These are difficult times. These are days of uncertainty. Days when one is unsure if they will have a job tomorrow or will be jobless the day after.
Days when women and men who would feed, or even overfeed, their families can no longer guarantee even a meal; who would afford to indulge their wants may not want to pass by a shop window anymore; who would travel home for Christmas and the New Year festivities, to share their good fortunes with poorer relatives aren’t likely to afford the fare let alone the gifts; these are the days of measured greetings, of voluntary fasting, of shopping on a budget, of praying and hoping for the ill-wind of Covid-19 and economic slowdown to go away.
But these are also the days to think deeply about what has been and is wrong with our society, our country, our humanity.
One would say that these are the days when philosophers should walk in the neighbourhoods or in the village paths, sharing their wisdom of what humanity needs to exorcise from its thoughts and deeds, if only to take back the world to when it was normal.
But armchair theorists claim that the old normal is gone forever. That the new normal will be unlike any ‘normal’ before today. Yet, they can only speculate about the new normal considering that no one seems to know when Covid-19 will relent and blow away. Still, humanity probably needs to reflect more deeply about its past and present, and try to figure out how to conduct its affairs in future.
Kithaka wa Mberia’s new collection of poetry Mvumo wa Helikopta (The Roar of a Helicopter) (Marimba Publications, 2020) is an invitation to think about larger and even smaller details of human life. It is a provocation to the reader (mainly Kenyans) to question how we have lived since independence; to interrogate our politicians and politics critically; to celebrate our flora and fauna; to remain alert to the dangers of violence and inhumanity; to appreciate the value of our arts and culture (such as the poetry in the anthology) etc.
This collection is the 7th of Kithaka’s collections of poems. The others are: Mchezo wa Karata, Bara Jingine, Redio na Mwezi, Msimu wa Tisa, Rangi ya Anga, and Doa. All these anthologies have poems written in free verse, in accessible Kiswahili and focusing on a broad range of subjects. Reading most of the poems is like being in a history and contemporary studies class.
The title of the anthology Mvumo wa Helikopta is borrowed from the poem, ‘Mvumo wa Helikopta’, which is about the tragedy of politics and politicians in Kenya.
The poem describes how Kenyan politicians would arrive at a campaign rally in a helicopter, bombarding the crowd with noise and dust. They would proceed to promise the electorate undeliverables such as new roads, electricity connections, jobs for all youths, factories and all-round development.
They would then hand over parcels of goodies and some money, and fly away. But that is how far their promises would go. For they would disappear for five years, until the next election period.
This farce of an election happens all the time in this country, with the electors having little or no time and opportunity to question who it is they are electing and why they should be electing him or her and not the other.
The poet doesn’t even pretend to be writing speaking about truth here; he doesn’t seem to be offering a lesson anymore. The poem reads like a mere recording of the travesty that is Kenyan elections, for this subject has been written on ad infinitum.
It is our bad politics that has bequeathed this country a whole lot of other problems. For example, and following on the theme of political chicanery, Kithaka wonders how the government can give jobs to individuals who have been rejected by the electorate in the poem ‘Kutoka Jalala!’
This practice of rewarding political rejects is not only insulting to the voters and the community but it makes mockery of the claim to democracy in the country. Some of the political losers who end up in public office are retired old women and men.
When and where will the so-called ‘future leaders’, the millions of young men and women get jobs if the same faces and names keep being recycled in public office? Is it surprising that such youth are easily seduced by criminal and terrorist organizations to join them?
When young men and women lack opportunities for self-improvement, they will be victims of brainwashing and later become violent as described by Kithaka in ‘Siku za Jakamoyo.’ In this poem, the poet decries violence borne of religious extremism. Indeed, in the recent past religious intolerance, just like racism and ethnic prejudice, has been on the rise. Society has paid a heavy price for it.
In ‘Siku Jakamoyo’ the poet reminds the reader of the cost of religious inspired violence in Kenya – abduction of tourists; the killing of tens of students at Garissa University College; attack on hotels in Nairobi and Mombasa; and the general effect on tourism in the country, especially at the Coast. But even such violence and decay of the society draws from a generic script, a drama of toying with decay and death.
The general theatre of degeneration is captured in a scathing verse, ‘Wakala wa Kaburi’. In this dirge-like rendition, Kithaka bemoans what Kenyans casually call corruption. He reminds the reader of the consequences of theft of public resources; of government offices filled with unqualified staff; of bribe-collecting police officers; of government hospitals stocking fake or expired drugs; of building inspectors approving faulty constructions etc.
Whilst these ills thrive and the crooks committing them make more money and grow wealthier, mwananchi suffers. It seems as if the society has completely lost its moral compass. Leaders or those who should know better appear unable to guide the rest to a better life.
But Kithaka also celebrates what is close to his heart. He celebrates his county headquarters at Kathwana, and his being a Kenyan and a Tharaka. In ‘Kathwana’ and ‘Makao Makuu ya Kaunti’, Kithaka memorializes his roots.
He wonders how this small rural town will deal with the weight of being the county headquarters – how will it grow; what will it promote; will its citizens experience the anticipated progress that devolved government promises; or will it become just another nondescript Kenyan town?
The poet worries whether the county headquarters will have spaces for thespians, poets or drummers to thrive and entertain or it will be like many typical Kenyan towns where there is a lot to feed the stomach but not the brain.
After more than seven years, many of the county governments haven’t done much to suggest that Kithaka’s dreams will be realised any time soon.
This anthology contains caustic poems. How does one write about the kind of society Kithaka describes in this anthology without being scathing?
The poet seems to be overwhelmed by what can only be described as immediate tragedy – his world is full of duplicitous, lying, self-centered, thieving, violent, incompetent individuals, and a seemingly helpless society – and hopelessness.
But definitely his centre is holding as he even manages to make a joke in a short verse, ‘Jibu Fupi’ (Short Reply) – the persona sends a ‘friend’ Christmas greetings. But unknown to him, his friend was now a member of the county government and didn’t have time for ordinary people. He simply replied to the persona: ‘Thank you. You too’.
Take time to respond appropriately to all messages of goodwill – from known, long-forgotten or unknown well-wishers – all the time.