Author: Michela Wrong
Publisher: Fourth Estate, London, 2009
Reviewer: Warris Vianni
British journalist Michela Wrong’s It's Our Turn To Eat - The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower is a story about kitu kidogo - a little bit of corruption - in Kenya, and about one man’s sense of purpose. Set in Nairobi, London and Oxford, Our Turn sometimes reads like a political thriller. A bright, young Kenyan civil servant burdened with too much dangerous knowledge is caught in a web of dilemmas spawned within the murky opacity of Kenya’s high politics and financial shenanigans with an international dimension.
Wrong has drawn upon her experience as a foreign correspondent in Africa, a stint at a Nairobi newspaper and impressive research to produce a work borne of a writer’s affection and disappointment with a country she came to know too well. Whilst she is far too sophisticated to fall into the trap of playing the role of the white heroine in an African thriller, the action in Our Turn really gets going when John Githongo, the civil servant, absconds to Wrong's London flat with his many trilling cellphones on a chilly February morning four years ago. The result of her researches is deeply depressing and very readable.
In chronicling the tribulations of Githongo, who flees Kenya frustrated in his role as the President's advisor on corruption and fearing for his own safety, Wrong draws a portrait of Kenyan society that is rare for its honesty and courage. Telephone tapping in Kenya by foreign security services and the activities of Kenyan Intelligence in the United Kingdom in search of the errant civil servant is the sort of territory not usually covered by foreign journalists jealous of a comfortable stint in Nairobi.
Our Turn depicts a modern Kenya: the world of the Nairobi African upper middle class in which Githongo grew up, the world of work and of social exchange where people manage tense ethnic relations, and the growth of sheng, the modern lingua franca of the urban young. It will be difficult, after this work, to write again for a general audience in terms of the tired clichés that Kenya had long outgrown: of happy smiling servants, of vast rolling landscapes teeming with wildlife and of dissolute aristocrats keeping their end up with pink gins.
A persistent cliché about Kenya has been the British fantasy about its former possession as some kind of neo-colonial garden. If Wrong disposes of such a silly notion, she makes it equally difficult, after this work, for Kenyans to find refuge in the tired claim that ‘it is only our leaders that are bad’. Our Turn suggests that such sloppiness cannot pass for political thought any more.
Wrong scolds Kenyans for their tendency to dwell on their right to eat (and whose turn is next). Her focus is on the Kikuyu: the main protagonists in the story are Kikuyu. This might leave the general reader with the impression that Kikuyu dirigisme is at the heart of modern Kenya's suspicious politics. This would be too simplistic, as would the assertion that Kenya’s ruling elites simply follow in the footsteps of the former colonial rulers who had designed the country for the benefit of one minority.
In Kenya it is especially difficult to disentangle the issue of corruption with the issue of ethnic affection. Our Turn illustrates how these two issues poisonously reinforce each other. In the course of her investigation, Wrong strays into territory usually avoided by writers when she discusses ethnic character. But, she shies away from asking interesting questions about the intersection of cultural - or local - moralities and modern corruption. How, for example, do the characteristics of corruption in Kenya differ from those in, say, Pakistan, Italy or Japan? What, other than pedestrian human greed, explains how corruption arises within different cultures? How is corruption explained and 'localised'; what are its peculiarly local forms, and how do we reconcile local notions of virtue with this pervasive problem?
Implicit in the book's title is the politics of the belly. It implies an uncomfortable question: why there is so much anxious discussion in Kenya about who shares in the country's resources but little about who should contribute to those resources, and how? Perhaps, such anxiety makes better sense when framed within the larger context of a young, insecure country trying to become a nation with reciprocal obligations cutting across regional consciousness. Kenya has a rich diversity of genes, languages and cultures within a relatively small geographical area. A mosaic of 40 potential nations struggle to become loyal to one modern nation state. Young Kenyans might share sheng, but sharing an imposed identity requires a politics that is yet to be discovered.
The reader might regret the loss of the old sentiment for Kenya and despair for its future, but perhaps the possibility of redemption can be sought even in a seemingly hopeless situation. It is often said that the Kikuyu are one of Kenya’s most dynamic communities, always in the political and social vanguard. If this is right, then, arguably, implicit in this analysis is the possibility that the Kikuyu could also turn out to pioneer an embrace of ideas still rare in Kenya’s politics: the habit of sharing, balance and reflection.
Michela Wrong's work, with its pervasive smell of vomit, might anger some Kenyans and sadden its friends abroad. In the longer run, perhaps what matters more than the impressive marshalling of fact and anecdote, analysis and opinion, is that such a work has actually been published in Kenya. The average Kenyan might yawn at the mention of John Githongo’s name and some Kikuyu might bridle at his perceived treachery, but Kenya is better served that Wrong’s views are put into the public domain and openly debated. Given the country's stifling recent history and the difficulties faced by writers dealing with its troubling past and present, this represents fitful progress.
It’s Our Turn To Eat
Author: Michela Wrong