Tag Archives: Nairobi

Zoning In

Round 2 of the Caine Prize blogathon! Conversation has been much slower than last week – did people relate less to this story? Is it too much to have 19 bloggers giving their thoughts on every short story? In any case I’ll keep this post much shorter than my last one.

Kenyans seem to love stories about bank robbers. One of the most popular books in Kenyan history, My Life in Crime by John Kiriamiti, tells the inside story of Kiriamiti’s very stylish reign of terror as a bank robber in the 1970s. It’s a great read and has inspired a slew of imitations, including most recently a feature film. (You can count on me reviewing that one when it comes out.) The book remains popular – it’s one of the few Kenyan books from the 80s that hasn’t gone out of print – and has the rather special distinction of having become a bestseller here without being assigned as a textbook.

On the surface Billy Kahora’s short story “Urban Zoning” [pdf] doesn’t much resemble the Kenyan “bank robber” trope. The main character Kandle, “self-styled master of The Art of Seventy-Two-Hour Drinking,” seems more like one of Binyavanga Wainaina‘s blustering, angsty loners than the suave and dangerous Kiriamiti of legend. Yet the resemblance slowly becomes clear, not least because Kandle also steals money from a bank (though Kandle’s weapons are apparently family influence and fuzzy excuses rather than a semi-automatic). Both drink too much. Both imagine themselves minor heroes of the Nairobi rumor circuit. Both are obsessed with clothes and with putting on a slick facade. Neither is overly concerned with protecting those few people who are close to them. And both are able to bluff their way out of responsibility for their failures.

What Kiriamiti (the character) has in abundance that Kandle lacks is exuberance. Even at his most depressed Kiriamiti still pulses with vigor. Kandle, though, never seems to live fully in his own skin:

“As he went up Harambee Avenue, he realized he was well into the Bad Zone. Looking at his reflection in shop windows, he felt like smashing his own face in. And then, like a jack-in-the-box that never went away, his father’s dark visage appeared in his mind’s eye, as ugly as sin. He wondered whether the man was really his father.”

It’s the narrative voice that makes the link between self-hatred and internalized racism (dark = ugly & sinful), not Kandle himself. The anger Kandle feels towards himself isn’t resolved into anything like self-knowledge, it doesn’t dissipate, it just gets ignored as his attention shifts elsewhere. As a storytelling technique it’s incredibly wasteful – all that potential face-smashing energy simply passed over with a non-committal “he wondered.” But of course even if Kandle’s self-hatred is forgotten, it isn’t left behind. It haunts the story like an unsolved crime.

As an elaboration of an individual consciousness the story may not hold a candle to Bessie Head‘s deep swirling madness, and comparing it to Kiriamiti’s rebel in the city leaves something to be desired. What makes “Urban Zoning” compelling in its own right is the way it fuses these modes, the urban and the psychological, to develop what I think is an incredibly exciting style of writing about African cities. The story asks, in what way are the physical zones of Nairobi through which Kandle flickers like the mental spaces, the “Good Zone” and the “Bad Zone,” that he spends his life pursuing and avoiding respectively? While it’s no great revelation that Nairobi has some very good zones and some desperately bad ones, it’s a real mindfuck to try to think of these areas as analogous to mental states. What does that even mean? It’ll draw you into the same sense of unreality that you might achieve after drinking for three days straight. You might, like Kandle, wind up thinking that a month is a color.

As it must be clear by now, I find it much more compelling to read “Urban Zoning” as a William Gibson-esque urban thought experiment than as psychological realism, national allegory, urban grit, or any of the other modes that this rich, convoluted, defensive story suggests for itself. Among these I find the national allegory – a form that Stephen Derwent Partington recently called “a slightly boring form of arrested [literary] development” – the most distracting. Sometimes it’s subtle, as when the story shifts to a high school which has produced many of Kenya’s national leaders, shifts again to Harambee Avenue, and carefully includes names from several different Kenyan ethnic communities. Other times it’s more urgent, as when it throws in a bewilderingly random cameo by the President of Kenya, and speaks earnestly of a “national quiet desperation.” Every one of these gestures is awkward and unnecessary. The inter-generational struggle at the heart of the story – between an old guard that struggled for independence and now screws teenagers and watches its ass, and a new generation of media-saturated consumers who are cynical about all heroes – can and should stand on its own as a commentary on the state of the Kenyan psyche, if there is such a thing.

Still, this is a rewarding story. Among its many delights are a series of amusing (if brief) character sketches, and sprinklings of local idiom like “shenzi type.” (A Nairobi radio station has a regular spot where callers make fun of the chutzpah of boorish, uncultured “shenzi types.”) At that level it’s much more accomplished than the other shortlisted stories. Kahora is also well aware of the “disaster poverty porn” genre, exemplified for Nairobi by Uwem Akpan’s story “An Exmas Feast”, and takes welcome pains to make his main character much less likable and much less a victim, even though both stories equally associate Nairobi with degeneracy. But “Urban Zoning,” like its anti-hero, is constantly repressing its laughter. Both are too jaded, too unsentimental, too much about style and surface to let themselves go. If there’s a quiet desperation here, it’s that of a story that can only afford to let loose a deep belly laugh when there’s nothing all that funny to laugh about. The mood, not the message, is what proves the story’s worth.

Other bloggers weigh in on this story:

Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life
Backslash Scott
City of Lions
Practically Marzipan
Cashed In
The Mumpsimus

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Cut Off My Tongue

One of the great treats of living in Nairobi has been all the live poetry I get to see. The Kenyan poetry scene is a performance scene (ok well at least the part of it that’s not online) and there are events just about every week. After years of hearing about these events, reading the poetry, and talking to the artists from a distance, I can finally mosey over to any poetry reading I feel like. It’s just sugar.

Last week I saw Sitawa Namwalie’s spectacular Cut Off My Tongue at the Braeburn School. Unlike most poets who perform in Nairobi Namwalie is not under 30. In fact she makes a point of her age – nearly 50 when she started writing – because, as she explains, “a political regime that did not tolerate vocalization” stole her voice during her “fuming twenties” and “barely mellow thirties” (“Gifted Almost Fifty”).

Namwalie burst onto the Kenyan literary scene in 2008, in response to the disputed national elections which sparked vicious politico-ethnic violence. The first performance of Cut Off My Tongue opened barely four months after the fires were put out in the Rift Valley, Kisumu and Kibera. Many of the poems, such as “Would You” and “Language of Tribe,” thrust their fingers painfully into the still-hot ashes:

Would you wield a machete in Burnt Forest,

Cut a stranger down?

Slash a man as he pleads with you for his life,

Lead the crowd baying for his blood? (“Would You”)

Out of the cinders the troupe “lit this poetry to roaring flame on stage.” The original show featured nine performers and two musicians, one on drums and another on a lyre-like stringed instrument, the nyatiti. They built a roaring flame to stand against the fires on TV.

In contrast, last week’s performance at the Braeburn School was stripped down, with a mood that was more reflective than furious. The school’s upstairs theater holds 100-odd people, and the seats rake down steeply to the stage so that the performers – Namwalie, Shan Bartley, Alice Karunditu, and instrumentalist Willy Rama – stood at the audience’s feet. The house was fully packed, with some audience members even sitting in the aisle.

The performance itself was something between a reading and a series of acted vignettes. The performers wore black (with some very dramatic jewelry), and carried folders with the poems. There was no intermission but the “set list” of poems was split into two distinct parts. The first half spoke in the language of aftermath: accusatory, demanding, but also anguished and doubting. The poems were personal, but offered a collective “Kenyan” voice in which to ask the searching, self-critical questions that the violence called forth – “You now tell me I must hate and kill?/ Must I cut off my tongue?” (“I Come from Everywhere”).

The second half, meanwhile, emphasized satirical humor and individual portraits: a police spokesperson apologizing for inadvertent good service; a rich woman (in gorgeous gele headwrap) lamenting the poor public image that her consumerism has created; an African leader lambasting his people for being “too black.”

Each of the performers brought unique gifts: Bartley, a beautifully expressive face and studied, wrought mannerisms; Karunditu, fierce poise and masterful comic timing; Namwalie, grace, strength, and voice that’s rich without being decadent. I especially appreciated the measured pace of their delivery. Unlike the poetry which dominates Nairobi’s literary scene, influenced by slam, hip-hop and spoken word, Cut Off My Tongue allows each line – at times each word – to echo in a brief moment of silence. I could feel the words entering my consciousness individually, and feel precisely the emotion with which each line was delivered, rather than chasing after them. The pace of delivery was ideal for Namwalie’s direct, communicative style.

I was curious about the choice of venue, the uber-posh Braeburn School. Something about it made me feel like I didn’t belong there, even though I was a paying audience member and I myself went to a (somewhat posh) private high school. The Ksh 1,000 ($12) ticket price (high for Nairobi theater and very high for poetry), and half-dozen tables in the lobby covered with books, t-shirts and other swag also contributed to an upper-middle-class atmosphere.

That said, for me the intimacy of the theater itself contributed to the thoughtful, reflective yet upbeat mood of the performance. I’d be interested in how other audience members read the intimacy of the space. It was a very mixed audience by race and age, much more so than most Nairobi poetry audiences who are almost all young and African. Many people laughed at the Kiswahili jokes, but more laughed at the English jokes. The audience may have sung the Kenyan national anthem loudly at the beginning (a first at a poetry reading for me), but I wonder whether people felt like the show brought them together “as Kenyans.”

Lastly, I’m interested in the differences between the show and the book that grew out of it. (The book contains about 15 poems that are not in the show, as well as several essays about the work by Kenyan writers.) Most significantly, in the show there’s very little of the “pleasurable danger of love and desire” that the scholar Keguro Macharia finds in his essay about the book. Macharia delights when Namwalie sings of “the intimate, risky forms of loving that have the power to transform our social and political worlds simply by being public and daring to exist.” The show, though, is much more about anger and guilt than love, unless it’s a (somewhat forced) love of country. There’s laughter, but it’s more the cathartic laughter of self-recognition than the delighted laughter of discovery.

When this current election season is over, will Namwalie sing about all the other things one can do with a tongue besides cutting it off?

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Karibuni kwangu

The rain is pounding outside the Chai House in downtown Nairobi. I’m sitting at a long empty counter which circles the cafe’s atrium, peering down at the darkly polished tables and white teapots. The cafe’s doors, which run all the way across the entrance, are always thrown open, so that the rain’s scent pushes up through the open atrium and folds itself around me. It’s a cold, dirty smell, redolent of fish from the City Market across the street, mixed up with the sprouty funk that a month of rain has unleashed throughout the central business district. Inside people rest their heads on their arms, or lean back languidly while their tea slowly cools.

It’s a slow day in Nairobi. The street is quiet, emptied for the May Day holiday. Also there was a big football game last night and I think a few people are still sleeping off the results. The sky is gray and bright, and the lights in the cafe shine warmly inside brass latticed boxes. It’s a good day to start a blog.

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