Kenya's literary renaissance gives a voice to urban living

Declan Walsh
Saturday 11 October 2003 00:00
Comments

Yet again, bad news flows like sludge through Kenya. Schisms and intrigue are damaging the new, corruption busting, government. A recent report found half the country's judges are corrupt. One is apparently nicknamed "cashbox".

Then the UN declared Nairobi's Kibera district to be the world's largest slum - a corrugated city of 600,000 souls. Such ghettos, said one UN official, "are the places where all the evils come together". But there are signs that a new vitality is seeping up in Kenya.

It started a few years ago with gritty, ghetto hip-hop music. Now it is followed by Kwani?, a literary review heralding a small renaissance in Kenyan writing. Born from e-mail exchanges 18 months ago, Kwani? - Kiswahili slang for "So?" - gives voice to modern urban living and some fine writing. It is the antithesis of the soft-focus novels of many popular white writers on Africa.

There are no lions nuzzling up to the authors at breakfast, or panoramas of spear-wielding warriors roaming the sweeping plains. Instead there is a rich spread of yarns about life in vibrant, infuriating, corrupt, creative Kenya.

Stories feature bar stool hustlers and pot-bellied politicians, e-mail articles and a UN worker who falls in love with a smell. There are satirical cartoons and paintings of African men making love to fat white women. The backdrops are modern too: musty offices and beach hotels, hair salons and sweaty saloons.

"Every story is going to a new and interesting place," said Binyavanga Wainaina, an opinionated and talented writer who won the 2002 Caine prize - Africa's Booker - for his short story "Discovering Home". Since then, after his return home from a decade in South Africa, he has struggled to prod new writing into the open.

Local literature had ground down to almost nothing since the 1970s, when writers like Ngugi wa Thiong'o achieved international renown. The 24-year rule of Daniel arap Moi muffled creativity. In the 1980s, artists such as Ngugi fled into exile to avoid persecution.

But even when the restrictions were lifted, little fresh writing emerged. Maybe it was due to poverty, or residual fear. Or maybe it was because fact became stranger than fiction.

"How do you draw some of our politicians in fiction? You'd end up with cheesy movie characters," Mr Wainaina said. "Nobody would believe you," added Yvonne Owuor, another writer. "They would think you're getting it from a comic."

Ms Owuor is the latest flag-bearer of Kenya's renaissance. Her story "Weight of Whispers" scooped this year's Caine prize. A former corporate communications woman she carries a notebook everywhere, capturing characters and scenes.

Even Nairobi is a character, she says. "It is a sorceress turned whore. She is also psychotic. And schizophrenic."

The city's gristle of poverty also fed into the new vitality. Mathare United FC, a football team from the slums, jostled with the Pope and Bono for the Nobel peace prize this week. And Kwani? features an interview with Kalamashaka, a local hip-hop group who cracked the mould by rapping about ghetto realities as black Americans did in the 1990s.

One thread running through new writing is the transition to a new Kenya.

Both writers shared in the excitement that accompanied Moi's exit last December. Now both are disappointed. The greatest crime, said Mr Wainaina, is the lingering presence of stale old men in power.

Local publishers are notoriously averse to gambling on new talent. Kwani? aims to prove them wrong. The initial print run of just 3,000 is selling fast. Mr Wainaina is already planning a second run.

"Kenya is an un-mined country. We look on this as the beginning of discovery - for people to share their experiences through literature," he said.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in