Theory Teacher's Blog

Nairobi Diaries 2: How to Write about Ethnic Violence in Africa

Cut Off My Tongue

The title of this blog post is meant to allude to Binyavanga Wainaina’s well-known, satirical essay, “How to Write About Africa.” During my recent trip to Kenya (whose overall itinerary and agenda I blogged about here), I had the good fortune to visit my friend Doreen at the new Nairobi-based publishing house Storymoja, and she took me to a performance of one of its plays, Cut Off My Tongue, by Sitawa Namwalie — a play which is actually a series of linked poems that, among many other things, addresses Kenya’s post-election violence that devastated the country from December 2007 to April 2008. It was a beautiful performance, and I hope they can either come to the United States someday soon (as they did in London in May at the Hampstead Theatre) or find a way to put it on video.

A couple days later, the other members of my faculty development trip/delegation met with members of People for Peace in Africa as well as their friends in the literary community, including Monica Arac de Nyeko (winner of the Caine Prize for African writing), Muthoni Garland (founder of Storymoja, who is also an author and who also performed in the play that I saw), and their staunch ally Father Joseph Healey (scholar of Africa and theologian). One of the questions that we discussed that day was how to write about ethnic violence, and that is the question I want to think about in this blogpost — and for me, Cut Off My Tongue was an exemplary model.

In case you weren’t paying attention to the news last year, what happened is this. Thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands fled their homes, as conflict among those who were ethnically Kikuyu, Luo, Kalenjin, and others burned through the country after the controversial election results gave Mwai Kibaki (ethnically Kikuyu) the victory over Raila Odinga (ethnically Luo). During my recent visit to Kenya, it seemed to me that the memory of the violence haunted everyone’s conversation, and nobody seemed to have much confidence in the coalition government created as a compromise to stop the killing. In fact, the very faculty development trip/delegation that I was on was supposed to happen last year, but was postponed to this year because of it.

So, how do we write about this event? Not the way wikipedia summarizes it [here] or the way Amnesty International’s video clip pathologizes it [here]… right? All of us sitting around the table agreed that mainstream journalism — even quality journalism — did little to explain the causes and did even less to lead to constructive solutions. It certainly did not understand what it needed to understand most: how people were feeling. Journalistic hype at its worst seemed to inflame the problem and at its best seemed to offer only sentimental platitudes. But as we discussed the issue, I found myself disagreeing with the members of People for Peace in Africa; one individual seemed to me to be suggesting that lengthy personal accounts of individual, subjective experience should be the form of writing we should promote, and another seemed to me to be suggesting that a more comprehensive, objective journalism was what was needed. A third person seemed not to see any contradiction between subjective accounts of experience and objective journalism since for him both were aimed at the truth, and the truth needed to be told before any reconciliation could be achieved.

me, Caine prize winner Monica Arac de Nyeko, author and Storymoja founder Muthoni Garland, an intern at People for Peace, and author, Storymoja editor, and friend, Doreen Baingana

me, Caine prize winner Monica Arac de Nyeko, author and Storymoja founder Muthoni Garland, an intern at People for Peace, and author, Storymoja editor, and friend, Doreen Baingana

While I agree that both subject and objective truth tellings are necessary and important, and I might even agree with a deconstruction of the subjective/objective binary, I don’t think they are enough. There is also a role for the literary and the symbolic. I suggested that beyond merely descriptive accounts, writers should work on something imaginative, perhaps even something utopian, which could turn despair into hope. During our conversation, I quoted Oscar Wilde — somewhat lamely, I now realize in retrospect — who once suggested that  the most important place on any map is utopia. In other words, to write about ethnic violence one has to write about what’s not there as well as what is: what’s on the margins of experience, the dreams and fears that shape that experience, and also the ordinary lives of people who above all seek to live their everyday lives despite the crisis that dominates the media. This is what Doreen Baingana’s short stories in Tropical Fish and Sitawa Namwalie’s poems in Cut Off My Tongue do so well. They not only give voice to the voiceless, but also carefully reconsider how those voices get framed by media and political parties rather than by the everyday aspirations of people who work, eat, travel, argue,  fall in love, dance, have sex, raise children, and grow old. Sometimes tragic, at other times sharply satirical, and above all, they tell their stories with both love and a playful sense of humor.

But the statements of People for Peace carry some weight, as their prescriptions seem to have been followed by one of Kenya’s new literary journals, Kwani?, whose founders include Binyavanga Wainaina. (Members of Kwani? were supposed to join our gathering, but for some reason they couldn’t make it.)  The latest issue of Kwani? focuses entirely on the violence, and unlike its earlier issues which tended towards the playful and the fictional, this issue contains mostly non-fictional first-person accounts and interviews. It interests me that Kwani? made this move towards the factual whereas the author of Cut Off My Tongue made the move toward the dramatic and the imaginative. I’m not sure what to make of that difference, but I suspect neither People for Peace nor Kwani? would consider beginning a blog post about ethnic violence with the image with which I began this one — an image of love — but maybe they should.

But of course non-fiction is also dramatic, even if its writers sometimes pretend that it isn’t, and as Muthoni reminded me, such interviews and accounts provide the raw materials for artists. One of my favorite pieces in the issue of Kwani?, “Benediction in Oyugis” is written by a Ugandan who is ethnically Luo, and as he narrates his journey through post-election Kenya and recounts his many conversations, he seems to put in question his own objectivity — he is in some ways a complete outsider (visiting from Uganda), but in some ways an insider (ethnically Luo). His essay contains a dramatic play of perspective as he vacillates between subjective and objective styles of narration and as he addresses his subject matter sideways instead of head on. This literary play of perspective is, I think, essential for any real “peace work,” and it is something that Sitawa Namwalie’s play/poems does/do so well, which is why I think I’d like to teach it next year in my class. As Doreen wrote [here] about the play, “it is politics that is personal” which will help “start a dialogue among Kenyans… and beyond.”


June 26, 2009 Posted by | Kenya | 2 Comments