Kenyan intellectuals say a major tragedy resulting from the recent political violence in their country has been the erosion of freedom of speech. Since post-election clashes broke out in late December, journalists and human rights workers have been threatened with death for stating their views about the crisis. After President Mwai Kibaki was controversially declared the winner of the poll, supporters of his main rival, Raila Odinga, accused him of “stealing” the presidency. But President Kibaki considers himself to be a fair winner. Violence has claimed the lives of almost a thousand Kenyans, with thousands displaced. Peace efforts are underway, but Kenya remains tense. In the fourth part of a series on the situation, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on the efforts by Kenyan writers and intellectuals to express themselves freely about the situation.
Muthoni Garland, who has been nominated for Africa’s premier literary award, The Caine Prize, says some people who’ve received death threats in Kenya’s post-election cauldron have already been murdered.
“So there is a sense that when you receive threats, they’re real. There are writers I know who’ve fled, but they tend to be the ones who work for the mass media,” she says.
Voicing and writing criticism of those committing atrocities in Kenya these days is a perilous occupation.
“I get a lot of hate mail. I hope it won’t blow into something else,” says Rasna Warah, a columnist with Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper.
“It’s a very dangerous time to be – not just a writer – but to think with a clear mind. The country’s polarized. And basically all the journalists and human rights activists were the voices of moderation and balance. And it’s ironic that these voices of reason and moderation should now be the targets. I fear for freedom of expression in Kenya,” she sighs.
According to Warah, many of her compatriots who are now being targeted by elements in Kenya opposed to freedom of speech belong to the country’s majority ethnic group – and the group to which President Kibaki belongs – the Kikuyu.
The Kikuyu are perceived by many in Kenya as being united behind President Kibaki and therefore unwilling to condemn violence committed in the name of the government or against members of other ethnic groups.
But Warah says this “isn’t true…. A lot of (the critics) are from the Kikuyu tribe who’ve condemned the atrocities committed by Kikuyu people. They condemned the atrocities committed by all groups, in fact.”
Observers say criminal gangs allied to the government – such as Kenya’s notorious Mungiki group - are issuing the death threats.
“Something bad is about to crumble when so many intelligent people become thuggish…. That’s the sign of a desperate person,” comments Binyavanga Wainaina, one of Kenya’s most respected writers and a Caine Prize recipient.
He adds that the warnings issued to activists and journalists show that the state and its proxies are desperate to cling to power.
“This is a country with incredible skills. And it has always been the mediocre, the thugs – the political thugs – who dominate discussion about what this country can do. Now you have a population that is scared, uncertain and willing to listen to ideas. And you have another side of the population that wants to hijack the process. And the fact that they are threatened says something, about what the power of the intellectual, the writer, is in Kenya right now,” Wainaina comments.
Stan Gazemba is just one of Kenya’s commentators and writers who refuses to back away from his “duty to expose the truth” about what’s happening in his country. But he remains “very concerned” for his safety.
“The ruling elite is struggling to maintain power. And the organs that are supposed to keep the rulers in check, are not in place. But we need to soldier on. We cannot back away from saying what needs to be done,” Gazemba stresses.
“Freedom of speech is under assault, for sure,” Wainaina says. “Writing the truth these days in Kenya is a risk, but one has to do it. Personally, it is my vocation, and therefore my duty. But we also have a great responsibility not to incite, not to foment fear and violence. We writers are therefore walking a thin line.”
Warah maintains that storytellers – whether of the mainstream media, independent filmmakers or authors of fiction and poetry – have the responsibility to “counter lies with the truth.”
“The people who are storytellers and who can humanize the situation become incredibly powerful at this time, and their challenge to stand up becomes important,” Wainaina adds.
He’s helped to form Kenya’s Concerned Writers Group.
Warah is also a member: “In the past few weeks, a collective of writers has gotten together, and we are putting out our work in various media around the world - but especially in Kenya - trying to stop the chaos. We hope it has an impact, and I think it has. It has also allowed writers to re-think their roles in society, and to think how they can prevent situations from deteriorating. I hope to help through my writing.”
She, however, acknowledges: “ I don’t know what power a column or a book has over events in a country.”
Wainaina says it’s ironic that Kenyan writers are seeking to combat ethnic violence with information…. When it was information itself that was originally used to inflame the conflict.
“Ninety nine percent of what’s happened in Kenya was (caused by) text messages, being sent from one person to another, fanning your ethnic nationalism and telling you ‘someone is coming to butcher you tonight,’ creating a perception with (false) stories about how the person next door to you is this or that kind of demon.”
There are disturbing echoes of the Rwandan genocide in Wainaina’s words…. Yet he’s convinced that “there’s never been a better time in Kenya’s history for its writers to reflect the truth” about their country.
Garland agrees. She’s begun to write about the “untold stories” of Kenya’s post-election chaos. And about the invisible heroes of the conflict.
“There are amazing stories about those very same Kalenjins they’re saying are killing Kikuyus; we’ve heard of Kalenjin families who’ve hidden Kikuyus, at risk of their own lives. We’ve heard of Kikuyu families who’ve hidden Luos, again at risk of their own lives.
“Along with all the horrible stories and the barbarity, there are also stories that show that Kenyans are also human beings, that they care and have love. We’ve got to have images that we can rally around and say: That is what being a Kenyan is!” Garland exclaims.
But she acknowledges that horror and barbarity have certainly been a major part of the recent events in Kenya. And that they, too, are part of the unfolding – and untold - Kenyan story.
“There’s been very little reporting about the rapes that are going on. Rape has been used as a weapon by conflicting ethnicities. I’ve been talking to the hospitals, and they’re telling me that they’re seeing massive increases in rape victims – about four times the usual rate of rapes in Kenya.”
Garland’s “sure” that this’ll result in a corresponding increase in HIV infections.
“These will be the invisible casualties of this calamity,” she warns.
But she and her colleagues are striving to stay positive, and to pass their hope on to the Kenyans they come into contact with.
“(The Concerned Writers Group) is also trying to create imagination; inspire, trying to get people to see that there is a pay-off in peace and a pay-off in nationhood. Because at the moment there’s none of that vision; everybody’s talking about violence and anger and rumors and who’s been assassinated and that sort of thing…. We have a number of projects going on, such as drawing cartoons that allow traumatized children to come to terms with what’s happened to them.”
Warah says her “biggest fears” after her country’s post-election meltdown are that Kenyans will “stop writing or go into exile or begin censoring their thoughts.”
She agrees that perhaps the greatest challenge she and her fellow storytellers now face is not the intimidation that’s been directed at them from external sources, but one within themselves: In the midst of all the threats they’re receiving, it’s very tempting to dilute the truth.