August 23 Is The International Day For The Remembrance Of Slave Trade And Its Abolition

August 23 is globally memorialized as the day to reflect on slave trade and its abolition. Humankind has ‘observed’ this day since 1998. This year’s anniversary passed in muffled quietude as all the others before it. Basically, slavery is alive and well everywhere in the world. The degree and the guises may change from time to time. It may vary from space to space. Yet the substance remains – regardless.

Memorialization of this day was an initiative of UNESCO. It seeks to sensitize humankind to the atrocities of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, also known as the Middle Passage Trade. The buying and selling of Africans to work on sugarcane and rubber plantations in the Americas took place from the 15th through the 19th centuries. It was a savagely ruthless business. Between 1.2 and 2.4 million Africans died during their shipment to the Americas. Those who landed there arrived in chains, screaming and kicking. They numbered anywhere between 11million and 15 million, uprooted and separated from their friends and families, even in exile.

The choice of 23 August commemorates the start of the slave revolt in San Domingo – present day Haiti. This story has been so movingly document by CLR James in the seminal work The Black Jacobins. James’ title mirrors the Jacobins who overthrew the French Bourbon Dynasty in the French Revolution 1789 – 1792. It is telling that the Black Revolution in San Domingo took place in the period 1791 – 1804, coinciding with the French Revolution. Yet it was also a revolution against the French! The French did not think that the same principles of liberty, fraternity and egalitarianism that they sought at home applied to the slaves in San Domingo.

Ironically, dynastic Europe defeated the French Revolution. Conversely, San Domingo’s revolution, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, made the richest slavery driven community at the time the first free African community in the world. L’Ouverture himself would die a treacherous death. But the revolution worked. Shortly afterwards, Slave Trade was formally abolished in  Britain and America in 1807. It ended in the Caribbean islands in 1811.

Yet, is slavery alive and well, as we have said? Does it only seem to change its guises? Karl Marx recognized slavery as a form of economic production, alongside such other forms as feudalism, capitalism, socialism and others. And he was right. The Africans who worked on the slave plantations were wealth-creating machines. They had no more welfare needs and no more rights than a machine has. They could not vote. They could not leave the plantation. They married whom the boss chose for them. They could be separated from the family and be sold to another slave owner, permanently never to see their relatives again – even the new family in exile. Alex Hailey depicts this so adroitly in the Kunta Kinte family story in the book and movie titled Roots: The Saga of an American Family.

Some of the impacts of the Transatlantic Slave Trade will never be reversed. The impoverishment of Africa by taking away the most able bodied men and women, for example. Then there was the permanent displacement of a Black population and its future generations.  The Black populations in the Americas will never know where they came from, beyond knowing that they originated from someplace in Africa. This is a permanent scar that should be addressed through commemorations of 23 August and beyond.

But equally needing address is not just the fact that people still buy and sell slaves in diverse parts of the world today. There is neo slavery in Africa, led by the continent’s ruling classes. It is the enslavement of the citizen by fellow citizens. Its best manifestation is in the tribe. The tribal kingpin is the new slave owner. Unlike the slavers of the 16th to 19th centuries, he does not have to capture and ferret away individuals who are kicking and screaming. The slaves are the hovelling poverty inflicted individuals who don’t care to know that the tribal master is the author of their destitution.

When he is outside government, the African slave owner will ask the tribe to carry him on their backs into government. “Our government,” he says, reminding us of Malcolm X’s notion of the House Niger and the Field Nigger. When the slave master buys a new car, the House Nigger says, “Our new car.” But the Field Nigger says, “Our sweat.” The new African slave is a House Nigger. He will fight, rape or kill to ensure that the master gets into government. When “Massa” is in government his focus will be on looting the public coffers. If anyone questions his thieving, he has the tribal slaves to fall back to. He tells them, “Our government is under attack.” In all public conversation, the slaves will vociferously speak for Massa. They carry out the debate in the stinking slums that they call home and kill each other there for Massa.

Alone in the world, the modern African slave lives in subhuman conditions in urban slums and in debased rural shacks. He lives below the poverty line, unable to access proper medical care. He can hardly feed his children, or dress them. He can’t give them quality education. He lives on the false hope that something good will come his way someday. He does not even know where the good thing will come from. He is religious, simply trusting that God will send manna from heaven, someday. The selfsame religious slave who prays so hard is a hater. With amazing zeal, the godly person abhors people from other tribes.

The slave’s eyes and mind are closed. He understands that life is hard. But he does not understand that he is one of the main reasons life is hard. Nor does he understand that he is a slave. He hates his condition, his circumstances. But he does not recognize them as modern slavery. His closed eyes and mind cannot see that the tribal kingpin whom he worships is the author of his hopelessness. And so the slave hates his circumstances. He hates slavery. But he loves Massa. Going forward, commemoration of things like the Transatlantic Slave Trade may need to broaden their scope to address modern forms of slavery.

Ezekiel Kemboi Has Not Seen The Wheel That Is Turning

Ezekiel Kemboi did not see the wheel of time turning. He did not listened to what his body was telling him. The erstwhile Kenyan 3000 metres steeplechase marvel is accordingly in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Kemboi first bagged gold in Athens in 2004. He would repeat the feat in London in 2012. But he did a lot more. He took gold in the World Championships in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015. This is over and above other significant victories that we need not go into. Wednesday this week in Rio de Janeiro, he came third behind compatriot gold medalist Conselsus Kipruto and an American gentleman. Kemboi immediately announced his retirement from athletics, as he should have done much earlier. Yet the drama was only beginning. The following day, he was stripped off his poor bronze, allegedly for having stepped outside the track.

Our good man will be coming back home empty handed. But the decision to take away his bronze quickly led Kemboi to rescind his retirement decision. “See you in London at the world championships next year,” he told his rivals. He is going to London to bring back his thing, taken away on the track. And so London is going to be worth waiting for. Will Kemboi reclaim his thing? Time will tell. One thing, however, is that we don’t seem to know how to read the signs of the times – even to listen to our own bodies and take a dignified walk from theatres of excellence.

America’s Carl Lewis distinguished himself in the field and on the track. He bagged 10 Olympic medals, nine of them gold. He won nine World Championship medals, eight of them gold. He became a household name throughout the 1980’s. Then he failed to see the wheel of time and the attrition that goes with it. The World Championships of 1993 in Stuttgart, Germany, brought new kids on the block. At the starting line for the 100 metres finals, you saw the restless Linford Christie of the UK, edgy like a lion in a cage; eager to be released. Within 10 seconds, history was written. Christie was the new 100 metres World Champion. Lewis came a distant fourth. He however won his first world championship medal in 200 metres – a bronze. But he was not quite done. In 1996 he qualified for the Atlanta Olympics. Fate conspired to keep the frontrunners Mike Powell and Ivan Pedroso on the injury list. Lewis won his final gold in long jump. However, he sullied it by trying to force his way into the US 4 by 100 metres relay, although he had not trained with the team. The last memory of his career is about the ugly debate around him in Atlanta. He quit quite disgraced.

It will be recalled how at the same Atlanta Olympics Christie was disqualified after making two false starts in the finals of 100 metres final. He kicked up an ugly fuss! He stole the limelight for all the wrong reasons. Christie is the only Briton to have won gold medals in 100 metres in four major competitions – Olympic Games, European Championships, Commonwealth Games and World Championships. He won 24 major medals, including 10 gold medals. Yet memory of his career brings up recollections of bans over substance abuse, wrangles on and off the track, driving bans over careless motoring and the like. His country has attempted to decorate him by naming stadia and other stuff after him. Yet his undignified exit from a colourful sporting career will just not go away.

How you finish is important. There are people who have known this, in sports and in other walks of life too.  Brazil’s soccer legend Edson Arantes do Nacimento (Pele) and German’s Franz Backenbauer are among the greatest living players. They knew when to quit and went on to do other great things for the sport they love. At the time of this writing, sports lovers are waiting with bated breath to see how Jamaica’s Usain Bolt performs in the short races in Rio. The fastest man in the world has announced that he retires after the World Championships next year. In an interview in the current issue of Kenya Airways Msafiri Magazine, he says, “I want to quit before I am beaten.”

It is the same in political leadership. The Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos started off as a popular darling of the people, in 1965. He left a disgraced dictator in 1986. Ivory Coast’s Felix Houphouet Boigny reigned for 33 years. The people were fed up with him by the time he died in office in December 1993. Closer home, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni were great darlings of their people. Today they face recurrent opprobrium from those who cherished them.

Kenya’s own Mzee Moi was a breath of fresh air when he took over from Mzee Kenyatta in 1978. And although he pledged to walk in Mzee’s footsteps, his first four years were differently refreshing. Things began changing in the lead up to the 1982 coup attempt. As he left 20 years later, some in the crowd threw crude objects at him.  It is important to read the turning of the wheel of time. I suspect that the present crop of Opposition leaders in Kenya will reflect on this, and especially Raila Odinga.

Raila has possibly sacrificed and suffered for this country more than anybody else that I could think of. He has lived on the right side of history. Yet like Andrew Marvell’s coy mistress, time’s winged chariot is hurrying near. In politics, as in sports, it pays to make a dignified exit – to find a dignified escape route. Raila Odinga, and maybe Kalonzo Musyoka, may want to reflect on this. Defeat next year will be the ultimate humiliation and goodbye. As Lord Byron would say, “We’ll go no more a roving; so late in the night, though the heart be still as loving, and the moon be still as bright. For, the sword outwears its sheath, and the soul wears out the breast, and the heart must pause to breathe, and love itself have rest.”

Jubilee Merger

This Jubilee merger is about locking unwanted candidates from the Mt. Kenya region and Kalenjin Rift Valley out of the general elections. It is not about uniting Kenyan tribes. Indeed, the profiles of the merging parties do not reflect any useful ethnic convergence.  TNA is almost exclusively a Central Kenya outfit. So, too are GNU, JAP, DP and FPK. APK is also a Mt. Kenya outfit as is the ambiguous PNU. The only exceptions are the insignificant New Ford Kenya of Water Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa and Ford People with unclear ownership.

In their political backyards, President Kenyatta is likely to make some political gain from this effort than is Deputy President William Ruto. For a start, there are only two parties on this raft from the DP’s slew of the Rift Valley. Apart from his URP, there is the not so significant UDM. The UDM, with some vestigial association with the DP, is not bringing anything new on board. The parties to worry about in the Rift Valley are Kanu of Gideon Moi and the emerging Chama Cha Mashinani of Isaac Ruto.

While those not getting the JP nomination in Central Kenya are likely to accept defeat and grumble quietly on the fringes of competitive politics, it is unlikely that the same will happen in Kalenjin Rift Valley. By embracing this merger, the DP might very well be setting himself up for failure. Disaffected political losers and their followers will to troop into Kanu and CCM like tornadoes. Others will even engage in anticipatory migration. The DP can do nothing about this, apart from verbally attacking them. That will not stop them from migrating, or even winning seats.

Sitting MPs are for their part cast between the proverbial rock and the hard place. Jubilee proposes to bar party primary losers from getting alternative party tickets, or even running as independent candidates. To secure this, they must push it through Parliament. They are possibly counting on the infamous “tyranny of numbers” to do this. If you don’t vote for it, you are disloyal. If you support it, you might just be spelling political doom for yourself.

The MP who votes in support of this proposal may just be signing his own political death warrant. There are no guarantees about securing party tickets. Accordingly, you embrace the politics of “let’s lock them out” at your own risk. For, when the “lock them out” bell tolls, it tolls for you. This includes you who for the time being might imagine that you are the darling of the party leaders.

The one thing that the professed reasons for the imminent merger confirms, however, is that there are no such things as political parties in Kenya. We only have tribal political movements. The leader moves and the tribe moves with him. It is a tribal movement in the physical sense. The leader is fashioned in the image of a dreaded political demi god, directing the tribe howsoever he wills.

Those venturing into competitive politics must never forget this. They need to bend backwards over to fawn before the ethnic demi god. They must flow within the tribal movement and excel in sycophancy. Each time they open their mouth, only the hot air of leader worship and tribal fudge should flow out. If not, they should prepare to kiss their political ambitions goodbye. The political class lives under pathological fear of the tribal leader. The members follow and support the leaders not because they love them or believe in them, but because they are afraid them and of their own tribe.

The tribe moves from one political formation to another in each new electoral season. Where the leader moves becomes a party, so to speak. The space he vacates ceases being a party. Hence, four years ago, people were falling over one another in The National Alliance Party and in the United Republican Party.  The democratic virtues of these outfits were extolled from rooftops and mountaintops. In the coming few weeks TNA and URP will be empty shells, in the dustbin of history. The narrative will be on the Jubilee Party.

The country is a graveyard of erstwhile popular political parties. Once upon a time there was the Liberal Democratic Party of Raila Odinga and allied Kanu rebels who abandoned the cockerel party in 2002. It was a popular electoral machine that year. Before that Raila had the National Democratic Party, which was essentially a Luo political shopping basket. Then there was the Ford Asili Party in Murang’a, Laikipia, Kiambu and parts of Western. The kingpins were Ken Matiba and Martin Shikuku. There was at the same time Mwai Kibaki’s Democratic Party in Nyeri and parts of Ukambani and Kisii. And of course it is almost impossible to believe that Ford Kenya was once the party in Luo Nyanza and Kisii.

Elsewhere, Cord leader Raila Odinga has rubbished the Jubilee merger as killing multiparty democracy. But are Raila’s own avowals about multiparty democracy above board? Political party democracy seems to be fine for Raila when it does not happen in his political strongholds. Alternative opinion in his strongholds must be demonized and bashed ruthlessly with political allegations of “Jubilee sponsorship.”

You have no right to freedom of thought, opinion or conscience in Raila’s political backyard, just as in President Kenyatta’s Mt. Kenya region and DP Ruto’s Rift Valley. You have no freedom of political association, no right to form or belong to political parties other than their own. For, there is only one virtue in each of these spaces – the tribal virtue. The political leader is at once the embodiment and owner of the tribe and its virtue. In the end, this Jubilee merger is about gaining total control over the tribe and heightening the levels of political fear and loyalty within the tribe. It is about totalitarianism in the tribe.

The Americans Say That The Deal Is Not Done Until Its Done

The Americans say that the deal is not done until it is done. The Kenyan political class seems unaware of this reality. If it were, the birds would sing less melodiously than they are doing. For, they would remember this time in 2001. We were on the edge of the homestretch to the 2002 elections. The air was at once redolent with political anxiety and merriment. President Moi would be retiring after nearly twenty-four years at the helm. Who would succeed him? The talk of succession was here, there, everywhere.

People saw opportunities. Raila Odinga led the National Development Party (NDP) into dialogue with Kanu. The blossoming outputs of the dialogue burst into fruition in March 2002. Kanu and NDP fused into one party. Hitherto Kanu stalwarts fell by the wayside, ceding space to the new NDP kids on the political block. Joseph Kamotho, the fiery party secretary general, became a party nobody. His bosom friend Prof. George Saitoti, the nominal number two in the party and accomplished captain of doublethink and doublespeak, also became a party nobody.

The cockerel party was now famously known as New Kanu. Raila Odinga and his friends Adhu Awiti and Otieno Kajwang became cabinet ministers in the sunset of the Kanu hegemony. They started sounding like Kamotho. Only that they said the things that Kamotho had been saying with the zeal of veritable proselytes. They wanted to show the boss that they were more Kanu than those who had been with him all along. The internal rat race for the Moi succession had begun. By election day the Kanu behemoth had disfigured itself beyond all recognition.  The independence party was dealt a political blow that has left it staggering for the past fourteen years. For, it is not done until it is done.

The season of migration is here again. Jubilee is the new Kanu. The migrants are coming from Kisii, the coast and from the Land of Mulembe – and everywhere. Even those who started off looking like they had genuine Mulembe grievances now look like they were only involved in a dress rehearsal, ahead of midair summersault into Jubilee. The New Ford Kenya battalion danced itself lame before the dance could begin. They announced dissolution of their party and rushed to State House to confirm to President Kenyatta that this was not a rumour. The Atbara River from the Land of Mulembe seems to be converging with the Blue Nile from the Gusii Highlands to fatten the Nile that is Jubilee.

The political Blue Nile, the White Nile, the Bar El Ghazal, the Atbara River – they are all struggling to join the party to the Mediterranean. Never mind that the Atbara flows only when it rains. For the rest of the seasons, it is dry. But that is not even the issue. Geographers say this of the Nile, “North of Cairo, the Nile splits into two branches. The two branches enter the Mediterranean as the Rosetta and the Damietta, forming the Nile Delta.” This is what Jubilee should be wary of, even as it resurrects Yellow Niles and attempts to benefit from their waters. The assumption that it is a done deal is pulsating. Costly political mistakes don’t seem to be too far off.

For a start, the excitement about the Atbara troops from the Land of Mulembe could be precipitate. They say in Emanyulia that you don’t run out of a troubled marriage straight into the bosom and lovey-dovey kisses of a new spouse. You must give your people time to come to terms with the fact that your marriage has broken down. They must understand and accept the reasons. Later, much later, they are likely to wish you well when you introduce another prospective spouse.
It is completely anathema in Emanyulia to concurrently announce the collapse of your marriage and introduce your amorous and smiley new spouse. This is going to be Jubilee’s big undoing in Western. The new courtship is too hasty, too flirtatious and obviously suspect. You don’t materialize into someone’s homestead in the morning – with expensive shopping and all that – to ask for his daughter’s hand just because you have heard that her marriage collapsed last night. If you don’t allow the family to put its act together, you risk huge rejection. Do not even be surprised to see her going back to her marriage, with you taking all the blame for the temporary collapse. President Kenyatta may want to reflect on this.

Elsewhere, there have been very interesting messages from the Central Kenya political class to Deputy President William Ruto. They understand that 2017 is a done deal. They have therefore begun lecturing the Deputy President on how he should behave if he expects them to support him for 2022. This team, led by Starehe MP Maina Kamanda, has said to Mr. Ruto, “If you interfere with Nairobi’s politics, we will abandon you in 2022.” Similar vibes have come from Kiambu Governor William Kabogo and nominated Senator Paul Njoroge.

Our people have a saying that if the child keeps saying, “When I grow up I will be eating ugali with the accompaniment of python’s head,” the python will not allow the child to grow up. And so the River Nile is swelling. The tributaries are bringing in more and more waters from all directions. But they say in the same village that the river that swells is a river that must burst. There is reckless ethnic based overconfidence, thoughtless political talk, unbridled opportunism and unrealistic cargo-ship-of-rewards expectations from defecting politicians. If these things don’t worry President Kenyatta then he has another political think coming.

When I look into the seeds of time, I see that the ultimate formations that will take the country to next year’s poll are not yet in place. The person to worry President Kenyatta is unlikely to be ODM’s Raila Odinga. S/he is still on the way. And it could be another 2002 allover. We have exciting writing in the coming months.

When A Luhya Girl’s Marriage Breaks

When a Luhya girl’s marriage breaks down, she goes back to her people to tell them that things are not working. She does not elope with another man. Nor does she go back home to tell her relatives about the new husband she has found, even as she upbraids her former husband. The children of Mulembe will want to remember this, in this season of political migration.

And those eyeing the Mulembe migrations will want to know something, too. In the Land of Mulembe you don’t move swiftly to behave armorously with a woman who has recently left her marriage. If you do so you will be blamed for breaking that marriage. If it should be true that have been an item, common sense would dictate that you allow the dust of the broken marriage to settle before you come in the open. For if our people should as much as imagine that you are responsible for the fallen marriage, they will not be happy with you at all.

Those walking out of their existing political marriages in Western and those preparing to contract new political marriages with them may want to take useful free advice. The shift from ODM began with what looked like a return to the native land. Budalang’i MP, Ababu Namwamba, spoke of what he called Mulembe Consciousness. The message was that the Abaluhya people were eventually begin to consciously address their ethnic nationhood, like most of the other communities in the country. They were claiming for their piece of the pie. They would therefore remain equidistant from Cord and Jubilee as they pondered about their political future.

It is turning our however that this may very well have been a preplanned migration to Jubilee.

Chinua Achebe: Killing the Icon?

I discovered Chinua Achebe at the age of thirteen. I was in my sixth grade at Nairobi’s Ofafa Jericho Primary School, in 1970. We had never heard of African writing before. We thought that books were only written by Europeans. We had been fed on Grimm’s Fairy Tales and sundry English folktales.

We had read all about The Brave Little Tailor, Snow White and the Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, The Elves and the Shoemaker and the like. My sisters were in love with a book in two volumes, titled Read Me a Story. They were forever singing about the “Mirror on the Wall” and the “fairest of women,” Snow White.

Beauty was defined as whiteness and whiteness as beauty. African women still wrestle with this absurd conflation. You want to be beautiful? Be white. Years later, I would come across an address that Achebe made at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair’s Indaba in 1986. He described my formative literary menu as “beautifully packaged poison.” But I run ahead of myself.

Our first encounter with African books was heavily West African. The European publishers behind them invariably painted on Nigerian and Ghanaian canvasses. This was both true of the children’s readers and of the English Language course books. Before the advent of Kenya’s Safari Children’s English, we read the alien New Oxford English Course by French and a course titled Learning by Reading. The closest thing to East Africa was Roland Hindmarsh’s Understand and Write. The background was however heavily Ugandan and Tanzanian. So, too, was Oxford English.  And so we read about Mallam Ishaya the blind storyteller, the handlooms of Kano, Hassan and Udo the greatest among thieves, the tiger who wore shoes, and many others. In high school they wrestled with Ogundipe and Tregidgo’s Practical English.

It was within these circumstances that I stumbled into Achebe. It was a passage from Things Fall Apart, in the Learning by Reading course book. The passage was about the feast of the new yam festival. It remarkably introduced us to Ezinma and Ekwefi, her mother, in the Okonkwo household. A few days later, I devoured for the first time the entire volume of Things Fall Apart, from the Macmillan library in Makadara, Nairobi.

Such was Achebe’s prowess. His classic was accessible even to a little boy in Standard Six. I hardly put it down. The African world of letters had come home to stay. And I was not alone. The Heinemann orange covers moved from this pair of hands to the other, often inviting trouble from our teachers who found us reading these books in the middle of other lessons. The virtuosity of Achebe, the founding editor of the African Writers Series (AWS), was simply pulsating. Alan Hill, his publisher, has told the story of how he first got to publish Achebe in 1958 and how the AWS was launched. It was a journey of faith. For, nobody believed that an African could tell a story, let alone write one.

Was Achebe, who died last year, a great writer? This question is frivolous. He was a prodigy, completing Things Fall Apart at age 21. Yet, we must grapple with the doubt. Last week, Prof. Henry Indangasi of the University of Nairobi dismissed Achebe as an inconsequential writer who lost the opportunity to become great. In a cripplingly ad hominem assault calculated to be pruriently iconoclastic, Indangasi painted the portrait of a feverish attention hungry individual. He cast Achebe as finicky eater, and above all an intellectual dwarf:

Why was Achebe feeling bad (about Wole Soyinka’s Nobel Prize for literature)? It revealed a side of the fabled writer that still makes me cringe. Arrogance, vanity, lack of modesty . . . he read sections of his newly published novel with a somewhat heavily Nigerian accent. He wasn’t a particularly good reader  . . . he was very careful about what he drank or ate  . . . he did not touch alcohol, even as he watched us getting drunk  . . . The Nigerian novelist had the potential to be great: but great he was not.

Indangasi describes Achebe’s visit to Kenya in 1988. I was part of the activities around this visit. I was a young editor, recently retained by Henry Chakava as the English Language Teaching (ELT) Editor at Heinemann. As the ELT person, part of my brief was to develop children’s literature. I launched the series with Achebe’s The Drum, The Flute and How the Leopard Got His Claws. The latter was a combined effort between Achebe and John Iroaganachi. The great raconteur could condescend to co-authorship. Chike and the River would follow two years later, after Achebe personally intervened to stave off an intermeddling European publisher who contested our right to publish. We threw in Anthills of the Savannah Grasslands, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, The Trouble With Nigeria and – of course – Things Fall Apart. We were ready to hit the road.

We travelled across the country with Achebe, Chakava and a few other colleagues. Achebe talked about children’s literature and about the African condition. Anthills was freshly arrived from the kitchen. It was the latest talking point in African literature. Coming as it did 21 years after the prophetic A Man of the People, it invariably informed a significant part of the dialogue.

At the University of Nairobi, I was dismayed to witness a professor of literature who had not read Anthills attempting to discuss it with Achebe, nonetheless. He occasioned Achebe to read excerpts from the book, as a basis for engagement. Such was the academic environment at my erstwhile university at the time, the Launchpad of Indangasi’s diatribe against Achebe. If Indangasi was uneasy with Achebe, he did not say so – until last week, 26 years later.  However, I recall that Indangasi, then Chair of the Literature Department, was extremely panicky. He trembled like a leaf. He could hardly make a coherent address in Taifa Hall, where I sat only a few places from him. The students shouted him down. He cut short his address and invited Chakava to introduce Achebe. Achebe spoke with aplomb, to great acclaim.

Indangasi’s face off with his students, however, has remained. But have I not seen Indangasi try to speak in other forums? I deliberately say, “try to speak.” For, Indangasi seems to be very nervous before audiences.  A slightly diminutive and somewhat diffident individual, he tends to fumble and trundle with words. He can put off the audience. Could his showing in Taifa Hall, 26 years ago, be what caused him to attack a dead man who cannot defend himself?

We visited many institutions with Achebe. He addressed a diversity of themes and topics, contrary to Indangasi’s selective amnesia and deliberate hypermetropia. Two themes recurred. First was the poet and the emperor, second the beautifully packaged poisons. The emperor was the African strongman, the poet the philosopher. Why was the emperor uneasy with the poet? Rather than dialogue with him, the emperor incarcerated him or, alternatively, exiled him. This was a daring subject to address at the apogee of Kanu’s dictatorship. It was the year of the infamous Mulolongo elections in Kenya. University dons languished in detention, or exile. Meanwhile “Scholars for Kanu” were in ascendancy.  Achebe made these scholars-for-hire very restless.

It is not true, as Indangasi alleges, that Achebe made personalized attacks on Ngugi and his pet subject of writing in African languages. Invariably this question came up, from the audience. What did Achebe think about it? His answer was that where one thing stood, another one could stand there with it. It was a very complex issue, he said. He gave the example of Nigeria, where with over 300 tribal languages, English was playing a unifying role of sorts. In any event, our situation and crises were far too urgent for us to argue about the vessels, when we should be arguing about the content. Any idiom that helped us to tell our story justified itself.

Equally important was the issue of the beautiful packages of poison. Achebe said on numerous occasions that it was important for Africans to tell their own story. Foreigners like Joseph Conrad had tried to tell our story. However, they had distorted it with lurid racist images of primitive cannibalistic “beasts.” It is strange that Indangasi admires this racist writer, for whom he even named his son.

But something else, Indangasi had the chance to take on Achebe on Conrad in 1988. He did not. Nor did he pluck the courage to write about this and other things at the time. It would have sparked a good debate, in which Achebe would probably have participated. But Indangasi instead waited for Achebe’s death to assist him in his demolition of this writer’s reputation. Even then he had to wait for a further year after the death – no doubt to be very sure that Achebe was truly dead and would never speak for himself – for him to make his assault.

Does Indangasi write with the pen of a bitter man? Is his pen drunk with the ink of an axe grinder? I am aware that Indangasi would have wanted to become a great writer. To his credit, he has written some illuminating literature study guides for high school. Yet I don’t know of anything significant he has published. Some years back we turned down his manuscript on the escapades of a brazen teenager in Kamusinga and Chavakali villages. It did not make the mark. Is Indangasi unhappy that he did not become an Achebe? Does he seem to have pathological fear and suspicion of Nigerians? Indangasi was shocked that Achebe – nay, a Nigerian – (sic) treated him well. That earlier on, Wole Soyinka had treated him as “a non-person.” I have had the privilege of sitting at table with Wole many times. To say that he is extremely brilliant is to say nothing new. He is possessed of the kind of intellectual acumen that makes people of subordinate endowment cringe with inferiority complex. I don’t doubt that you could feel like a “non person” before him. But Wole is a very warm person, as are virtually all Nigerians I have sat with. Nigerians are by and large very intelligent people. Such people arouse fear and suspicion among intellectual minnows and sundry slow thinkers.

What is wrong with reading a book you have written with “a Nigerian accent” if you are Nigerian? Should Achebe have read his books with a Maragoli accent, like Indangasi’s? We all have our mother tongue influence on our articulation of foreign languages. Should we be accosted because of that? What is wrong with not touching alcohol, even as Indangasi and “the rest got drunk”? Should Achebe have sponged himself with alcohol in order for him to be a great writer?

In Search for Meaning: Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe

I am tempted to paraphrase Count Leo Tolstoy and yet I purpose to discuss him some other day, on account of time and space confines.  The Russian writer, you will recall, says at the start of the tragic eponymous story of Anna Karenina, “All happy families are happy in the same fashion. But each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In like manner, all bad writers are bad in the same way. But every great writer is great after his own fashion. Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe, all of whom have been in literary focus in recent times, were great writers, each after his own fashion and reasons.

I discovered Conrad in my ‘A’ Level literature class, in a gone age. Our focus was on the search to understand what sits at the heart of the human soul. We were grappling with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Golding was himself preoccupied with the bestiality that seems to rule the human soul. He was overwhelmed with man’s inhumanity to man.

In a surrealistic moment in which one of his more saintly characters falls into a trance in Lord of the Flies, he tells us that things don’t work because of the darkness of man’s heart. Man seems to be fundamentally prone to evil. On this account, he is totally incapable of good. In the quest to appreciate this focus more expansively, Joseph Conrad came in the picture, alongside other soul-searching writers. Having spent time in Africa and in the high seas in the late 1800s, Conrad had witnessed enough human wretchedness. He concluded that something irredeemably wicked rules the soft centre of the human soul. He explored this theme in The Heart of Darkness and in Lord Jim. He seems to rest his case where he sees Africa as the headquarters of this Gaderene darkness. It is a darkness that often leaves Conrad’s characters in desolation. Like Lord of the Flies, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and such other works as The Nigger of the Narcissus and The Outcast of the Islands are emblematic of the human soul in retrogression. Eventually, we are each a battleground. The forces of good and evil are locked in warfare in this tragic theatre. The wicked will invariably win, for such is human nature. Evil must triumph over good. The human being is incurably in the grip of the Neanderthal instincts that urge him to harm fellow man.

Conrad has been hailed as a master stylist. In the Reader’s Companion to World Literature, the editors said of him, “His greatest skill lies in his capacity to evoke an atmosphere, whether of a typhoon at sea or of the sultry mystery of the jungle. And this he does by a treatment as careful as that of the realists.”

In an interview with Lewis Nkosi of South Africa in 1962, Chinua Achebe was asked whom he admired most among writers. He replied, in the interview published in African Writers Talking, “I don’t really think there is any one (not anyone) I can say I admire all that much. I used to like Hemingway; and I used to like Conrad, I used to like Conrad particularly; and I like [Graham] Green.”

That Achebe liked Green is not in doubt at all. In No Longer at Ease he makes Obi Okonkwo, the principal character, to say of Green’s The Heart of the Matter, “[It] is the only sensible novel any European has written about Africa and one of the best novels I have read.” The theme of black on white is recurrent in Achebe’s reflections. He said on numerous occasions that he went into writing because of what Europeans had written about Africa. “I was quite certain that I was going into writing, and one thing that set me thinking was Joyce Carey’s novel set in Nigeria, Mr. Johnson, which was praised so much and its clear to me that this was a most superficial picture,” he told Nkosi in 1962.

But perhaps it was perhaps Conrad, more than any other writer who miffed Achebe most. Conrad has been hailed as a humanist who was opposed to the excesses of European greed and inhumanity in Africa. European exegetes state that he has been misunderstood and misrepresented. That the darkness he talks about pertains to the white man’s inhumanity to the black man. He is like the benevolent European journalist in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, who discloses to the world the atrocious plunder of the Congo by European self-seekers. Nonetheless, his outrageously racist thrust is unmistakable.  A respected white man who has lived in Africa for a while “goes native.” A European party finds him worse than the natives. His alienation from the western world has driven him to insanity that only Africa could throw someone into. An African tribe has adopted him and made him a chief. He wallows in blood, human sacrifice and horrific rites. He is a cannibal, like his hosts. Heart of Darkness may indeed be partly about Europe’s dark heart’s excesses in Africa. But it certainly is [also], and more profoundly so, about the perceived darkness of Africa; a darkness that can render a good white man into a blood drinking savage. Such is Mr. Kurtz.

Conrad is the great writer who tells stories within stories in slim volumes such as Heart of Darkness. A master of description and casting of canvases. He even defends the black man against Europeans. Yet, it does not escape the discerning mind that his love for Africa is dangerous, like that of Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Blixen loves her cook the same way she loves her dog. When you have understood, you will find that he fights for the African the way animal rights activists fight for dogs’ rights. Is this possibly why Achebe says, “I used to like Conrad? Why “used to”?

In the end, Achebe thinks we should all tell our own story. Nobody can do it for us. But what is our story? In the quest to give meaning to the African condition, Achebe sees dispossession as the genie that we must address. Even the telling of our story by somebody else is in the docket of dispossession – perhaps of the worst order – that you cannot even speak for yourself? Where is your voice? If Achebe is a great writer, would it suffice that he finds and gives us a voice? It is no doubt nightmarish if you should find that you have your own story to tell, but your voice is stuck in the chest. Anyone who enables you to find your voice is great – even by just that alone. Yet Achebe has done more than find our voice. He tells our story with the richness of the African idiom. He is the great artist who reminds us in Things Fall Apart, “ … the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” Yet in Home and Exile he says, “In the war between dispossession and its nemesis civilization itself regresses into barbarism; words become weapons again rather than tools; ploughshares are beaten back into spears. Fear and suspicion take over from openness and straight conversation.”

Such is the troubled relationship that has informed the intercourse between Africa and Europe. In this day and age when Africa seems to be consciously running away from the lands of the setting sun to the lands of the rising sun, the questions of quality of partnership between Africa and the outside world may need to come back into literary debates and scholarly debates generally. Eventually it is a search for meaning. What meaning do we construct from these relationships? Achebe was fond of reminding us of British colonial governor who once said in Rhodesia that the only partnership possible between Europe and Africa was partnership of the horse and its rider. The African would be the horse and the European the rider.

But what has the relationship between Africa and Europe been in the pages of world history? Jan Nederveen Pieterse’s White on Black: Images of Blacks in Western Popular Culture is certainly one of the most comprehensive efforts to explore the changing fortunes of this relationship. The earliest representations of Africa from about 2500 BC trace us back to ancient Egypt. They paint a portrait of integration and intermarriage between Africa and Europe. Black beauty is celebrated. Black is positively valued as the colour of Egyptian culture and of fertility. After 2200 BC, Blacks decline from a mysterious loved people, to a liked warrior people. They were then at war with the Nubian kingdoms in the south – Kush and Meroe. Subsequently, the identity of both Egypt and Blacks is distorted. They no longer seem to belong together – Egypt and blackness. When Egypt conquers Kush, Blacks are depicted as defeated enemies. There is reversal again to a positive image when Kush conquers Egypt (800 – 300 BC). Blacks become pharaohs. But elsewhere in Libya, at this time, the great historian Herodotus sees blacks as wild beasts.

The story of the conquest of the African civilization of Carthage and its integration into Europe is a tale for another day. The Christian era, however, reintroduces black as the colour of sin and darkness. Origen of Alexandria introduced the allegory of spiritual light against Egyptian darkness. Finally, there is the interesting story of Europe under Islamic siege in the late Medieval Age and the search for the liberating legendary Prester John, who was believed to live somewhere in Ethiopia, and Europe’s tenderness towards Africa.

The search for meaning in this complex web of race relationships where matrices of value take on metaphors of light, darkness, whiteness and   people’s skins and souls is not about to go away. Writers who attempt to find meaning in this labyrinth are great each in his or her own way and in their own space. Tolstoy, whom we paraphrase at the start of this piece, discovers a completely different kind of meaning of life and greatness from the thoughts of Jean Jacques Rousseau and in his own brand of Christianity, which he even tries to impose upon those around him. Time and space allowing, we will possibly address this – someday.

Survivors of The Bullet

Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls them Matigari. He says that they were remnants, or survivors. They survived the British colonial bullets that cut down many a fighter in the Mau Mau rebellion (1948 – 1960). In the novel first published in in 1986 in Gikuyu as Matigari Ma Njirungi (The Survivors of the Bullets), Wa Thiong’o is at pains to paint the portrait of a stolen independence and stolen dreams.

There are those who fought for Independence and those who gained from the coming of Independence. They were not necessarily one and the same. In point of fact, Wa Thiong’o is unequivocal. A self-serving class of overlords stole Independence from the people. Those who fought against Independence had the last laugh while those who fought for freedom languished. This is a recurrent theme in Wa Thiongo’s writings. We see it in the tragic return of the carpenter Gikonyo in A Grain of Wheat. Gikonyo returns from detention to discover that his former boyhood friend, Karanja, has not only become the village chief. Karanja has also sired a child with Mumbi, Gikonyo’s wife. If you thought Karanja would be remorseful, he is in fact spiteful. He warns the returnee, “There are laws here. If you joke, we shall send you back to prison.” We find this theme in Devil on the Cross, in I Will Marry When I Want, in Petals of Blood and in virtually everything Wa Thiong’o has written.

Such was the plight of the man who fought for land rights in Central Kenya. He was served a cold dish at Independence. On account of this, he has journeyed through history as someone to be kept on a short leash. But when it is necessary, he can also be unleashed as cannon fodder for the same forces that have kept him in chains. Such is what students of history would make of the anxiety in Kenya’s political elite over the rise of Limuru II and the imminent birth of Mukenya Solidarity Party. The victim of oppression is made to see and interpret the world through the eyes of the oppressor.

Voices such as those behind Limuru II and Mukenya evoke memories that dominant classes wish to suppress, especially in Central Kenya. For they are voices fully loaded with harsh realities of historical injustices that will just not go away. Beyond that, they debunk the myth that has often been peddled that everyone in Central Kenya is rich. Next to this is the myth that everyone in Central Kenya is the beneficiary of free things, just because half of our Independence period so far has been under the watch of two presidents from this region.

Far from it, however, is that the ruling elite has always been nervous about what Daniel Branch calls “the Kikuyu have-nots.” This is regardless that the President is from the region. Writing in the volume Kenya, Between Hope and Despair, 1963 – 2011, Branch says, “President Kenyatta was particularly concerned over the question of ‘the Kikuyu have-nots.’ These were mainly people from Mau Mau who had no land  . . . They were the ghosts at the banquet of postcolonial Kenya.”

Intractable land questions have troubled Central Kenya from the turn of the nineteenth century, beginning with the arrival of Charles Eliot as the British Counsul in 1903. Over the next 36 years, the people were effectively separated from their land. Efforts by such early land rights’ crusaders as Harry Thuku, James Beauttah, Joseph Kang’ethe and Jesse Kariuki came to naught. Kenyatta’s own land rights mission to the UK in 1929 did not realize much, apart from a few British radicals fussing around him in London.

Fast forward to 1948 and it was time to take up arms to fight for the return of the stolen lands. Tragically, not everybody joined the struggle. This is where the home guards come in. Were the home guards collaborators or did they just manipulate a bad environment for their own survival? The jury remains out on this one. Be that as it may, their position made the Mau Mau rebellion to be at once an effort to dislodge the settlers from the stolen lands and a Kikuyu civil war. In the end, the British and the home guards won. The Mau Mau were for all practical purposes vanquished and the war over by 1960.

It is instructive that it was in the same 1960 that the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, made his famous “wind of change in Africa” address in South Africa. It was a tempestuous wind, the unstoppable wind of independence. Whatever the arguments about the timing of independence may be, one thing cannot be debated. Kenya’s Independence fell not into the hands of the freedom of land fighters, but in the hands of the home guard community.

This was an avaricious community of self-serving mythmakers. The rise of Mukenya and Limuru II suggests that the chickens are coming home to roost. Branch has recorded of 1964 – 1970, “While the last recalcitrant groups of Mau Mau guerillas remained in the forests of Mount Kenya, fears of revival of the insurgency were particularly acute. Even after all those insurgents were eventually cajoled into leaving the forests or tracked down and shot by (independent Kenya’s) security forces, the security threat posed by the Mau Mau was not deemed to have disappeared.”

The Kenyatta government lived in mortal fear that the Gikuyu Matigari would return to the forest and take up arms against it. This was because Jomo converted to the benefit of the home guard community all the funds that had been negotiated with the British to settle the landless on a million acres in the former White Highlands.

These fears live on. The ghosts at the banquet of independent Kenya will not go away. From Arthur Hardinge who proclaimed the British East Africa Protectorate in 1895 to Mwai Kibaki who proclaimed the Constitution of Kenya of 2010, the abiding fears and concerns in the ruling class remain the same. Can these concerns go away without historical injustices that span more than a hundred years being addressed and corrected?