Happy birthday ‘Kwani?’

by Simon Collings

This month Kwani? – the ground breaking Kenyan cultural journal – celebrates its tenth birthday. (Kwani? means ‘So?’ in Swahili.) On my last trip to Nairobi I picked up a copy of Kwani? 07, the most recent issue (published in 2012.) It contains a rich assortment of contributions on the African diaspora experience – autobiography, interviews, reportage, academic essays, blogs and emails, fiction, and poetry, with illustrations from a number of artists including the well-known Kenyan painter Michael Soi.

Michael Soi - ExpatriatesExpatriates by Michael Soi

During the colonial period Kenyan men left their homes to fight for Britain in the First and Second World Wars. Since independence generations of Kenyan’s have travelled abroad for education, to work, to train as athletes. In the 60s the US and Eastern Europe were the main destinations. In the 90s the US again became a desired escape route from Moi’s tyrannical and corrupt regime. Post-apartheid South Africa and India also provided refuge. Several of Kenyan friends were born to parents who met when studying abroad, and many of my friends studied abroad themselves. The personal testimonies of individuals published here capture the richness of the experience – the hassles with immigration, the humiliations, the hustling to survive, how tribal divisions back home are mirrored by the communities living overseas, how some waste themselves in partying.

Three authors in particular stood out for me. Tee Ngugi is a young Kenyan writer interested in ‘the tension between culture and development.’ He has lived in the UK, US, Namibia and Zimbabwe. ‘When you arrive at the far end of a continent’ is an engaging mediation on his search for a sense of identity and belonging during his years studying abroad. What does it mean to be Kikuyu, Kenyan, African? In a Kenya where tribal identity continues to play such a crucial role these seem like important questions. Ngugi’s answer is radical and perhaps offers a way forward. These ‘identities’ are illusions he argues: ‘Identities, as Kwame Anthony Appiah writes, are transitory, (re)invented to suit moments in time. The Kenyan identity will be forever a work in progress…We need to start imagining identities in terms which are beyond ethnicity, race and nationality.’

Irene Umukobura Zirimwabagabo was born into the Rwandan diaspora in Kenya and grew up in Lesotho. Only after the genocide and the takeover by the Rwandan Patriotic Front which followed did she eventually visit her ‘homeland’ for the first time. ‘Of spies, revolutions and rebirths’ is a compelling account of that ‘home coming’. It’s a love-hate relationship with a place where she finally ‘belongs’, but where the traditional social mores are oppressive. As an unmarried woman in her twenties, university educated in South Africa, she cannot think of herself as a ‘girl’ and has no intention of adopting the subservient manner expected of her. It takes her years to finally come to love the place she now calls home. She writes: ‘There is something about finding and discovering your home once having lost it, even if in my case I grew up not knowing what the loss I felt was…The expectations surpass reasonable because so much is staked on connecting, and finding your rightful place. The tendency is to be unforgiving because you have been living on unfulfilled dreams for what seems like too long.’ Eventually she is reconciled, able to accept the country without losing sight of the role she will play in changing it.

A third author worthy of mention is M. Neelika Jayawardane, Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York Oswego. She was born in Sri Lanka but grew up in Zambia where her father worked as a mining engineer. ‘In Transit: Love to a homesickness,’ is a wonderfully clear-sighted account of an affair the author had with an Afrikaans man in South Africa. His apparent solidity, his sense of belonging, attracted her strongly, providing a foil to her own sense of rootlessness. Being with him seemed to offer an escape from the option of taking up residency in the US, a country whose immigration procedures caused her to many humiliations. She recalls one immigration official asking how come she was a professor. ‘I guess there weren’t any Americans who speak five languages who wanted to live in Oswego,’ she counters. The love affair eventually unravels as she comes to feel she is being used by her lover, has become a badge, evidence of his acceptability in the ‘new’ South Africa. Her own feelings she realises are not love but a kind of homesickness for a place she has never known.

Each of these pieces explores identity and belonging – those illusive concepts which, however we come at them, evade us, prove to be unreal. Perhaps I responded to these particular contributors because of my own interest in these themes. There is much more I could have praised in this volume –its 572 pages are a bargain at 900Ksh ($11). Next trip to Nairobi I’ll be back in the Kwani? offices for more.

The 10th birthday events take place over the next few days and include a reading by the award winning Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you’re in Nairobi don’t miss it.

Happy birthday Kwani?