Notes On the Secession Debates in Kenya

There is no need for secession, at least in Kenya now. Even if different regions were to secede, say, Kenya ends up divided into two, it would just be the start of a long disintegration process, where every region, loosely based on the semi-autonomous regions (provinces) at independence, will want to be a state. Even if Kikuyuland is joined with Kalenjinland in these debates, there is really no long term justification for the two groups to remain tied in the hip forever, even though they are dominating Kenya’s state infrastructure now. The same applies to the Luos and the other smaller or marginalized ethnic groups. Wandia Njoya also recently wrote a very important analysis of how our ‘tribe’ classifications have been fluid and have changed so much if you look at the classifications in the censuses in pre and post-colonial Kenya.

A recent example is the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. From the 80s to the 90s, SFR Yugoslavia was engulfed in political crisis and inter-ethnic wars due to unresolved issues. In the end, a country that was made up of six republics drawn along ethnic and historical lines: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Add World War II to the mix, add Tito and Slobodan Milošević, add the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, and in 1990 you have the dissolution of the SFR Yugoslavia. From 1990, each of those regions went their separate ways. So from the SFR Yugoslavia which was created in 1943, the breakup which started in the 1990s, led to the independence of Croatia in 1991, Slovenia in 1991, Republic of Serbian Krajina tried between q991 to 1995 and ended up being part of Croatia, Republic of Macedona in 1991, Bosnia and Herzegovina 1995, etc etc. It is contestable whether they have become better states. Also look at the continuing disintegration of the USSR.

The constitution presents secession as a clean deal, signature on a paper, backed by an ideological understanding of self-determination, but in reality, it is a long and painful process, and the benefits are not always guaranteed, especially in Africa. Secession is not always a solution. In most cases, it is a consequence of the weak glues holding the constituent parts of a nation-state melting away. But even if its pursuit is fairly peaceful, say like the referendum for Scottish independence, we also have to look at the history of neighbouring states. In the process of disintegration, what will prevent Somalia from coming for the Northern Frontier District that Kenya stole from them? What will prevent Uganda from laying a stake on the western region of Kenya and the Rift Valley? How about Ethiopia grabbing Turkanaland? Afterall they have been eyeing it since forever. And in that process, Tanzania would simply carter away Kenya’s Coast region. You will find yourself seceding from Kenya only to end up in Uganda or Somalia. LOL.

It is for this reason that for a region to secede, in a volatile region such as ours, it must have a semblance of a standing army to protect itself, not only from the old cruel state it is breaking away from, but also the new neighbours who see it as small potatoes that can be whipped into the bellies with groundnut soup. The police and the army are the state’s tools for enacting the monopoly of violence, at home and abroad. I’m only seeing, say for example Luos throwing stones. I’m not seeing them having machine guns under their beds.

I have written here, a lot about the economic viability of small states, with the exception of a few. If I was to make decisions, Africa itself should have been say 10 huge federal republics, instead of 54+ countries. Populations and market sizes are important factors when looking at the economic viability of a state. Huge nation-states with huge populations, if managed well, become the strongest players in international relations. There is a correlation between population growth and urbanization, and a close correlation with economic development, this is because urban centres are melting pots for innovation and provide environments for increasing economies of scale, if managed well. Look at all the rich countries in the world. They are urban countries. This is why I always find it contradictory when population control, in sparsely populated Africa, is promoted. Just like in every region in the world, the biggest and powerful countries in Africa, will be those with huge populations hence huge markets. Imagine the wealth a company can generate selling nipple rings to 200 million Nigerians compared to 4 million Luos in Kenya.

The nature of the nation-state is also changing. We should be careful not to be stuck on Westphalian sovereignty or the nationalistic impulses of the 19th and 20th centuries. We are now in the age of state captures and corporatocracies and I want to go and live in Mars. Like I always say, even in the midst of political persecution, we should also try to outthink some of these entrenched models of imagining nation-states, , in addition to championing for increased autonomy of counties while killing imperial presidency by changing the structure of government so that a president is not elected through popular vote but through elected representatives from each county.

It is also important not add that the fact that different regions, have at one point entertained the idea, from the North Eastern, to the Coast, to Central at one point, to the loud ethnonationalism in Rift Valley at one time, and the seething sentiment in the Nyanza and Western regions for sometime now, shows that, while some tribes have been bloodied more than others in post-independent Kenya, the cause of this oppression and injustice, has not been tribal groups, but rather the elite group capturing the state, which for a long time has been the group Jomo Kenyatta created to leech the nation. So many people, including Uhuru Kenyatta, are beneficiaries of this system that continues to hold Kenya captive.

Once a while, one one tribe is played against another through propaganda for political expediency, and then state infrastructure is used to profile and persecute certain tribes. The tribes enjoying the privilege of safety at that point are programmed to celebrate the oppression of the other and given crumbs to feel a sense of belonging at the banquet table. Sometimes resources actually flow their way, and development, to psychologically manipulate them that conform and we give you tge cake, rebel and we withdraw the cake, making them perptual slaves to elite manipulation. This cheerleading the oppression of others is what we rage against. But at the root of this is class, and if people could be made to understand this, we’ll be talking about the need of revolution, an act where one class violently overthrows the other, and not secession, because what we need is an equal share at the table. I’m distrustful of Dr. Ndii pigeonholing NASA strongholds, now, with secession calls. If such calls, as I have seen are purely based on tribes, aka the Luo et al, getting their country, one wonders what Dr. Ndii hopes to gain, or he is now the saviour of the Luos (and other unconsulted communities bundled in Country B)?

We have serious historical injustices and political issues, but secession is not the magic bullet. I need more countries in Africa building bigger and stronger political and economic unions. 


“Nu Africa” – @OCTOPIZZO

Octopizzo Da’Illest has a new track out, “Nu Africa” off his upcoming 5th Studio Album. It is an aspirational track, laid-back and mature. Excellent production. Absolutely. The video concept is just too good and is beautifully executed. OCTOPIZZO’s music videos rarely disappoint.

“This is Africa Enterprise and we mean business”, “This is Nu Africa” is the rallying cry.

The track reminded me of Cyhi The Prynce’s (ft. Ernestine Johnson) track with the same name “Nu Africa” – which is a Black-American’s imagination of what would happen if Black-Americans stormed the motherland.

A wonderful production which imagines how American hip hop artists would transform the face of the continent, if they decided to escape the lack of fulfilment in America. It toys with Khaled building a neighbourhood in Tanzania, Jay and Bey buying land in Egypt, Puffy opening a stripper club off the sands of Kenya, Akon lighting the cities, Oprah opening up more schools, Michael Jordan bringing more shoes, going to Utopian Ethiopia for the beautiful women… and Obama becoming the President. It mentions up to 24 countries, bellying with the nostalgia and angst of the black man, and emptiness caused by loss of identity, something that is brought forth forcefully by Ernestine Johnson’s spoken word infusion.

I was expecting a similarly expansive capturing of “Africa” in Octopizzo’s track, albeit from an African’s perspective, but there is little apart from the title and en passant mentions.

The Africa in the track is “Kenya”. Also considering the huge and serious subject matter the track promises, it has too many of Octo’s rhyme book fillers (1.45 – 2.22, 3.20-4.00) that would have given space to better content, however, the hook maintains the soulful Africa feel, and the little speech at the end saves it from superfluousness, and refocuses it to the original vision of Nu Africa.

There’s this track, “Last Shot” ft Danton & M Lay on the war and refugee crisis in Sudan that had almost none of such filler rhymes, though the video production was basic and it was definitely produced to be a club banger.

Great ambition Octopizzo. Keep repackaging yourself. It is becoming better. The album will definitely be a chart topper.

Stop the Violence – “Gaza” by @Khaligraph Jones

Khaligraph Jones, aka Brian Ouko Omollo, aka Ndugu Omollo is arguably the best hip hop artist in Kenya today, pulping every rival to mashed potatoes, but it is only recently that he is beginning to find his strength, and is slowly climbing the steps to his rightful place.

He used to be the best rapper, a battling firespitter, a thousand rhymes per minute, he still is, but that is technique and nothing else, it is only now that he is becoming the hip hop artist, an enviable storyteller, and you don’t have to look far to see.

It has been said before that the mark of a good rapper is the ability to string words together into captivating rhymes, but the mark of a great one is the ability to weave those rhymes into stunning narratives that grip and maintain the listener’s attention through the end of the song. The best hip hop artist is the best storyteller. All legendary hip hop artists are legendary storyteller.

Khaligraph’s versatility is allowing him to walk up those stairs. Chali ya Ghetto was dope, Gaza, targeting Nairobi’s notorious criminal gang – Gaza, released from his Blu Ink Corp, is more. Most rappers would just rage against the beat to pass over a message of “stop the gang violence”, but Khali uses juxtaposition.

The song is a dialogue between two people – a living gang member and a deceased one, with the threat of Hessy – Nairobi’s super cop, in the middle. The living gang member, as most are wont to be, is steeped in anger, crime and violence, spewing threats at Hessy for cutting down the gang friend, and vowing revenge.

But the dead know better. And in slow, introspective storytelling, the dead gang member feeds him with a sober, down-to-earth advice to get off that nonsense ama akule copper. Form ni kureform as Virusi Mbaya Kibera would say.

Great song and great production! This is international. Good job ndugu Omollo.

Stories of African Resistance: The Battle of Adwa

The year is 1896.

Europe has decided to slice up Africa into cakes. Italy says it will eat the Ethiopian Empire. It starts to, encroach, south of their colony in Eritrea on the Red Sea.

Seven years earlier, in 1889, the Kingdom of Italy has signed a friendship treaty, the Treaty of Wichale, with the Empire of Ethiopia. The basic idea was that Italy and Ethiopia would respect each other and none would try to scratch the other’s ass. But then differences began to emerge on the nature of “friendship”.

According to Italy, the Italian version of Article 17 of the treaty clearly stated that Ethiopia would be a protectorate of Italy, that the Emperor of Ethiopia was obliged to conduct all foreign affairs through Italian authorities. Emperor Menelik II tells Italy that what is in his Amharic copy of the treaty is that the Emperor could use the good offices of the Kingdom of Italy to conduct relations with foreign nations if he wishes. Italy accuses the Emperor of editing his Amharic version. That it is a “mistranslation” from the Italian original. Emperor says that his document is the original position. Italy decides to pursue a military solution to force the Ethiopian Empire to abide by the Italian reading of the Treaty of Wichale.

They begin by occupying the northern Ethiopian city of Adigrat. The year is 1895.

Emperor Menelik II is, naturally, pissed off. Bigtime. He doesn’t attack immediately. He waits for a whole year, towards the end of 1896. While Italy glories in the success of their initial occupation, he uses a 4 million lire loan he had borrowed from Italy earlier to import better weapons. He then calls the population of Ethiopia to arms and begins to lead a massive military force of 100,000 men northward towards Italian occupied territories. The Italian forces are mercilessly defeated at the battle of Amba Alage.

In response, Rome ferries more troops to Eritrea. 17,978 troops, with 56 artillery pieces, under Commander General Oreste Boratieri. And the artillery! Right Column: (3,800 rifles / 18 cannons), Central Column: (2,493 rifles / 12 cannons), Left Column: (4,076 rifles / 14 cannons), and Reserve Column: (4,150 rifles /12 cannons).

The Ethiopians are not leaving anything to chance! These are their forces: Shewa forces – 25,000 rifles / 3,000 horses / 32 guns; Semien forces – 3,000 rifles / 600 horses / 4 guns; Gojjam forces – 5,000 rifles; Harar forces – 15,000 rifles; Tigray and Hamasen forces – 12,000 rifles / 6 guns; Wollo-Galla forces – 6,000 rifles / 5,000 horses; Forces of the Fit’awrari Mangascià Atikim – 6,000 rifles; Forces of Ras Oliè and others – 8,000 rifles; and additional thousands of spearmen and swordsmen.

The Emperor’s strategy is to overextend the Italians to fight on his terms. He threatens to outflank them, maneuvers them into a position that leaves their supply lines exposed. General Oreste Boratieri knows that battling Menelik’s troops in the open field is suicidal. He has been outmaneuvered. He believes the best strategy is to retreat, but some of his officers resist retreat, arguing that they have reports that Menelik’s army is demoralized and depleted. The Italians advance an army of more than 15,000 under the cover of night to create strong defensive positions and possibly scare the Ethiopians into retreat. By dawn, the next day, most of the Italian army have secured their positions.

The day is February 29th 1896.

The Emperor is just beginning his morning prayers for divine guidance when the spies from Ras Alula, his chief military advisor, run in. The Italian forces are advancing! The Emperor, Empress Taytu by his side, summons all the separate armies and orders them to advance. There is Negus Tekle Haymond commanding the right column, Ras Alula the left column, Ras Makonnen and Ras Mengesha on the centre, and Rask Mikael at the head of the cavalry. Emperor Menelik remains with the reserve battalion. The Ethiopian forces position themselves on the hills overlooking Adwa valley, 52 mounted guns, trained on would-be-approaching Italians on the valley.

At 6.AM on the morning of March 1, the first Italian brigade – Albertone’s Askari Brigade – arrives at Adwa valley. Albertone’s brigade holds position for 2 hours in a heavy battle. In the end Albertone is captured. The second brigade, led by Arimondi, battle it out with Ethiopians for 3 hours, almost annihilating the Ethiopians, only for Emperor Menelik II to release 25,000 troops from the reserves. Italians are cut down and swamped. Menelik’s forces, pursue and destroy two brigades led by Boratieri on the slopes of Mount Belah. The last Italian brigade is quickly extinguished by Gojjam forces under the command of Tekle Haymonot, as Emperor Menelik watched.

That day, by noon, the Battle of Adwa was over.

7000 Italians were dead, 1500 wounded, and 3000 taken prisoner.
The scope and scale of this victory was so extensive that Menelik’s campaign covered more miles than Napoleon’s advance in Russia. It was so devastating that no other European power attempted to colonize Ethiopia.

Sources: The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire; The Battle of Adwa ; The Battle of Adwa and many more


This short, basic, write-up is inspired by Too Early For Birds, which poses a rather simple question: What if we could turn our stories into living, breathing performances?

That is exactly what the team behind Too Early For Birds hopes to achieve.

The team behind #TooEarlyForBirds which is includes some of the finest performance artists in the country – led by Abu Sense and Ngartia, has gone back into the timeline of Kenya seeking out moments that built who we are as a people. The result is stories of sweat, blood and sheer courage. Raging from resistance against the British colonialists to standing against cold-blooded dictators. Most of which were never taught in school. They are stories that inspire awe, terror and admiration. They are inspired by and based on research done by Morris Kiruga. He is a researcher and writer dedicated to chronicling Kenyan history in a Kenyan perspective.

Are you ready for the experience on Wednesday, 17th May 2017, from 06:00 PM – 11:00 PM, at the Kenya National Theatre, Nairobi-Kenya?

Get a Ticket on TicketSasa

The Chronology of Ugali Politics & Profits in Kenya

One: Create artificial scarcity of maize via mismanagement of national maize stocks at National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB). “Auditor General’s report on the Ministry of Agriculture for 2014/2015 says about one million bags of maize went to waste following NCPB’s laxity in tackling an insect attack.” 1 million bags. Insect attack. Weevils.

Two: Worsen scarcity by nurturing greedy cartels who wipe off maize from the hands of farmers at X shillings and sell it to commercial millers at 3X.

Three: Steal the hundreds of billions you set aside for legacy agricultural programmes aka one million-acre Galana-Kulalu Irrigation Scheme, and others.

Four: Three months earlier, remove all taxes on maize and wheat importation – “In order to make these commodities affordable for the common mwananchi, I propose to zero-rate bread and maize flour to remove VAT altogether.” Smile as Kenyans celebrate expecting a reduction in the price of maize flour…. ”

Five: Feign shock that prices did not drop even after cutting the taxes. Pretend to be helpless as citizens suffer from abnormally high prices of maize flour.

Six: Close yourself in a room with a drink and laugh your ass off as supermarket shelves empty and families go without proper meals because their staple food is out of reach.

Seven: Organize a press conference and smile your way through it explaining to Kenyans the cause of the scarcity and high costs of basic goods. Don’t forget to blame the high prices on climate change and global warming. You can even blame farmers.

Eight: Pretend to be asking the Parliament to do something about it, but even before they discuss it …

Nine: out of nowhere, a huge cargo ship docks at Mombasa Port with 30,000 tonnes of maize. Promise Kenyans that another ship is in the high seas with thousands of tonnes of maize. But who is importing? Who is this faceless saviour?

Ten: Go to church on Sunday and thank God for the huge profitability of Ugali politics.

And that my friend is the chronology of ugali politics, re-acted yet another time.

Khaligraph Jones – Call me di bleacher

A few days ago, Khaligraph appeared on NTV’s weekly show, The Trend, looking dapper and a little lighter skinned than usual, and his explanation was just ludicrous:

“Right now I am living a different life compared to the life I used to live. You know I am drinking clean water, I am driving my own cars, and I am not walking in the sun getting burned. My shawty introduced me to this thing when you go to the salon they scrub your face”

The streets started talking. Here was a chink in his armour. It was only a matter of time before other rappers ran to their social media profiles to fire the shots. Most were low level fire, most anti-fans, thousands of chiding Facebook comments. Octopizzo was the loudest of these voices, calling him ndugu Omollo out and inviting him for a talk on self-esteem when he jets back in America. Black Lives Matter. It was expected. He had given his contemporaries a free pass. He was going to be roasted if he didn’t bury the allegations in a big way. So he began by throwing a blame on NTV studio lighting, accompanied by new images of an un-bleached Khaligraph on Facebook.

Away from the general arguments against bleaching, hip hop has a special hell for artists who try to challenge “black pride”, “black is beautiful” norm. Allegations of bleaching, worse still for a hip hop artist, can completely destroy their career. To avoid any form of feminization, rap artists have always, almost en masse, embraced hypermasculinity – exaggerated male stereotypical behavior that emphasizes physical strength, aggression and sexuality. The result is that rappers, almost unconsciously, go for images, lyrics, and music that are manifestly violent and misogynist.

In the documentary film, Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Byron Hurt explains that in hip hop you have to fit into a metaphorical box to be considered masculine; “you have to be strong, tough, have a lot of girls, you have to have money, be a playa or pimp, be in control, dominate other men, other people.” These are the behaviours hip hop considers masculine, authentic, and those who deviate lose the street cred, “people call you soft or weak, pussy, chump, faggot” so everybody tries to remain in the metaphorical box. Weakness is associated with femaleness and homosexuality. It is deeply entrenched that even female rappers have to adopt the toughness of hypermasculinity.

To borrow Leonard Glass analysis of the contractions in hypermasculinity: the hypermasculine must be a “man’s man” – strong, dependable, rough, rigid, unemotional, dirty, mystified by women, but he must at the same time be a “ladies man” – smooth, stylish, sly, seductive, sexually predatory, knowledgeable about women, and emotionally counterfeit. This toxic masculinity is what gets a hip hop artist money because toxic black masculinity has been commodified.

Artists, who do not want to be cocooned in this hypermasculine box must find other ways to remain legit, but they must not, at all times, challenge blackness/maleness, their manhood must never be in question. Everyone tries not to be a bitch nigga. That is where Khaligraph Jones comes in.

I imagine him trying to figure out the options available for him. How to beat down the critics and pulp the small potatoes on the timelines. Rap music isn’t always simple. Or literal. One has to think fast, and well, or end up bazookaing oneself on the foot. So when I woke up to Khaligraph Jones Toa Tint (Mask Off) – a rebuttal of bleaching allegations, I was more than interested in the how, the style he has used to cut everything back to normal, and I was more than impressed.

Self-deprecation is an old and useful style in hip hop. The very use of the N-word by black artists, if we are now to be more politically correct, is a self-deprecation. I have written about it before here, on reclaiming of words to serve a purpose other than the one initially intended.

Rappers, in the past, have from time to time deserted the high table of hypermasculinity for the crumbs on the masculine  floor, in the sense of accepting that which is deemed undesirable and unacceptable within the culture, or turning it on it’s head by laughing at oneself, making oneself the butt of a joke through self-deprecating humour. Take for example, Skee-Lo’s “I Wish” (1995) and how it deals with the inability to measure up to the “ladies man” in hypermasculinity. Fatlip’s “Whats Up Fat Lip? (2005) comes to mind, in his openness about his inadequacy. Among the biggest rappers, perhaps Nas- Drunk by Myself (2002) comes to mind. They are many.

The master of self-deprecation is Eminem. He has used it over and over again. We can go back in time, to one of the most self-deprecating verses ever, in 8 Mile – Eminem Freestyle, the Final Battle vs Papa Doc. Eminem goes like:

This guy ain’t no motherfucking MC,
I know everything he’s got to say against me,
I am white, I am a fucking bum,
I do live in a trailer with my mom,
My boy Future is an Uncle Tom.
I do got a dumb friend named Cheddar Bob
Who shoots himself in his leg with his own gun,
I did get jumped by all 6 of you chumps
And Wink did fuck my girl,
I’m still standing here screaming, “Fuck the free world!”
Don’t ever try to judge me, dude
You don’t know what the fuck I’ve been through

I’m a piece of fucking white trash, I say it proudly
And fuck this battle, I don’t wanna win, I’m outty,
Here, tell these people something they don’t know about me.

How do you get back at someone who has completely deracinated themselves? Who has presented themselves before you as worthless? Even if you did, the disses would not be half as effective. This is what Khaligraph has done. He has collected all the disses and ridicules from the interwebs, exaggerated them and mashed them into a track. Nimebleach hadi ngoma natoa… /nimebleach hadi cladi navaa // hata naweza change sex na bado hamwezi nichallenge…// nimebleach hadi haga, nimebleach hadi balls..//  Lol! He has made himself the butt of a joke, the ridicule, the chiding. And because he did it before any rapper in Kenya threw one on You Tube, he has killed the hopes of any other rapper sweating in the trenches, penning a diss worth a beat. He wins. Again.

On the look out for Kenyan hip hop artists who have used this style before.

He is more like Drake becoming the meme, singing his way through hip hop’s manly obsession, challenging hip hop’s black machismo, and having a good laugh while at it. Or like Lil B.

I’m waiting to see how many will meme “Toa Tint (Mask Off)”, but like Drake, the ultimate outcome of all this will be in Khali’s favour.

Poverty Porn – A New Prison for African Writers

A critic brings knowledge, taste, and meaningful judgement to a piece of work. The three elements imply that a critic cannot be neutral – to judge is to move away from the line of neutrality, and this is why critics are important. By consistently portraying the courage to have their judgments presented publicly, they become an authority, gatekeepers in a field. They are choosing ‘preferred literature’ to their audiences, and justifying their choice.

They are activists in a way, and done longer enough, a certain preference begins to emerge, a preference for a certain kind of book, a certain kind of literature, of art. Places that have few, major critics, the ‘superstar’ critics, risk having access to only a few approved choices. Since knowledge feeds on itself, and people tend to pursue few definable positions, a society needs many critics in order to have access to a diversity of approved choices, or the choices will become just another single story.

Recently, Ikhide Ikheloa, reviewed Fiston Mujila Mwanza’s Tram 83, a review, which though manifestly illustrative in its approach, I disagreed with. I made a series of Facebook posts clarifying my position and have decided to collect these posts, with minimal alterations and post them here on my blog for easy reference.

Pa Ikhide.s review reminded me of an old conversation – the suffocating tendency to view all African novels, of if you like, novels written by Africans, as anthropological, as ethnological documents. I also felt that his reading of Tram 83 was akin to Aesop’s fable, ‘The Dog and the Shadow’: he lost the substance by grasping at the shadow.

We seem to have this long list of instructions that a novel by an African should abide by. A few years ago, Helon Habila made an unlikely charge at ‘We Need New Names’ by NoViolet Bulawayo, that it was pushing an aesthetic of suffering – poverty porn. I couldn’t stop shaking my head. That was shocking. I read Pa’s review and I could not stop seeing the listing of what should be done, should not have been done … Pa also brings the poverty porn argument to Tram 83, calls it “rancid poverty porn. Re-fried beans as literature.” Pa’s argues that “I thought we had gone past the notion of African writing as a pejorative, the expectation that the only literature that can come out of Africa is one that reeks of misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, despair, poverty, wars and rapes, with women and children objectified as unthinking sex objects, hewers of wood and mules.”

You can actually see that Ikhide did his homework, going through the text, with a sieve, and listing thematic concerns, with regard to how they have been dealt with vis a vis his beliefs on “the role of an African writer”. He didn’t forget to remind us to read “Chinua Achebe’s insightful essay, Today, the Balance of Stories (in the book of essays, Home and Exile) to all African writers who wish to reflect on how they portray Africa.”

Why must writers from Africa always bear the burden of representing the continent? Taiye Selasi asks. I don’t have to reproduce the wealth of her argument, here, but it is now clear that “the African novelist is rarely granted the privilege of writing, as Tony Morrison famously put it, the novel she wanted to read. Instead the novelist is assumed to be writing for the west, producing ethnographic texts dolled up as literary fiction. It’s a curious allegation, one that denies both the agency and artistry of the writer while threatening to obscure, I think, the actual source of the unease.” Stop pigeonholing African writers, she says.

Would the tag “poverty porn” be applied to novels written by non-Africans, set outside Africa? I think we are creating so many prisons for ourselves, and will cry when it traps us in for another 50 years. We risk missing the next Dambudzo Marechera when he appears on the scene, repeating a mistake of the past.

This paragraph, by Ikhide, exemplifies the need for critics to expand their lenses:

After pages of this silliness, I understood the problem with the book. The “novel” must have been first conceived as a movie script, hawked around as one and when Mujila could not get a buyer, he convinced a publisher that it would work as a novel. The result is a clumsy novel clutching an essay that waxes incoherent on the looming demise of African literature and the world as Mujila knows it. In a flat one-dimensional medium of the book, Mujila tries using two-page long sentences to create scenes meant for the stage or a movie and he fails spectacularly.

Ikhide has been one of the most notable observers of transformations in artistic production in Africa, whether it is on short stories posted on Facebook or flash fiction on twitter. In an old address, Binyavanga Wainaina delivered at the African Studies Association UK 2012, on Afropolitanism, and captured by Stephanie Santana, here, these thinkers observed that we are living in a changing world, and nothing stands out like the “image of invisible digital networks of texts reaching ghost-like across continents, genre-bending “digital pulp,” a pan-African literature that moves vis twitter and sms rather than by printing press and shipping containers.” Even though Binyavanga has since clarified and expanded his position on Afropolitanism, as not inherently antagonistic to Taiye Selasi’s, this image of evolving writing and publishing systems remains. If modes of travel of stories are changing, how about forms? I quote this specific image, because I know Pa Ikhide has also talked about these changes in almost similar terms, and I was surprised at his criticism of the genre-bending nature of Tram 83’s world. In the 21st century, we should be prepared for more novels that blur boundaries. We should reimagine and reconstruct our knowledge bases on what form is, and how it is changing.

The complaint about long sentences is a peculiar one. One of the most intriguing books I have read is “The Melancholy of Resistance” by László Krasznahorkai. Sentences, in the book, can run up to 30 pages. I have not read any review complaining about length of sentences in his sentences. I know László is a little on the extreme, but James Wood’s “Madness and Civilization” on the New Yorker on the strange fictions of László Krasznahorkai is an exemplary way to dig deep into strange forms, in ways that increase our understanding of authors and their texts, as opposed to demonising it.

I moderated a conversation with the Etisalat Prize shortlistees. Fiston Mujila and Penny Busetto (The Story of Anna P as told by herself) came to Nairobi, and we had a rich evening of literariness. I also wrote an essay on “What Will People Say” by Rehana Rossouw, published by Saraba Magazine, Special Issue: Etisalat Prize. One can say that I was deeply engaged with the texts and authors. I hold the opinion that Tran 83 is elegant surrealism, beautiful madness – intelligent, strange, hypnotic, unconventional.

An interview Sofia Samatar had with Fiston Mujila lays bare, apart from jazz, the influence of surrealism, the excesses of Congo, and his languaging of experiences. He says:

“I am a music lover, not just of jazz but also Congolese rumba. I dreamed of becoming a saxophonist when I was a child. That wasn’t able to happen, since there was no music school in my hometown and I couldn’t get hold of a saxophone. When I was nineteen or twenty I realized that literature or writing could play the role of a saxophone or bass clarinet. I was reading the surrealists a lot at the time. There is a connection between automatic writing and improvisation. Since then, I compose some of my texts like scores. I also make performances, often accompanied by jazzmen.

Music allowed me to explode the story in order to conform to the characters’ whims and excessiveness. I come from a country that exists only on paper. The Congo—by its very history, its everyday life—is an extraordinary, or shall we say paradoxical, country. There is no such thing as moderation there. We are always immoderate, excessive, exuberant, etc. Everything happens as if the world was going to end in forty-eight hours and we should therefore make the most of our remaining crumbs. Everything happens as if we belonged to another planet, with our own ways of thinking, of getting drunk, of dancing the waltz, and so on. I therefore needed jazz’s (incantatory) energy to define the heartbeats of a territory ravaged by all kinds of predation but whose people remain standing.

Tram 83 is irrigated by other rhythms, including those of the freight trains and the Congo river—one of the longest rivers in the world, and the deepest, second in discharge after the Amazon. The Congo river rises in the south and wanders through the whole country, before committing suicide, or hurling itself out the window, it depends, into the Atlantic ocean.”

In the post-independent period, ‘political commitment’ in novels was the aesthetic attraction and novels that did not fall under this huge critical banner were castigated. Almost all critics misunderstood Dambudzo Marechera. He was way ahead of his time. His work was not welcomed in Zimbabwe. Critics and other writers accused his work of not contributing to “nation-building”, that it was “decadent” and “anti-African”. Nobody was ready for the vision of his poetics.

Most of the complaints about descriptions of place and people, reminds me of the “decadent” allegation heaped on Dambudzzo’s work. Poverty porn is our new prison, a lexicon borrowed from development critics. But this phrase even becomes more problematic when it is applied to a creative work, say a novel, because it automatically presumes that the work was written that way primarily to increase sales, for African novels, in a Western market, and there is a deliberate kowtowing to certain demands from the Western publishing system (editors, publishers, readers). It has become a simple way of shooting a novel down, of refusing to engage with its unpleasant contents.

I suspect that so many of such cases are happening. It would be sad if another Marechera is being washed down the drainage as we speak. Works are going to emerge that are so different from certain cemented talking points by African critics and they’ll all be labelled as not contributing to “continental building”, as not adding shine to the ‘sunny’ Africa we need to present to the West, and they’ll be demonised, when the problem maybe that critics have adopted narrow lenses.

Dambudzo was banned because how he presented the situation in Zimbabwe was unpleasant, it was not in agreement with the futures the post-independent leaders were singing about. However, it is good that in an interview, he made this choice rather clear. He said:

“I tend to see the writer as a kind of Cassandra figure with all this enormous talent to actually analyze, officialize intensively people’s destinies, only to be cursed by censorship, by persecution, by whatever, for having that talent. But precisely because you got that talent, you must continually activate it, in spite of any opposition from any quarter. If I am a committed writer, that’s what I am committed to. A vision like that transcends any political programme. This is one of the difficulties I have in writing because here in Zimbabwe people try to analyse everything from the particular contemporary political view.”

We have to be very careful not to analyze everything from a single “particular contemporary political view.”

I also keep wondering about the limits of fiction, or any other art for that matter, or why it must be read as anthropological or ethnological, especially for writings coming from Africa. I don’t understand the desire to impose our total order (in terms of how we view the world) on all creative productions. I think there is space for viewing the novel(s) as a world on its own, and when we draw parallels of similarity/difference with our world , there is space for not being to restrictive or not being prescriptive of what we would have preferred.

It also seems like the perfect novel, by an African, should be inert, should not be too much, should be balanced, because readers of African novels are always looking how the sunny-side of Africa is presented. It must be anthropological, but don’t caricature us. We are doing good. Africa is rising. It should be political and nonpolitical at the same time. The perfect novel by an African is published nowhere. If it is published on the continent, the critic will go for the ills of the continent’s publishing industry. They will mention the cover design and binding. Why is it surprisingly good for a book printed in Africa? They’ll take note of the editing, never forgetting to mention that ‘this is an improvement from what we’ve been seeing in books published by African publishers.’ If it takes three months for the book to get to them, a paragraph on poor distribution systems will suffice.

Woe to you if it is published in the West. They will start with blurbs. Who are they? Are they white people? If black, where are they living? Are they living in the continent? The irony that the critic may also be living out of the continent is often lost to them. Is poverty in there? How much crime, drugs, war, prostitution, misogyny, patriarchy, feminism, add all the identity-politics talking points here. Are you pandering to Western audience interests? Who was your agent, your publisher? White people, right? I knew. Have they influenced how you are presenting Africa to the world? Why is your imagination decadent? Your book should be banned. It is not Christian. It is spreading immorality in Africa. Poverty porn? I thought we all agreed that novels from our 54+ countries should have none of that. Why are you only talking about middle class and wealthy people sensibilities? You are not capturing the ordinary lives of Africans. Do that in your next novel. That is why your current book is not selling. Why are your stories experimental? You are not rooted in the African experience. The African novelist is a continental spokesperson. Never forget that.