Denial May Just be a River in Kenya

Jung Chang, child of the Chinese elite and author of the Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, was in the country over the weekend. In fact she might still be around, I think. She spoke of how China was a horrible place back when it was ruled by Mao. She gave gruesome stories of books being burned, writers being tortured people being killed and so forth and so fifth. It was really sad but hey, she wrote a book about it and made a bundle so something of some sort must have come out of it yes?

And this is quite serious stuff. In 2010, the Chinese were recorded at having published 189,295 new books. This translates to every 5283 people wrote a book. If we assume the average length of a book to be about 50,000 words, it’s about 9.46 words per person. Sadly the only data I can find for Kenya is from back in the late 1990s. The data showed that we published 300 new books. With 26 Million people in the country at the time that boils down to about half a word per person – again using 50,000 words as the average for a book.

That’s a lot of math.

Now we could use the argument that in the 1990s there was Moi. Writers were being dragged away and thrown in a den to be tortured. Books were burned and words were declared illegal. Then 2002 happened. And for no fathomable reason Moi was gone. Free speech came back. And writers came back to life, eagerly scribbling away. Self publishing became the norm. We became addicted to telling our stories and blogs were opened where people could rant in an open fashion about everything, anything and their pet moose.

Yet the reading culture in Kenya seems virtually unmoved. This weekend we had the literature festival and authors from all over the world came to the country. Yet no one showed up. We pride ourselves in telling people that we are interested in literature but we won’t spend more than 150 bob on a book. We make sure that the only things we attend are open mics in some bar somewhere. Where for about 200 bob we get to check into our local bar, have beer with our friends and laugh while someone in the background provides a backdrop of poetry

We are in denial.

About everything. From books to politics. We fear the truth, it is almost as if anything that reminds us of the evils that have happened will make them happen. Well here’s the most surprising thing about everything, they did happen. During the previous era writers were damn near killed. In fact some of them actually were. Also there was violence in the years 2007/2008. Remember that? Yeah I went there.

We seem to be a society that’s comfortable with forgetting. We shuffle on quickly. Like the mother whose son dies and focuses on baking bread we focus on our jobs. We focus on brushing things off. Anglo Leasing scandal, happened and has been blown away. Goldenberg is just but another word to use when creating a comic. Lord forbid we speak of how the Grand Regency became the Laico. PEV, that’s just taboo. We can’t even call it by its real name. Post Election Violence. The type of violence that occurs when one candidate isn’t happy with what happened at the polls and, like a child who doesn’t get a toy, throws a tantrum. Breaking his whole crib in the process.

And there will be violence.

The Tana clashes have proved that we are not equipped to deal with anything of the sort. The situation on the ground hasn’t changed. Apart from a new name to the electoral commission there is nothing to prove that we have done anything to ensure that security has been beefed up. We just picked up our bags and went shopping. Our writers aren’t writing about it. Our storytellers aren’t telling stories about it. Our TV stations are too busy focussing on a helicopter and our schools treat it like an unpleasant extension to a holiday some odd years ago.

Doctors are on strike. Teachers are on strike. Non teaching staff is on strike. Police are on a go slow. No one finds this odd? Coupled in with the fact that elections are happening on 4th March next year the timing is pretty impeccable.

We dare not go there though. Let’s keep on doing what we do. Let’s move on forward. Let’s pretend it never happened. After all, who needs to change when you can just make the same mistakes over, and over, and over…

7 thoughts on Denial May Just be a River in Kenya

  1. Jung Chang is spelled with a ‘J’ but pronounced like a ‘y’.
    I find it really jarring to read a very glib statement “It was really sad but hey, she wrote a book about it and made a bundle so something of some sort must have come out of it yes?” followed by “And this is quite serious stuff”. I’m all like- hold up- I thought we were being really funny and glib about the Cultural revolution? And then the segue into Kenya is really awkward.
    Gilles Foden said that the one thing he knows is that you should always find the edges of the story. I thought I would pass this on because I really think that this piece would be a lot more focused if you ex-ed the first two paragraphs and brought in the China contrast in a more focused way. I enjoyed it otherwise :)
    TROLOLOLOLO

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  2. I hate to say it but I think I’m with Aisha. I also think that we should give credit where credit is due, it’s not that no one showed up- I was there, you were too and a few thousand other people. People did write about PEV, and blogged about it, performed about it, made documentaries… The only people who seem to have forgotten are the people who will decide whether it ever happens again. Which is sad. Which is what we should be talking about. I really liked the tantrum simile though. Right on the money. Now the grown ups need to show these big babies how to play nice.

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  3. Although I am reading this a tad bit later then when it was written, I felt that it was necessary to put my two cents in.
    Maybe (and yes I realise that this is an opinion piece, and you are by no means obligated to agree with me) the reason Kenyan’s don’t publish as much as they should (or rather as much as you think they should) is not because we’re not interested. It sounds sad, and it is but maybe that’s just the truth. Maybe the few (thousand) people that attended the Hay Festival are a writers market and they’re not being tended to properly. Not that the writers should change what they’re writing about or their style…maybe it’s just not their time. I mean even Shakespeare wasn’t famous for a couple(okay more than a couple) years.

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    1. I think Kenyans want to read. They’re just starved for good literature. Look at all the book vendors on the street, they must make money somehow. And sites like this one get thousands of hits every day, sadly this one doesn’t. Not the point though. Kenyans want to read the content just isn’t being produced

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      1. So are you suggesting that writers should change their content in order to provide a market with what it wants?

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        1. I think publishers should focus on the people who are being read, not on the over bashed edutainment.

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  4. Hi there, I log on to your blog daily. Your humoristic style is witty,
    keep it up!

    Reply

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