In Other Words

What’s up, Kenya?

Kwani?, Vol. 4, Fall 2006, Nairobi Kenya is a nation of rich oral tradition, where stories of history and ritual, tribalism and war, and God and nature have been passed down for centuries. Kenya, at only 40 years old, is also a very young country. The voices of 1960s intellectual leaders, trained in English by ...

Kwani?,
Vol. 4, Fall 2006,
Nairobi

Kenya is a nation of rich oral tradition, where stories of history and ritual, tribalism and war, and God and nature have been passed down for centuries. Kenya, at only 40 years old, is also a very young country. The voices of 1960s intellectual leaders, trained in English by their colonial rulers, helped Kenya forge a new humanistic, postcolonial identity and committed it to paper. Writers such as Ngugi wa Thiongo and Grace Ogot told brutal stories of Kenya’s struggle under colonial rule. It was the birth of a literary movement, one that is still heralded today.

These days, young Kenyans have little tangible connection to the literary references of their colonial past. Today’s great exploiters of Africa are Africans themselves. The presidencies of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi left Kenya an economic and cultural desert by pillaging the country’s wealth and silencing its greatest assets: its thinkers. For more than two decades under Moi’s dictatorial regime, freedom of speech was denied, novelists were jailed, and even political cartoonists were censored. The freedom of self-criticism and self-examination only arrived when a new government took power in 2002, and a new generation of literature was born.

It was in this political environment that Kwani? was created. Three years ago, 35-year-old writer Binyavanga Wainaina was in an online chatroom with other young Kenyan scribes when someone raised the idea of putting their own words and grievances in print. With funding from the Ford Foundation, Wainaina founded Kwani?, an independent literary magazine that publishes everything from poetry and cartoons to short stories and nonfiction. So far, the magazine has received an enthusiastic response. Kwani? — Swahili slang for "what’s up?" — has published three annual issues with more than 12,000 total copies sold. Its fourth issue will hit newsstands later this year. And its Web site, www.kwani.org, is flourishing, too.

Kwani? is unafraid to tackle hot-button topics, publishing stories about sexuality, politics, poverty, and death. It is the voice of a new generation that doesn’t address the postcolonial topics that older Kenyan writers grappled with. "Our parents had a straight idea of who they were and what they needed to do," says Wainaina. "Things are different now. I don’t know what kind of patriot I am, [so] I publish things that start conversations."

Whether it is brilliant literature is arguable. Wainaina may have won the coveted Caine Prize in 2002 (known as the "African Booker Prize") for his short story "Discovering Home," about a young man’s return to Kenya after a long absence. But many of the other writers are less polished, and their articles often read more like personal journal entries than moving prose. Critics and loyal followers alike often refer to it as pop culture rather than a literary magazine. But pop culture has its place. This creative writing experiment has created an outlet in which fresh Kenyan writers can hone their skills. With stories written in a mixture of Swahili, English, and sheng (local slang), it is especially appealing to a younger audience. "We need to try out new ways of making our realities and fantasies come alive in print and spoken word, in any and every language we can," says Wainaina.

Published in July last year, the third volume of Kwani? tackled some of the political and social issues plaguing Kenya, topics that once rarely found their way into print. When a high-profile corruption scandal erupted — in which billions of dollars were stolen from the national treasury by politicians who had set up fake companies — Kwani? profiled the graft whistleblower in another major corruption case. The travesty had been halfheartedly tried in the courts, much to the consternation of the public. Daily newspaper coverage of the trial was spotty, but the magazine’s profile gave voice to the frustration that millions of Kenyans were feeling. And it gave them a hero. It was a story that probably wouldn’t have been told otherwise.

The autumn issue of Kwani? will also be a response to the political climate. It goes even further than before, opening the door to subjects such as rape, which is currently a controversial topic as Kenya’s parliament recently passed a Sexual Offences Bill. It’s not an easy task in a country where some leaders have an empty appreciation of women’s rights. For example, legislator Paddy Ahenda recently stated in parliament that Kenyan women always say "no," but they mean "yes." Kenya remains a patriarchal society where the changing roles of men and women, combined with poverty and unemployment, have led to a rise in violence, alcoholism, and divorce.

Kwani? may be an experiment that’s still in its infancy, but it is an essential one. Kenyans have started demanding basic human rights and accountability from their leaders. The magazine’s provocative language, with its underground slang and controversial prose, creates the kind of dinner-table dialogue that inspires youth and challenges adults. During the early days of postcolonialism, literature drove the message home that Kenyans were not slaves or second-class citizens. That message has now broadened to include equality in the larger sense, the human sense. The birth pains of this movement may be awkward, self-conscious, and sometimes unsophisticated, but they are also powerful and raw, as Kenyans have once again found their voice.

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