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Nyayo’s babies: New writing from Kenya

By Parselelo Kantai in Nairobi
Posted on Tuesday, 19 April 2011 15:07

A review of Kwani Vol 6, the Kenyan literary journal’s edition devoted to writers born after 1978.

Three years into a quarrelsome peace, and with the echoes of mass violence fading, it has become almost fashionable in Kenya to reduce the events of early 2008 into its most visible constituent parts: a quarrel between two old men, violently escalated by millions of young people. That is debatable, especially if one examines some of the more detailed accounts of the nature of, and reasons for, the violence. What is not is that the country’s ruling gerontocracy has, in the course of Kenya’s independence history, routinely suppressed the voices of its youth.

The decision by Kwani, the Kenyan literary journal, to devote its sixth edition to fiction by writers born after 1978 (the year Daniel arap Moi, nicknamed nyayo, or “footsteps” in Kiswahili, came to power), was born, says editor Billy Kahora, “from [this] ominous sense”. The result is unexpected – a panoply of new, talented voices less involved in that particular moment. Instead, the 30-odd short stories, accompanied by poems and comic strips, can be collectively regarded as the cacophonous howl of new Kenyan self-expression. And not just Kenyan; there are stories here from Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon, Somalia and the diasporic centres: London and the United States.

Five of the short stories were culled from 700 entries in a Kwani-organized short story competition themed ‘the Kenya I Live in’, with the particular requirement that the entrants had to have been born after August, 1978, the month Moi came to power.

The themes and settings are riotously varied, with ideas that an earlier generation – growing up under the monoculture of one president/one party/one TV station, under God – may not have readily conceived. There is Earthling by Diriye Osman (a man born in Mogadishu, raised in Nairobi, and who lived in London), about a lesbian Somali schizophrenic in London attending her sister’s wedding. Or the winning story, Farah Aideed Goes to Gulf War by Mehul Gohil (a Kenyan South Asian, Nairobi born and bred), about chess and the taboo love between an Indian and an African. Gohil manages to reveal a city still faithful to its apartheid cocktail of race, class and neighbourhood, with all its old fault-lines intact. For anybody despairing at the lack of an African reading culture, here’s a collection of Africans furiously attacking that notion.

This article was first published in the March 2011 edition of The Africa Report.

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