About this writer
Philo Ikonya, Kenyan journalist, novelist, poet and human rights activist continues … from Interview I
AiA: Do you communicate this message in your books or poetry works?
PI: There is a note of urgency in most of my work, especially when it regards the return of stolen rights and justice. We cannot deprive people of what is inalienable; if we do, we can correctly be described as having stolen. Some say that poetry and books cannot change anything. I ask politicians and the people to read and meditate on the works of artists. I ask politicians to learn from those visionaries who write books. When people say there is much beauty in my poetry and writing, some are talking about that power to irresistibly command the senses and reason without violence. This is present in my work. It is not something that I sit down to design.
AiA: Ink on paper is said to be the most potent means of protestation against (social) injustices. Do you think all writers have a responsibility to effect (say, political) change in their communities?
PI: And I’m not the first one to think so and to try and do it. Powerful poetry writers have never been able to close their eyes to power in their societies. This wind has blown across ages and continents, races. Ink on paper and the spoken word. Deeds. No one should be afraid, for fear is the first corruption and the worst. What is living then? I should find it hard to understand an artist who, whilst living in a situation of injustice such as the one Maxim Gorky lived in when he wrote Mother, decides to keep on telling us about how cool the waters of the rivers in which fish swim in are. Yet even the swimming of salmon upstream can be used to say so much. I am not saying that Pablo Neruda wrote about this, but even the swimming of fish can so subtly be used to subvert powers that want all to swim downstream. The power of words is often beyond our own. Think of Neruda’s life. There was betrayal but still the power of his words attracts. Still there are moments of heroism. Think of Gabriela Mistral’s refusal to ignore Pablo Neruda and not receive him as consul as his government had willed. Neruda writes about the yuyos.. the flowers, in the same breath as he breaks oppressive powers. Think of how he welcomes Gabriela from exile and how he shows her life as the nation of Chile. Allow me quote a few lines of one of my favourite poems in Spanish and give my own translation.
“Llegas, Gabriela, amada hija de estos yuyos, de estas olas, de este viento
You arrive Gabriela, beloved daughter of these weeds and these waves, of
this gigantic wind
Todos te recibimos con alegría.
We all receive you with joy
Nadie olvidará tus cantos a los espinos, a las nieves de Chile. Eres chilena.
No one will forget your songs to the thorns, the snows of Chile. You are Chilean
Nadie olvidará tus estrofas a los pies descalzos de nuestros niños.
No one will forget the verses of the bare feet of our children
Perteneces al Pueblo.
You belong to the people
Nadie ha olvidado tu “Palabra Maldita”. Eres una decidida partidaria de la paz.
No one has forgotten your “Acursed Word” You are a committed peacemaker
Por esas razones, te amamos”.
For these reasons we love you.
As for Gorky, he simply makes his character devour books. Gorky’s pages are as if torn with the energy to change his community, and he continues to change the world if you ask me. He makes firebrands. It is best that you stand with the people with words, much better than to praise rulers and dictators and not hear the peoples’ cry.
AiA: We heard that you recently launched Leading the Night internationally?
PI: Yes I did. I launched it in Austria. Reading from one of the early chapters on Deni, the Women on the Move who had invited me to one launch identified the fact that the problems we address today are not local but have something to do with all of us. I was very touched to see how closely they identified with what some would call problems of the less developed world and how courageous they were to face and feel and sense the pain and search for identity in the women’s characters. Abuse is a story we must tell, especially sexual abuse. Many of us know that this is not about statistics, but about lives that are affected in a systemic way. The novel is translated into German by Helmuth A. Niederle under the title Eine naechtliche Fuehrung. It was amazing to be at Waidhofen, Gmunden, Vienna and Salzburg reading it.
AiA: We also heard that you were part of Poetry Africa 2012. Tell us about that.
PI: When we meet to share poems and performances, it is unbelievable to see how joy increases the more we share. It was not about competition, but working in diversity and towards one goal. I enjoyed such a wide variety of poets and audiences. I still think carefully through the different days there in this project. Poetry Africa 2012 stands out as one of the most amazing poetry reading experiences a poet can be honored with. It was amazing to meet different poets and audiences. I was very excited to visit Blantyre Arts Festival, in Malawi and to be in Botswana. The Book Cafe in Harare will always be a favourite of many people. It was great to read there and to listen to poets. In Cape Town, South Africa, and in Durban, the poets and audiences continued to fascinate. We must be able to gather also for political gatherings with success and without violence. It is democracy at work.
I will always remember how Oliver Mutukudzi wondered why poets do not sit and listen to poets. …and the poetry of notes on a pipe in a sweet instrumental will be in my inner ear and never fill it up. Listening to Madosini, a living legend and museum in a woman of her times and of today, was more than a blessing. But I must say too that being at what I would call the shrine of Chief Albert Luthuli awakened in me my own internal shrine and all I can be is busy trying to learn from and take this spirit to all of us. Simple, pure, focused and not greedy. In Afrika today, leadership is so infested with greed. But look around, it is everywhere almost the same.
AiA: Are you working on anything new? If yes, what it is it about?
PI: You remind me I have to transcribe my maternal grandmother’s verbatim speech into text as soon as I can. Her words are precious to me and I will have to translate them into English. I have done part of that work. It is a unique piece and I do not know where it will end up. I am doing it for my peace of mind.
I am also working at editing “Still Sings the Night Bird”, my oldest novel which I started working on in 1991 at a time when again like today, writing saved me, for I was in strange circumstances. To my amazement, the creative part of me felt caged in and not able to release itself living a timetabled life. Yes, under very strict circumstances; a chapter of my life which few people knew about. Then I climbed the stairs and went to a room high up above the ground where I could only see the tips of trees and branches swinging in the wind. I had lost the poetry of life and was trying to recover it. Death in the family was hammering at me too. Nothing made sense. The people around me only held out laws to me. I wrote a story that helped me to let go: “Let the dove coo her song”. It was translated and published in Spanish. I am soon going to write some essays about those days. I have worked on Invincible Nubia. Here is the unconquerable black spirit. I ask myself often why we look up to Europe today and where we should be in terms of Afrika in development. I am angry to see that Europe still keeps her ‘tribes’ and writes about ‘Africa’ as one big place one can know just like that. So in this novel, the flight I’m on plunges into the sea. But this is not a crash, another life begins. I am editing both Silent Horizons and Different Horizons, two volumes of poetry. Lastly, I’m working on a brand new book to be titled Silence is Shame.
AiA: You have been at loggerheads with the Government of Kenya in the past. Will such a book (Silence is Shame) not be perceived to be attacking the government?
FI: Shhh shhh! (I say jokingly). I hope Moran Publishers in Nairobi (formerly Macmillan Nairobi) is bold in using the freedoms which Kenyans have won many times and should enjoy all the time, in not only publishing but also being able to sell their works in the marketplaces and roadsides in our towns. We must be careful to take and eat from our constitution and nourish ourselves without self-censorship. Morans are brave and do not fear to face roaring and hungry lions, at least in myth. The ones I have spoken to tell me there is no myth here. To be real morans or Maasai warriors – and not just take the title – means to be there to test the limits to push beyond them. This is a simple reader for young ones (age 12 up) but these people matter most in the making of the Kenya I want to see in history. A country that can manage diversity and therefore becomes a podium in the world, for all to see that indeed it is possible for we are not the only ones challenged with issues of ethnic and religious bearings, exploited and made problematic for personal gain, corruption and greed.
Why should the words of a little girl threaten anyone? I know that people have always known that women are brave and therefore branded them all sorts of negative things. It is about power. I come from a tradition of outspoken women. My maternal grandmother – and I have it on record and confirmed to me by my mother and elders in the village – was very daring. In 1939 she wore trousers, and not in the kitchen, but to town. Her point was that the brain is not in the pants, but if anyone thought it was, then she could wear those too. I know men know women are powerful.
A story I rarely tell is how an old man moved to me after I had addressed a gathering in a marketplace at a shopping centre called Ting’ang’a and told me he had to tell me I am a muthamaki. Literally that might be taken to mean a king, but actually it is royalty, in the sense in which royalty was associated with fluency and eloquence that is worth following or that commands attention in society and somehow is worthy of authority. He was not the first to remark this. People normally rejoice in variety of opinions and diversity. Oppression because of opinion or charisma should be treated as unnatural. Of course I’m not saying that I’m everyone’s choice but that old man confessed my power to me without soliciting anything else. He was not just praising me, he insisted he really wanted me to know and to believe that. He was happy to tell me that. Being outspoken should not be seen as attacking a government.
In Silence is Shame two children, Saidia and her brother, are eager to get to Nairobi from Naivasha and celebrate the country’s Independence Day. They almost lose their lives to a reckless driver of the bus their mother puts them on for the ride. Saidia is brilliant and brave. She tells the driver to stop putting their lives at risk and she has the courage to do that several times. Soon she is onto phone technology that makes her more powerful as she can now record abuse and report it. Fabulous. How many Kenyans sit in over-speeding vehicles or in a badly governed country without daring to speak up? How can you vote for someone only because they belong to your ethnic group? Silence in this regard is real shame!
Many of us have failed. Maybe our children will learn and teach us to be firm. People get the governments they deserve, and the political leadership they play around with sometimes eats them. I have no idea why Kenyan authorities – especially police and little by little, the people in Kenya – think that their worst enemies are those who stand up for human rights and are non-violent; those who speak out against such evils. Kenyans will have to learn that human rights activists are their friends. As for authorities and governments all over the world, someday they have to be grateful to those who tell them that they are naked. When it is a little child, as happens in my new book for younger generations titled Silence is Shame, who says the truth, they should be received with delight, kissed and blessed and not punished as prophets are and have been, both punished and banished throughout history.
AiA: You are a brave woman. What emboldens you to keep on being vocal about sensitive and even threatening subjects in your country?
PI: I told you a secret earlier. I was and still am in love with the idea and reality that there are certain things worth giving much for. When I was 19 years old, I gave my life in as far as I understood it, to change the world as far as I knew it. I am radicalized in as far as I am one who has meditated and accepted giving even when giving can mean loss. I am toughened in a non-violent way. We live only once. We have no time to rehearse and then come and write or speak out. I am just myself. That is why I’m at peace with that. And I’m glad to say that I am free from fear. I have often said I do not know where courage comes from but I will not be quiet if I see you about to be killed unfairly. I will speak out. I know the risk.
AiA: We wish you all the best. Any words for your fans?
PI: Thank you so much. You have understood this is a journey. My fans. I wish I knew each one of them. Thank you. But I will say this.
Whatever awaits us, we do not know. Let us agree on one thing: In a universe full of energies and possibilities, we have been blessed to be part of one another’s lives at this time and in this moment. Let us agree to be words for one another and not darkness, for the world is lit up, yes by the sun but also other stars and the light of the words that we share, the songs that we sing, the human beliefs we hold and the joy of the tremendous openness worth fighting for. And which we can at this moment give our civilizations so threatened with narrow ways that sometimes one is tempted to almost right the belief in Greek mythology that everything is destined to be so tragic. But no, one voice is enough. Bless the Antigones of this world. Raise your voices and sometimes, let me do that in the silence of reading, the best ‘monastery’ I know.