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KENYA @ 50: Trends, Identities and the Politics of Belonging

Volume 12, Issue 2  | 
Published 13/10/2015
John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:


Author: Joyce Nyairo

Publisher: Contact Zones NRB, 2015

Reviewer: John Sibi-Okumu

In her engrossing collection of essays dealing with our national psyche, Dr Joyce Nyairo defines five groups of Kenyans who hold her particular interest: one includes the children of the colony (those born before 1950). The others are the children of the Mau-Mau era (1951-1959), the children of independence (born anywhere between 1960 and 1966) – to which she herself belongs – and Generations Y and Z, children of the Moi and Kibaki eras. Consequently, I fall within the Mau Mau category and because I see myself as being in favour of, in Nyairo’s own words, cosmopolitan nationalism rather than ethnic citizenship, I rejoice in the fact that my ‘little sister’ has written a big and timely book: KENYA @ 50: Trends, Identity and the Politics of Belonging. And she has done so in elaborate, intellectually stimulating and smile-inducing diction which invites one, as a Kenyan, to self-analysis and lateral thinking. As Nyairo notes: One of the most glaring fault lines in the construction of the Kenyan nation is not the absence of memory, but rather the deliberate institutionalization of amnesia. If, as the great philosopher Socrates is meant to have said: ‘the unexamined life is not worth living,’ then, perhaps, it can also be argued that the unexamined society is not worth living in. Nyairo’s book is sure to become part of a noble and necessary project to restore national memory.

KENYA@50 provides a veritable buffet of subjects to digest mentally: the songs of E-Sir; the hold of gospel music; the import of obituaries, tributes and popular music; the use of social media for criminal ends and anonymous abuse; a tongue-in-cheek but scathing 101 on NGOs; the barefoot-to brogues trajectory to a notion of social success, as displayed in the published life stories of the moment, and so on. However, as befits my rika (or age group) the further back in time Nyairo went, the more enthralled I became: the death of Jomo Kenyatta and its aftermath; the attempted coup of 1982 and the years of heightened rumour and conjecture which followed and, above all, the evocation of the musical soundtrack of my youth and the ‘joints’ – the word had a different connotation then - which I and my contemporaries favoured. What should engage the reader, even if he or she (and I must say that, pedant that I am, I did not like the editorial: s/he) does not agree with the author’s views, is Nyairo’s ‘take’ on the issues which she chooses to tackle, often expressed with a delicious turn of phrase. Of which, herewith, a random sample: There is an art to all good rumours. As oral expressions, they must, ideally, be uttered in (near) whispers. Huge sums of money and forbidden love should be involved and finally, blood – the wanton pouring of it – is a useful ingredient.

Nyairo presents a personal point of view on a topic and at times embellishes it with a case study, labelled an ‘Interlude.’ Some of her reflections are pretty close to the bone: For example, in my case, if the names of icons of creativity like Greg Adambo and Felix Osodo refer to people from my ‘ancestral home,’ am I to take umbrage at the assumption that Luo must be the mother tongue of all three of us when in fact it is some dialect of Kiluhya? And, in any case, is there anything wrong with being Luo? And how much blood does one need to have in one’s veins in order to define oneself as coming from a certain tribe? And if I am a Mnyala from Mudembi who has married a Mmeru from Chogoria and we have dreadlocked sons who speak neither of our mother tongues and whose Kiswahili vocabulary extends to only a couple of hundred words, at the expense of English, have we as parents made a monumental hash of ‘cultural’ parenting? And speaking of ethnicity, where does the hatred come from which makes some Kenyans waylay and viciously circumcise their fellow Africans in full public view when some of them would take it as a badge of familial honour should one of their daughters or sisters marry an uncircumcised Mzungu (or Caucasian)? These are some of the uncomfortable thoughts to which Nyairo’s essays led me. And I am glad that they did: For far too long, we Kenyans have believed that having a boundary and a flag, having the Big Five roaming in our national parks, having a much loved beer and having athletes who win gold medals for running are sufficient indices of our nationalism. However, the not too distant past has proved us to be woefully wrong. Nyairo reminds us of that fact.

A reviewer’s work is never done without quibbles and queries, so let me not disappoint: Amongst the quibbles, I would say that a book such as Nyairo’s is as forceful as the power of its subjective arguments. However, paradoxically, the author must, at the same time, strive for an objectivity of overall assessment. For example, in a review of his ghost-written autobiography, Raila Odinga comes in for a bit of a hammering for what the author considers ethical vacillation. And he is also accused of not being more charitable in his descriptions of certain people: … the bellicose Michuki ... Patrick Shaw, a grotesque giant of a man … Idi Amin, the unpredictable and murderous buffoon. Well, from what I know of the individuals concerned, I certainly wouldn’t offer in their stead … ‘the affable Michuki’ … ‘Patrick Shaw, a lovely teddy bear of a man’ and ‘Idi Amin, the gregarious, conqueror of the British.’ However, by comparison, musician Joseph Kamaru, with a whole chapter devoted to his socially conscious lyrics, is spared similar opprobrium for the accommodations which he made to the high and mighty, although they are mentioned in passing. Then there is the instance where Nyairo awards author Miguna Miguna a Book of the Year Prize for writing the wholly condemnatory Peeling Back the Mask when, to my mind, ratting on one’s former friends in a fit of pique, however well-intentioned, is simply not the done thing.

Amongst the queries, I would ask why so much of the scholarship on various topics is ascribed to people with names like Clay Shirky, Kevin Milchionne and Pierre Bourdieu? What have our own academics been up to in the last fifty years? To a stickler for factual accuracy, I would posit that the film Kolormask was made by the Polish-trained Sao Gamba and not Greg Adambo, even if my ‘fellow villager’ did act in it. And also, how can the proof reader permit the spelling of Ngugi as Nugui and Ngigi and such other typos as hacking back for harking back?

All told, this is just quibbling and querying. My heartfelt suggestion is that an abridged version of this text is required, in more accessible syntax and free of the acknowledgement of sources associated with academic treatises. The result should then be made essential reading at high school level, in a bid to lead our youngsters to confront and analyse what has made them the Kenyans that they are and to think about what they can do to be citizens of a better country.