We have a violent past, but we’re being forced to forget it

A man stands at the scene of the Kiambaa Church in Eldoret that was burnt down at the height of the post-election chaos. Kenya deals with unpalatable truths is by whitewashing the past and pretending certain atrocities never happened. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • I found myself poring over a short story that employs dark humour in relaying how Kenya treats its old and those foolish enough to serve it.
  • The story, Comrade Lemma and the Black Jerusalem Boys Band published in Kwani? 2 and written by Parsalelo Kantai tells of a former band lead vocalist Sylvanius Comrade Lemma, who is woken up on the eve of Kenya’s 40th Independence Day by a delegation chanting Joka, a song he composed in his youth and which was contender for the national anthem but was banned because its lyrics annoyed the new lead.
  • Clearly, the second way Kenya deals with unpalatable truths is by whitewashing the past and pretending certain atrocities never happened.

At Kwani’s 10 year anniversary celebration in November 2013, a gentleman stood up and asked Yvonne Owuor why her novel Dust was so serious. Didn’t she know the importance of employing humour in writing and making readers forget their troubles?

The gentleman expected Owuor to, like Kenyans on social media, turn a grave matter simplistic in order to accommodate our insatiable appetite for national humour.
Those who follow local politics will agree that we are a nation that uses humour to avoid engaging heavy, ugly truths. We create memes alongside witty tweets to help us navigate tribal prejudices and tiffs. Once we have exhaustively laughed at the matter, we urge those still ‘stuck’ in the past to #acceptandmoveon.

“Right and wrong are words that are no longer in our public lexicon,” wrote Dr David Ndii. Perhaps we have replaced those two words with the encapsulating LOL.

I ruminated over these matters on two recent occasions: As I read an article on how the Law Society of Kenya has filed a case raising concerns about the identity of 5,228 Mau Mau victims awarded an ex-gratia payment by Britain.

And when I met up with a grand-aunt of over 70 who said to me. “Child, when the government pays us our retirement benefits, I plan to buy three cows; one for my paternal home, one for my brother — your grandfather — and one for my late mother’s people. I was told we will be paid soon and I can’t wait to pay the debts I owe my people.”
Her remarks were so disconcerting I was glad she couldn’t see the expression that clouded my face. I was horrified that she still believed the government planned to pay the pension monies it owed teachers who retired in 1997.
That is how I found myself poring over a short story that employs dark humour in relaying how Kenya treats its old and those foolish enough to serve it.

PROPER HERO

The story, Comrade Lemma and the Black Jerusalem Boys Band published in Kwani? 2 and written by Parsalelo Kantai tells of a former band lead vocalist Sylvanius Comrade Lemma, who is woken up on the eve of Kenya’s 40th Independence Day by a delegation chanting Joka, a song he composed in his youth and which was contender for the national anthem but was banned because its lyrics annoyed the new leader.

Kantai scrutinises the greed and egocentrism of post-independent African leaders. He paints a poignant picture of patriots who pay dearly for saying heavy things and who in the end, shout out brokenly “kifo ni rahisi, death is easy, it is living in silence that is difficult.”

A gluttony returnee from abroad, Marehemu George represents the new African leader. Full of tricks and exploiting anyone he can. It is he who hatches the plan to turn Comrade Lemma into a ‘proper national hero’ and in the process, enrich himself.

Kantai cleverly draws parallels between the banning of Lemma’s Joka, a pessimistic yet realistic tune, and the outlawing of the Mau Mau, whom Jomo Kenyatta debarred with a dismissive “We shall not allow hooligans to rule Kenya.”
The similarities do not end there.

For Kantai fashions his story after the bizarre tale of the Ethiopian peasant, Ato Lemma Ayanu, who was ‘discovered’ by veteran journalist Joseph Karimi and subsequently invited as a state guest to grace Kenya’s 40th Madaraka Day. The whole nation, desperate for a new beginning, was fooled into believing the disappeared Mau Mau veteran General Stanley Mathenge was back, even though he came back as an Ahmaric speaking peasant farmer.

Both Kantai’s fictitious Comrade Lemma and his real life counterpart, Ato Lemma Ayanu, failed the first test of succeeding in Kenya; telling a white lie and saying it with a straight face.

Another Kwani? 2 writer, Andia Kisia, in her essay ‘Nyayo House; The Event,’ narrates events that took place on Human Right’s Day on December 3, 2003 during the launch of a book titled They Lived to Tell the Tale: Tales from the Nyayo Torture Chambers by a group of former Nyayo house inmates. The former inmates had but two ambitions on the day; to revisit their past horrors at Nyayo House and launch a book on the stories of their lives.

NATIONAL CLOSET

Although their representative had earlier visited Nyayo House and sought permission, when the team reached the place, they were barred from entering the former torture chambers which had been converted to storerooms. In fact, Nyayo House had completely changed, its walls whitewashed and the bloodied past and memories wiped off.

Clearly, the second way Kenya deals with unpalatable truths is by whitewashing the past and pretending certain atrocities never happened.
The former inmate needed to sahau yaliyopita tujenge taifa, as we impressionable nineties children were made to chant alongside the state choir on national holidays. Kenyan ghosts do not like to come out of the national closet. Any attempt to bring them out is akin to rattling snakes.

And so, as I stood listening to grand-aunt draw a list of priorities for her pension money, I wrestled the urge to reiterate the phrase that encapsulates the essence of being Kenyan; disremember the past and be proud you helped build the nation.

As for LSK delaying payouts for Mau Mau victims, I can only ask, where were you when the movement was banned for over 40 years and badly needed a voice? And where were you when a foreign law firm took the poor old men in its arms? Do you now want to speak, now that billions have been awarded to the victims?

Meanwhile, we social media activists will circulate funny memes captioned ‘Waiting for GOK-dot’ and showing pitiable old teachers queuing outside the pension house for decades.

Also, we shall sit by and do nothing because, much as we would like to criticise the government for certain injustices, we can’t do it yet. Not when our ‘person’ is in power. We will wait until the other tribe is in power then we will raise the matter and carry placards to the streets. What of those old chalk folks?

Let them #acceptandmoveon, after all #WEAREONE, are we not?

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