Literary works have the power to bridge rifts by nurturing empathy
What you need to know:
- When I read the writings of Said Ahmed Mohamed, I experience life in Zanzibar through immersion in the lives of his characters, even when the genre is magical realism such as in Babu Alipofufuka (When Grandpa Resurrected).
- Equally, when I read Henry ole Kulet, I enter the world of the Maasai community and learn to appreciate it even more.
- Over the years, Kenyan literatures — from Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood and Devil on the Cross to Rocha Chimerah’s Nyongo Mkalia Ini and Katama Mkangi’s Walenisi — have shown the dangers of sharp socio-economic disparities for the stability of the nation-state.
Can the creative arts provide relief from the pain and conflict currently facing our country and expressed most poignantly through social media? It seems that the heated exchanges spewed every so often across ethnicities results, at least to a certain degree, from our inability to enter into the life of the ‘other’ in thought and to recognise that they, too, have a distinctive story to tell about historical events. This refusal to deliberately explore the experiences of others and see the complexity of phenomenon often leads to unwarranted generalisations about gender, race and ethnicity.
To understand and appreciate the world of the other, we can either physically live with them or encounter their experiences vicariously through the arts, which can open up that world in words or symbols. Therefore, literature ought to be invoked so that it can play a more proactive role in the practice of citizenship. Through an artistic exploration of real and possible worlds, literature allows us to see the good in other people whose lives are distant from our own. The belief that the creative arts can contribute to inter-cultural understanding and national healing emanates from the power of our imagination, expressed in words and symbols, to reach out to ‘self’ and ‘other’ and to create unity where there is difference.
The efficaciousness of literary fiction, for example, resides in our ability to enter and inhabit the lives of characters and to empathise with them and their experiences. In doing so, we get a glimpse of their suffering, pain and anxieties. Literary fiction specifically gives voice to the ‘other’, at times denied in the real world. It opens up the contradictions in society and subtly shows how these could be resolved.
When I read the writings of Said Ahmed Mohamed, I experience life in Zanzibar through immersion in the lives of his characters, even when the genre is magical realism such as in Babu Alipofufuka (When Grandpa Resurrected). Equally, when I read Henry ole Kulet, I enter the world of the Maasai community and learn to appreciate it even more.
Over the years, Kenyan literatures — from Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood and Devil on the Cross to Rocha Chimerah’s Nyongo Mkalia Ini and Katama Mkangi’s Walenisi — have shown the dangers of sharp socio-economic disparities for the stability of the nation-state. In all cases, these literary works have sought equity of opportunity and encouraged reaching out to those that might appear different in order to humanise the world.
Given the power of artistic imagination, it is only the interpretative tendencies which limit the capacity of literature to elucidate its educational and healing powers. In their essence, different forms of creative arts increase our curiosity about the material and spiritual worlds in fundamental ways. They present us with the opportunity to understand what currently ails our nation.
The current national imbalance, manifested by inequalities and ethnic mistrust, is unsettling and calls for healing and reconciliation because it perpetuates a climate of fear at local levels and entrenches the discourse of exclusion and intolerance. The symptoms of this national disease peak every five years just before, during and after general elections, which are often polarising due to their high stakes. Empathetic and bridge-building leadership is one that quickly unifies and heals the wounds created by general elections. However, because many leaders are obsessed with power and the resources that come with it, they often retreat and leave communities in agony and anxiety.
Different remedies are being sought through community action, legislative institutions and administrative mechanisms. There is also a call for political experimentation. Recently, Dr David Ndii characterised our inter-ethnic relationship as a ‘bad and abusive marriage’ whose eventual destiny is ethnic divorce, unless something transformative is done.
In my view, the rupture of the nation-state is not currently viable politically, economically or socially. Moreover, it should not be encouraged, lest it be read as a ‘philosophical directive’ to those with aspirations of creating exclusive fiefdoms and caliphates. The political elite under a secessionist agenda will not advance the principles of inclusion, which underpin democracy but will, instead, consolidate power and build other alliances to accumulate capital and wealth at the expense of citizens. As the novelist Nurrudin Farah has taught us about Somalia, the perceived ethno-linguistic homogeneity that existed before 1991 morphed into the politics of identity based on clan affiliation and led to the disintegration of the nation-state.
But ‘something’ will have to give way soon in the governance style of Kenya. The ‘something’ ought to be located within the political system we adopted at independence and the values of the nation. For example, do the electoral system, the management bodies and operationalisation of electoral politics carry the spirit and values of the Kenyan nation? What did the architecture of governance in the Constitution intend to heal? What immediate and long term damage is being done through the perpetuation of plutocracy? These questions are germane to the construction of the Kenyan nation. The eccentric Mzee Gae in the Dunia Mti Mkavu by Said Ahmed teaches us that it is only when we start questioning things that we start living. By questioning our circumstances, we enter into a territory that enriches our understanding. We grow and become better human beings.
Literature teaches us to question societal values. Corruption and wealth are quickly taking over governance institutions and ethnic identities politicised to protect and propel the elite as they seek power. Greed seems to be the new political ethos, so well described in Ngugi’s Devil on the Cross, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born and Katama Mkangi’s novel Mafuta. Eric Wainaina’s song, "Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo" continues to be an important one in our understanding of how corruption makes us small people.
Another area of questioning is political ethnicity and citizenship. It cannot be denied that ethnic identity is more salient and exclusionary than it should be in determining our political behaviour, especially during general elections. This is especially because of the convergence of political power and access to economic resources. Once political power is acquired, the ruling elite retreats to its ethnic base to identify individuals whom it trusts to help it govern. The politicisation of ethnicity blurs the complexities that come with identity. The ethnic formation as a site of belonging is not fixed; it expands and contracts. Because it is constructed socially and culturally, it can be deconstructed and imbued with new meaning. The relationship between ethnic formations is not permanent. It is always in a process of becoming and construction. Ethnic identity is not a finished product and neither are the relations it seeks to build.
In addition to the political reforms, therefore, there is much that the reading of literary works can offer such as the importance of inter-ethnic unity to solve our collective problems.
In Kinjeketile the play by Ibrahim Hussein, we learn how different communities come together to confront German colonialism. The main character, Kinjeketile, is possessed by the spirit, Hongo, and uses ‘magical’ water to unify his people who are drawn from diverse ethnicities. Because of the belief of the unqualified protective power of the magical water, the people go to the battlefield and cannot be recalled under a new revelation. The initial Word about the redemptive water became more powerful than its enunciator. The Word created a possible world in the imagination of Tanzanians. Towards the end of the play, though the water fails as an invincibility agent, it succeeds in unifying the Tanzanian people in the Maji Maji war of liberation.
In the process of struggle ‘the Word’ about the possibility of social transformation was born through collective action. Later, Mwalimu Nyerere created enunciated another possible world in the imagination of Tanzanians which led to the minimisation of ethnicity as a locus of political work. Despite the challenges of the Ujamaa philosophy, well captured in the novels of Euphrase Kezilahabi, it was an extremely important effort in building an inclusive political value system.
DEPRESSION AND INNER PAIN
There is another reason why we should pay attention to literary works at this historical juncture. Creative works have curative potential. Indeed, it is generally agreed in traditional and modern medicine that engagement in the creation or consumption of artistic activities can enhance positive emotions, moods and general psychological well-being. They can contribute in stress reduction and healing and serve as vehicles for the stabilisation of individuals and communities. I have this strong feeling that most citizens are going through a state of depression and inner pain. Consuming creative works, even as we look for sustainable solutions, could be immensely useful.
Literary works can teach us about humility and self-effacement as we interact with each other in the real world.
In The Healers, for example, Ayi Kwei Armah depicts the traditional ways of participating in competitive games, such as wrestling.
In one such match, we have the description of Buntui and his enormous and heavy limps under a huge neck. His muscles ‘pushed hard against the skin, as if the covering it provided were not sufficient…As the giant stood now, his body seemed near to exploding. Every muscle bulged with some huge, uncontrollable tension’. The description portrays a person whose different body parts seem to be at war with each other.
Compare that description with that of Densu, the wrestler who was full of grace and deep sense of harmony. We are told “There was no tension in any part of his body.” Densu is the epitome of humility, despite his immense power. The creative arts teach us humility and empathy which are important values in a politically-tense nation.
Prof Njogu is the Director of Twaweza Communications.