Kenya: Conversations [Part 1]

Ziphozakhe Hlobo writes;

I’m in Kenya, in a small town called Kisii. I am here for the Kistrech Internation Poetry Festival. It’s been 6 days and there is a part of me that already associates with this 6 day’s worth of familiarity. You know? Like waking up in the morning, going to the conference hall at the library in the University of Kisii, having coffee, sitting next to Palesa or GodsPower (yep, that’s somebody’s name), performing, having lunch, chatting, listening to poetry, going back to the hotel, eating, smoking, chatting some more and then going to sleep.

Most of our performances have been happening in tertiary institutions; from the University of Kenya, to the University of Nairobi and finally to Kisii University and during this time, we have been interacting with the students and other senior academics.

Firstly, when the students perform, I always ask myself one question; where is the radicalism in the performance? I know that this was always a question I posed even when I was in England a few years ago when attending poetry sessions. All they spoke about was love and some personal aesthetic themes, but never about the political context.

Of course, this does not mean I am right or wrong, but these are always my expectations based on the social context I am in.

In England, my question was based on the fact that I felt like people there were being watched too much (too many “Big Brother” CCTV cameras), there are literally surveillance every freaken where you go, and there is no art piece I saw about that. It was so weird because I had just done a study on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, in University with Michael Foucault’s Discipline & Punish; both books that happened to look like England, especially Foucault. He dealt with the prison system of the Western world, and how the prison system had spread throughout the entire society through all the systems that have been put to place such as surveillance, trackers, medical analysis, education system and so on.

Where were these observations in the arts? I asked myself.

Kenya 2

In Kenya, I based the question on the fact that Kenya received its independence in the 60s, and still looks poorly developed in most parts. What’s wrong with the system in place? Who is in power? Where do they lack? How do you feel about them?

These were question that kept haunting my mind until I could not think about them in solitude anymore.

Why are poets not talking about their stories here?

I asked.

Why are you guys not encompassing the political context of your country in the poems? The poetry is too Western. Why don’t you quote Kenyan writers?  

I was concerned.

I mean, I’ve come here and I feel like I will leave not having met Kenyatta.

I emphasized.

I emphasized because as I conversed with most, they told me that they have South Africa’s E-TV channel broadcasted in Kenya and that “South Africa looks like a cool place; life is nice there,” they told me.

Back in the hotel, I saw a lot of South African ads on the television. How is life is South Africa? I was asked a few times.

It’s good and bad. I mean in terms of infrastructure, you’re right, South Africa is the fastest growing country in Africa, there’s a lot of things that are emerging that are “World Class” I guess. The movies. The Theatres. The Universities. The urban cities. And, it’s one of those places where Africans can live in, Europeans can live in, Americans can live in, Indians can live in, etc. But, there are still too many problems there. There’s a lot of poverty still.


Yes! A lot. I mean, look at what happened in May recently, people from other African countries being killed. It’s not the first time. There’s still mental and material poverty. 

One of them nods as if he now understands what I mean. Yes. He says.

Yea, that was really bahd, he tells his peers who don’t seem to be aware of this. It made international news. They were saying that they are taking their jobs. Can you imagine?

Now, I finally feel like we have reached the tip of the argument, not because I want to bad mouth my home country, but because I want us as young Africans to have a true and honest conversation about the socio-political things currently clouding our continent. It’s okay for them to want to go to South Africa, but they need to rid themselves of the exotic image they have of South Africa, right? They need to know that they might be called “Amakwerekwere” and have their lives under threat. They might end up in the slums of South Africa and not see it as a land of dreams anymore.

So, in the bus to a village not so far from Kisii, I further discuss this with a poet from Kisii.

Well. He starts speaking. The poet I am chatting to, his name is James. Rolax.

James Rolax.

He starts speaking to me.

The problam is that peopol ah aware of the outcomes of speaking out ah-bout those things, and in some cases, you become content. Yes, content. You see, ah am running peace campaign, yea, where ah am spreading peace.

I sometimes ask him to repeat himself because the accent is different, not something I am used to. But, it’s good nonetheless because it’s Kenya. I love it. Some words go unheard, but I catch up at the end of the sentence.

You see? Because there’s no peace sometimes, yea. You know ah-bout tha killings in 2007? By the big tribe? Yea, actually I am a victim. My fah-mily was affected. My father is paralysed permanently and my mother still suffers from trauma. Yea, it was ba-h-d, they actually bah-nned our house down, you see?

[He does not say it, but I start realizing that perhaps, people do not speak about this because it is painful to do so]

But, those things made me stronger. Now I travel to places like Uganda and discover talent there and then find platforms for the kids to perform. I am linked with about 200 orphans in Uganda. Uganda is just about 8 hours from here, so I travel there and spread peace. Do you know that Uganda suffers the most when there is a political instability here in Kenya? Uganda is an inland, so for exports and imports, it depends on Kenya. Now imagine if the world is angry at Kenya and the imports and exports stop for a while, what happens to Uganda.

Indeed, on the last day of the performances, we meet one of the young people James works with, a young man who is a visual artist from Uganda, whose parents were killed during the civil war in Uganda. I don’t ask him about his country and parents because, what will I do about it thereafter? I just admire his drawing skills and ask him what he’d like to study in University.

Something with art, he says.

Thanking the Prince Claus Funding for making the trip possible for myself and Palesa Sibiya, and everyone who supported our show, Isidlo Sentliziyo.

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