By Dina Ligaga
Published September 22, 2008
Kwani? was first published in 2003 in Kenya by its founding editor, Binyavanga Wainaina, the first Kenyan to win the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002 with his story, Discovering Home. Yvonne Owuor’s Weight of Whispers, published in Kwani?, had won the prize in 2003. The second edition of Kwani? had the fortune of having a story by one of its writers, Parsalelo Kantai, short-listed for the Caine Prize in 2004. This would have been the third time the award was coming Kenya’s way had Zimbabwean Brian Chikwavya’s Writing Still not scooped it.
Kantai’s fiction, The story of Comrade Lemma and the Black Jerusalem Boys Band, is the story of Sylvanius, an old man who, because of his popularity within the small community of Lemma, is considered some sort of a hero. In his younger days, he had been a popular musician in the Black Jerusalem Boys Band. His boyhood hero had been a Comrade Lemma, a man who had struggled for liberation and who the narrator considers as belonging to the same rank as Dedan Kimathi and other Mau Mau heroes in Kenya. He grows up to become a musician and takes up the name of Comrade Lemma, after his hero. Years later, someone mistakes him for the real hero, and even though he tries to correct this image, it becomes impossible.
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Who are the national heroes in Kenya, is the question Kantai seems to be posing even as he pours scorn on the confusion in the ambiguous concept of ‘national heroes’ in the East African nation. Kantai brings out the hollowness of the term and how it has been (mis)used in Kenya to create capitalistic opportunities for high placed government operatives and rich business people. The power of the story appears to lie in the fact that those who are dubbed ‘national heroes’ are in reality not the ‘real heroes’. Kantai’s story brings to mind the 2003 incident in which the National Rainbow Coaltion (NARC) government, while groping for cheap populism, flew an Oromo peasant to Kenya from Ethiopia in the name of honouring ‘freedom heroes’ whom the Kenya African National Union (KANU) administration had conveniently forgotten but ended up embarrassing the nation after feting 72-year-old Lemma Ayanu who all along protested he was neither a Kenyan, a Mau Mau fighter, nor a ‘General Stanley Mathenge.’ Despite this, NARC drove the Kenyan taxpayer to incur Sh500,000 (about US$6000 or 5000 Euros) on the ‘General’ and his entourage. He was even taken to State House to meet President Emilio Stanley Mwai Kibaki.
Murad Mussa, the Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya, said of the spectre in which thousands of Kenyans turned up at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to receive ‘General Mathenge’: ‘For a peasant farmer, seeing such a big crowd was very surprising.’
It is not the lack of national heroes per se that piques our brains but the fact that there is a general, almost perverted need to have a national hero even where there is none, while real heroes lie either dead or swimming in abject poverty.
In Kantai’s story, as in the ‘Gen Mathenge’ saga, it is easy to pick out those whose interest in finding the hero is mainly based upon monetary gain. For instance, Marehemu George is a rich man who starts out as a second hand clothes vendor and whose wealth he claims to have inherited from a rich, departed American who donated the clothes to him. Marehemu George is a man who sees financial gains everywhere; he has even invested in a condom company that provides free samples to people of the slums. Behind his zest to be of service to the people, however, is the fact that such service to the community will attract as much funding as possible from various donors.
Kantai’s mockery of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and Community Based Organisations (CBOs) is unveiled because what the people of Lemma need is a healthier environment, away from the sewers, filth and dirt that they live with.
It is Marehemu George who finds the potential in Comrade Lemma’s new status as a ‘national hero’. He is the one who drags him to the media and the media to him, all the while attracting as much hype and attention on Lemma, while ignoring the basic issues that affect the people of Lemma neighbourhood. Importantly, Kantai brings to the attention of the reader the role mass media play in creating personalities in Kenya. Comically, he draws attention to the back door deals that go on even in the so-called independent media and the role they play in emphasising the existence of national heroes. The general public remains ignorant of the deals that come into play at this level.
Another wayward character who latches onto the false ‘national hero’ concept is Humphrey, a rich business man who decides to ‘own’ Joka, the song for which Captain Lemma is being praised. Interestingly enough is the silence of the authorities even while everyone is making money out of this false concept. Is it because the government has failed to address the question of national heroes leaving it deliberately ambiguous to allow cracks for exploitation?
Kantai mocks the Kenyan government by drawing attention to the dubious means in which Kenyan heroes are selected, and how in the end the so-called heroes remain impoverished while their ‘rescuers’ become richer on their account. His story also enables us to pick out the ironies in the criteria for selecting national heroes. Whereas the people of Lemma rightfully give Sylvanius a.k.a Captain Lemma the respect he deserves for being the first person to create and settle in Lemma that has become so packed and filthy, Marehemu George and the rest give him status because he happens to have shared a name with a once-upon-a-time freedom fighter who died mysteriously for resisting and fighting the colonial government.
Instantly, the subversive elements of the same concept of ‘hero’ are spelt out as the author tries to call attention to the real heroes of Kenya. Kantai shows how common people understand the meaning of the term ‘hero’ while the government either does not or simply chooses to ignore it, using it only for its symbolic import. The confusion in the government’s criteria for choosing a hero is juxtaposed against the reason for the choice of Lemma as the name of the estate in honour of Captain Lemma. The lack of genuine interest in Lemma himself is clear from the fact that Marehemu George and his people cannot tell the difference between Lemma the war veteran, and Lemma the musician. However, the people of Lemma can, because when his picture is placed in the newspapers they remember him from his music rather than from anything beyond his musical capabilities
Such haste betrays the government’s inability to choose national heroes and hence the mix-up that comes about in trying to name the real heroes in Kenya. Kantai calls attention to this by playing on several layered meanings of the often ambiguous term, ‘hero’.