might as well be true that it is fast meandering into ‘desert sand of the dead habit’, where instead of creating or allowing creative minds more space, the scramble is more on mitumba (second hand) stories.
It is nauseating to read woes and wars of Kwani? and its business partners in the same pages as other literary works, as this has nothing to do with the reader. And if Kwani Trust found it inevitable, then it is only curious that Books First, the alleged dishonest partner, was not given the right of reply.